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 Justine Greening Justine Greening The Secretary of State for International Development 4:16 pm, 4th February 2013

I very much appreciate the way in which the shadow Secretary of State approached his response. There was a huge effort across the international community to make sure that the donor conference was a success, and the UK certainly did as much as it could to try to make sure that that was the case. The hon. Gentleman asked how the funds would be spent. The £50 million that we donated at the conference will sit alongside the UN co-ordinated response to the humanitarian crisis. Of the requested $1.5 billion, about $1 billion goes to helping refugees outside Syria, and about £0.5 billion of that is planned to help people still suffering inside Syria. In relation to how we can make sure that we reach the many parts of Syria that are difficult to get to, we have to take the opportunities, and we work through humanitarian partners all the time. They are neutral and impartial but never the less have the ability to go into parts of Syria that are often contested. Some of them are Government-controlled, some opposition-controlled, but others are still contested, and as I said in my statement, they are dangerous places. We therefore support those humanitarian agencies. When I talk to the people who head up the World Food Programme, for example, they are clear that they have to take opportunities when they arise. They often find a contact whom they believe is trustworthy, and through them can gain access to a new area, and they will take that opportunity. They have to be prepared to act very quickly and flexibly. We support them in doing so, and the main concern for them in recent weeks has been funding, which is why the donor conference was so important.

As for what the UK has done directly in Syria, we have provided medical support. We have trained—I think I am right in saying—250 health workers, and we have helped open about 130 mobile medical units that provide care. We are also providing food and shelter wherever we can. The UN Security Council has called for the Syrian authorities to provide full, immediate and unimpeded access to all areas of Syria so that humanitarian support can get through. That is absolutely vital, and we urge the opposition forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian actors. It is critical, if we are to be able to use that $1.5 billion effectively, that we make sure that we have the routes to get through to the people who need our support.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the strategic response, and he is quite right to flag up the fact that this humanitarian crisis is perhaps different from many others with which the Department deals. Often we are dealing with a natural disaster, and people act to tackle the aftermath. This is a humanitarian crisis that has unfolded over many months and seems likely to continue to unfold over a prolonged period. It may be that we have not seen the worst of the humanitarian crisis in relation to Syria, which is why it is vital that Assad goes, and goes now, so that the work to rebuild Syria can begin.

We are talking with the UNHCR and other humanitarian bodies about how we can make sure that we are set up to deal with a crisis that could become significantly worse in the coming months if the violence continues. As I said in my statement, there are 2 million internally displaced people within Syria. Many of the refugees with whom I spoke a couple of weekends ago had tried their best to stay in Syria. They had moved from Homs to a different place, to a different place again and so on, but were finally left with no choice but to leave Syria. If just a fraction of the 2 million internally displaced people end up having to leave Syria and become refugees, we will see a dramatic increase in the humanitarian problems outside Syria. That is why the donor conference was so important.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at how we can make sure that we are positioned to take care of those people. For neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, the strain and the pressure put on them are immense. We should always bear that in mind when we are looking at the support that we provide. As he rightly pointed out, most of the refugees in Jordan, for example, are not in camps but in host communities. When I was in Jordan I was told that the local education system has had to absorb 22,000 children who arrived with refugee families. There are significant challenges ahead, which is why we need to continue to keep international attention focused on a very grave humanitarian situation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about women and girls, and he is right to do so. We have been particularly concerned to make sure that we have supported children. One in five of the people turning up at the Za’atari refugee camp that I visited was a child aged four or under. Nearly 60% of the refugees who have turned up at that camp were 30 or under. Alongside others, we are providing clinical care and counselling to women and we are helping to provide education to children. We are also providing specific support to about 1,800 women we believe are at risk of possibly being coerced into marriage. We are therefore providing support to them to ensure, wherever possible, that that does not happen. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is raising on the international stage the broader issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict, and it will be one of the subjects that we try to push internationally at the G8.

The hon. Gentleman asked about coalition talks. There is a general recognition in the international community that the solution in Syria is a political one, which will involve talks, including between the coalition and the Government. It is clear from talking with the coalition that any future transitional Government must be one that has no Assad as part of it. I therefore come back to my earlier comments that for things to move forward, it is time for Assad to go so that the rebuilding of Syria can start.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Israeli air strikes. It is too early to speculate on exactly what happened, but we can see that ensuring stability in that region is critical. It is why the donor conference was so important, so that in the short term we have the funding in place at least to deal with the humanitarian crisis. More broadly, we need stability in the Syrian region. That will mean a political solution to the challenges and to the civil war that is under way in Syria.