Syria (Humanitarian Response)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 4th February 2013.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 4:16 pm, 4th February 2013

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The right hon. Lady and I differ on many things, but I begin by paying tribute to her for the good and important work she has done to galvanise an international response to the grave humanitarian crisis arising from the conflict in Syria. She deserves support from both sides of the House for her efforts.

Although the international community has largely focused on the political and security aspects of the conflict, the scale of the humanitarian impact in Syria and across its borders has been enormous. As the right hon. Lady highlights, more than 700,000 people have fled unrelenting violence, 2 million Syrians are internally displaced and 4 million people are in desperate need of basic assistance.

The situation inside Syria is abysmal. One quarter of schools and one third of public hospitals are not functioning, there are shortages of bread and medicine, and critical infrastructure has been destroyed. The UN estimates that 2 million people who have fled their homes are living without the most basic services: clean water, sanitation and electricity. The harsh winter has compounded their suffering and many are living in shelters lacking adequate insulation with no winter clothes and no blankets. Even those who still have homes are suffering from the cold, unable to heat their houses owing to shortages of fuel and electricity. With the UN estimating that the number of refugees will surpass 1 million by June, no end to their suffering is in sight.

The success of the UN pledging conference in Kuwait last week will provide much needed support for the millions of Syrians affected by this growing crisis. I welcome the

Secretary of State’s announcement of an additional £71 million of UK aid to Syria. Will she clarify where she expects those additional resources to be focused? As she has acknowledged, aid to Syria is a question of not only funding but humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law. Donors have repeatedly raised concerns about support reaching all areas of the country. There is limited capacity and expertise in both Government-held and opposition-held areas, with the conflict’s front lines constantly shifting.

The right hon. Lady has said that we must ensure that co-ordinated aid reaches people across Syria, including agreed cross-line and cross-border work. Will she elaborate on how the Government are assisting NGOs and UN agencies to provide humanitarian access in the area? Is she suggesting that the UK would be open to funding projects outside the UN’s direct response plans?

Questions are also being asked about a strategic response to refugees. As the right hon. Lady has acknowledged, thousands of Syrians are arriving in neighbouring countries every day, yet the humanitarian system does not have the capacity to keep up with the growing demands on registration, co-ordination or shelter. The UN estimates that only 20% of Syrian refugees are in camps. What steps is the Department taking to develop a strategic plan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that ensures that the needs of all refugees are being met?

The conflict has taken a brutal toll on Syrians, more than 60,000 of whom have been killed. Those who have fled report stories of ongoing violence and human rights violations, including sexual abuse, arbitrary detention and indiscriminate shelling. A report by the International Rescue Committee identifies rape and sexual violence as primary factors in the decision of many Syrians to flee. Given that disturbing revelation, will the Secretary of State assure the House that UK aid will focus on the protection of women against sexual violence? Crucially, the humanitarian crisis will not be resolved until the conflict in Syria is resolved, and we must continue to push for a ceasefire.

On international efforts to bring about negotiations to stop the fighting, what assessment have the Government made of reports that the head of the major opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is willing to talk to Government representatives? Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress the Government have made in encouraging the Syrian national coalition to accept the Geneva plan as the basis for transition? What were the objectives and impact of the reported recent Israeli air strikes in Syria?

The brutality of the Assad regime is clear for all to see, but as we seek change in Syria through a ceasefire and political process, it is essential that we do not forget the here and now suffering of the Syrian people. That is why I welcome today’s statement, and I hope that the Secretary of State will keep the House informed of developments on a regular basis.