Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 6:36 pm on 3rd July 1991.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West 6:36 pm, 3rd July 1991

I was also a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs which visited the refugee camps on the Iran-lraq border about six weeks ago. We had the opportunity to talk to Kurdish refugees from the north and to Shi'ite refugees from the south of Iraq who had been forced to flee from the forces of Saddam Hussein.

Despite what the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said about evidence of inefficiency—and I agree with at least some of what he said—I pay tribute to all the organisations over there— governmental and non-governmental—that are doing their very best to deal with difficult circumstances. I pay a special tribute to the Iranian Government and to the Iranian Red Crescent, because it is largely due to their efforts that what we observed was not nearly as bad as I had feared before I went.

I have visited refugee camps in other parts of the world with the Select Committee. For example, a few days ago I visited refugee camps on the Sudan-Ethiopia border where the smell of death permeated the atmosphere and where sick, starving and dying children were everywhere to be seen. By contrast, the children whom we saw in the camps in west Azerbaijan and Khuzestan looked, for the most part, healthy and in very good spirits. However, I do not want to underrate the horrific experience that those children and their parents must have undergone. It must have been an ordeal for them, first, to literally run for their lives from the killing machine of Saddam Hussein and then to be faced with the threat of death from starvation on freezing mountain tops.

When we visited the camps in late May the worst seemed to be over, at least for the time being. I emphasise the latter phrase. The reason why the worst seemed to he over at least for the time being was that the various aid agencies appeared to be getting to grips with the basic needs of the refugees. However, there is no room for complacency—there is much more to be done, bearing in mind that there are about 2·5 million refugees or displaced persons in that part of the world. Winter is approaching and, looking further ahead, we cannot and must not expect those people to live in refugee camps for ever. We must step up our efforts to find a permanent long-term solution, including a political settlement. That means trying our best to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the internal problems which still exist in Iraq and it also means going some way to meeting the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people for a degree of self-determination or autonomy.

The Kurds were suffering atrocities at the hands of Saddam Hussein long before he invaded Kuwait and the Gulf war has, arguably, made things worse instead of better for them. We therefore have a duty to do everything possible to help them in their immediate plight and in the longer term.

I want to comment on the British contribution to the crisis. By 1 May this year, the Overseas Development Administration had committed a total of £61·5 million, but it is important to point out to the House that only £30 million of that is new money from the Treasury's central reserve. In other words, more than half that money comes from the existing, over-stretched ODA budget. If we take the new money—£30 million—and divide it by the 2·5 million people involved, it works out at the princely sum of £12 a head. It is not a huge amount when considered in those terms.

It is also worth considering that the ODA was charged by the Ministry of Defence for much of the relief operation carried out by the armed forces. I hope that the Minister will reply in his summing up to the Select Committee recommendation that there should be a new arrangement between the ODA and the Ministry of Defence. I should prefer there to be no transfer payment from the aid budget to the defence budget, but if there is, it should take into account the training element for the armed forces in the refugee operations. That is an explicit recommendation in the Select Committee report.

According to the Government, the Gulf war cost them £2·5 billion. That is probably an underestimate, but the truth will come out at the end of the day. The total ODA commitment of £61·5 million to help Iraqi refugees alone is the equivalent of three Tornado aircraft. Perhaps that brings the matter into perspective. Why are the Government's spending priorities such that they spend so much on a destructive war that cost more than 100,000 lives and yet spend relatively little on trying to help the refugees who are the victims of the aftermath of that war?

I hope that, as a result of this debate, more priority will be given to helping not just Iraqi refugees, but the many others throughout the world who find themselves the innocent victims of disaster, whether it be famine, flood, earthquake or the ravages of war. For the sake of humanity, we owe help to those people, especially if we have been partly responsible for precipitating the action and thereby partly responsible for causing the desperate situation in which they find themselves.