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‘We shouldn’t be wasting peoples’ lives’ – Jean Lambert on the plight of refugees in Europe

By Jan Zielonka , Jean Lambert

Europeans have to make their societies genuinely inclusive, and Greens could play a constructive role in making this work – says Green MEP Jean Lambert, in an interview with the Green European Journal, which touched on Jeremy Corbyn, Calais and the British response to the refugee crisis.

Green European Journal: Europe is facing one of the greatest refugee crises of its recent history. What do you think of the UK government’s response to the crisis?

Jean Lambert: The majority of the members of the Green Party of England and Wales believe that the government is not doing enough at the moment. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in the party, as well as in the general public, who have concerns regarding the arrival of refugees, in terms of how many people we would need to accept and whether we have the resources available at a time when the British government has an austerity policy running in the UK. But the question is more about how to manage the situation, rather than questioning whether we should help these people.

The Greens have been critical for a very long time about the British government’s resettlement scheme. We know that the UK is one of the few European Union governments that is involved in genuine resettlements from refugee camps (not the relocations or reallocations proposed under the European Commission’s quota system). We do have a history and experience of that, and that’s extremely positive. But when it came to the situation around Syrian refugees already inside the EU, we were very critical that the UK wasn’t even willing to be part of the European Union’s resettlement scheme.

Moreover, the UK government is not even delivering on its actual promises. We have this separate system in which there’s supposed to be no limit on the number of places, but even there we’ve seen maybe 200 people actually moved so far from the camps. The Greens have been very critical of the government for not doing enough in this situation, and especially for the fact that they’re not actually willing to join with the European Union solidarity campaign.

In the UK it’s really hard politically to have a pro-refugee stance, as a lot of the major parties are very anti-immigrant and anti-refugee at the moment. Even the Labour Party have been handing out mugs with the text “controls on immigration” in their latest general election campaign.

Of course there’s UKIP, who have been dominating the debate in the UK for so long about immigration and refugees, but it’s very interesting now to see the public turn round and oppose their belief system.

There was a real change of position lately from the Labour Party’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper. She was standing for Labour leadership, and for quite some time she has been articulating a policy for the party, which has been very close to the current governments’ anti-immigrant policies. She has been very critical on resettlement for a long time, but then suddenly she claimed that the UK can take 100,000 Syrian refugees. Which is odd, since that’s not what she had been saying. So why now?

And the reason she had changed her stance was partly that the person leading in the Labour leadership contest was somebody with a very clear pro-refugee position: Jeremy Corbyn. It’s no wonder that the first event that he spoke at after he had been announced as Labour leader was at a pro-refugee rally. Another reason was Cooper’s internal political opposition was the fact that the public has come out in enormous solidarity with the refugees, and we have seen numerous grass-roots organisations, who took food and clothes to Calais. So, Cooper felt safe to change her position because the public had opened that space for her. It will be very interesting to see what’s is going to happen now. I don’t think Labour will go back from that more progressive position, and of course, the Greens have been absolutely consistent the whole way through for years about needing more positive policy on refugees.

Do you think that the UK’s position is in some sense special in the EU with regards to refugees?

We have a very strongly established asylum system, we have refugees from all over the world, whether that refers to people coming from Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, or wherever else. It also has to be said, in terms of Syria, when the conflict started, the British government simply extended the visas of Syrian’s living or working in the UK, no questions asked. So in many ways the UK does has positive actions on refugees, but it is feeling under pressure at the moment for not being part of the European system, not least because Ireland has said it would take part in the reallocation scheme, and normally Ireland and the UK follow each other.

What would be the solution for the situation in Calais?

I’ve been there a number of times with colleagues, and what we found is that there’s a real political fight going on between the local, the regional and the national levels; and there is not much cooperation to support the migrants and refugees in Calais. From a humanitarian perspective, you need to be explaining to refugees and migrants what the provisions are for them in French law for asylum and humanitarian protection.

We, as the Green group, have produced a booklet about the French asylum system in languages other than French. They didn’t have this kind of information before. So, when we criticise the actions of the Hungarian government for only providing information in Hungarian, we have to remember that there are other member states, who only produce information in their own language. That’s shocking, totally shocking. There are people who would stay in France if they actually knew what was available to them.

For the others, we need a mutual recognition of refugee status in the EU so that if you acquire refugee status in Italy, Latvia, France, you can still come to the UK if you want, because the UK would still recognise your status. That would mean that you remove a lot of the barriers for the people. Also, it would be important to say to people that if they want to claim refugee status we take their choices seriously about where they want to go in Europe, taking into consideration that they might have legitimate claims for family reunion, or they would find better opportunities or languages they speak in those countries.

But the tough bit, and I think it’s very tough for a lot of Greens, is that it’s absolutely true that some of the people in Calais are not seeking refugee status, and have no desire to apply for it, instead they want to work. Therefore I think this whole situation is also a question of how the EU manages its migration policy, and I think there are arguments about the fairness of the migration policy that we have and the opportunities for people to actually enter member states.

But there’s a difference between different Green parties in Europe, about whether the Greens actually go with a totally open borders policy or not. My party takes the view that historically the Green group in the European parliament did not take a totally open borders policy, thus we don’t have to let in everyone who wishes to come.

And finally, some people from Calais are from countries where you would not want to send them back, and that for me at the moment is one of the biggest gaps in the whole refugee system in the EU. We have no solution for what we do for people that don’t qualify for refugee status, because there are rules and criteria in order to gain protection. Nevertheless, if you don’t meet those, you still can’t be sent back…

So those people are basically in a limbo state, between being illegal and being refugees?

That’s the thing. A lot of them are undocumented, and have no status, but you can’t send them back. You shouldn’t send them back. And some EU member states give them a tolerated status. Like, for instance, the UK: you’re entitled to very minimal benefits provided that you sign a form saying that you are willing to return to your country of origin when it becomes safe. There are people who don’t want to sign because they are afraid they’ll be sent back before the country is actually safe.

The Green Party of England and Wales wants to extend the definition of a refugee from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, by referring to the 1969 Organisation of African Unity definition of a refugee. Is this because it would allow you to find some kind of solution for these people you just mentioned?

Yes, because the African Unity definition covers people in conflict, while the Geneva Conventions don’t cover them – according to our current definition you are not entitled to refugee status simply because you flee conflict. So, that is certainly part of the thinking that we had when we put that policy through.

I believe, if people are fleeing conflict, you can’t send them back. People fleeing from conflicts should be seen as some form of refugee.

If we look at today’s refugees, do we expect them to stay forever? Do we expect them to become potential citizens after some time, or do we want to send them back after the situation is normalised in their home countries?

I think this should be a choice for the individual. You find a lot of refugees who come here but don’t want to settle, and have always had this hope of returning home. Then you find others who were very determined to return home when things changed, and then didn’t do so in the end, because other things have happened in their life. So, you have to treat all refugees as people who are potential citizens, and ultimately the choice for permanent refuge or return is theirs.

I think, holding refugees at arms’ length, or forcing them to be stuck in a refugee centre before they can finally attain a peaceful, stable state, is a waste of people’s lives. And, as Greens, we shouldn’t be wasting people’s lives, we should actually be making it clear that the offer of citizenship and eventual settlement is there, if that’s what they choose. So therefore we invest in all of the things we talk about. Whether it’s the language lessons, whether it’s work and training, community engagement and real participation.

What about border protection? Right now, a great percentage of the EU budget that goes on refugee related issues is basically spent on border protection. Do we need to change that or is it necessary to protect our borders?

I think that some form of border management is necessary. But I’m not sure I would call it protection. It is important to know who is coming in. Also, if you arrive at Heathrow airport in the UK, there are signs that say in a number of languages that if you wish to claim asylum you must do it now, whereas if you are coming in a small boat, where do you go? Who’s meeting you, what’s the order of all this? A more regulated situation wouldn’t hurt here.

So there’s an argument for some sort of border management, which I don’t think needs to be barbed wire fences and all the rest of it.

It amazes me that we managed to exist for a number of years without razor wires on the borders of the European Union and nobody has been screaming about it. It is possible that the lack of fences is a great help for people doing “informal business” across the borders – whether that’s fuel or cigarettes ­– but people felt they could live with that. I think, this idea of border protection being physical is a real retrograde step, and a really worrying one. I remember being in Europe in 1989/1990 and I have photos of soldiers taking down barbed wire fences between east and west. When you look at Hungary now, putting the fences back up again, it doesn’t feel like progress.

In 2011 David Cameron said that multiculturalism was dead, and Europe has failed when it came to integrating migrants into its societies. Based on that, do you think that we need to change something in the integration policies we used to use in the last few years?

Cameron’s speech was populist and particularly so since he gave it at a conference about security, where you are mixing diverse communities with the idea of a threat. That was not very sensible.

The EU has qualities and ten principles about integration, but nevertheless, lots of EU countries are poor on integration. Integration doesn’t meant that anybody coming to our countries has to turn into whatever the culture of the country is that they’re coming to, because if you look at our countries anyway a lot of them already have very diverse cultures. The people in Yorkshire would not claim to have an identical culture to those from my part of London. And it’s not that they couldn’t, but Yorkshire people are proud of being Yorkshire people and I’m proud of being a Londoner, so we’re not all the same anyway, even if we are in the same country.

In terms of really operating principles about inclusion and equality, I think we’ve got a lot more work to do. You can see, even countries that have been used to having a certain degree of immigration, have not worked hard enough, and still have shortcomings. You’ve got to make sure that the different parties in a society have an opportunity to communicate and collaborate. But it also means that we have to be effective in the anti-discrimination legislation that we’ve got, and that we don’t believe that tolerance education is something that you only do in parts of the country where you have a diverse population. Some of the places most resistant to refugees and migration are the ones where the inhabitants have probably never seen a black face in their life and never heard people speaking languages different from theirs. So we really need to invest a lot more in making our societies feel more genuinely inclusive, and that is something where the Greens have a lot to offer.

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