Iraqi Refugees

– in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 22nd April 1991.

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Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey 3:33 pm, 22nd April 1991

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement following my visit to Turkey and Iran to assess the needs of Iraqi refugees and what more Britain intends to do further to relieve their tragic suffering.

Last Wednesday I reported to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the first days of immediate relief that we have provided to Iraqi refugees in both countries. On Thursday I left for Turkey and Iran with Overseas Development Administration and diplomatic wing officials, and representatives of the British Red Cross, Save the Children Fund and Oxfam, all experts in the provision of humanitarian relief.

Our objective was to assess the current situation of refugees in the Turkey-Iraq and Iran-Iraq border areas, to stimulate improved communication and co-ordination of all aid donors on the ground and to plan our further relief to the refugees with the Governments and aid agencies of all involved. The generosity of Her Majesty in allowing us the use of an aircraft and crew of the Queen's Flight, and the helpful attitude of both the Turkish and Iranian Governments, and the Iranian air force, enabled my team and me to see a number of camps and have detailed discussions with Ministers, officials and aid personnel in both countries. I was also able to meet senior American and German military personnel to gain a clearer picture of both their immediate and future aid plans.

The plight of the Iraqi refugees is truly harrowing. Assistance is further advanced for those on the Turkish border than for those in Iran. The Turkish system has developed considerably during the last week, but needs continuing supplies. I will return to Turkey's work for the refugees in a moment, but first I deal with Iran. The situation is changing hour by hour. For those in Iran, the rate of delivery of supplies from all sources must be at least doubled, and donors must co-ordinate through the Iranian Red Crescent and with the Government of Iran as well as with the United Nations and international aid agencies.

There are now more than 1·2 million Iraqi refugees in Iran, with many thousands more over the border seeking entry through the three crossing points. The Iranian authorities told me that they are allowing several thousand in a day as they establish more camps and places in them, and provided that the refugees will give up their arms at the border. Around 1 million people, mainly Kurds but also Turkomans, Assyrians and Arabs, have come to the northern border provinces of west Azerbaijan and Bakhtaran, another 200,000 plus have moved on to east Azerbaijan and there are more than 50,000 Shi'ites in Khuzestan in southern Iran across the border from Basra.

Within the northern provinces, the response of the Iranian Red Crescent organisation and their provincial governors is growing daily with help from donors through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Iranian military. Britain was one of the first to supply directly to Orumieh in west Azerbaijan, 160 tonnes so far having been delivered, plus 3 million water purifying tablets. The Iranian Red Crescent works through the provincial governors to secure supplies, distribute them and maintain order in the camps; 55 camps have been established in Azerbaijan and Bakhtaran. The Iranian Red Crescent and local officials discussed their difficulties openly and welcomed our suggestions to help to improve the organisation of supplies and health care.

Our visit to two of the 22 camps near Orumieh, in the foothills of the mountains north of Piranshahr, confirmed that existing facilities are overwhelmed by numbers entering. The queues to cross the border at Tamarcheen are still 3 to 4 km long and there are few or no facilities along the road. On the road and in many camps, conditions of shelter, health, food and water are horrendous and urgently need improvement.

The health of women and children is particularly at risk because of unclean water, no sanitation, limited health care and irregular food distribution. In the mosque at one camp, the first point of arrival, whole families lie huddled together in row upon row with no facilities at all. They move on into tents, where they have little more space, but where ground dampness makes the problem of extreme cold at night much worse. The Iranian authorities are setting up new camps continuously, but need more assistance to do so. The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping but the Iranian Red Crescent needs our help in west Azerbaijan.

After discussions with Iranian Government officials, the Iranian Red Crescent, our own British Red Cross, The Tehran representative of Save the Children Fund and local officials in Orumieh, I have set up under British Red Cross supervision the supply of tents, blankets and ground sheets through Orumieh to the west Azerbaijan camps. This supply operation starts tomorrow morning and will access the area by air either to Yusekova in Turkey or to Orumieh, with onward ground transport to the Iranian camps.

To achieve this, we shall double the number of relief flights to Iran to four flights a week. The ground transport will be organised by between the Red Cross and the Iranian Red Crescent with a resident British Red Cross official working with the British embassy in Tehran to ensure co-ordination of supplies and personnel in this massive effort. We were advised by the Iranian Red Crescent that it needs many more trucks, and this is being examined urgently. We shall purchase food locally wherever possible, as we are already doing in Turkey through the local Red Crescent.

To meet the health needs, I have agreed with the British Red Cross to co-ordinate with Save the Children Fund to set up camp health centres in west Azerbaijan, where we know there is a very great need. We will start immediately with one centre for up to 150,000 refugees with satellite units. This will be managed by Save the Children Fund and will run initially for a period of three months. I expect to extend this and to establish further centres through the British Red Cross.

As a result of our visit, I can also announce today an initial contribution of £2 million from the £20 million pledged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the ICRC's excellent programme to help refugees in Iran. In addition to the £12 million we have already committed to the European Community for its assistance to non-governmental organisations, and the EC's own contributions to the ICRC and UN appeals. I will be considering further contributions to the UN appeals. We need to know the UN agencies' plans in order to judge how best we can help. I hope this will be soon. There will be further help to British NGOs as plans firm up and are agreed. I shall be seeing the United Nations secretary-general tomorrow morning, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) will be meeting Prince Sadruddin Khan in Geneva tomorrow.

In Turkey we are continuing the airlift of relief supplies from this country and the airdrops to the refugees by RAF Hercules aircraft and Chinook helicopters. Meanwhile, urgent action is being taken to establish protected refugee camps in northern Iraq near Zakhu and to persuade the refugees to come down from the mountains as quickly as possible. The United Nations involvement in taking over responsibility for these camps is crucial, as is our overall objective of getting the refugees to return to their homes in peace and security. As I said earlier, the plan is unfolding hour by hour. There are regular meetings with British Red Cross and other agencies, with colleagues in Government and links with our European partners, the United States military and the international agencies. I am most grateful to Michael Whitlam of the British Red Cross, and to all the agencies and to our troops working in Turkey, for the excellent work they are doing.

The message I want to leave with the House this afternoon is that, following our visit, we are stepping up our relief operations to respond to the urgent needs in Iran through our own NGOs and the international agencies. We shall continue our operations on the Turkish border as we establish the protected refugee centres under Operation Haven inside Iraq.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I am pleased to see the Minister back in the House after what I know was an arduous, difficult and distressing journey. She has now seen for herself the appalling conditions in which the Kurdish refugees are living. I welcome the additional assistance that she has announced today. I understand—perhaps she will confirm this—that on the Piranshahr crossing, where more than 1 million people have crossed the border from Iraq to Iran, the situation is even worse than it was when I saw it nine days ago. Is the Minister aware that some of those people have been on top of the same mountain for three weeks? Can she give the House the numbers of refugees on each side of the borders with Turkey and Iran?

The Minister referred to immediate relief. Can she tell us how much aid has gone directly from the United Kingdom to the Kurdish refugees separately in Turkey and in Iraq? Can she tell us on what days and in what tonnage it was received by the Kurds? If she cannot answer that question immediately—I shall understand if she cannot—I should be glad if she would write to me. Will she tell us what contribution the European Community has made to both countries?

Does the Minister agree that, after weeks of miscalculation and poor organisation, perhaps as many as two million people who have fled their homes are dying on the bitter cold mountain slopes of Iraqi Kurdistan, still desperate to get to the borders and having to fight one another for scraps of food?

The Minister has confirmed that the Iranians have been totally overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees. Will she join me in warmly congratulating them on the tremendous efforts that they have made to deal sympathetically and humanely with the human tragedy confronting them?

I welcome the call to double deliveries to Iran. Has not Iran been forced temporarily to slow down the stream of refugees attempting to cross the border because it simply cannot handle any more? Is the right hon. Lady satisfied with the treatment of the refugees on the Turkish border? Will she confirm that the safe havens will hold only about 360,000 refugees and will not be able to take refugees from the Iranian borders?

Does the Minister recall that on 28 March, during an Adjournment debate on Iraqi Kurdistan, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) called for assistance to the Kurds and I also called for humanitarian aid? Why did the Minister say on a BBC programme two weeks ago that I must have been clairvoyant to have anticipated that need? It did not take clairvoyance to realise what was happening: we all knew. Perhaps today the Minister would like to withdraw her comment.

Will the Minister admit that the Overseas Development Administration is not structured to deal quickly and effectively with a crisis of this type; or is it simply the case that, once again, the Foreign Office has been following the United States approach, based on its cool relationship with Iran over the hostages? Does she agree that, although we must make every effort to secure the quick release of the hostages, emergency humanitarian aid for the Kurdish refugees must not be affected by any other consideration?

Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether it is true that the Treasury has refused the ODA extra money to pay for the emergency effort? Surely the existing aid budget cannot possibly afford the £.1·5 million a week for Hercules aircraft and Chinook helicopter flights without taking money from famine relief in Africa and from vital long-term development programmes throughout the third world. Does she also agree that in this country we need the equivalent of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French medical relief agency, which was on the border of Iraq and working within days?

I make an urgent plea to the Minister. Will she urge the British Government and the United Nations to back any viable suggestions which will enable the Kurdish people to return to their own homes and country as soon as possible to live in peace and security in Iraq?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) anticipated at one stage during her long question, I shall have to write to her with some of the details. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) complains about the length of my statement. Had I not given the facts and figures, the questions would have been even longer.

The queues at Piranshahr appear to be shorter than they were when the hon. Lady was there nine days ago, but that does not mean that there are not thousands and thousands of refugees in the foothills and not on the road. I do not necessarily believe that, because the queues on the road are that much shorter, the number trying to cross the border is substantially smaller.

Immediate relief is and has been going to Iran for the Kurdish people for more than three weeks, but it is not only for Kurdish people, as I made clear in my statement. I cannot tell the hon. Lady how much has been received by the Kurdish people, because in the camps that we visited we found a mixture of groups with, as I said, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkomans as well. They were all refugees—and they were all Iraqis. The hon. Lady asked me to detail what had gone to Kurdish refugees; I cannot do that. The relief sent out more than two weeks ago by the Overseas Development Administration to Iran was received and distributed within a week, I was told, and the supplies that went out last week were being distributed as we were there on Saturday.

The European Community contributions are being made to both countries, but we have not been given details of that so far. We have despatched more than 440 tonnes of goods to Turkey and more than 160 tonnes of goods to Iran. We know that in Turkey and in northern Iraq more than 200 tonnes of our supplies have been dropped by the C130s. Aircraft. with further supplies are flying daily to the Turkish-Iraqi border, and nine helicopters have joined the airlift there.

On Iran, I have announced the further help of field health centres and more supplies flights. However, the logistics of distribution need to be worked out carefully with the Iranian Red Crescent. I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to wait a little longer for those details. The important point is to get on with getting the supplies there and to ensure that the routes to the refugees are getting supplies rather than to keep asking for endless reports, which only holds up the supply to the refugees.

It is true that, for sound reasons of health care and of anxiety about the violence in the camps, there has been a slowing of the stream of Iraqi refugees across the border into Iran. The treatment that we saw in the early days on the Turkish border has improved, and people are now working better together than they were two weeks ago.

The safe havens will be able to accommodate more than 360,000 people provided that they succeed and that the Iraqi troops continue to leave the safe havens in peace so that people can gradually begin the return. It is intended not that people should remain in the safe havens, but that they should pass through them and go back to their own towns down routes supervised by the United Nations.

I am well aware that many people believed that there would be a substantial refugee flood across the borders, but even the Governments of Iran and of Turkey never envisaged, even on 28 March, the size of that flow of refugees.

The hon. Lady asked me whether my Department was structured to deal with such crises. We have never before had to deal with 29 million people at risk of starvation in Africa and at the same time a refugee crisis in Iran and in Turkey. We have increased the staff in the relevant departments, and we will send people to help to cope with the immediate needs both in Tehran and in Ankara. My own head of population is the co-ordinator to the whole relief project in Turkey and in Iran, and will be able to travel freely between the two countries to do what is necessary to ensure that the co-ordination is as good as it can be.

We cannot achieve any of that as a single donor or even as European community donors. I am concerned about the lack of speed of the United Nations in dealing with the problems. That is why, 10 days ago, I spoke to the Secretary-General, and I will be with him tomorrow morning to take the matter further. As I said, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will talk with Prince Sadruddin Khan. We believe that we will be able to do more as the days unfold.

However, what I have announced today is a response to the most urgent need—the need for health care and for continuing supplies. I am grateful both to the Turkish Government and to the Iranian Government for the welcome that they gave our offer and for their helpfulness in trying to make it happen on the ground, where it matters to the refugees.

Several Hon. Members:

rose——

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I am aware of the importance of the statement, but today is a private Members' day. I ask hon. Members to put single questions and not to go on to give us the benefit of their views.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her impressive and constructive initiative to relieve the appalling misery of the Kurds, following upon the dynamic leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in setting up the safe havens. Does she agree that the condition of the Shi'ites in the south is a cause for massive concern about their safety? Will she make it clear to Saddam Hussein that military force will be used to stop him further oppressing the Shi'ites in the south and that such use will be entirely consistent with the United Nations resolution?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I hope that the memorandum of understanding signed by the Government of Iraq with the United Nations will mean that the refugees—the Shi'ites in the south and many others in the north—will have their safety protected. If it is insufficient, further action will be taken, as I told my hon. and learned Friend in the Select Committee evidence session last week. The International Committees of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are working in the south. We believe that the French will be doing more in that area. Although we imagine that at present there are only 50,000 Shi'ite refugees, they certainly need protection and help, as do all the other Iraqi refugees.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

Does the right hon. Lady recall that last week she made a point about the release of the western hostages? Is it not strange that this afternoon she has made no reference to that matter? Is she aware that, until pressure can be brought on Israel to release the hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in the appalling conditions of the prison camp at Khiam, and until Sheik Obeid is released, after his criminal abduction by Israeli forces, there can be no progress on the question of the release of western hostages? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Have some sense about why not. What pressure can be brought on Israel to make her conform to standards of international conduct in such matters?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

On the fifth anniversary of the taking of John McCarthy as a hostage, I was asked what I could do. I said that I would do my best. I told Dr. Velayati that the purpose of my visit was to assess what further help we could give in providing humanitarian relief to Iraqi refugees in Iran. My statement this afternoon has been on the subject of the Iraqi refugees. Separately from discussing Iraqi refugee help, I asked the Government of Iran on humanitarian grounds to use their influence to secure the release of the hostages. I explained that, if they were released, it would be possible to transform our bilateral relationship.

Dr. Velayati said that the taking and holding of hostages was against the policy of the Iranian Government, and that they had made efforts to secure the release of the hostages and would continue to do so. I told Dr. Velayati that we, too, were opposed to the taking and holding of hostages by anyone. I said that we had made that clear to the Israelis many times and that we would continue to do so. We had a good discussion on the subject.

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

I congratulate the Government on the speed with which they have responded to the tragedy. My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the problem of polluted water. What is the international relief community doing to ensure that types of food which could make a tragic situation infinitely worse are not sent to these areas? I am thinking in particular of the difficulty that could arise with dried milk powder. If one adds polluted water to it, one provides a culture which simply allows the disease organisms to multiply. That could make the tragedy infinitely worse and more awful.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I must tell my right hon. Friend that we have indeed been discussing with the agencies how to get a supply of water by water piping. We shall be supporting a project, which Oxfam is carrying out with the help of Army engineers, to bring water to camps which have no supply. Some camps, particularly in west Azerbaijan, have water supplies, but the water is not pure. That is why 3 million water purification tablets went in the hold of our plane last week. We are also providing advice to the camps about water testing, so that it is known which camps must use which purification methods. That will be done through the field health centres. I appreciate the importance of milk powder being mixed with pure water for baby milk, and that message will also be delivered clearly and consistently.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon , Halifax

Will the Minister answer the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) about the treatment of refugees by Turkish soldiers on the Turkish side of the border, where there have been killings? Given the Turks' inhumane treatment of the Kurds, what representations did she make on their behalf?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I certainly made it clear to those in the Turkish Government and others to whom I spoke that inhumane treatment of refugees of any race achieves nothing. In the early days, there was action which should never have taken place. I believe that the position has improved; I was certainly told that it had by those running the camps. Given the sheer fear and everything else that was wrong in the earliest days when people were teeming over the mountains, it is hardly surprising that things went wrong. What is important is that the Turkish Government are trying to put matters right and, I believe, are succeeding.

Photo of Mr Mark Wolfson Mr Mark Wolfson , Sevenoaks

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good standing of the United Nations as an effective force is once again on the line? Will she confirm that not only the British Government but this House and the British people look to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to take the swiftest possible action both to ensure that aid continues under its agency and to secure the future of the safe haven plan in Iraq?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend, as I had some difficulty in getting certain people in the United Nations to understand the urgency. I exclude from that comment some local people in places such as Tehran and Ankara, who are sincerely trying to help. Many people who for various reasons cannot do relief work in other countries, such as the Sudan, are coming into the area and switching their personal efforts to work in Turkey and Iran. The operation will not succeed until the United Nations organises the whole matter centrally and, indeed, gives a swift reply, which sadly to date we have not had.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West

In view of the demand that Iraqi troops withdraw from the safe havens and of reports that Saddam Hussein is simply replacing military personnel with police personnel in some refugee areas, can the Minister assure us that that will not stop emergency relief getting through to the people who require it?

Photo of Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does my right hon. Friend accept that people such as Terry Waite and John McCarthy are small in number but great in the injustice from which they have suffered for some five years? The fact that the Iranian Government now ask us for aid, having turned it down on other occasions when it suited them, should give us a proper opportunity to say that humanity may suffer, but we are not prepared to let those people suffer such grave injustices and may not help unless the Iranian Government are willing to help free those people who have suffered unnecessarily and unjustly. The Kurds are suffering in great numbers, but all justice involves single people, and single people who have done no harm are suffering a cruel, unjust fate thanks to the Iranians.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I repeat that the help provided for Iraqi refugees has no bearing on the hostage situation. Some newspapers have linked the two issues. We are giving aid to the Iraqi refugees for humanitarian reasons. Many Iranian families are sharing their homes, their goods, their possessions, their food and their shelter with Iraqi refugees. The Iranian Government have not asked for help for themselves; they have asked that those people who have come to their country for shelter should be assisted. That is what the international community is doing and must continue to do.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood

The emergency aid is very important, but the real answer, as the Minister said, is for people to be able to go back to their homes. Will she tell us more about the Government's thinking? Safe havens, yes, but we do not know what the answer is for Shi'ites in the south. How will the refugees be protected when they go home? Will UN military forces be deployed? I see no other option. Is that the Government's thinking?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

It is fair to say that the eventual solution, especially in the Shi'ite south, has yet to be worked out. The UN forces are coming up from Baghdad and hope to establish corridors down which the Iraqi refugees may pass on their way back to their homes. That is being worked out, and we do not yet have the answers from the United Nations.

In the meantime, it is critical to get the Iraqi refugees down from the mountains, or they will freeze to death. It is extremely difficult to distribute the relief supplies. I was in the back of an RAF helicopter and was roped in to push out supplies. We did not use the flight simply to observe; we delivered on every flight we made. It is dangerous work, but it must be done, and we will do it. However, it is only a temporary solution and we must get people down from the mountains. Safe havens will achieve that in the first instance, but further developments must follow, and we are working hard on those.

Photo of Mr Anthony Nelson Mr Anthony Nelson , Chichester

May I ask my right hon. Friend what many people want to know? Why is the United Nations dragging its heels over accepting responsibility for the protection of the Kurdish refugee camps? Has not a great opportunity been lost? Whatever happened to the new world order? Will my right hon. Friend use less than diplomatic language to bring home this point to the Secretary-General tomorrow?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I assure my hon. Friend that, when necessary, I can use extremely strong language. I shall do so to get the results that we all want. The United Nations should be fully prepared to take on its humanitarian responsibilities. Local United Nations representatives are trying hard. It is at the centre and the top that we must get things sorted out.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We have now had four statements on this issue in the past eight days. Is it not apparent that it is a lot easier to kill people in war than it is to feed them by the humanitarian means now being used? The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) spoke about the new world order. We were promised that, when the clean, clinical war was ended, there would be a new world order, but all we can see is a winding trail of human misery on the mountains of Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Those of us who opposed the bombing of the Kurds are now more than ever justified in pointing out that before people, in the coalition or otherwise, talk about war in the middle east or anywhere else, they should remember that it is easy to talk about it, easy to execute, but very difficult to end.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should have left Saddam Hussein and Iraqi troops in Kuwait. The allied forces followed Security Council resolution 678 to the letter. Although the House does not wish Saddam Hussein to continue in office for one moment more, the matter must be sorted out by the Iraqi people. Until then, we must see how much help the international community can give to protect the Iraqi people.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

Will my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) accept the thanks of the House for their visits, which have helped to maintain world interest in this tragedy at a time when the attention span of the international media is remarkably short? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should look to those countries that have felt unable, once again, to back Britain and America in sending military resources to help sort out the problems to provide greater financial resources in the humanitarian effort?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those countries that find, for whatever reason, that they cannot support our efforts in establishing safe havens in Turkey, Iran or Iraq, can contribute to relief by donating money. No nation can stand aside while this international tragedy continues. I hope that there will be a proper response to the United Nations' appeals, but I remind the House that that a proper response will come only when countries know what the United Nations intends to do with the money that it collects.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells , Hertford and Stortford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scale of the effort on behalf of the refugees is huge because, once safe havens have saved the refugees' lives, we shall have to help them to return to the places from which they came? The natural supply routes to the Kurdish areas lie through Baghdad and up the Tigris and the Euphrates valleys. Therefore, we must insist, through the United Nations, that Baghdad permits the transport of food and supplies and the restoration of towns and villages to their rightful owners—the refugees. Will she explain that problem carefully to the Secretary-General and ensure that such provision is made?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I shall do my best to explain why the United Nations must play a much more active role right away. However, a tremendous amount can be done in the interim to give the immediate relief to the Iraqi refugees and I am also working on that to ensure that it happens. I believe that the solution to the Iraqi refugees' problems against Saddam Hussein will take a long time to reach finality. In the meantime, there is much work to be done in providing relief. In that sense, the United Nations must get its act together.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

May I take it from the Minister's helpful statement that the practical priorities lie in getting people down from the mountains and reducing the queues and that, until those problems are dealt with, the suffering will continue? However, equally important are the political priorities, including a co-ordinated European effort, an effective United Nations takeover—I am grateful for the Minister's comments because the United Nations needs that push—and a political solution that guarantees that the peace treaty will protect the rights of all minority groups in Iraq and the adjacent countries in the middle east.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

The hon. Gentleman is right. Bringing people down from the mountains and giving them a secure place is one of the first priorities. However, providing clean water, health care, food and shelter are also critical to saving lives, particularly as we bring down the most sick people first; others may remain on the mountains for days or even weeks until they can be brought down.

The hon. Gentleman is also right in saying that there is a political priority within the European Community. I believe that the European Community countries are working well together in this respect. We want an effective United Nations reaction, but it is taking a long time to get up and running. The peace treaty must encompass the long-term security of the Iraq people. Without that there will be no peace.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

When Martin Woollacott of The Guardian filed his copy to his news desk on 27 March, millions of refugees were on the move and it did not take clairvoyance to predict what would happen—it was then well established.

On a more constructive note, may I ask the question that I asked the Secretary of State for Defence the other day because what he then described as hypothetical is reality? Discussions are taking place between the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish leadership. If those discussions lead to an agreement, will a British Minister go to the United Nations to seek a resolution to underpin any agreement that the two parties draw up? That is important for the Kurdish people because, if that initiative is taken, I believe the camps will empty and the people will go back to their towns, cities and communities in Kurdistan.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's final question. We need to look carefully at that subject, because there is no doubt that we are all trying to establish peace in Iraq for the ordinary people of Iraq who have been so cruelly deceived by Saddam Hussein and his ambitions. However, there is absolutely no doubt that it is not a straightforward objective to achieve, so I ask the hon. Member to be a little patient. No stone will be left unturned to bring peace to the Iraqi people. If what he has described is the right way to proceed, we shall so proceed, but I shall not give a commitment in case something else comes into the picture. I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that.

At the end of March, we asked the Turkish Government and other Governments how many people were approaching their countries trying to come in. The figures were nothing like those reported even in The Guardian newspaper. I believe that there was some anticipation by some press that was certainly not being reported by the Governments of the area.

Photo of Mrs Edwina Currie Mrs Edwina Currie , South Derbyshire

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her strenuous efforts to help refugees in Iran and Turkey. Does she not feel that other countries should be pulling far more weight? It is not just a question of the United Nations. What has happened to the European Community money? Is it not apparent that many countries are more than happy to leave us to it? Where is everyone else?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I know that certainly one British voluntary organisation received 2 million ecu of the European Community money within 24 hours of appealing for help to carry out its relief operations. There are probably many more such incidents with which I have not had time to catch up in the few hours since I landed back in this country.

The European Community countries are seeking to give help. My anxiety has been that the help has not been sufficiently co-ordinated. That was why I met French and German diplomats, and many others, in Ankara. I shall seek to do all that I can to see that the European Community countries pull together, but I believe that Britain, having given help relatively early, can pass on information and try to improve the overall help. We should not stop just because we are not satisfied with the actions of others.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Given the scorching summer heat that is now upon that part of the world, and its consequences for bringing the waterborne diseases,the "silent assassins" that bring hepatitis, cholera and typhoid—who is right: Prince Sadruddin Khan, who, on behalf of the United Nation's refugees, says that there have to be conditions for sanctions to be lifted, or the Attorney-General, who said during Questions Time that there was no legal impediment to bringing in the necessary provisions?

Will the Minister clear up whether Mr. Salinger is right in suggesting that it was the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) who talked the Americans into all this? That is what he said to Mr. David Frost. Was he right?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I often see videos and television programmes that make me wonder where the information put across on them came from. The hon. Gentleman's final question falls into that category.

Nobody is unaware of the danger of waterborne diseases, although the areas in the northern provinces in which most of the refugees are now gathered are not as hot as the hon. Gentleman suggested. It is because of the dangers from waterborne diseases that one of the main objectives of the first camp field centre, with its satellites, that we are setting up will be to sort out the public health needs of the camps in west Azerbaijan, as well as mother and child health. We are giving special attention to that serious matter.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the success of her mission. Does she agree that the fate of the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south has underlined how fatal it would have been to appease Saddam Hussein? Will she assure us that the Government will seek to block his attempt to sell £2 billion worth of oil on the world market so long as he practises butchery in Baghdad and in northern and southern Iraq?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

We regard Saddam Hussein's appeal as totally unacceptable. The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is yes.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

May I tell the Minister, for what it is worth, that I am in complete agreement with her observation that the protected refugee camps ought to be administered by United Nations personnel as soon as possible? The terrible problems created by the war require decisive intervention by the United Nations. As yet there has been none.

What discussions have taken place in the security council on the urgent provision of supplies and the restoration of essential services to other areas of Iraq?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

To the best of my knowledge, the Security Council has not discussed those matters in such detail. The British ambassador and the representatives of other European Community countries have discussed the question, but the Security Council has not. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his other comments.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I welcome what the British Government are doing. I should like the Minister to spell out in more detail what contribution some of the rich Arab oil sheikdoms and the Japanese are making to providing humanitarian relief. What may happen if the United Nations is not prepared to police the safe havens? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the British Government might have to dig themselves in for a long haul? Saddam Hussein will bide his time until the protection for the Kurds is removed, before finishing off the job that he started some time ago. Will the British Government give an undertaking to maintain a military presence until the safety of the Kurds is assured?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

Japan has sent money for supplies. I believe that it may have been used for local purchase in Turkey, but I do not yet know how much it was. I shall try to find out what each country is doing, because co-ordination of information, among other things, has been desperately lacking in the past three and a half weeks. We seek to act on a bilateral basis with other donors, but in the rapidly changing situation we cannot know at all stages what each country has done. I hope in due time to be able to give the information to the House.

The position of the United Nations is worrying, but I believe that it fully intends to fulfil its responsibilities. The question is, how soon? We envisage needing to stay in the area for several months rather than weeks, but we shall do all that we can to ensure that United Nations personnel will be present to look after the refugees. The United Nations disaster relief organisation and the High Commissioner for Refugees exist to do just that.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

The Minister will be aware that many hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of much-needed materials have been collected by voluntary organisations to send to the Kurds. Does she know how much of this material has gone overseas, how much is in storage, and how much will go next week? Is some of the material included in the figures which she has given the House?

Is there not a great problem about the capacity of RAF aircraft and aircraft that we are hiring? Should we riot be seeking to hire aircraft such as American C5 Galaxies, which can carry 125 tonnes? Presumably such aircraft could land readily at Iranian airports, bearing in mind that Iran Air operates Boeing 747s, which can carry 100 tonnes of material. Such aircraft are coming to the United Kingdom to collect material.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

Huge quantities of relief supplies from quite small voluntary organisations and from more major organisations, such as the Save the Children Fund, the British Red Cross and Oxfam, have gone with our initial airlifts. We shall continue to operate our airlifts, and tonight we are flying out for Oxfam water equipment and vehicles for the water project that is being participated in by the Army in Turkey. That is one example among many of what is taking place. We have agreed already to help British Aid for the Kurds—a new organisation—in just that way, and we shall continue to provide that assistance.

We seem to have adequate capacity with our cargo planes, some of which will be flying to airports that are not served by Iran Air and therefore may not have the capacity to take a Galaxy or a 747. Provided that they can take 707s, we can get supplies in quickly and efficiently.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

Is not the simple truth that the Government both underestimated the need and were far too slow to react to a problem that was evident as long ago as 27 March? Was it not only when my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) went to see the plight of the people for herself that the Minister was stirred into action?

Will the Minister admit that it was unwise to appear to link humanitarian aid to the release of the hostages? We are all, of course, fighting for their release. Will she admit that even now the aid that she has announced this afternoon is not enough? The much maligned German Government are sending five planes a day, while we are talking of only about four planes a week. The German Government have announced aid amounting to £130 million over the past few days while we have anounced aid of only a few millions today. The French Minister with responsibilities for aid visited the area and was present throughout Easter while our Minister has only recently visited it, and has only just returned.

Will the Minister join us in thanking the British people for the way in which they have volunteered—I speak of doctors and nurses—to go out and help? We thank the British people for the way in which they have given financial assistance. Will the Minister admit that if we are effectively to tackle such a huge problem we shall need just a fraction of the determination and the resources that went into fighting the Gulf war?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I am quite surprised at the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

My hon. and learned Friend seems to think that his intervention was true to form. Never mind, I remain surprised.

None of the Governments in the area had made available to us at the end of March any of the information which the hon. Gentleman claims to have known about. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) could go to the area. I know that her trip helped a great deal to bring these matters to the notice of the British people, who indeed have been generous. Nothing that the hon. Lady was doing and saying was not being told to us through other channels.

I am well aware that it is easy to appear to be competitive on these occasions. I have no intention of taking up that position. The Iraqi refugees need all the help they can get. We, the British people, will give all we can, and the Government will put in more resources. What I have said today I described as initial and immediate. We cannot deliver immediately without preparing for that delivery. That became clear to me as I worked with the experts over the past 10 days to try to make the whole system more efficient.

May I say for the umpteenth time that I have never linked the questions of aid and the hostages, although many newspapers sought to link the two. I have always said that help to the Iraqi refugees is quite separate and quite different from any of our bilateral considerations. However, I would have been severely criticised had I gone to Tehran, the first British Minister to go there for 12 years, without having mentioned it. When I was asked, "Will you mention the subject of the hostages when you go to Iran?", of course the answer had to be yes.

Let us put some common sense into the matter and understand that, together with our partners throughout the world, we shall go on giving humanitarian aid to Iraqi refugees and we shall try to make the communications and co-ordination much better. At the same time, we shall work bilaterally to seek the release of innocent hostages.