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General Council statement on refugees

Issue date

Congress is appalled at the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding across Europe and the death toll among people fleeing war, persecution, sexual violence and destitution. In total, more than 2,300 people – many of them children – have died already this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe by boat, compared with 3,279 during the whole of last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

People are fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other war zones in numbers not seen since the end of the Second World War. Conflicts in the Middle East & North Africa have created the largest refugee crisis in generations. There are more than 4 million Syrian refugees alone, the overwhelming majority of whom are housed in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Although the UN has resettlement programmes, with precious few places on offer, the continuing war in Syria and increasing unrest in Turkey make many refugees feel that waiting for resettlement is hopeless.

Congress also notes the continuing plight of refugees trapped in Calais, unable to reach the UK through any safe or legal route. Congress further notes the extreme pressure being placed on customs staff, train and lorry drivers many of whom are trade union members, confronted as they are by the desperation of the refugees and economic migrants in Calais.

The lack of safe and legal routes to claim asylum means that people will continue to risk their lives to escape. Congress expresses sorrow at the lives needlessly lost so far. In the spirit of dignity, respect and solidarity, the trade union movement welcomes refugees.

Congress believes that all people have the right to safety, economic security, religious and political freedom with access to health and education facilities within a society which protects those freedoms.

No one chooses to become a refugee. Congress is horrified that it took shocking images of people, particularly a drowned child, to force some governments to act. Across Europe, people showed acts of humanity which hastened governments into action. We applaud their solidarity.

Congress notes that people smugglers have used vessels which are totally unsuitable for passengers, crowding people on board to levels that are completely unsafe, with a callous disregard for human life and a total disrespect for international standards of safety at sea. Congress condemns the atrocious trade in people smuggling and the cynical use of unsafe vessels on key migration pathways and urges the UK government to support United Nations and International Maritime Organisation initiatives to combat the use of unregulated ships for human trafficking.

Congress applauds the merchant seafarers who have upheld the principle of responding to persons in distress at sea by rescuing thousands – often putting their own health and safety at risk in the process. Congress also commends the efforts of those participating in rescue operations, including navies, coast guards and private vessels. Congress demands greater resources for humanitarian and maritime search and rescue services on major migration routes and also calls for stronger action by governments and the international community to prevent the undertaking of dangerous sea passages. Congress calls on the European Union to extend the search and rescue to the level of the previous ‘Mare Nostrum’ programme in order to provide effective humanitarian assistance to those at sea.

The UK Government’s response to this crisis has been shameful. Last year, the UK only accepted 787 resettled refugees, including just 34 families from the Syrian conflict. Congress condemns the UK Government for criminalising rather than helping people desperately fleeing persecution. Around half of all asylum seekers find themselves detained at some point during the process, despite the 2010 pledge to end child detention for immigration purposes, 155 children were imprisoned during the last year. Congress rejects the disgraceful notion that children admitted as refugees should be deported when aged 18. This must be dropped immediately.

Congress regrets that the UK and EU’s focus and resources remain heavily weighted towards defending borders, instead of offering a humanitarian response to refugees who inevitably continue to attempt the crossing. The barriers used up to now, such as raising fences, have proved to be ineffective and have the sole effect of diverting flows from one route to another. Their use must be deplored. Pushing back asylum-seekers at EU borders often results in dramatic casualties. Long queues at asylum offices, overcrowded reception centres and improvised migrant camps in many corners of the European Union show how badly prepared the EU has been to cope with this crisis. Austerity has contributed to this situation, and made it especially difficult for the countries where refugees first arrive.

Congress notes that on 7 September the Government, after coming under increased pressure from public opinion to offer refuge to more of those arriving in Europe, announced belatedly that the UK will take only 20,000 refugees over five years. This is still woefully and wholly inadequate. Congress wants a response from the Government which matches our international obligations. Successive governments' British foreign policy has been instrumental in the expanding conflict in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Libya, giving the UK an even greater responsibility towards refugees fleeing to Europe.

The UK should provide a safe haven for refugees from war and conflict. There is an unarguable and immediate need for the UK to show compassion and humanity and accept as many refugees as is needed. Britain has a duty under the UN Geneva Convention on Refugees to provide proper protection. Congress believes the UK must welcome its fair share of refugees, and calls upon the UK Government to work with other EU member states to establish a Europe-wide humanitarian evacuation and resettlement programme – giving the most vulnerable refugees the chance to live in safety and rebuild their lives.

Congress commends those who participated in the ‘Refugees are Welcome Here’ Day of Action on 12 September.

Congress recalls the international initiatives to address the Vietnamese boat people crisis in the 1980s and urges the UK to promote effective global collaboration to rescue and resettle refugees. We should play a full part in the international response to this crisis.

The UK Government must work for durable political solutions, lead as a major international donor and live up to the UK reputation as a place of sanctuary and protection. Congress calls for an end to the bombing of Syria and condemns the calls from many in the Conservative Party for a Commons vote to increase air strikes on Syria, which would only increase misery, prolong conflict and increase the number of refugees.

Congress believes that trade unions are best placed to speak directly to their memberships to ensure that anti-migrant rhetoric is challenged and further ensure that the pressures on the Government to deal with this crisis do not go away. Uniting people and collectively assisting those in urgent need are part of our founding principles. Unions should spread these messages through communications with members and through articulating in society at large the case that this human catastrophe needs a profound and immediate response.

We will work with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to develop a European and global trade union strategy demanding that states accept a fair and equitable allocation of refugees; and ensuring that refugees are not exploited in the labour market, undercutting and undermining existing terms and conditions.

Today’s refugees can become an asset for the EU economy and societies tomorrow. But it requires well-managed integration in the labour market and in host societies at large, investment in decent public services, housing and social infrastructure. It is essential that third country nationals be dealt with according to the principle of equal treatment. Increased mobility without guarantees covering working conditions and equal treatment leads to more undeclared work and unfair competition on the labour market that will exacerbate wage and social dumping, and therefore social tensions.

Trade unions can play an important role in upholding the respect and protection of life, delivering significant assistance and support to refugees, and promoting their smooth integration into society and the labour market. Where refugees are able to work, unions will recruit and represent them, and work with partners to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees who are not in work.

Congress undertakes to work with unions in the countries from which refugees are fleeing to offer practical assistance, and continue to support trade union, civil society and campaigning organisations working for peace and justice in the Middle East in line with TUC policy. Congress agrees to work closely with the Refugee Council and other appropriate bodies to develop this assistance, and urges unions to offer logistical and financial help to aid agencies, including those offering housing to refugees.

Congress commits the General Council to campaign for Government policy to:

i.recognise that the UK must play a full role in supporting refugees and fulfil its moral and legal obligations to significantly upscale its resettlement programme

ii.participate fully in a continent-wide response to the refugee crisis

iii.make welcome tens of thousands of refugees whether from camps in the Middle East or already in Europe

iv.fully fund refugee resettlement, avoiding the exploitation of refugees and avoiding extra pressure on poorer inner-city communities, whilst ensuring that the international development budget is only used in line with OECD guidelines on official development assistance.


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