In 2014 we have been commemorating the outbreak of the First World War, the most terrible conflict in modern history. Not only did millions of young people lose their lives, but large parts of continental Europe were left devastated and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children found themselves displaced by a conflict not of their making.
This year, in 2015 we have the chance of celebrating the centenary of one of the most incredible acts of humanity from the people of Malvern – when, in the midst of their own suffering during the Great War, they opened their doors to give a welcome and a place of refuge and safety to 500 Belgian refugees.
What better way could there be of marking this centenary than to reach out to those innocent victims of today’s terrible conflict in the Middle East and thereby continue this country’s proud tradition, which stretches back centuries, of receiving refugees. What better way of showing how much we cherish our freedoms than by extending those freedoms to those who are subject in their countries of birth to unjust imprisonment and torture.
And, amidst the hysteria in this country about immigration – stoked up by those who refuse to accept any responsibility for our economic calamity, but seek to point the finger of blame at so-called outsiders, a debate I don’t intend to get into tonight, it cannot be stressed enough that asylum seekers – and ultimately refugees – are not economic migrants.
A migrant is a person who makes a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Before they decide to leave their country, migrants can seek information about their new home, study the language and explore employment opportunities. They can plan their travel, take their belongings with them and say goodbye to the important people in their lives. They are free to return home at any time if things don’t work out as they had hoped, if they get homesick or if they wish to visit family members and friends left behind.
Refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced persecution. The main concern of refugees is for their safety, not economic advantage. They leave behind their homes, most or all of their belongings, family members and friends. Some are forced to flee with no warning and many have experienced significant trauma or been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. The journey to safety is fraught with hazard and many refugees risk their lives in search of protection. They cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.
And we must remember too how this country has benefitted from accepting refugees. It is estimated, for example, that since 1972 30 thousand jobs have been created in Leicester alone by Ugandan Asian refugees. About 1200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database. It is estimated that it costs around £25,000 to support a refugee doctor to practise in the UK – training a new doctor is estimated to cost over a quarter of a million. And the Office for Standards in Education reports that children seeking asylum – who may ultimately become refugees – contribute very positively to schools across the country, which in turn enables more successful integration of families into local communities. Refugees want to work, they want to contribute, they want to be part of our communities.
Some will argue that we already have more than our fair share of refugees in the UK? The figures do not bear this out: the UK is home to just 1% of the world’s refugees – out of more than 15 million worldwide. Over 80% of refugees live in developing countries, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, often in camps with the most basic facilities.
Syria's neighbours are struggling under the weight of this unprecedented crisis – more than three million people have fled the country – and it is time we stopped asking of them what we are not doing ourselves. Ours is a modest proposal, the resettlement of a small number of refugees. Our government has so far agreed to take just 500 Syrian refugees and to date only 100 have arrived in the country for resettlement. That’s 100 out of three million.
In 1915 the people of Malvern showed their humanity when they welcomed the displaced of the First World War and made them part of our community. It is now time that we showed the same generosity of spirit as our predecessors a century ago by offering a place of to those very much less fortunate than ourselves, allowing them the chance to rebuild their lives, free from persecution.