Iraqi Refugees

Part of Constitutional Reform – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 3rd July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire 7:03 pm, 3rd July 1991

I welcome the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, although I thought that some Conservative Members who spoke in its favour showed considerable complacency, especially about the role of the Overseas Development Administration.

On 1 April or thereabouts, we saw on our television screens the desperate situation facing the Kurds, yet even by the end of April very little had been done despite the considerable public response and their desire to assist.

Throughout April, masses of Kurds starved, froze and died. It was evident that a huge airlift of aid should have been the first priority. The policy of safe havens made sense only if those to be defended could also survive the elements. Organisations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and the Save The Children Fund did valiant work, given the limits of their resources, and the disaster unit of the ODA, starved of adequate funding and full logistical back up, worked beyond the call of duty.

Why did not the Cabinet provide the resources needed for Britain to set in motion an equivalent to the Berlin airlift? For weeks, people throughout the country had been collecting blankets, groundsheets, medicines, clothing and so on. The medical goods were sent on the basis of information supplied by the Iranian embassy about the materials required. The public will be aghast to discover that much of the material was not dispatched until more than a month later.

It is not true that the ODA sent massive assistance to Iran. To 28 April, only four 707s, carrying about 35 tonnes each, went to Iran. That is disgraceful. Later, there was a build-up in the number of aircraft sent, so it looked as though a reasonable number of them had gone, but at the time when it was needed the material was simply not being sent in in anything like the amounts that Conservative Members suggested.

Bodies emerged in Britain such as British Aid for the Kurds, which had collected huge quantities of material and had access to much-needed supplies from numerous firms. Private truckers such as Track 29 moved their goods free of charge, and Iran Air sent in high-capacity 747s to collect the supplies. The 747s can carry up to 100 tonnes, unlike the 707s used by the ODA.

With the best will in the world, and after superhuman effort, bodies such as British Aid for the Kurds were still left with masses of materials on their hands, which presented warehousing problems, while they desperately searched for more flight opportunities. All that the ODA could do was respond ad hoc, paying for the odd movement or the storage of goods. It was at Cabinet and prime ministerial level that the decision needed to be taken to overcome the logjam and to ensure that the goods were shifted more quickly than Iran Air could shift them on its own. Throughout April, Iran Air was even paying landing charges at Heathrow airport. Only later were some landing charges lifted, but only for special flights coming to Britain —even though standard Iran Air flights were taking out full loads of material.

I hope that, in producing its next report, the Foreign Affairs Committee will examine what happened in respect of the movement of goods. Bodies such as British Aid to the Kurds collected much-needed material—not the material rubbished by the ODA, referred to in the report. Those bodies did invaluable work, and the British public made a great response. Long before a concert was held to raise money, and long before others—who also did invaluable work—began to move in on the act, ordinary people throughout the country had collected valuable material.