I will focus my speech on the plight of children—the innocent victims of war.
Night after night on our TV screens we see boatloads of desperate people gambling with their and their children’s lives as they pile on to dinghies that are more suited to a boating pond than the Mediterranean. They are some of the most distressing scenes that I can remember seeing during my adult life, and I know that I am not alone in that.
There seems to be no end to the misery that those desperate people from all backgrounds have endured when fleeing from war and persecution in the land of their birth. In Syria, children are being gassed by a monster who is devoid of humanity, so what have their parents got to lose? Should they make a life-or-death journey to safety, or stay home and live every day wondering whether it will be their last? How can any of us imagine being faced with that choice?
A shocking 13.5 million people in Syria need help. Half of them are children who risk becoming ill, malnourished, abused or exploited. Thousands of them are orphans and around 3 million of them have been forced to quit school. The UN children’s agency says that the war has reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children. Refugee children are susceptible to malnutrition and diseases that are brought on by poor sanitation, such as cholera. Cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections. The children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions and they are exposed to unimaginable danger. Apart from the obvious suffering, all that is clearly an abuse of children’s human rights. The charity World Vision said:
“The children of Syria have experienced more hardship, devastation, and violence than any child should have to in a thousand lifetimes.”
During the recess, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days on the Italian riviera, which was packed with luxury pleasure cruisers lining the marina. To walk past and see tables set for a champagne dinner struck me as being quite obscene when in the same country, in the town of Lampedusa, children were being washed up on the shore after trying to flee persecution in a tiny flimsy dinghy. Yet the leaders of wealthy countries view those desperate families as a problem, as they argue over how many they can take, afford or feel comfortable with. How can they sleep at night?
The Conservative Government at Westminster agrees to take 20,000 refugees and thinks that that is acceptable. In my view that is shameful. It beggars belief that the former Prime Minister’s initial refusal to take 3,000 unaccompanied children from the Calais refugee camp was qualified by the excuse that nothing must be done to “encourage” refugees to make the dangerous journey. What a pathetic excuse. If it was not so serious, it would be laughable.
In Scotland we do not have the “keep them out” border mentality. We have welcomed more than 1,000 Syrians to our country in one year, which was punching way above our weight and is another of the many reasons why I am proud to be Scottish. That number is shared between 29 of our 32 local authorities, and that 29 should be applauded for the arrangements that they have made and for giving the refugees a true Scottish welcome.
I have to say that my local authority, East Dunbartonshire Council, is one of the three that welcomed absolutely no refugees, citing lack of housing as the reason. That is the same Labour-Tory-led coalition that takes 81 days to rehouse people into vacant social housing, despite an enormous waiting list. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to find a way to accommodate refugee families in a predominantly affluent area such as Dunbartonshire. Many people I know have said that they would happily open their doors and take in a family.
We are talking about a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions—one that it is hard to believe is happening in 2016. The wealthy nations of the world can put a man on the moon, host lavish Olympic games and, of course, pay for obscene weapons of mass destruction. Is it not time that world leaders put as much effort into preventing children from drowning in the Mediterranean? They must stop paying lip service to the plight of these families and implement an action plan to get them to safety without any further delay.
Watch the video here.