Labour conference: A call for more voices of kindness
I was last at Labour conference in 2009 – then I was in Brighton working for a Government Minister who was being lobbied by business, NGOs and individuals alike. Seven years on and I was back! Location: Liverpool. Purpose: to lobby for human rights on behalf of Amnesty International UK.
The initial sounds being made by the Labour leadership on human rights were encouraging. Jeremy Corbyn promised to suspend arms sales to countries suspected of human rights abuses – highlighting the conflict in Yemen and the role of Saudi Arabia in bombing the country. It was great to see two of our current asks being included in Labour Party policy.
The commitment to human rights was echoed by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, who committed to putting human rights at the 'heart of foreign policy' and supporting Syrian refugees – again, another Amnesty call. There was a real focus from the Shadow International Development spokesperson, Kate Osamor, who focused on women’s economic empowerment, while the Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis, talked defending human rights as being core to the UK’s identity.
Amnesty were also at conference to host a joint event on refugees with The Refugee Council and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. Our panel included: Thangham Debbonaire MP, Keir Starmer QC MP, Stella Creasy MP, as well as Amnesty’s Director, Kate Allen and Director of Refugee Council, Maurice Wren and Alison Criado-Perez, a nurse at Medecins sans Frontieres. It was also nice to see former MP and Chair for the APPG on Refugees, Neil Gerrard, Stephen Twigg MP at the back of the standing-room-only event!
The highlight of the event for me was when we realised Lord Dubs was in the room. As refugees/immigrants ourselves, it took a lot for my colleague Freshta and me to hold back our emotions knowing a man who had come to the UK as a refugee escaping the Nazis and had dedicated so much of his life to help refugees was standing just a few metres from us!
The event was incredibly well attended, in fact people were waiting outside for others to leave before they could get in - prompting Stella Creasy MP to remark that she had never before been to a session at conference where there was a one in, one out policy at an event that did not involve alcohol.
— Lucy Wake (@lucywake) September 27, 2016
Those in the room were passionate about making refugees welcome and the need to get the UK government to do more.
Alison Criado-Perez kicked off the panel discussion by explaining the routes taken by refugees, whereas Thangam Debbonaire MP, talked about how the difference local communities in the UK are making in welcoming refugees at airports or cooking them meals or offering advice, particularly highlighting the work of City of Sanctuary and Student Action for Refugees (STAR). Maurice Wren went on to describe the inadequate response of the UK government calling it ‘grudging, half-hearted and insufficient’.
Kier Starmer MP talked about the lack of resources at camps such as Calais, which was primarily run by dedicated volunteers in place of any officials, while echoing that more needed to be done on providing safe and legal routes. Stella Creasy MP stated that this was ‘not a refugee problem but a politician problem’, reiterating the lack of political will. The following day, Yvette Cooper MP, presented a motion that was passed by conference which called on the UK to take 500 of the 1000 children who will be made homeless when the Calais camp in dismantled in the coming months.
— Maiya Rahman (@RahmanMaiya) September 27, 2016
Another issue on the conference agenda was the reported rise of hate crimes following the EU referendum result back in June. This spike in reported incidents prompted us to launch our emergency campaign Against Hate earlier this summer.
Speaking at a conference fringe event about the rise of hate crimes since Brexit, the Shadow Health Secretary, Diane Abbott, stated that ‘Brexit had given permission to racially abuse people in this country’. At our event, Thangam Debbonaire MP focused on the ‘voices of kindness’ that had drowned out the hate, saying that for every act of hate there had been hundreds of kind acts in her constituency.
Whilst it is important that there is a debate about immigration, politicians need to be careful in the language they use when doing so, particularly in a climate where many immigrants are living in fear of abuse and physical attacks.
Perhaps such care should be taken by Chukka Umunna MP, who spoke of forcing immigrants to integrate into society to stop them leading ‘parallel lives’ and comments made by Rachel Reeves who, when referring to hate crimes in her constituency, and after stating concerns that immigration could ‘explode’ into riots she went on to say:
‘The trouble is I'm just not surprised and if we don't get this right in terms of this response, and getting the balance right in terms of the renegotiation but also the deeper seated problems, these sort of things are just going to get worse.’
Many have been critical of these comments, including, Steve Peers, Professor of EU Law and Human Rights at Essex University, who rightfully stated that Reeves comments effectively blamed victims and set up a reward system for those who committed violence against immigrant groups.
It was a relief therefore to see Jeremy Corbyn using more careful language when discussing the issue in his Leader’s Speech saying that there would be no ‘false promises’ on immigration.
Immigrants are people like me and many others, who came to the UK in hope for a better life. These are people who love the UK and contribute so much to the economic and social fabric that makes the UK the thriving place it is. We can do better in how we talk about immigration. We must do better and in doing so we manifest the ‘voices of kindness’ mentioned above. In order to do this, we must stand together against hate, in whichever way it manifests.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.