The Refugee Crisis and Europe

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A lecture by The Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, Member of Parliament for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and Chair of Labour’s Refugee Taskforce

In her lecture, Yvette Cooper will discuss the humanitarian and security challenges of the refugee crisis and the consequences for Britain and Europe in light of Britain’s referendum on EU membership.

Speaker Bio

The Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP is the Member of Parliament for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and Chair of Labour’s Refugee Taskforce. Before becoming an MP Yvette was economics columnist at the Independent. First elected in 1997, Yvette served in the last Labour government in posts including Public Health Minister, Courts Minister and later Housing Minister, becoming the first British Minister to take maternity leave. In 2008, Yvette was appointed to the Cabinet as the first female Chief Secretary to the Treasury. She was appointed Secretary of State for Work & Pensions in 2009. From 2010 to 2015, Yvette served in the Official Opposition as Shadow Foreign and then Shadow Home Secretary. She is now the Chair of Labour’s Refugee Taskforce, aiming to highlight and build consensus around solutions to the refugee crisis in Europe.

The Speech

Check Against Delivery

Thank you Julia and to RUSI for hosting this event today.

As the world’s oldest think tank on international defence and security, RUSI has been grappling with issues of international stability and cooperation between nations for 180 years. So it’s a fitting setting to be discussing the Refugee crisis and Europe today.

Let me start with a picture.

On a beach, a child.

Not playing, jumping in the waves

But lying dead. Drowned off Europe’s shores.

Not little Aylan Kurdi, the three year old whose body was found on a Turkish beach late last summer.

But a toddler. A little girl washed ashore on Kagia beach in Greece. Lying under a silver blanket while the waves lap and an aid worker sits quietly by.

We don’t know her name. Or where she was from. Barely noticed as so many children are drowning, dying and disappearing.

It’s getting harder. Harder to help. And harder to cope.

And the refugee crisis is set to get much worse this year unless we act.

Hundreds of thousands more Syrians driven from their homes

Thousands more families crossing the Aegean 

Europe is divided and destabilised and the far right is on the rise

The stakes are very high if we just drift on like this

More people will suffer and drown. More children will disappear. 

Disorder, instability and hatred in Europe will keep rising

In Britain Eurosceptics will use this to try to drive us out of Europe – even though Brexit will make it harder to deal with the challenges we face

And they will win unless we act

This is not beyond us.

We have dealt with tougher challenges before.

But it does need a comprehensive plan and for David Cameron to change tack

So I want to talk today about how I believe Britain and Europe can rise to this challenge but we can only do so together.


We should be in no doubt that the humanitarian crisis is going to get worse this year if we don’t act.

Turkey expects 600,000 more people to reach its border as the Assad assault on civilians escalates and the Russian bombing goes on. They have already taken 2.5 million refugees.

Of course people are fleeing. And every one of us would do the same.

In Madaya those who didn’t flee were starved. 

In Homs those who stayed put were bombed. 

In Sinjar the Yazidi women who didn’t run were massacred or forced into sex slavery by Daesh. 

I found it heartbreaking to see the crayon pictures drawn by a young child on Lesbos of a family being bombed, of a neighbour being beheaded, such was the bloodshed she had fled. 

The Red Cross say most of those now arriving are from Syria. But there are more fleeing conflict and persecution too – from Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. And there are others joining the convoy who are not refugees, who have safe homes to return to.


The smugglers boats haven’t stopped. Already this winter –there are ten times more than last year. The gangs give discounts if the waves are high. 3,700 people drowned last year.

So now think for a moment what will happen when they waves quell. If the numbers who come treble as the EU predict, 10,000 people - teachers, doctors, car mechanics, men, women and children – could drown this year off Europe’s shores.

Last year four EU countries and the Balkans took most of the strain. They won’t be able to do that again.

Asylum hostels are full in Sweden

Halls and reception centres are full in Germany

Children’s homes full in Italy

Graveyards are full on islands in Greece

The humanitarian consequences are serious.

70,000 people are now stuck in makeshift camps in Northern Greece. Save the Children say women and children are arriving in the Balkans with blue lips, exhausted mothers telling aid workers they cannot keep their babies warm and dry.

On our own border with France lie shanty towns that should shame our two proud nations. An epidemic of scabies and bronchitis in the Calais Jungle. And families in flimsy tents in the Dunkirk mud in conditions aid workers say are worse than they have seen in conflict and disaster zones anywhere in the world.

In Europe. On our doorstep


Nor are there systems in place to manage this.

In Greece proper registration and security checks still aren’t happening. 

In Calais and Dunkirk thousands of people aren’t being assessed at all. 

No one has any idea how many are refugees in need of urgent sanctuary and support, and how many have safe homes to return to, where immigration rules need to be enforced.

And no one has any idea how many children there are or where they go.

Europol says 10,000 child refugees have just disappeared in Europe.

Imagine it. 10,000 children – that’s like every child in Pontefract or Castleford and no one knows where they have gone.

Probably into the arms of criminal gangs – traffickers, drug and prostitution rings, exploitation and slavery.

One aid worker told me teenage boys were being given discounts by smugglers if they agreed to carry drugs or weapons. 

Lack of checks and controls makes this easy for organised crime to exploit. Gangs making millions profiting from desperation, preying on the vulnerable. Petty criminals taking their chance amidst the disorder. Concentrated groups of young men, sexually harassing and assaulting women. Lawless spaces – like the Calais Jungle – providing no protection against violence or sexual abuse.

Extremists and terrorists can exploit this too – just as one did in the Paris attacks, hiding among refugees as he travelled back from Syria to France. It is too easy for more to do the same.

The security threat as well as the humanitarian crisis is going to get worse this year unless we act


And it is hardly surprising that public anxiety is growing. 

Across the continent many people have shown huge support for refugees.

On Lesbos northern shore I met Spanish lifeguards, Dutch paramedics, Palestinian doctors, French nurses, Swedish aid workers ready with food and dry clothes – all volunteering to save the lives of fellow human beings.

Across Britain, amazing volunteers, communities and faith groups are raising sponsorship, donating clothes, sending vans of provisions to Calais and finding ways to help.

But plenty of people are also getting worried.

By lack of checks or controls

By pictures of crowds, not knowing how many there are, where they will go, or where it will stop.

By the Paris attacks

By the Cologne assaults

By a growing fear that this is out of control or too hard to solve

Many people believe we have a moral responsibility to help those fleeing conflict and persecution. But they want reassurance that Governments have a grip. They are troubled that there doesn’t seem to be a plan. 

And the far right is exploiting that fear. 

At a time when many people already feel insecure as living standards have fallen. Already many had already become anxious about changes to their communities and the pace of immigration. Politics had already started fracturing and the seeds of rising nationalism had already been sown.

All across Europe, far right, anti-immigration or nationalist parties are on the rise.

Pegida and the AfD are polling at record levels in Germany

The National Front at record levels in France

In Sweden and Denmark far right parties have won seats in Parliament

In Poland and Hungary they run the Government

And back here in Britain, UKIP and Eurosceptics are playing on fear to push us out of Europe altogether.

Across Europe, politics feels deeply unstable. And this will have real consequences for democracy that we cannot just wish away. But more importantly community cohesion under threat as racism, hatred and violence are increasing too.


And Europe’s institutions aren’t yet doing enough to rise to the challenge.

Old ways of operating are too slow

Old rules such as Schengen and Dublin aren’t working.

Old assumptions about shared values undermined as countries disagree on the right approach

Eastern and Western Europe divided

Germany – and Angela Merkel - out on a limb

Greece seen as a weak link

Britain trying to go it alone

The stakes are high.

Fail to manage the humanitarian crisis this year and thousands more people will suffer, thousands more will drown, thousands more children will disappear.

Fail to increase security checks and border controls and it will be easier for criminals and extremists to exploit the crisis and bring us all harm.

Fail to get a grip and instability in Europe will grow.  And who will know where that will lead?

Three years ago at a Shadow Home Secretary security briefing from MI5, they said to me at the end of the meeting, “You need to understand Syria. It’s going to affect everything you have to deal with. It’s going to change everything.”

At the time they were talking mainly about young Brits being radicalised. But they were more right than any of us knew.

From the failed Arab Spring to the rise of Daesh to Russian support for Assad to the fleeing of refugees and the terrorist threat.

And who knows where it ends. With the United Kingdom leaving Europe – then losing Scotland too? With Greece being forced out? With far right parties rising across a continent? With the fracturing and dividing of the entire European Union.


But of course it doesn’t have to be like this.

This is not beyond us. We have faced greater challenges on our continent before.

The one million people who have arrived make up just 0.2% of our combined European population – and it is still less than the regular, legal migration into the continent from the rest of the world each year.

But we do need action and not drift.

Solving the refugee crisis in Europe means championing our humanity, our security and our stability all at the same time.

We need both compassion and order.

Both sanctuary and borders.

Open borders won’t work – we can’t do security checks, maintain stability and order.

But nor will it work for countries to abandon our common humanity and refuse to help refugees.

It wont work if countries try to go it alone – be it Germany promising sanctuary to all or Hungary trying to send everyone home.

We need a comprehensive plan not tinkering at the edges. And it needs to have international support.

Most important is to tackle the cause of the crisis – with the strongest possible pressure from across the globe on Russia to stop civilian bombing, to get the Syrian peace process back on track, and put humanitarian protection at the heart of the talks.

This looks really hard right now – but we can’t let up. And there should be similar diplomatic initiatives to address the flow of refugees from Afghanistan and Eritrea.

Britain is right to lead the way on international aid, jobs and schools for the Levant where most of the refugees want to stay and where there is greatest chance of them returning home. The London Conference will make a real difference if the pledges are delivered.

More still needs to be done with Turkey to stop people setting off on dangerous journeys in the first place or passing through if they are not refugees.

And the whole of the world should be taking more refugees. Canada has, but the US has taken too few and other nations should also do their part.

But within Europe itself we also need much more substantial and urgent reform.

First we need proper security checks, faster asylum assessments and stronger borders to stop trafficking gangs. Politicians say the words about registration and hotsposts in Greece but it isn’t happening and it’s only a matter of weeks until many more people start to come.

Schengen was designed for another age and Europe’s Governments should stop trying to save it. Expecting Greece and Italy to deliver all the security, smuggling, immigration and asylum checks for an entire continent is impossible.

Each country needs to know how many people have arrived and who they are, whether their own citizens have gone to Syria to join Daesh and whether or where they have tried to return.

And we need to protect children. From Italy alone 4,000 child refugees have disappeared – but the Italian authorities have no idea whether to look for them locally or whether they are long gone, because there are no border checks

Too many European elites are clinging onto Schengen as a shibboleth. There are far more important things they should be fighting for than the freedom not to have your passport checked as you travel from Germany to France.

Second all European countries need to offer sanctuary, not just some. Just 400 out of the promised 160,000 refugees have been relocated from Italy and Greece.

Some suggest Europe shouldn’t take refugees at all. But how can we expect Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to do so much if we do nothing. Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we should help no one.

The right kind of refugee programme can actually help challenge the radicalisation and security threat from Daesh within Europe too. Syrian refugees in Britain are already working with the police to persuade British Muslims not to get drawn in or take their families to a war zone

Daesh want people to believe that they are the caliphate where Muslims should run from Western persecution. If instead the West is giving sanctuary to Muslim refugees who fleeing Daesh persecution that undermines their poisonous propaganda and recruitment.

Third we need EU budget reform so that more of the budget goes directly to help refugees and those countries most heavily affected. Greece urgently needs more support, the EU help needs to double.

Fourth we need to develop a proper strategy of stronger enforcement to stop dangerous, illegal routes from Turkey alongside developing safe, legal ways to apply for sanctuary in Europe instead. The two things have to go hand in hand to pull the profits from the smuggler gangs.

And fifth we need a serious integration plan. Many of those given temporary sanctuary will want to return home to rebuild their countries as the Bosnian refugees did many years ago. But while they are here they are our neighbours – and that also means they need to respect the values, culture and laws of the country that has welcomed them in.


Europe must act to tackle the problem.

But here in Britain, the Eurosceptics instead argue that the refugee crisis is more reason to pull out of Europe altogether.

That’s nonsense and dangerous.

For a start, Brexit won’t magic away the refugee crisis or keep it further from our shores. Quite the opposite.

This is a Syrian driven crisis, not one of Europe’s making. Refugees who have family in Britain or speak good English will keep trying to come here whether we are in the EU or out.

We’re already out of the Schengen zone so Brexit won’t strengthen border checks. But senior French officials have told me the political pressure they are under to ditch the Calais arrangement.

So I agree with David Cameron and former British Ambassador to Paris, Sir Peter Ricketts that our borders could end up back at Dover. More importantly we would lose vital cooperation – through Europol, information sharing and the European Arrest Warrant - to stop traffickers and extremists exploiting the crisis to threaten our security.

Faced with a crisis that crosses borders, unilateralism just won’t work.

If we want to prevent people ending up in the mud in Calais in the first place, we need the French, the Italians, the Greeks to check people’s asylum claims along the way. If we want to get Turkey to prevent traffickers sending so many people to a watery grave, Britain can’t do that alone. We need pressure and support from the whole of Europe.


But here’s where I disagree with the Prime Minister.

David Cameron’s strategy on the refugee crisis is to refuse to engage with Europe at all. He’s happy to support aid to the region and under pressure he’s agreed to limited sanctuary for refugees from Syrian camps. But he won’t work with Europe on the problems across the Channel. And he panders to the far right with his rhetoric about swarms of migrants in Calais, and his refusal to separate refugees from immigration

And that won’t work. It just makes it harder to get the EU reforms that we in Britain will need, harder to get changes to Schengen or the French to act on Calais. And it won’t win the argument against the Eurosceptics either.

Because as long as there is growing disorder in Europe over refugees, the Eurosceptics will be able to play on people’s fears. As long as we fail to sort Calais, more people will think the answer is to pull out altogether.

Instead Britain should be showing leadership in Europe arguing for reform and a comprehensive plan.

And the Prime Minster also needs to separate immigration and asylum. People in Britain are concerned about immigration and I think more changes will be needed. But that’s different from refugees, and it doesn’t help the debate on refugees or the EU by confusing the two.


And yes. That means Britain needs to take more refugees too. From Europe as well as from the region.

Taking 4,000 people a year from the camps near Syria as the Prime Minister has promised is simply not enough.

Last summer I said that if every city and county too just ten families we could help 10,000 people very quickly. Many councils, communities, faith groups came forward and offered to help. Some have accommodation and support ready in place. But they are still waiting for the Government to bring refugees in. We should ask them how much more they can do and we should start with those with family here in Britain.

And we should act swiftly to help children – starting with Lord Alf Dubs’ amendment to help 3000 lone child refugees in Europe that will be voted on in the House of Lords in a few weeks’ time.

Alf came to Britain as a child of the Kinder transport over 70 years ago – it saved him from the holocaust. Now he is asking us to help to help a new generation of child refugees. 

And here’s why it matters.

A court case brought by Citizens UK a few weeks ago decided that three teenage refugees whose closest family are in Britain can join relatives who will look after them while their asylum cases are heard, rather than having to wait all alone in Calais.

However one teenager’s case was not successful. His name was Masud, from Afghanistan and he was trying to join his sister, a British citizen in London.

The reason his case failed was because before his case made it to court his body was found. He suffocated to death in the back of a lorry. He didn’t wait for the court case. He was fifteen. He had no one to stop him taking risks. That’s what teenagers do.

A teenage boy’s body in a lorry

A little girl’s body on a beach

We can’t keep standing by while children die, while children drown or while children disappear.

Time now to do as Alf Dubs asks and draw on those same values that stood us in good stead generations ago.

The same values on which we in Britain helped build European cooperation after the Holocaust.

When we, Britain, worked to establish the council of Europe, the European convention, the partnership between France and Germany that started the Common Market and led to the EU in the first place

Winston Churchill didn’t call for isolationism, unilateralism or narrow nationalism when he said we needed European cooperation through which people could “dwell in peace, safety and freedom.”

Today’s Syrian refugee crisis is not beyond us to cope with. We’ve faced tougher challenges before

Rebuilding Europe after two world wars

Reuniting a continent after decades of cold war

Restoring peace to the Balkans

Resettling refugees

Defending democracy and human rights

Standing in solidarity with all those fleeing persecution

Building stability and security together

For “peace, safety and freedom” once again.




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