Britain should be prepared to open its doors to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper has said.
The shadow home secretary said the failure to offer sanctuary to people trying to escape the “new totalitarianism” of Islamic State (IS) was “immoral” and “cowardly”.
She called on the government to exclude refugees from its target to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year and suggested that it should be possible to take some 10,000 people seeking asylum.
In a speech to the Centre for European Reform in London, Cooper acknowledged that her comments would be controversial at a time of heightened concern about immigration.
However, in the face of the crisis in the Mediterranean with tens of thousands risking their lives in an attempt to reach safety in Europe, she said that it was essential to separate out the issue of asylum from the wider immigration debate.
“This has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the Second World War. Yet we seem paralysed to respond,” she said.
“And its not just us. All Europe is struggling to respond. We can’t carry on like this. It’s immoral, it’s cowardly, and it’s not the British way.
Cooper contrasted Britain’s offer to take a few hundred Syrian refugees through a UN programme to the 1930s when, in a matter of months, Britain accepted 10,000 Jewish children fleeing the Nazis.
“We have to step up to the plate,” she said. “This has become a test not just of Europe’s values, but also of the EU’s resilience and ability to respond. And so far our continent has been found still wanting.
“And it is a test of British values too — of whether we will again be able to reach out to the rest of the world and help as we have done in previous generations, or whether we will turn inwards and turn our backs instead. And so far our country has been found still wanting too.”
Cooper called for politicians of all parties to support a “national mission” to change attitudes, end the fear of the “politics of immigration”.
“That has to start with the Government and its targets. For our country to have a net migration target which includes refugees is just immoral,” she said.
She said the government should summon a national conference to see how many places it was possible to offer to refugees from Syria and the Mediterranean.
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