Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 5:27 pm on 3rd July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale 5:27 pm, 3rd July 1991

I may have misheard you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but that day has not yet arrived, so I fear that you have addressed me wrongly.

Six weeks ago, I visited Iran as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, with a number of my colleagues —my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), and the hon. Members for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh). We were able to see for ourselves some of the refugee camps, and we visited two of the Kurdish camps in north-west Iran—near Orumiyeh—and one Shi'ite camp in the south close to the ancient city of Shush.

I warmly support the Government's reaction to the Iraqi refugee crisis of recent months. I strongly support the Prime Minister's initiative on safe havens, and strongly welcome the recent assurances that coalition troops will not be withdrawn while a risk remains, especially in the north of Iraq.

The Iranian authorities at the camps warmly supported the United Kingdom's efforts to bring relief to the unfortunate people in the camps. The authorities greatly welcomed the fact that Britain was the third largest donor of assistance. I have no reason to suppose that we are not still the third largest. That aid greatly relieved the agony of the Kurdish and Shi'ite people.

My impression of the three camps was that things were going reasonably well. The Iranians seemed to be dealing adequately with the massive crisis which confronted them. I did not see obvious signs of starvation or disease. Conditions were primitive, but people seemed to have enough food and we were assured that the refugees in the camps had been vaccinated against the diseases which were thought to present the main dangers.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) spoke about the accommodation. Most people in the camps are housed in tents, and some are housed in disused buildings, some of which had been damaged in the Iran-Iraq war. We shall soon have to think about what will happen to the people in those camps during the winter. One rather good sign from the refugees to whom we spoke was that they were beginning to question the facilities. That showed that the first crisis was over. They rightly complained about the quality of the water and said that the clothes sent by the relief agencies were second-hand. They viewed that as insulting. They also complained about the quality of some of their food, especially the high-protein biscuits. However good those biscuits might have been for them, they did not like their taste.

At one of the camps, we were delighted to see that the Austrian military had set up what appeared to be an efficient tented hospital. Three of my colleagues on that delegation are in their places, and I am sure that they will agree that, as British people, we were received with much enthusiasm in those refugee camps. Perhaps that was because Britain had played a major part in throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. We asked them when they expected to go home to Iraq. The unanimous response from Kurds and Shi'ites alike was that under no circumstances would they return to their homes and villages until Saddam Hussein had been deposed. There was universal distrust and loathing for that man. As long as Saddam Hussein reigns in Iraq, the refugee problem will continue. If he launches an attack on the Shi'ites in the south, up to 800,000 more refugees could make a dash for the border.

If winter arrives before the refugees are prepared to return to their homes there will be another serious crisis. Urgent action is needed to prepare for winter, because there are many signs that at that time Saddam Hussein may still be in control in Baghdad. I hope that steps are being taken to prepare those camps for a dreadful winter, because people cannot face such weather in tents. Because of the shortage of time, we did not visit refugee camps in Turkey.

I think that all members of the group share my concern about the way in which such crises are handled. I came away with much admiration for the way in which the people employed by the aid agencies do their best with facilities that are to hand. They often receive a rush of emergency aid from well-wishers all over the world who want to make a contribution regardless of the quality or the need for the equipment and facilities that they send. That presents a serious problem.

In the face of emergencies, all developed countries ship out the nearest materials, whether they are needed or not. Aid administrators in Teheran told us that, to assuage public opinion, well-wishing developed nations tend to send unsuitable, unnecessary and unwanted equipment and manpower. We saw examples of that in Iraq.

We were told about a country which had sent military units, I think that it was two sapper units, to build facilities for the refugees. There had not been proper agreement about bringing those troops into Iran, and they sat in buses for two days before being allowed to leave the airport. We were told of a German helicopter fleet which had been reduced by half, I think by 10, by the time we arrived because there was nothing for it to do.

Those are examples of a lack of co-ordination. The primary need in the three camps that we visited was for specific drugs which were in extremely short supply. We asked for a list which was subsequently passed to our chargé d'affaires in Teheran. I understand that action was taken on that list. There are few ways of going through the necessary motions in the face of a crisis, such as the one faced by the Kurdish and Shi'ite refugees. The first need is to find out properly and accurately what is needed. The second need is to get agreement from the country concerned that it should be brought in, and where and when it should be brought in; the third is for the aid agencies to find whatever it is; and the fourth is to get it delivered into the country where it is needed.

Having got agreement from the country concerned, the aid agencies are expert in discovering where they can get hold of what is required and in shipping it in as quickly as possible. The Committee's report makes suggestions about this which I hope that the Government will note. I also hope that the Minister will treat this as a serious and urgent matter. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to it.

The technique of getting the necessary and required aid into a country in which a crisis has occurred as speedily as possible is all very well in a country such as Iran, where there is an efficient administration that knows what it wants and can find out what it is likely to want. It is a totally different matter in a country such as Mozambique, which a number of us visited in the latter part of last year. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was with me on that visit, when we went to the north of the country, to the area controlled by that dreadful guerrilla organisation, RENAMO.

In that part of Mozambique, there is no administration, but there is abject poverty. We met refugees coming into the towns and villages who were cowed, hungry and impoverished people, dressed only in the bark of trees. I have never before seen such heart-searing examples of poverty. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) here, and he was with us on that occasion. It was a most dreadful experience. Those people were sustained by the good will of the world community, especially the United Nations and other international organisations.

Here we come to the basic problem, which is mentioned in the report. What should the world community do in such cases? To what extent is it permissible to move into a country without the full support of its Government, however inefficient or non-existent it might be? That is a relatively simple problem in Mozambique, but it does not take much imagination for my colleagues to realise that one could easily have a situation half way between that of Mozambique and that of Iraq. Dreadfully difficult decisions would have to be made and questions would have to be asked about the extent to which we could break article 2·7 of the United Nations charter, which says that it must not intervene in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned this factor.

We have to think these problems through carefully, but we must think them through and find a better way to get emergency aid to people who need it, if possible without stepping over that most important line of domestic jurisdiction.