I am in Strasbourg this week taking part in the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. Although this means I wasn’t able to take part in this morning’s important Westminster Hall debate on Unaccompanied Children in Parliament. Instead, I’ve just made the following speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, you can read the full text below.
Liam Byrne MP
Speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
“Time to live up to our promises to children fleeing war”
It was only seven months ago that the shocking pictures of baby Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach, shocked the world, and shamed us into finally taking real action to help our neighbours fleeing Syria.
Yet, since Aylan’s tragedy, the pressure has only grown.
Unfolding before our eyes is now the greatest exodus since World War 2.
5 million have fled the Syrian war.
850,000 crossed the Aegean from Turkey last year on a desperate odyssey fleeing fear.
Today, 100,000 refugees are trapped in Greece.
120,000 refugees arrived in Europe in the first two months this year.
The challenge is spiraling – yet our systems are collapsing.
There are some signs of hope. The concerted action from Europe and Turkey to finance better solution could be promising – but it only looks promising on paper. The real world looks very different.
So let’s be honest. Bad bureaucracy is now being used as an excuse for a retreat from rights across the continent.
In particular, the rights of ‘others’.
In particular the rights of our neighbours.
In particular the rights of children – the children who now make up one third of all refugees.
The number of child refugees arriving in Britan has rocketed by 57%.
The blunt fact that there are 10,000 unaccompanied children lost somewhere in the continent of Europe should shock us and shame us every bit as much as the terrible pictures of Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach.
And yet look at what’s happening in practice.
I’ve heard first hand from my constituents, how in the camps of Calais there are unaccompanied children, with parents in Britain, where the French authorities have made requests for unity, but where the British have failed to put the families back together.
We know that governments – like the British government – are often granting temporary leave to remain when a permanent grant of leave would be in the best interests of the child.
We know that legal aid to fight for the right to reunite your family is denied to many, lost and trapped in the system.
And we know, that destitution is now all too common for children who fled war zones to seek refuge on our shores and all too often the issues of guardianship are left unresolved.
These are the ways we make sure that rights are not real.
Now our citizens and lawmakers are showing the way.
Cities, like my home city of Birmingham are offering themselves as cities of sanctuary.
In the House of Lords, Lord Dubbs, has forced the government to offer more help to children in need.
I believe our citizens want to do the right thing. That’s why I think we have to say to European governments: “the retreat from rights must stop – we don’t want to be a place of empty promises. We believe that action speaks louder than words.”
The reality is that if rights are to be real, then principles must be policed.
So it is vital that the commissioner on human rights monitors the promises made by European government to help our neighbours – and tells us loudly and clearly when governments are falling short.
Friends, a strong Europe is built on strong families – and yet we seem to be making it as hard as possible for refugees to unite their families. Friends, I think it’s time to do better. It’s time to live up to our principles.