Tim Farron on why Theresa May’s stance on refugees makes him ashamed
We are seen as a cold-hearted country not pulling our weight, says leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron
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I am proud of my country. But I hate it when my government makes me ashamed. So it made my blood boil to see Theresa May at the UN refugee summit in New York, refusing to lift a finger to help the world's most vulnerable. This was a unique opportunity to step up the international response to the biggest refugee crisis we've seen since the Second World War and to reform outdated rules on asylum to fit the modern, globalised era. But instead of leading the way, our newly appointed Prime Minister resisted calls to take in any more Syrian refugees and called for all refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive.
Not only is Theresa May refusing to take in a fair share of those fleeing war and persecution, she is actively trying to water down the right to claim asylum. Instead of arguing for a desperately needed expansion in legal routes and resettlement programmes, she said she would 'not in a thousand years' take part in any Europe-wide scheme to resettle refugees. Not content with the damage Brexit has done to Britain's place in the world, Theresa May shamelessly used her first speech at the UN to tell our international allies that they can expect no help from the UK when it comes to coping with this global humanitarian crisis.
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Let's get one thing straight. It is a myth that the UK has become the destination of choice for migrants and asylum seekers. The overwhelming majority of displaced people flee to neighbouring countries and remain within their region of origin. Currently 80% of the world's refugees are living in developing countries, while less than 1% are living in the UK. These poorer countries are now coming under huge strain due to the soaring numbers of people fleeing the horrific war in Syria and the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lebanon alone is hosting over a million Syrian refugees, more than the whole of the EU put together. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children are facing hunger and lack of basic education and healthcare in overcrowded camps in the Middle East. Thousands more unaccompanied minors have been left stranded in Europe, left vulnerable to trafficking gangs. Britain can and must do more to help those fleeing this massive human catastrophe.
Last year, it appeared for a moment that the Government might have rediscovered its conscience, as the picture of poor Alan Kurdi face-down on a beach was plastered over the front pages of almost every newspaper in the UK.
But it soon became clear that the Tories saw the plight of child refugees as just another PR exercise to be carefully managed. The pledge to take in up to 20,000 refugees over five years was carefully calculated as the bare minimum this callous government thought it could get away with. Now even that paltry pledge looks like it won't be met.
Much to the government's delight, compassion fatigue has set in. The public no longer sees images of those desperate families risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, or the lonely child stuck cold and hungry in a camp in Northern Greece. But while the government may have forgotten them, we must not. Those children could be our children, we cannot stand by and do nothing while they are abandoned to their fate.
I have spoken first-hand with refugees in Europe and listened to their harrowing stories, of lives torn apart and terrible risks taken. These are people just like you or me, seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families in the most horrific circumstances. I have also witnessed first-hand the impact of the government's do minimalist approach is having on Britain's international standing. When I was on the island of Lesbos last year, after we'd helped to land a flimsy boat of desperate refugees, I was handing out bottles of fresh water. A few yards away, an aid worker from New Zealand shouted at me: 'Why don't you stop handing out water bottles and take some more refugees?' That sums up how Britain is now seen by many, a cold-hearted country not pulling its weight.
I refuse to let that perception of our country grow and go unchallenged. I am proud of Britain's historic role as a sanctuary for the desperate, the vulnerable and the persecuted. From the 10,000 Jewish children we took in the Kindertransport prior to the Second World War, to the thousands of Ugandan Asians we offered refuge too when they were expelled by Idi Amin, our country has not shied away from playing its part in the past. It's time to honour that legacy, and live up to Britain's image as a beacon of hope, tolerance and decency in the world.
The Liberal Democrats are determined to offer an alternative vision. We have laid out a comprehensive plan to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe facing Europe. Most importantly, we must expand safe and legal routes for refugees fleeing war and persecution, so they can apply for asylum without risking their lives and being exploited by ruthless people smugglers. As part of that we should significantly increase the number of refugees resettled in the UK through UNHCR programmes. We will carry on making the case for the UK to opt in to the EU's refugee relocation scheme, which still offers the best hope of an international solution to this crisis. And crucially, we must allow the hundreds of unaccompanied children stranded in Europe to rejoin their families in the UK.
The Brexit vote has strengthened the voices of those who want our country to turn its back on the world. But it has also brought together those of us who believe Britain must lead the way in responding to global problems instead of hiding from them. The Liberal Democrats will not stand by and let Nigel Farage's vision of Britain prevail while refugee families freeze to death across the Channel. We will be the rallying point for all those who believe Britain is at its best when it is open, tolerant and united. So join us, as we hold this Brexit government to account and fight for a compassionate response to the biggest refugee crisis in modern times.
Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale