Syrian Refugees

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 29th January 2014.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Home Secretary 12:42 pm, 29th January 2014

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement today. We have long had cross-party agreement about humanitarian aid for those suffering in the region as a result of the dreadful conflict and crisis in Syria. I believe that now we can come together with cross-party support for helping the most vulnerable civilian refugees, too.

Compassion and common sense have prevailed over the Government’s resistance last week. Britain is rightly providing help and assistance to the majority of refugees that have claimed sanctuary in the neighbouring countries—Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—and is rightly leading international efforts, but the Opposition and many others have argued for some time that a minority of refugees are too vulnerable to cope or survive in the camps: the abandoned children, torture victims, women who have been abused and those who need medical help.

We have all heard the heartrending stories of children burnt by chemicals, families torn apart, fathers executed and mothers raped, so when the UN asked us and other countries across the world to provide sanctuary to the most vulnerable refugees and 18 other countries stepped forward to help it was simply wrong of Britain to refuse. It is a tribute to the support of Members from all parties in this House, to the charities that have campaigned on the subject and to the UN that the Home Secretary has bowed to the pressure before the Opposition day debate this afternoon. It is a reversal of her position last week, but she is right to have listened and I am glad that she has done so.

I particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to helping the survivors of torture and violence, women and children at risk and those who have suffered sexual violence. Let me now ask the Home Secretary a series of questions about her announcement today. First, I welcome her announcement that these places will be in addition to the places provided by the UN to the existing UN gateway and mandate programmes. Countries such as France, Finland and Austria have each agreed to take about 500 refugees, and the Netherlands 250. The right hon. Lady has not set a specific figure, but can she confirm that she expects Britain to provide similar levels of sanctuary?

Secondly, can the Home Secretary confirm that the refugees to whom Britain offers sanctuary will also have access to specialist help and support—for example, working with many of the excellent charities that help those who have suffered great trauma and abuse?

The right hon. Lady says that much of the programme will in fact be delivered by the UNHCR, and she will know that all the things she says she wants to do—the three principles she set out—are possible within the UN Syria programme. Some countries within it have set specific figures; some, such as the US, have not set what she would call a quota, but are still operating within the UN programme. So my third question is: is what she has announced effectively the UN programme, but with a different name?

Fourthly, will the Home Secretary agree to look again at her net migration target? I am sure she agrees with me that there is a world of difference between immigration policy and border control on the one hand, and giving sanctuary to those fleeing persecution on the other. Refugees are included in her net migration target; does she agree that they should no longer be?

I believe that there is now cross-party agreement in support of helping the vulnerable refugees whose lives have been wrecked by the Syrian conflict, and I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement today. Britain has a long history of helping those who are fleeing terror and persecution. We should stand together in this House and support that tradition now.