David Burrowes: As we prepare to welcome Afghan refugees, we must learn the lessons of Syria

3 Sep

David Burrowes was MP for Enfield Southgate 2005-2017, and now serves as adviser to Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief,

Six years ago almost to the day, I like many saw the horrific image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless young body washed up on a Turkish beach. It was projected across global news channels as a visible tragic example of Syrian refugees risking their lives for sanctuary in Europe.

Today we have the no less tragic images of Afghans seeking refuge. Have we learned the lessons of 2015?

My immediate response to the death of Kurdi and his family was just to tweet that we need to show compassion to child refugees and provide more places in UK. I then woke up to the Today news headlines that a Tory MP had called for more refugee places for Syrian refugees! After a few gulps of coffee, and seeing lots of missed calls and messages, I realised that it was my tweet which had generated the headlines.

A media wave grew which I decided to surf during the day, calling on David Cameron to increase the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme from 200 to thousands. Despite Home Office reluctance, Number Ten captured the public mood for compassion and agreed to extend the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme to 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Back in 2015, there were very few Conservatives publicly calling for more support for refugees. I recall Tom Tugendhat and Jonny Mercer amongst only a handful of Conservative MPs joining me in being vocal. Fast forward to 2021 and they are joined by numerous Conservatives recognising the urgent plight of Afghans and the moral duty on the UK to provide refuge and resettlement. The Government has commendably not needed cajoling to set up the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) for around 20,000 vulnerable people, especially women and girls and religious minorities.

Some may see the Government’s pledge to increase support for refugees as inconsistent with a tough New Immigration Plan. However it is in line with Chapter 2 which sets out:

“We will also ensure our resettlement offer encompasses persecuted refugees from a broader range of minority groups (including, for example, Christians in some parts of the world). We know that across the globe there are minority groups that are systematically persecuted for their gender, religion or belief and we want to ensure our resettlement offer properly reflects these groups. We will strengthen our engagement with global charities and international partners to ensure that minority groups facing persecution are able to be referred so their case can be considered for resettlement in the UK more easily.”

The Government now has the challenge and opportunity to make good on its plan to provide refuge for the persecuted, as well as its manifesto commitment to implement the Truro Review, and ensure the Afghan resettlement encompasses those at risk including religious minorities. There are hundreds of Hazaras, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus today desperately seeking safe passage who are looking to Britain for help.

Earlier this year the UK delivered on its pledge to provide refuge for over 20,000 Syrian refugees. However there were significant flaws in the Syrian scheme because the very groups which were most at risk – Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a (all three groups the US State department officially stated were facing “genocide”) were very under-represented in UNHCR referrals to the UK. Whilst other countries, for example with stronger family links, took more religious minorities, the UNHCR’s vulnerability criteria for resettlement does not explicitly refer to people’s religion (even when being targeted because of their faith). In 2021 the ACRS and the UNHCR must not be blind to religion being the reason for persecution and need for resettlement.

Aside from the huge issue of getting refugees out of Afghanistan, the big challenge is to provide integrated support for Afghan refugees already here and those to come. Hotel or hostel accommodation literally does not fit large Afghan families. In 2015, the Government wisely appointed a Minister for Syrian Refugees. Richard Harrington did a fine job in co-ordinating across government and bringing local government together with faith groups, charities and businesses.

Today, we need a similar co-ordinated approach. A Minister for Afghan Refugees should be appointed. I would suggest an MP like David Simmonds, who has been active in refugee and immigration issues since being in the House, drawing on his extensive local government experience. He knows the challenges facing Councils having headed up the LGA brief for Children and Families in 2015.

My alternative would be Baroness Stroud, who has also been vocal on the plight of refugees and has a wealth of experience with the CSJ and Legatum, utilising the forces of civil society and business for good.

Finally, we all need to learn lessons from 2015. How welcoming have we been to refugees settled in the UK? A couple of weeks ago I was visiting an Iranian friend and refugee in a house in the Wirral. His neighbours are hostile and have made it clear they don’t want him and his Iranian and Afghan fiends living next door. My friend who is struggling with trauma related mental illness questioned the value of his life and whether he should go back to Iran and face execution. In 2021 we must be more hospitable and follow the lead of charities like Welcome Churches with their Hospitality Pledge.

As we now and in the coming months respond to the crisis in Afghanistan internationally, nationally, and in our neighbourhoods let’s learn the lessons of 2015.

Lewis Feilder: UK laws haven’t been strong enough to protect memorials. But all of that is about to change.

5 Apr

Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list, works as a management consultant and is a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces.

One element of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that has received much less attention recently than others is the protection it introduces against criminal damage to memorials.

Like most people, I was appalled to watch during last year’s protests as the Cenotaph on Whitehall was attacked, Churchill’s statue was graffitied and PC Keith Palmer’s memorial at the gates of Parliament was urinated upon.

I despaired at the inevitability of the perpetrators of these acts of gross indecency – if ever caught – being brought up before a magistrate and being sent on their way with a nominal fine.

The young man who tried to set light to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay only £340 in court costs. It’s pitiful and undermines public trust in the judicial system, but it’s sadly what we’ve come to expect.

As a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, I wanted to know why and began researching the laws pertaining to desecration of war memorials, whereupon it rapidly became clear there simply were none. In contrast to most other Commonwealth Realms, the UK gives no special protection to war memorials, or other types of public memorial.

When damage is purposefully caused to them, prosecutors have to rely upon existing criminal damage statutes, which only take account of the financial value of the damage caused. Where this is less than £5,000, as is the case in most instances of desecration, courts have very limited powers available to them – a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500. This struck me as wholly insufficient and a failure to take into account the public outrage and emotional distress caused by the level of disrespect shown in these cases.

So, that morning I sat down to write what a new law would look like and circulated this to a few MPs who I thought might be supportive. With the image of a young man trying to set alight to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph still live in people’s minds, support was not in short supply and Jonathan Gullis, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and James Sunderland, the former Army colonel and new MP for Bracknell, took up the cudgels.

Support rapidly snowballed and within 48 hours we had 150 MPs’ signatures on a letter to the Home Secretary. Over the next few weeks, we met with both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, who both gave their full backing to updating the law and instructed their departments to find the best way to get it on the statute books. It was clear we were pushing against an open door.

It had in fact been tried previously more than a decade ago, when David Burrowes, the then MP for Enfield Southgate, introduced a Private Members’ Bill, which was rapidly scuppered by the calling of the 2010 General Election.

Finally now, the law is being updated and the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 will soon reflect that where damage or desecration of a memorial occurs and amounts to an offence of criminal damage, the court will no longer be constrained in its options where the value involved in monetary terms is assessed to be less than £5,000.

The maximum sentence of imprisonment will now be ten years’ imprisonment, reflecting the severity of the nature of the crime. Of course, it remains the role of magistrates to take into account aggravating and mitigating factors in applying these new powers.

While the passage of time might dim our collective memory of those who have served or died for their country, war memorials serve as a permanent testimony to those who must not be forgotten. This change to the law ensures that their memory can no longer be sullied with impunity.