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Beyond the Referendum: Britain Welcomes Refugees

20/06/2016 17:22 | Updated 20 June 2016

We're almost there. A few days from now Britain will wake up to the result of the EU Referendum. This blog is not about how you should vote. It's about life after 23 June.

The Referendum debate has been divisive, and dominated by immigration. Some have used it to spread fear and confusion. But whatever the result, we can and must re-assert the desire of the compassionate majority who want Britain to welcome refugees fleeing war and persecution.

Immigration was described by many commentators during the 2015 General Election as 'the dog that didn't bark'. There's plenty of barking now. The primary focus of debate is of course immigration to the UK from within the EU. The Vote Leave campaign has of course focused strongly on this. It is right to debate immigration, and relevant since free movement is a key issue in our EU membership.

There's been less discussion and very little dispute between the official campaigns over the UK's approach to refugees. The Prime Minister's commitment to voluntarily resettle 20,000 Syrians to the UK has not been challenged by any mainstream politician.

The Leave campaign have not disputed the principle that Britain should continue to welcome refugees. It includes long-standing advocates of the UK doing more to welcome refugees like Conservative MP David Burrowes and Times columnist Tim Montgomerie. The Leave camp also includes UKIP of course, whose hostility to refugees has attracted much attention. ('that' poster) But whatever happens on 23 June Ukip will not have any formal role.

The approach we need to take to persuade the British public and government that Britain should play a full part in responding to the global refugee crisis are similar whether we vote to Leave or Remain. Britain has long been exempt from most collective EU action on refugees. For instance the UK has an opt-out of quotas for refugee resettlement. We do have the option to participate in collective EU action elsewhere in the world, for better or worse. But UK refugee policy is shaped in London, not Brussels.

Whether the vote is to Remain or Leave, the Conservative government will seek to come together again. So, whoever wins, they are likely to reach out to engage those on the other side of the Referendum debate. In the event of a Leave victory Michael Gove and Boris Johnson would surely want to disprove accusations that a Leave vote is a vote to pull back on commitments to resettle refugees.

So the threats and opportunities for refugees seeking sanctuary in the UK will be similar in either case. We're likely to see more attempts to persuade the public that resettled refugees are somehow more deserving than those who have fled war and persecution and come to the UK as asylum seekers. We're likely to see more cuts in financial support to asylum seekers. Increased pledges to resettle refugees in the UK will require the same very high levels of public support that led to the commitments to welcome 20,000 Syrians and up to 3,000 unaccompanied children.

Given all this, there are three things we can and should do after Thursday irrespective of the result.

First, we need to take even more people with us, to continue to widen the coalition of support for the rights of refugees. The Referendum has temporarily divided Britain. But we must never forget the breadth of support for refugees. The voices that persuaded David Cameron to commit to supporting up to 3,000 unaccompanied children from Europe included the Daily Mail and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Local campaigns in every part of Britain have persuaded local authorities and MPs of every political persuasion to voluntarily resettle and make welcome Syrian refugees. The breadth of our movement has never been more crucial to our success.

Second, we need to ensure that senior figures in both Remain and Leave MPs speak out in support of asylum seekers and refugees, particularly if the decision is to Leave. This is of course particularly important amongst Conservative MPs. We need strong calls from across the political spectrum for Britain to play a full part in the global response to the refugee crisis.

Thirdly we need to persuade Ministers in the Home Office and across government to put in place the measures needed to enable refugees to integrate and contribute to our society and economy. The current 'system' for managing asylum seekers makes this far harder than it should be. It is a lost opportunity for refugees and for Britain.

The first step in this is to enable refugees to learn English. It's absolutely scandalous that a shortage of English classes in very many parts of the UK prevents them from doing so. Refugee Action's Let Refugees Learn campaign aims to end this absurd situation, in the interests of refugees and of us all.

September is a vital opportunity. The Prime Minister will attend two global summits on the refugee crisis, one called by the UN and one by President Obama. It's a fantastic moment in which Britain can come together, and commit to do more to welcome refugees and enable them to rebuild their lives.

Thursday really matters. I'm a trustee of Friends of the Earth, which has made a strong environmental case to Remain. But Refugee Action has not taken a view. There are champions of the rights of refugees on both sides. UK refugee policy is shaped in Britain.

Many have described this Referendum as a bigger moment in the life of our country than a General Election. We choose a new government every five years or less. The vote on membership of the European Union will be far longer-lasting. It has big implications for our economy and democracy. It will shape Britain's place in the world for decades to come. Whatever your view, don't miss the chance to cast your vote.

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