John McDonnell MP
I have listened to the debate over the two days and the best thing for us all individually to do is bring our own experiences to it. I represent a multicultural, working-class community in west London, and I have two detention centres in my constituency. I have been visiting them and dealing with asylum cases for more than 45 years now, as a local activist, a local Greater London Council councillor and then as the local Member of Parliament. I can remember when there was a single Nissen hut with no more than a maximum of 20 people in, but now we have two detention centres, with up to 1,000 people detained in prison-like conditions. I listen to the people and their stories when they have been detained there, and it is heart-rending. We need to express what people have been through to get to our country, seeking safety and security. They are just trying to ensure that they no longer have their human rights abused and their lives put at risk. Interestingly, for all the money we spend on detention, the majority of those detained are eventually released and enter into our community. After that, there is the condition that someone must be in this country for 20 years before they can apply for indefinite leave, and then it takes 10 years. People have been talking about the amount of money that smugglers are making, but in the discussions we had yesterday on undocumented migrants we discovered that it costs about £12,000 for anyone to secure status in this country now.
At the weekend, an asylum seeker—a young Sudanese man—died in the Crowne Plaza hotel in my constituency. We do not know the cause of death yet, and I will not mention his name, because I am not sure his family have been traced yet. I went to meet a group of asylum seekers there. They were mainly young men, but we need to understand why that is. It is because families come together and they are desperate. They have tried various routes out of the terrible situation they are in and they realise that there is realistically only one way of getting out, and that is the illegal route for most of them. They will club together. What will parents do? They will choose for their child to go for safety, so that there is some future for them; yes, it is usually a young man, but often young women do this as well. That is why there is a preponderance of young men, and we can understand it. We would do the same: we would sit down and say, “Perhaps our son or our daughter should be the one who has the hope of safety.”
This is harsh but I am going to say it: I hope that anyone watching and participating in this debate wakes up to the depths some of the speeches have sunk to in the past couple of days. Yes, some have been inspiring, but some would not go amiss at an English Defence League meeting. A few months ago, the Government were derided after they published a report suggesting that there is no institutional racism in the UK. Well, today proves there certainly is, because this Bill institutionalises further racism in our asylum and immigration system. It is done with cynicism that has become the hallmark of this Government. Time after time I have heard Conservative speakers refer to the 16,000 arriving illegally to claim asylum; cynically, they know that for people desperately seeking safety, there is realistically almost no other way. There are so few safe routes for asylum seekers to reach this country, and there are no additional mechanisms set out in this Bill. There are so few resettlement schemes for them, and those that have existed in recent years have been limited by successive Conservative Governments.
This Government and, unfortunately, others on the far right of British politics have made much of the increase in asylum seekers reaching the UK via the English channel. If we listen to Home Office statistics, two thirds of them are then accepted as refugees, and appeals push the figure even higher.
I looked at the figures yesterday, and for the year up to September 2020 the UK received 26,903 asylum applications. France had over three times as many, 92,000, while Germany received 122,000. Even countries with smaller economies and populations, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, received more asylum seekers than the UK.
The myth that we resettle more than any other country in Europe is untrue, because those countries use routes other than a simple resettlement scheme. The truth is that we are not taking our fair share of refugees. The Government are complaining about having to do that, and this Bill seeks to demonise people who are fleeing war and persecution. And in many instances we have contributed to those wars, particularly through our arms sales.
This is a shameful, squalid, small-minded and racist Bill, and it does what this Government do best—in fact, the only thing this Government do well—which is whipping up division and demonising people to distract from the Government’s own failures. I join all those who ended their speeches by echoing the call that refugees are welcome here.
To those people I met yesterday, and to the relatives of the young man who died in my constituency at the weekend, I say that refugees are welcome here. I will do everything I possibly can to oppose this Bill. I want people to know that there are many in this country, many in my constituency, who are willing to stand up bravely and say, “We will uphold basic human rights. We will welcome refugees and, yes, we know the benefit of those who come here and the significant contributions they make to our country.”
A number of MPs have stood up and said, “Listen to the people.” Well, I am listening to my constituents—there will be different views, too—and sometimes we have to stand up for what is right.
I know some have criticised my colleague who referred to the 1930s, but some people in the 1930s, and particularly some of the right-wing press, prevented a Government from allowing Jewish people to come to this country from Germany. Yes, we accepted the children, but we did not accept the parents and, unfortunately, they lost their lives in the concentration camps.
Let us stand up for humanity, let us show the best of this House, let us show the best of our country and let us offer people succour, safety and security through the asylum system, with protection for them and their families.