The Earl of Sandwich (Crossbench)
My Lords, we may be underestimating the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq today. This is because of the short-term results of the surge and a good deal of understandable propaganda. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I measure the crisis in terms of the number of refugees and the displaced. As the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said, it is the largest number of urban refugees anywhere in the world today.
We and the US carry a major share of the responsibility. This exodus is the result of the war itself and the terrible and criminal mistakes of the coalition, such as de-Baathification, as well as, of course, the legacy of Saddam. More importantly, Iraq is not yet a country that its people wish to return to. We have heard that there are about 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, which has now closed its borders because the urban population has run out of resources.
My niece, Lulu Norman, was recently in Damascus interviewing refugees. She has kindly allowed me to quote freely from her diary, which takes us to the heart of the problems—the nightmares—faced by Iraqi families in exile. In one woman's family, she says:
"The TV in the corner [showed] American soldiers surrounding an Arab house; explosions follow. If her son hears a car engine backfire, he screams, thinking it's a car bomb ... He can't be left alone in the bedroom or have the light off. When she takes him to kindergarten he cannot play".
Then there is the sectarian divide:
"One man [for example] had gone to the wrong district in Baghdad by mistake; a militia inspection found he was a Sunni in a Shia area. The family searched [for him] ... then they received a phone call asking ... for 20 million Iraqi dinars. Her sister sold all her jewellery ... and friends gave money. The next call told them to pick up his body from the medical station. It was badly disfigured. His 12-year-old [daughter] is still in deep shock".
One woman, a computer programmer, had recently come to Damascus for medical treatment:
"On her way to work she'd see terrible things: decapitated corpses ... forbidden to be moved under pain of death ... The soldiers had become increasingly brutal, there were more raids on homes and inspections, daily humiliations and theft of gold and mobile phones. 'Now,' she said, 'people are even more determined to kill Americans'".
We should take comments like those very seriously if any of us are still under the misapprehension that the US and the UK are seen as saviours in Iraq.
The diary continues:
"A labourer who'd left his wife and five children in northern Iraq ... had returned to find things had deteriorated to a point he called inhuman or 'without the minimum conditions for life'. He'd never liked Saddam, but like so many others he wished him back. 'Now' [he says] 'in every district an official is appointed who doesn't care about people's electricity, water or survival but only his personal interest'".
What about the future for those families? Will they ever return to Iraq? One woman said:
"We don't know this government, we've never heard of them, we didn't vote for them; how can we vote for a person we don't know? ... And even if we returned, my room at my parents' house is ruined, my children's toys were all burned. Even if we returned, we can't return to our memories; they aren't there any more".
We must face the fact that our record in accepting Iraqis, despite our role in the war and our responsibility as the principal ally of the US, has been dismal. According to the International Rescue Committee, we have one of the lowest protection rates in the EU. Of the 1,305 Iraqis who applied for asylum here in 2006, only 3 per cent received refugee status and 8 per cent were granted subsidiary protection. Compare that with a protection rate of 90 per cent in Sweden in the same year.
The US has made a strong commitment, thanks to huge moral pressure on Congress from the NGOs, and has a resettlement target this year of 12,000 Iraqi refugee admissions. However, Human Rights Watch has pointed out that 12,000 is the number of Iraqis who typically entered Syria every week in 2006, and that the US reached only one-quarter of its target last year. It has also highlighted the intolerable conditions facing refugees in prisons in Lebanon, which treats them all as illegal immigrants. The Human Rights Watch report is entitled Rot Here or Die There. More than one in four refugees are Christians and the local Chaldean churches have tried to make up for their Government's inadequacy.
The UK is almost alone in continuing to return asylum seekers to Iraq. Will the Minister confirm that the Home Office still believes its February 2007 operational guidance notes on Iraq which state that,
"there is generally freedom of movement within the country and it is unlikely that internal relocation would be unduly harsh for men, and women with partners or relatives".
Surely those notes need to be reviewed. As we have heard, the UK has agreed in principle to resettle up to 500 Iraqis in Britain over the next fiscal year under the UK-UNHCR gateway protection programme, which will include many former interpreters and their dependants. However, the success of this programme is still in doubt. As we heard on Monday, it is dependent on a sufficient number of local authorities coming forward to participate.
The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, and I were involved in a campaign to accept refugees from Indochina nearly 30 years ago. There was huge public sympathy for those refugees and our churches, charities and local authorities went out of their way to receive thousands of them into temporary housing and private homes. Many noble Lords will remember that the same happened at the time of Hungary in 1956 and again more recently in the case of Bosnia, although on a smaller scale.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has pointed out that Iraq is different for the reasons explained. But there is a lot of good will towards Iraq in the UK which is based on an extensive Iraqi community and many others who have relations or interests in Iraq. One glance at the Medical Aid for Iraqi Children newsletter shows how many charities, schools, churches and individuals are subscribing regularly, and have done throughout the war, to medical supplies for children in hospital in Iraq. It must be possible for the UK to accept a larger share of Iraqi refugees, many of whom will return when Iraq is safe. The Government's present argument, that they are focusing resources on reconstruction, does not seem to me to admit the extent of the present crisis.