Last week the world woke to shocking images showing the lifeless body of 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach.
Aylan was one of more than 350,000 migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year and, tragically, one of more than 2,600 to have lost their lives on this perilous journey. A further 1,000 have lost their lives along various other migration routes, including the Sahara desert and in the Bay of Bengal.
Far from being economic migrants looking to simply improve their circumstances in the UK, figures compiled by the United Nations show that 62% of those who had reached Europe by boat this year were from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan – countries ravaged by war and religious extremism.
The scale of the suffering faced by those fleeing violence and barbarism is almost beyond comprehension. Driven by blind panic and motivated by a desire to protect their families, they fall in to the hands of villainous people traffickers who herd them on to crowded and dangerously unseaworthy vessels. The outcome is often depressingly predictable and leads to the sort of appalling images we saw in the media last week.
Sickeningly, many continue to use dehumanising language to describe those seeking sanctuary. A well-known talking head (who I refuse to mention) recently referred to refugees as ‘cockroaches’ – a term used by the Nazis to describe Jews in the 1930s – whilst our own Prime Minister chose to refer to the volume of refugees as a ‘swarm’. This sort of language serves only to remove the human element from the tragic story unfolding.
Whilst we do face challenges in our own communities, in terms of tackling poverty and in delivering public services, these pale in comparison relative to the scale of loss and suffering being experienced across North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The number of those seeking refuge in Europe equates to less than 0.05% of the continent’s population and, as the world’s richest continent, there is no doubt that we could be more accommodating to those in need of our protection. I believe that in recent days, more and more people are coming to realise that we could and should do more.
It must be remembered that, far from being the chosen destination for asylum seekers, Britain is by no means on the front line of the migrant crisis. Indeed, the migrants at Calais account for as little as 1% of those who have arrived in Europe so far this year. Estimates suggest that around 3,000 migrants have reached Calais, which is a fraction of the more than 200,000 who have landed in Italy and Greece.
Despite the fact that UN figures show the number of refugees in the UK fell by more than a third over the past four years, only a handful have been granted asylum this year. By contrast, the German Federal Government is preparing to accept 800,000.
Whilst I do not believe the UK could actually shoulder a similar burden, there is no doubt that, as one of the largest and wealthiest countries in Europe, we are capable of playing a serious role in alleviating the crisis – a challenge First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated Scotland is more than ready to assist in meeting.
To this end I have tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, calling on the UK Government to show decisive leadership in ensuring a fair proportion of refugees are allowed to seek shelter across the UK.
I am confident that if we – along with our European neighbours – play our part, we can provide safe passage to those like Aylan whose family simply wanted him to have a life not lived in fear; a life tragically lost so close to safety.