Many of you have raised with me your concerns about Europe's ongoing refugee crisis. I devote much of my time and resources to human rights issues, so this is something that concerns me greatly. I have watched with horror as the tragic events have been unfolding over the past few years. This is not something which has just come upon us, but a worsening of an existing situation.
During the summer of 2013, even before I was elected, I was involved with this issue as an OXFAM volunteer working on the 'Love Syria' campaign. This was primarily an awareness-raising exercise designed to try and bring the plight of Syrian refugees back into the public consciousness as media fatigue had already set in and the war no longer made headline news. Two years on and the tragic death of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi has at last brought the issue sharply into focus again. How sad that it took the world so long to wake up and cry 'No More'. So thank you for being one of the caring millions who will not be silent about this but demand that we do more. As one of the richest nations in the world, if we can't help then surely we have forgotten what it means to be human?
What we are witnessing is an international humanitarian crisis on a scale unknown for decades and sadly there seems no end in sight for the bitter conflict that continues to ravage the Middle East. Notwithstanding the complexities of foreign policy, the EU urgently needs a cohesive plan to manage the humane reception and sensitive redistribution of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers arriving both through the Mediterranean and now increasingly across land borders.
In fact the EU must do what it was brought into existence to do, i.e. to show solidarity between members, and to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the EU is a union of values, that it is capable of managing a migration policy with fair rules, compassion, and the rule of law, and that it can be a safe haven, as described by John Semantu, the Archbishop of York, who was himself a refugee, fleeing a despotic dictator.
Ahead of the emergency migration summit on September 14, it is therefore crucial that the UK shows international solidarity and opts-in to key measures to help refugees coming to Europe.
Given my work at the European Parliament on children's and women's rights, and my aim to bring a more compassionate perspective into our politics, there are certain thoughts I would like to share with you on this subject.
Children are innocent victims of conflict and suffer disproportionately from violence and displacement as they require the protection of the adult world which seems to have abandoned them. Children need our pro-active and unconditional support both at the point of conflict, at their eventual destinations and at all points in-between. Not only this, but we also need to recognise that the long term psychological effects of the current refugee and migration crisis will need our ongoing full attention, as to ignore the trauma will risk robbing future citizens of their ability to realise their potential to contribute in a positive way to their communities.
I am particularly concerned about these children's inability to access their right to education, unable to experience the joy and learning that comes through play and study, and dispossessed of their cultural rights. We must therefore find a way to provide opportunities for these children by working closely with NGOs and grass-roots organisations who are on the ground and know exactly what is to be done and how to do it. In all of the tragedy and loss of life we are seeing, EU institutions and member states must also pay attention to refugee children's welfare and well-being.
Women are also victims of the current situation, many having lost their husbands, fathers and sons, destabilising families and communities. A mother will always feel the pain and suffering of her children whilst desperately trying to give them comfort and succour. These women are our sisters and need our moral and practical support.
Women must be included in decision-making processes about the best way for aid to be distributed and what indeed the priorities should be. Women must also be included in peace-building and conflict resolution processes as soon as possible so that the main victims of conflict and humanitarian crisis' are empowered to take ownership of sustainable solutions.
We should also recognise and applaud the many compassionate responses of ordinary citizens who have responded to the terrible scenes unfolding on our borders by initiating and carrying out extraordinary humanitarian aid projects. They have shown the way by taking prompt and direction action when Member States governments have not, thereby shaming the authorities who continue to procrastinate, making political capital out of human suffering, or worse still putting up fences, such as the Hungarian government has done, a move led by the xenophobic right-wing Prime Minister Orban who is openly hostile to Muslim refugees in particular,
Over the summer recess I continued to monitor the situation and was a signatory to two letters urging European institutions and Member States to act to relieve the plight of refugees, particularly in Greece.
This week the European Parliament will vote on proposals drawn up by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee calling for the equitable distribution of refugees across the European Union. Labour MEPs will continue to push for a critical upgrade of the EU’s response, particularly in relation to reception conditions and responsibility sharing of refugees between member states and the tackling of people smugglers.
I have mainly dealt with the situation in the Mediterranean and Balkan States here, but of course borders elsewhere are affected and not solely by people fleeing from the Middle East but from other parts of war-torn Africa. We need solutions for all those who flee their homes because life is no longer sustainable and we in Britain must play our part. My father was a winch-man on RAF rescue helicopters and he didn't think about the nationality of the people he was saving or whether they had a visa when he stretched out his hand to lift someone out of the sea. He is now in his 80s and if he was able to, he would be rescuing people now regardless of ethnicity or faith.
You may be aware of the many civil society initiatives that have sprung up, from aid convoys to Calais to fostering unaccompanied minors. We can all play our part so with this in mind, please click on the links below for ideas of how you can help, and do spread the word.