In the Face of the Biggest Humanitarian Crisis Since World War Two, It Is Not Enough to Bury Our Heads in the Sand

20/01/2016 18:43 | Updated 20 January 2016

In Presovo in Serbia, children are sleeping in thin tents amidst the snow and ice. Unicef warned yesterday that some won't survive if this goes on. This humanitarian crisis is the worst in Europe since the Second World War. But it will get even worse this year unless European Governments urgently act.

Today's proposals from the European Commission still don't add up to a sustainable plan. Europe needs a comprehensive response that properly manages this crisis which includes more sanctuary but also more border controls too.

EU President Donald Tusk is right to warn that time is running out for Europe to deal with the crisis. Throughout the winter people have continued to flee the war and violence especially in Syria and Afghanistan. Families are freezing in camps on our continent right now. But the easing of the weather in the Spring won't ease the problem - as more boats will start to arrive again.

We cannot just repeat last year - tiny bodies washed up on the shores, families walking for 60 kilometres to get dry clothes and food, huge crowds of people travelling through Europe, no border checks or controls in place to manage the crisis so it is possible for criminal gangs or extremists to exploit, no proper assessment of whether people are refugees in need of sanctuary or have safe homes to return to and need to leave.

Greece had to cope with as many as 9,000 people arriving a day. Still the weakest economy in Europe, they struggled to provide enough humanitarian aid, not to mention registering, checking or assessing new arrivals. And although the one million people arriving make up only 0.2% of Europe's population, most of them have gone to just two countries - Germany and Sweden - creating real integration problems that mean they won't be able to do the same again this year.

So European Governments need to work urgently together on a comprehensive response before it is too late. But this latest proposal that the Commission wants to ditch the Dublin Agreement in order to save the Schengen Agreement seems to me to be missing the point. Dublin has already collapsed and Schengen shouldn't be saved.

The Dublin rules that require people to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in haven't been working for at least a year. Meanwhile the Schengen Agreement - no border controls within continental Europe - is making it harder to control the situation. Europe needs internal border controls as well as external border controls right now in order to manage the flow of people, stop the smuggling gangs and increase security checks to build public confidence in the system.

For Britain which is rightly keeps its own border checks, opts out of Schengen and would have a new opt out of any replacement for Dublin, it doesn't look like these changes in themselves will make much difference. So Eurosceptics trying to exploit the issue are ignoring the facts. Indeed, our agreement with the French government that we can carry out our border checks in Calais is an important benefit of EU cooperation that we should not put at risk by pulling out.

So what more is needed to respond to the crisis? For a start Europe needs to implement the things Ministers talked about last year but failed to deliver; more work with Turkey to stop the smuggling gangs' dangerous boats, more support for camps and refugees in the region, so people don't need to flee to Europe to get sufficient food, medicine, shelter, schooling or jobs. We also need stronger external and internal border controls and safe, legal routes to apply for sanctuary in Europe to undermine the gangs and illegal routes.

In particular there need to be proper, extensive refugee assessments and security checks when people first arrive in Europe so refugees can be helped as quickly as possible and those who have safe homes can be returned. And all European countries - as well as the US, Canada and other countries outside Europe - should offer to do more to provide sanctuary too.

So yes, Britain must also offer to do more too. We have a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution, and we should do the same again, starting with child refugees. Labour's Alf Dubs, himself a survivor of the Kindertransport that rescued 10,000 children from the Nazis, has tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would implement calls from Save the Children to take 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from within Europe as a matter of urgency.

We are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. It is not enough to bury our heads in the sand in the hope that someone else will step in. We all have a moral responsibility to act before this gets so much worse.

Yvette Cooper is Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, chair of the Refugees Taskforce