Opposition day debate – Refugee Crisis – 9th September 2015


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP) : As the pictures of young Alan Kurdi appeared on our screens, I found it difficult to comprehend quite what had happened in Europe that allowed that to happen. I sat up all night and replied to all the emails I received from my constituents who had also seen the images and were desperate to do something to help. They wanted their MP to stand up and say, “This should not be happening on our shores; we should do everything we can to help.” I held my own children tighter that night as they slept in their beds, and I kept my own son away from the newspaper racks in the morning because I could not explain to him how that could have been allowed to happen in Europe.

I noticed this morning that UNICEF had published some photographs taken by children who were living in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Palestine in 2013 and 2014. It is interesting to observe their perspective, seeing life through the eyes of those children. What did they see in those camps? Just other families and other friends—ordinary families living lives in extraordinary circumstances that we would not wish for our own families and children. They saw heat; they saw mud; they saw snow; they saw filth; they saw weddings. Those were the sorts of things the children were seeing in those camps, but they should not have been living their young childhoods there. They should not have had to face that as their reality.

All things are not equal in EU countries today. While we are able to cope to some degree with refugees coming to our shores, people in Hungary are unable to cope. I looked through some photographs on social media and found that the refugee camps being set up in Hungary are woefully inadequate to deal with the numbers, the needs and the circumstances that people face. There are families there with pregnant women and sick and injured people who need a great deal more support than they are able to receive just now.

Médicins sans Frontières has described the current situation in Lesbos as “a pressure cooker”. There are boats going to take people away from those Greek islands because the infrastructure there cannot cope with the circumstances. People came there fleeing terrible circumstances and paid a lot to get there, but things are still terrible for them. We need to look to our European partners to see what help we can give because the infrastructure is incapable of coping.

Both Médicins sans Frontières and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station are operating in the Mediterranean. On their busiest day, some six days ago, 1,658 people were rescued by the two boats that those organisations are operating. They are rescuing people from different circumstances all day through from 7 o’clock in the morning. We need to look to our own resources; what resources can we bring to this? What could our Navy and our fisheries protection vessels be doing to help so that more people do not drown when they could be saved?

Stuart C. McDonald: Earlier this afternoon, I received an answer from the Ministry of Defence that, in tandem with another answer from the same Ministry, shows that the first ship we deployed in the Mediterranean rescued an average 527 people every week over nine weeks. Today, however, we learn that the second ship we deployed, HMS Enterprise, has rescued fewer than that—453 migrants in total over the same period. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about what that means for our ships in the Mediterranean and what we are asking them to do? Do we not deserve a detailed explanation of their exact role in the Mediterranean?

Alison Thewliss: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very poor indeed if it is true that charitable organisations operating on an absolute shoestring are rescuing more people than our Navy is able to rescue, given the facilities and investment that go into our Navy. We need to do a good deal more.

Those refugees are not coming solely from Syria; they are coming from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and a range of other countries, and we must do all that we can to support each of them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) said earlier, no one puts their child on a boat unless the sea is safer than the land. We must bear that in mind when we think of the difficulties and challenges that people are facing, and the fear that must drive them and their families out on to the sea.

The response in Glasgow has been absolutely amazing. I have been inundated with emails, because so many organisations are trying to help. Groups of people have come together to form organisations such as Scotland Supporting Refugees. Other organisations are well established, such as the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and Positive Action in Housing. Strathclyde University’s student union is collecting for refugees, and the Clutha—a bar which, as many will know, faced tragedy itself—has been raising money for the Scottish Refugee Council. All those organisations are coming together, but what would be incredibly useful would be a wee bit more guidance on what people should be doing to help. What can people give? Should they donate money, clothes or bedding? Where can they go to donate, and how can we best support the offers from ordinary people who are desperate to do something to avert the tragedy that we are seeing?

I have also received a request from a woman who is involved in Scotland Supporting Refugees. She is desperate to try to help by taking items to Greece, but she has found it incredibly difficult to persuade the airline—in this instance, Flybe—to provide the extra baggage allowance. I hope that Ministers will speak to airlines that are already operating charter flights to Greece to use whatever leeway they have to allow people to take extra items. All the airlines should be trying to support this humanitarian effort.

I have been trying to help a constituent who has been seeking status in this country for some time, having fled from a very dangerous situation in Yemen. He got in touch with me, regardless of the extreme personal difficulties that he has been experiencing—he has faced destitution, not for the first time—to ask, “What can I do to help? I do not want anyone else to have to face this situation.”

I urge the Government to do more. It is great that finance has been coming, but a good deal more needs to be done to support people who are in the most desperate of circumstances.