Palestinians: Visa Scheme — [Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 5:36 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 5:36, 13 Mai 2024

Last Friday, I held a public meeting in Dennistoun in my constituency of Glasgow North East on what more people can do to help the people of Gaza. My constituents, like everybody else, are feeling utterly helpless and it was important to get people together to talk about it. Several of my constituents have family members trapped in Gaza right now. Some came along to that meeting, and they took great comfort in seeing so many people with no particular connection to Palestine turning out on a cold, rainy Friday night in Glasgow to ask what more they could do to help. We heard unique perspectives from my hon. Friend Dr Whitford, who lived and worked in Gaza for three years, and from Dr Ibrahim Khadra, who is the chair of Palestinian Community Scotland. He told us that he has lost 70 members of his family. I thank them both, and I thank my constituents for turning out to support Palestinians.

I was also honoured to be asked to host a meeting here in Parliament for the Gaza Families Reunited campaign in March. The meeting gave the campaign group a platform to speak directly to MPs and peers about how and why we need a temporary family reunion visa scheme for Palestinians trapped in Gaza. I cannot tell Members how moving and upsetting it was to hear directly from Amira, Roba and Ghassan, who are desperately trying to get their families out of Gaza. Those family members are starving and under continual bombardment, and they just do not know where is safe and where is not.

In the UK Government’s response to the petition, they said that there are

“no plans to introduce bespoke arrangements for people arriving from the region” and that those

“wishing to come to the UK who currently have no visa can apply under one of the existing visa routes.”

I have come to this debate directly from a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees. It was the first meeting of our inquiry into the so-called safe and legal routes to the UK that we hear so much about. I am sure we will hear about them again. If I were to write down the safe and legal routes to the UK, I would not even fill half a sheet of A4 paper. I could do it in really big writing and I still would not fill half a sheet. I find the Government’s response to the petition quite insulting. We are used to a lack of humanity in official responses, but this one is particularly cold. The description of people “arriving from the region” does not begin to do justice to the true horror of the situation for the millions of people in Gaza who are desperate to escape to some kind of safety.

If I had one question for the Minister, it would be this: what are the Government so afraid of? As we have heard, we opened our doors to all Ukrainians fleeing that war, and rightly so. Guess how many fleeing Ukrainians came here? Only 3% of the total. So what are they so afraid of? Although we are finding lots of words, no words are adequate to describe the horror of what is happening in Gaza, and it just gets worse and worse. Israeli forces have closed the only way out, meaning there is no way out for people and no way in for essential aid. They have invaded the only supposed safe space in the entire region, after explicitly directing millions of people to go there.

This morning, we have been told that what remains of the healthcare system in Gaza is about to collapse due a lack of fuel and aid. I mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, who spoke on Friday night of the Scottish-Palestinian health partnership that has been set up via a memorandum of understanding between Glasgow University and the Arab American University of Palestine. I encourage everyone to read up on that really useful work.

The majority of people I speak to are stunned into silence when they discover that we are not helping people to escape Gaza. The assumption is that, like we did with Ukraine, we have some kind of scheme set up to help refugees find safety. Earlier I mentioned the APPG on refugees inquiry into so-called safe and legal routes, which started today; we heard that the public assume that we have a similar scheme for anyone fleeing war anywhere in the world. Well, they are going to be surprised when they discover the truth.

This morning, on my way into this place, I had a conversation with a random person I bumped into in the street about this debate and the petition, and the conversation went from general disbelief to the inevitable question, “Why are the Government letting that happen?” I told him about the rigmarole that people are required to go through, and which we have talked about today: to get out of Gaza, people need to enrol their biometrics at a visa application centre, but that means travelling to such a centre because it cannot be done remotely—but guess where the nearest such centre is from Gaza? Egypt. People cannot travel there because they cannot leave Gaza without a visa, and if they do find the money to get out of Gaza and find themselves in Egypt, they will be at the mercy of a painfully slow decision-making process, or maybe even find that they are ineligible under any of the existing routes to safety. It is a terrible system, where profiteering is put before people, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is letting it happen.