York PEN member Jonathan Tait examines last week’s Commons vote on accepting 3000 extra unaccompanied refugee children into the UK.
Last week was profoundly turbulent for ongoing human rights debates all over the world. While the editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine was brutally murdered in Dhaka, Germany’s AfD party launched a campaign to ban the burqa and minarets. That’s without even mentioning the myriad of human rights issues ongoing in our own country. This week has been fraught with news about the expulsion of Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah from the Labour Party following allegations of anti-Semitism; the confirmation of South Yorkshire Police’s culpability in the Hillsborough Disaster; and the looming Investigatory Powers Bill. It is a terrible shame that a country which considers itself a bastion of the free world struggles with such issues so regularly. One really does not need to scrutinise intensely or look far to see the continuous impeding and infringing of fundamental rights and freedoms coursing throughout the United Kingdom over the past seven days. I could list all of these transgressions ad nauseam, but my focus is honed on the green benches of Westminster.
The House of Commons went to a vote on Monday evening on the notion of the UK accepting an additional 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian child refugees, who had already made the treacherous journey to Europe. This would be in addition to the figure of 20,000 total refugees David Cameron has pledged to accept over the course of his next five years in Downing Street. For a country that is more than partly responsible for the complex geo-political quagmire that is the Middle East’s relationship with major western powers (and of course the untold civilian deaths as a result of air strikes launched against Syria) saving 20,000 lives is comparatively a cursory gesture. Nevertheless, democracy (in its loosest sense of the first-past-the-post determined, 1 politician for every 100,000 citizens system we have) would prevail and Westminster would vote on it. The results announced on Tuesday afternoon confirmed that due to the 294-276 result against the motion, the UK would not welcome 3,000 unaccompanied children into its borders. It is impossible for me to admit any sense of pride in belonging to a country which has a government callous enough to refuse shelter to 3,000 children fleeing from a war-torn country being destroyed by the actions of our own foreign policy.
Yet what proves most troubling is not the abrogation of responsibility represented by the result of the Commons’ vote, which is a worrying thought. A Conservative led vote against providing humanitarian relief to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet unified the Cabinet and backbenchers alike. What is vastly more morally reprehensible is the fact that 80 MPs abandoned their democratic prerogative and their very duty to vote; including the Prime Minister David Cameron, the Chancellor George Osborne, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs Philip Hammond, and London Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith. By eschewing the vote, these politicians through apathy have condemned scores of children to conditions in which they may be susceptible to harm, injury, and even death. My opposition to the way Boris Johnson, Theresa May and the like all voted against this motion is staunch and fuelled by bile, contempt, and disgust – but at least they have the guts to stand by their abhorrent political agendas. The aforementioned non-voters’ apathetic approach to politics and its proximity to human rights is shameful. As news trickled in on Sunday evening that 99 refugees including a new-born baby have drowned in the Mediterranean after sailing from the Libyan coast, our Prime Minister was just as apathetic and silent about the safety and human rights of fellow people as he was on Monday. I wonder, what prevented these 80 MPs from exercising their right to vote? The jury is out on that front, social media and a scan of the newspapers seems to suggest nothing about the absent names of Cameron, Osborne, Hammond, and Goldsmith from the voting results. It is overwhelmingly worrying that the leader of the country is unable to lead his party by example – do as he says, but not as he does seems to be the most accurate sentiment of Cameron’s leadership. At the end of the week, I can only reflect on this: the inaction of politicians causes as much devastation to the protection of human rights and people as the actions of an uncompassionate world power that has no problem bombing a third world country.