This has been a summer of harrowing tales. The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the worst since the Second World War. As we hear of the tragedies of desperate people suffocating in lorries or drowning in the seas of Europe, which we once thought of as idyllic holiday destinations, our hearts break.
In the last week I have received hundreds of emails from people devastated at what is happening, many offering their own homes to those who have been displaced. This Saturday I spoke at a rally in Cambridge surrounded by local people holding refugee welcome banners.
Cambridge and Britain has a proud tradition of accepting genuine and desperate refugees. Now is the time to remember this and recapture that spirit to tackle today’s crisis.
At last year’s Cambridge Holocaust Memorial Day, attendees were privileged to hear from Lore Robinson who arrived in Britain in 1939 as part of the kindertransport programme. She spoke eloquently and movingly about the generosity of a Cambridge family who welcomed her into their home after she fled the Nazis. 75 years ago, ordinary Britons did extraordinary things: they opened their homes, and hearts, to the suffering children of Nazi Europe.
That is why today I have tabled a motion in Parliament, to rekindle the spirit of the kindertransport, and in support of innovative ideas like a Voluntary National Homes Register for those citizens able and willing to accommodate the most vulnerable refugees. This idea was first proposed by the innovative Ten Thousand Homes campaign launched in Cambridge by concerned local people some eighteen months ago.
Of course kindertransport involved individual generosity but also government action. The children would not have been saved without the British government relaxing immigration controls for them. I am pleased that Cameron has bowed to pressure to allow more Syrian refugees to come to the UK but I am deeply ashamed of the message his woeful leadership is sending out to the rest of the world about our country.
The Conservative government has consistently and shamefully described this crisis as being about economic migration, when what we are witnessing is a humanitarian crisis with many thousands of displaced people needing sanctuary. It is always important to distinguish carefully between asylum and economic migration – they are very different issues. At times of acute crisis, national leaders need to rise above short-term narrow interest – our prime minister is failing this crucial test.
This is also a European crisis. In Greece, in Italy, in the Czech Republic, in Germany – people are asking the same questions about what is to be done? And yet, where is our Prime Minister? Sadly not taking the moral lead, but absent from the talks at the top table, letting Merkel and Hollande lead. Reverting to being a Little Englander, not a Great Briton.
Now is the time for the people of Britain to speak: to stand up as they did when the world faced a huge refugee crisis caused by Hitler’s genocidal policies towards the Jews and others.
Kindertransport saved thousands who went on to be nurses in our NHS, serve in our armed forces and make scientific breakthroughs. Doing what is right can make our country stronger.
We have a great tradition of humanitarian support. So let us stand together and say proudly, Britain welcome refugees.
Daniel Zeichner is the Member of Parliament for Cambridge