Overseas Development

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 14th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson , Bournemouth East 12:34 pm, 14th December 1990

Before I concentrate on my main theme, the Palestinian refugees, I shall say something about the crisis of food shortages in the Soviet Union, especially in the major cities. As the House will know, this is one of the many issues for debate at the Rome summit that is taking place this week. It is strange that the Soviet Union should be facing such a food crisis, as this year it has enjoyed a record harvest. As we know, one of the principal problems is that there is a failure in the organisation, transportation and distribution of that food from the points of production to the shops in the cities. I believe that some 20 to 30 per cent. of all the food that is harvested in the Soviet Union fails to get to the shops; it remains rotting in the fields and by the roadside. A lot more is hijacked by the Red Army, the KGB and the various Mafia-style organisations that are becoming more prolific in the cities.

The worry is that the same may happen to the food aid to be donated by the international community and the voluntary organisations. Earlier this week, a small delegation representing three religious-based voluntary organisations—the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry, the Jubilee Campaign and the Movement for Christian Democracy—led by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) met Mr. Zamyatin, the Soviet Ambassador in London, to discuss how food aid and other humanitarian donations being raised by such organisations will be able to reach those for whom it is being donated.

According to Alexander Ornorodnikov, chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, which is organising the distribution of this voluntary aid in Moscow, among the people for whom it is organised and to whom it will be distributed are those who are so elderly and frail that they simply cannot stand in the inevitable queues in the food shops. Such elderly people have been found dead in their flats because they dare not risk their health standing in those queues.

There are also an estimated 600,000 refugees in the Russian Republic, about 65,000 of whom are in Moscow. Over 200 of them are living in tents outside a hotel near Red square. Many have fled from the Islamic republics. Alexander Ognorodnikov has a list of 800 families in urgent need and on a priority list for help.

There are 1,000 orphans in two orphanages in Moscow to whom this food will be personally distributed. There are 1,000 known disabled people on the list of those who are potentially unable to help themselves and who are consequently victims of the food crisis, but who will be helped in this way. There are categorised poor families, the elderly, the sick, the widows, one-parent families and the housebound, who will be helped through the Christian Democratic Union in the Soviet Union.

According to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, the ambassador's response was positive. He has promised that an Aeroflot flight will be made available every week to transfer to the Soviet Union whatever food and humanitarian aid is raised in this country. However, we must remain concerned about ensuring that that aid will reach the people for whom it is being donated. That also applies to whatever international aid is agreed at the Rome summit. I look forward to my right hon. Friend's response to those points.

I hope that, at Rome, we will insist that the Soviet Union continues to implement its commitment to economic and political reforms, such as private ownership, the market economy, and a pluralistic society. That will do much to ensure that food shortages, like the communism that has caused them, will be confined to the dustbins of history.

As the House knows, one of the most depressed areas in the world for economy, jobs, and quality of life is Palestine. Since the armistice of 1949, Palestine has received billions of dollars of aid through the United Nations and through direct donations to sustain the refugees who were displaced by the Israeli war of independence, many of whom have experienced subsequent displacement because of further conflicts. I referred to their position in some detail during a summer Adjournment debate on 29 July 1988, following a visit to the area to prepare a report for the Council of Europe. Last month, I followed in my own footsteps to prepare a new report, which I want to share with the House today.

I hope that the House will agree that, after 42 years, it is an international scandal that 2·4 million registered refugees continue to be stateless and displaced. We all know why—it is the continued failure of Israel and its Arab neighbours to make a peace settlement possible. I shall refer to that again during my concluding remarks.

It is frequently suggested that it suits both sides to have so many Palestinians in the temporary conditions of camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the west bank of Gaza. Of course, the original communities of tents and shacks for those who fled in 1948 have since been replaced by more permanent structures. All 61 camps enjoy infrastructures to varying degrees, such as the provision of education, health services, a sense of community, and special help for hardship families. However, that is due only to the commendable work of the United Nations Relief and Works AgencyUNRWA—in the near east and other international agencies.

This year, the United Kingdom donated £5·64 million to UNRWA for direct aid, and £56 million has been donated since 1979. That is money well spent. Despite the frequent frustrations and the crises in the provision of adequate resources to match the basic needs of refugees, UNRWA is probably achieving the most cost-effective service possible under the circumstances. It compares extremely well with all the other humanitarian services provided by the United Nations. It is my view that no donor nation could have cause to complain that its money was being misspent.

Of particular importance, but consistently overlooked, is the valuable contribution that UNRWA makes to the political stability of the region, where such stability is conspicuously fragile. Without UNRWA there would undoubtedly be more confrontation, casualties, and hardship in Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied territories.

Equally overlooked is Israel's attempt through its defence force, which has acted as the civil administration since 1967, to resettle permanently the refugees in the Gaza strip in neighbourhood communities having a proper infrastructure and municipal services. Although more than 80,000 refugees—some 12,000 families—have been rehoused in that way, most refuse, having been encouraged by the United Nations to believe that it would prejudice their rights pending the outcome of a permanent solution to their situation. It would be surprising if Israel did not now decide that it had other housing priorities to fund.

When I visited the west bank and Gaza in March 1988, the intifada was three months old. It is now three years old, and there is no sign of it coming to an end, despite 858 Palestinians killed, 30,000 injured, 10,000 imprisoned, and 58 deported. Not one of the Palestinians to whom I spoke held out any expectation that that form of demonstration and unarmed resistance against continued Israeli occupation would cease, unless there was real hope of progress to self-determination.

Three years of violence, curfews, strikes and destructive retaliation by the Israeli defence forces have reduced once attractive biblical towns to war-torn communities where squalor and graffiti are rife. Schools are closed so regularly that it is impossible to provide proper education. Municipal services are breaking down, as is the infrastructure—including roads and drainage—and there is disruption of the provision of medical services.

The physical and psychological effect of that on the people has been devastating. They no longer live, but exist. There can be no quality of life under such conditions, and a whole generation of young people have lost their childhood because they are influenced no longer by their elders or the notables of their Arab communities, but by more shadowy factions both within and without—and they are then eager to act as fodder for the visible resistance.

Since making recommendations in 1988, there have been some notable increases in the contributions to UNRWA's budget—in particular, from the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Italy. The United Kingdom's contribution has increased by some 15 per cent. over the past two years. The recent encouraging trend towards peace in Lebanon has resulted in the return of UNRWA's field office in Beirut, and it may yet pave the way for the return of the organisation's head office from Vienna. Thanks to the Llewelyn-Davies feasibility study into UNRWA's organization—funded by my right hon. Friend's Department, for which we are most grateful to her—a more effective performance is likely to emerge, although as that report stesses, a long-term commitment to capital expenditure will be required if its recommendations are to be completely successful.

I commend my right hon. Friend and her Department also for the grant and loan aids that they are giving to projects designed to discourage dependency and to encourage responsibility, enterprise, and income generation. My right hon. Friend is in regular contact with a number of non-governmental organisations, particularly Co-operation for Development. I was particularly impressed on my visits to two such projects. One was a television aerial manufacturer near Ramallah, who is now successfully selling his products to the Israeli market, and the other was a dental surgery in Nablus.

Palestinians are extremely entrepreneurial and will quickly produce a return on investment, and create new prosperity and jobs, if they are allowed to do so. It is to be regretted that, far from encouraging the establishment of such an economic base in its occupied territories, Israel actively discourages Palestinian enterprise in many ways, as I detailed in my report to the Council of Europe.

There have been two new developments of great significance for the situation of the Palestinian refugees since my 1988 report. The first is the effect of the Gulf crisis. For decades, refugee families have relied on incomes sent back to them by tens of thousands of Palestinians who have found work in Kuwait and other oil-producing countries—it has been estimated that between $130 million and £150 million is remitted to their families every year. But because of the crisis, that has ceased and Palestinians are returning home jobless. Not only is that resulting in an immediate end to such income, and a consequent increase in hardship cases for UNRWA to deal with; it has also added to unemployment and thus to instability in Jordan and the occupied territories.

In September, the Commissioner general of UNRWA issued a special appeal to major donors for immediate and generous assistance to overcome the shortfall in funding the emergency related programme. I look forward to learning from my right hon. Friend this afternoon of the Government's response to the Commissioner general's appeal. The second new development, which has far more serious long-term consequences for the region, is the recent. current and anticipated influx of so many Soviet Jews into Israel. Following the opening of the floodgates in October 1989, 120,000 have arrived in the first year, and the Jewish Agency, with which I had meetings—I also visited an absorption centre for Soviet Jews—expects that more than 3 million Soviet Jews will come in the foreseeable future. It is possible that the figure will be higher, as there are 11 million Jewish people living in the Soviet Union. Therefore it is understandable that Palestinian refugees fear that such an influx will prove to be at their expense in terms of jobs, housing and the resources that Israel currently makes available in the occupied territories.

In discussions that I had with four Israeli Ministers —it was my privilege to meet four Ministers in one day —including Mr. Sharon, the Housing Minister, it was suggested that there were no grounds for such fears, and that, in any case, Israel has assured the United States of America, as its major donor, that there will be no settlement of Soviet Jews in what is termed Judaea and Sumaria—the west bank.

I fear that I have found clear evidence that Soviet Jews are settling beyond the green line in east Jerusalem, and on the west bank. It must be obvious that, with the enormous numbers to come, a great deal many more will do so. Labour-intensive Palestinian refugee jobs will also be lost to Soviet Jews, not least because of the frequent imposition of night curfews, which prevent Palestinians from commuting daily into Israel to those jobs.

The aim of my report to the Council of Europe is humanitarian. It is not to recommend political solutions which will result in a just resolution of the refugee problem. Last Tuesday's debate on the Gulf crisis demonstrated once again that, even though there must be no linkage with that peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait which the entire world is urging on Iraq, the opportunity provided by such an outcome should be used to resolve other outstanding problems in the region. They include a resolution of the Kurdish problem, to which the entire world has turned a blind eye during the past 50 years and which will not go away. I see the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) in his place. He has championed the Kurdish cause for many years.

I was reminded of that cause by the reply by my right hon. Friend the Minister to my question which was published yesterday. I asked how much aid Her Majesty's Government have provided to Kurdish refugees for each year since 1979". My right hon. Friend replied: two grants totalling £550,000 to assist Iraqi Kurds in Turkey and ethnic Turkish refugees from Bulgaria."—[Official Report, 13 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 480.]