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I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the Government’s £600 million response to the unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis;
further welcomes the UK’s leadership in the appeal for aid and supports calls for the rest of the international community to ensure the UN humanitarian appeal for Syria has the resources it needs to help those suffering from the conflict;
is concerned about the plight of the most vulnerable refugees who will find it hardest to cope in the camps in the region, including victims of torture and children in need of special assistance;
and calls on the Government to participate in the UNHCR Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission of Syrian Refugees Programme.
Much has changed since we tabled the motion a week ago, and I am glad that it has. I am glad that we had the Home Secretary’s statement today, and that she has changed her view in advance of the debate. There is now cross-party agreement on the vital issue of helping the most vulnerable refugees of all, whose lives have been wrecked in the Syrian conflict and who are struggling to cope with that trauma in the region’s refugee camps.
There has long been cross-party agreement that Britain should do its bit in supporting the region. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition joined together before Christmas to describe the “urgent humanitarian issue” that
“transcends the differences of party politics.”
They stood together to say:
“The fate of an entire generation of children hangs in the balance. We must all do everything we can to help them.”
They also urged other countries to do more. Indeed, the British Government have rightly led the way as the second biggest donor, providing development support, food for nearly 200,000 people a month across Syria and cooking and blankets for more than 300,000 people. I pay tribute to the Department for International Development for its work. The British people have also shown immense generosity, donating £20 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee Syria crisis appeal.
We know that more than 2 million refugees have fled Syria into neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, and that more than half of them are children. Those who are still trapped in Syria are suffering even greater ordeals—bitter torture, executions, rape and violations—that are leaving terrible scars on a generation. There has always been cross-party agreement that the majority of refugees should be supported in the region, which is why we need a determined peace process so that people can eventually be returned to their homes. However, that relies on the immense generosity of those four neighbouring countries, which face considerable pressure as a result of the crisis. That is why it is so important for us to show those countries our support and for nations much further afield to do what they can to help.
My right hon. Friend will have heard what the Home Secretary said in her statement. My right hon. Friend mentions the immense pressure on the countries neighbouring Syria, which are welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees. Does she recognise that there is a real fear that they could close their borders? Will she call on the Home Secretary to reconsider the issue of solidarity with the UNHCR, through which we can give them the assurances that will prevent them from closing their borders?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The UN raised with us how important it was that the countries providing the greatest support and generosity to Syria as neighbours should not feel that other countries across the world had turned their backs. That was one of the most important reasons for being part of the support for the programme. I will come later to her point about the UN programme, which is particularly important.
As I have just said, the three party leaders jointly called on countries across the world to do more on aid, and it is right that we should continue to do so. France has signed up to the UN programme to take around 500 refugees and provide assistance for the most vulnerable people in the region, which is also right. We want countries across the world to work with the UN and international organisations to provide assistance to those who are most desperate.
As the UN has made clear, some of the most vulnerable refugees are struggling to cope and survive in the camps. It told us about women who have been badly raped and abused, and who are at risk of further abuse in the camps. There are children with no one to look after them whose parents have been killed and relatives lost, and those who have been tortured and are still enduring terrible mental and physical distress. We need to provide help now for those people as a matter of our common humanity.
Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that in Turkey, for instance, the significant majority of refugees do not live in the camps? Of 700,000 thousand refugees, only 200,000 are in the camps, and children who are outside the camps are the ones not getting the education.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is also the case in Lebanon where refugees living in towns and villages now make up a sizeable proportion of the Lebanese population. Some of the vulnerable refugees that the UN has identified are within the camps, but he is right to say that there will be people in other circumstances who are also experiencing great distress. I know he will agree that many of those refugees want to return to their homes and stay in the region, but it is right that we provide additional assistance to those who are most vulnerable.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I have specifically discussed that issue with the UN. It told me that it is keen to ensure that support is provided, and it gave the example of young gay men who have suffered homophobic abuse and persecution, and who may need additional assistance. That is why it is important to include LGBT issues in our consideration of vulnerable refugees who may need additional sanctuary elsewhere and outside the region.
We should rightly provide sanctuary alongside other countries across the world. No one country can shoulder this alone, and we should work together and urge others to join us. France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the USA, Canada, Australia and many other countries are helping to provide sanctuary. That is why Britain must also do its bit and why it would have been wrong for it to turn its back.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she has done over the past couple of weeks in highlighting this issue and working with charities and organisations outside Parliament. Does she agree that the UK taking in refugees—as the Government have now stated we will—is a mark of our responsibility in the world and of our need to lead efforts and lead by example? A constituent wrote to me stating:
“I feel…very concerned at the UK’s refusal to accept displaced persons…We are shamed by the actions of other countries.”
That is a sad thing for a church in my constituency to be saying.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must not only urge other countries to do more, but do our bit and show that we stand together in humanitarian causes right across the world. We are stronger if we stand together, and it says something about who we are as a country.
I compliment my right hon. Friend on the motion she has tabled and the effect it has had. Will she return to the need for efficiency in dealing with the refugee crisis? Surely it would be desirable if the UK were part of the UNHCR process, rather than trying to set up something that appears to be separate but complementary.
My hon. Friend is right. There is a strong case for being part of that UN programme, and I will come on to that point. Indeed, it was the UN who asked us to help in the first place, and it is right that we should respond to that in the most effective way, rather than setting up parallel programmes.
Many other countries are participating. France, Austria and the Netherlands are proving sanctuary for several hundred people, which is similar to the levels of support that the Home Secretary has confirmed she expects to help. Germany and the US are taking many more refugees, but with all our countries standing together, we are not far off the 30,000 places that the UN has asked for. That is the power of countries working together. Although each country itself may offer limited support, it adds up to substantial humanitarian relief for the most desperate people in the world.
When we called for this debate seven days ago, the Government and Home Secretary held a different position on helping the refugees, and it is right that they have now changed that position. I suspect that the Immigration Minister may be glad that he is not responding to this debate, since he had to reply to the urgent question last week when his position was different. As you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a result of strong support for the UN programme from all parties—including many on the Back Benches who raised their concerns as part of that urgent question last week—the Government have changed their position.
The right hon. Lady mentions countries working together, and we know that in the UK the Government have put forward an arbitrary figure of 100,000 migrants as their target. Surely refugees should not be included in that arbitrary political figure. That would then give the Government far more room for manoeuvre in order to do the right thing and the humanitarian thing.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in response to the Home Secretary’s statement that I think there is a case for removing refugees from the net migration target. Refugees and those seeking sanctuary are a different issue to those who come as migrants to work and may have homes they can return to and are in a different situation.
The right hon. Lady will have heard me ask the Home Secretary to account for the difference in the scale of ambition between the numbers of refugees being taken in by the UK and by Germany. Given that the UK and Germany are among the largest contributors to humanitarian aid, does the right hon. Lady have any explanation for such a gap in ambition between the UK and Germany on the refugee total?
I do not know the detailed discussions that the Home Secretary has had with the UN on the scale of support needed, but the UN has asked for 30,000 places to be provided across the world. Even without the British contribution, the UN was already well on the way to reaching those sorts of numbers, and the contribution that the UK needs to make can still be significant, even if it is more limited. Each country needs to look at the kinds of support it can provide, and also at support that can be provided in the region. My point is that some small countries are offering places for 50 or 100 refugees, and when all countries do their bit, even if places are limited, that still adds up to a significant international humanitarian effort. It is right for us to support that.
I pay tribute to the charities that have campaigned for the change of heart by the Government: the Refugee Council, Amnesty International, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Christian Aid, Muslim Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children and many more, as well as hon. Members across Parliament who called on the
Government to change their mind. Although Labour chose this topic for an Opposition day—I am glad that the Government responded to the prospect of this debate—we recognise the extent of cross-party support and the significance that the views of Back Benchers have had in this debate. This is a good example of Parliament raising and being thoughtful about an issue that was not getting considerable media interest before being taken very seriously in Parliament, and the Government have changed course as a result. I also recognise the point made by Sir Menzies Campbell that just because we cannot give sanctuary to everyone does not mean that we should give it to no one. He has also been clear in supporting the Government’s change of view.
Many hon. Members have raised the nature of the Government’s plans and asked why they have decided to set out a programme that is different from the UN programme. The Opposition welcome the Government’s approach and the support that the Government are due to provide. I welcome and agree with the Home Secretary’s emphasis on women who have suffered terrible sexual violence, and her recognition of torture victims. I should also emphasise the point many hon. Members have made about abandoned and vulnerable children who have lost parents and family and other support.
I am glad that the Home Secretary has said she will work closely with the UN, but I am still unclear why she is so uncomfortable about signing up to the UN programme. She says that she does not want quotas, but there is no need to set a quota within the UN programme. Indeed, Britain is already part of the UN mandate programme, which helps a limited number of refugees from around the world who have family in the UK who will support them, and that programme states clearly that it has no quota. The US committed to operate in the UN Syria programme and has set no quota. It has set no specific number and has said that it will work on a case-by-case basis according to need.
The Home Secretary says she wants flexibility, yet the UN programme provides considerable flexibility for different countries to specify the kind of refugees in whom they have expertise and choose to help. For example, in the similar UN gateway programme, Britain specified that we wanted to settle Iraqi interpreters who had helped our troops. We had that level specification within a UN programme.
Many of my constituents who have contacted me in the past few weeks were extremely disappointed with the Government’s decision not to sign up to the UNHCR programme. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary seems to be gearing up for the same question to which my constituents want an answer. The Government’s announcement is welcome, but what would be required for Britain to sign up to the UNHCR programme?
My hon. Friend’s point is important. We simply do not understand the reason for not being part of the UN programme. As we understand it, the UNHCR will do the work of identifying the most vulnerable refugees. It will provide that support on the ground—that is exactly what it does as part of the UN Syria programme. Many of the elements of the
Government’s programme—the principles that the Home Secretary set out earlier—are principles that can be adopted within the UN programme. Other countries have done so. It is unclear why the Home Secretary is so resistant to biting the bullet and why she wants the UK programme, which looks an awful lot like the UN programme, to have another name.
There is an explicit advantage of being part of the UN programme. If the Home Secretary wants to call on countries that have not signed up to the UN proposal to do so, such as Italy, Portugal, Poland and New Zealand, it will be much easier if she does not distance herself from the UN programme. Britain has the aid programmes and bureaucracy to run a parallel programme, but most of those countries do not. We should therefore encourage them to work with the UN and to be part of the UN programme. Surely there is an advantage in saying that the world should pull together. Britain should not go it alone, because we believe that no country alone should have to shoulder the burden of any serious humanitarian crisis. We believe in everyone doing their bit and sharing the challenge.
We will not fall out over this today. The most important thing is that the Home Secretary has come forward with a proposal that will help vulnerable Syrian refugees. The most important thing for the Opposition is that Britain is doing its bit and providing that assistance—that specialised assistance—to those who are most desperate and in need of her help, but I urge her to look again at partnership with the UN.
Let me turn to one wider issue before I close my remarks—other hon. Members have raised it. Hon. Members agree that there is a big difference between, on the one hand, immigration policy and border control, and on the other, providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. We agree with strong controls at our border, and with stronger measures to prevent illegal immigration and limit those coming to work, but that is different from the question of giving safe refuge to those in fear of their lives.
The Home Secretary has set a target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. That target is going up, not down, and the Home Office is under pressure to turn it around. However, the target includes refugees. Surely there is a serious problem if Home Office officials are inclined to resist any resettlement programme whatever the circumstances because it will affect the net migration target, which they are under such pressure to meet. I therefore ask her to give serious consideration to the net migration target to make it clear to everyone that there is a big difference between the approach to immigration and the approach Britain has rightly taken to refugees today.
Britain has a long history of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. In the week of Holocaust memorial day, we remember events such as the Kindertransport, which hon. Members have mentioned, and which provided sanctuary and homes for Jewish children fleeing the Nazis at the beginning of the second world war. We have also seen the contribution that refugees have gone on to make to our country, building our businesses, enriching our culture and supporting our public services.
I am grateful to the shadow Home Secretary for giving way, especially when she is winding up her speech. Vulnerable and desperate Syrian refugees who fled Syria to escape horrific violence find themselves in neighbouring countries, some of which simply cannot cope. Does she share my fear that they are being driven into the hands of human traffickers? We have seen boats off Lampedusa. Does she agree that that is yet another reason why we need to ensure that the number of spaces we offer in this country is as ambitious as possible?
The hon. Lady is right to describe the risk of vulnerable refugees getting caught up with human traffickers. The Home Secretary rightly referred to people coming to Britain to claim asylum. Some certainly have, but travelling across a continent and being able to claim asylum is difficult for the most vulnerable. When people are vulnerable, they are at huge risk from those who would exploit and abuse their situation. Part of the reason for the UN Syria refugee programme was to avoid the challenges they face—some people are simply too vulnerable to travel and to make their journey elsewhere.
We should recognise the huge contribution that those to whom we have given sanctuary in generations past have gone on to make in our country and their contribution to who we are today. Last weekend, I was in a community in west Yorkshire talking to police officers. One police community support officer who was out on the beat told me that Britain had given him safe refuge when he was 11 years old. His family were fleeing Bosnia. Now, he keeps Britain and people in Britain safe. That is his job. His wife, also a Bosnian refugee, is an intensive care nurse in the NHS, caring for those who are most vulnerable in our hospitals, just as this country helped her family when she was vulnerable 20 years ago.
Our long tradition of giving that help and sanctuary, and of providing refuge for the most desperate, is a testimony to what kind of country Britain is and wants to be. That is why we should stand together in Parliament to support that tradition this afternoon.
No one chooses to be a refugee. The women and men pouring across Syria’s borders are the innocent victims of a conflict in which the vast majority have played no part. In many cases, they flee because their towns have been pulverised, their children’s schools destroyed, their hospitals bombed and their supplies of food and water cut off. They have lost relatives. Many have been injured. Some have survived the first use of chemical weapons this century. Their suffering, inflicted on people who are no different from us in their desire for peace, security and freedom, is hard for any of us to imagine.
As hon. Members in all parts of the House have said, this is a humanitarian catastrophe with no end currently in sight. At stake are the lives of millions of innocent people and security in the middle east, all of which has an impact on us here in the UK. The question is: what can we do, as the United Kingdom, to address these problems? The answer, above all, as I made clear in my statement earlier today, and as my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also explained, must be that we work to end the conflict. Her
Majesty’s Government are using diplomacy and humanitarian aid to carry out that work, and are taking measures to protect the security of our own country.
The United Kingdom is taking a leading role in addressing this crisis. At the United Nations Security Council, we and our partners are urging Russia to work with us to end the conflict, and we are pressing for full and unfettered humanitarian access. As members of the core group of the Friends of Syria, we are instrumental in supporting a moderate opposition, without which there can be no political settlement in that country, only the murderous tyranny offered by Assad or the warped ideology of terrorist extremists and foreign fighters seeking to exploit the violence. In addition, we are saving countless lives through our humanitarian assistance.
Britain has indeed been leading the world in responding to the disaster. We are the second largest bilateral donor, after the United States. We are providing £600 million for the Syrian relief effort and to help neighbouring countries, which are supporting those who have sought refuge there, to meet the needs of those refugees and bolster their own security. This effort has united support across the House. Right hon. and hon. Members have rightly expressed their considerable concern, and I commend those on all sides of the House who have done much to raise the issue and keep the plight of innocent Syrians in our thoughts.
I thank the Home Secretary for taking an intervention. Her doing so allows me to say how much I appreciate the statement she is making today and the way in which it has unified the House on the significant part of her speech. That will be welcomed in Wales, where there is a long tradition and history of supporting peoples who are being displaced and threatened by humanitarian crisis.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for his reference to the tradition in Wales of supporting people who are refugees from humanitarian conflicts.
Earlier this month a team of MPs, led by my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, travelled to the Syrian border in Turkey to see how refugees there are being helped by humanitarian aid. The Select Committee on International Development also held a special oral evidence session focusing on the British response, and I commend my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard for his campaigning on this issue. It is clear that everyone in the House understands the obligation this country and the international community has towards helping the Syrian people during this time of great crisis.
Last week the Prime Minister was clear that given the scale of the current refugee crisis, with more than 11 million Syrians in dire need of humanitarian aid, the greatest need is in the region—that is where we can make the deepest impact. He was equally clear that, where there are particularly compelling cases of vulnerable people at grave risk, we will look at those cases. Earlier today, I announced to the House that, following consultations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in London, the Government will be launching a new programme to provide emergency sanctuary in the UK for particularly vulnerable displaced Syrians, including women and girls at risk, survivors of torture and violence, and children at risk or in need of medical care.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement earlier today on providing emergency sanctuary for vulnerable refugees in co-operation with the UNHCR. I wonder whether, now or later in her speech, she can tell the House what role she envisages for the voluntary sector at a local level in the effort to help refugees with their transition to our country?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It is indeed the case that the voluntary sector will play an important role. The prime focus of interaction in various parts of the country—on, for example, ensuring that accommodation is available—will be local authorities, but voluntary groups will have a very important role to play. Indeed, it is part of the Government’s ethos to look to work with voluntary groups, because of the quality of support that they can give in such circumstances.
Following on from that point, may I urge the Home Office to discuss with the sizeable Syrian community around the UK what help and support it can give to incoming refugees?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. When people come to another country in these circumstances, when they are fleeing from violence and are particularly vulnerable, working with those who have a similar background and who will be able to welcome them here to the UK is an important part of our work.
Although the right hon. Lady has not confirmed a date for when people might arrive, I hope the door is open from now. Given the importance of this matter, has she discussed with the Scottish Government how they might play their full part and how the Scottish national health service might be ready to deal with the needs of refugees if and when they come to Scotland, which I hope they do?
I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I indicated earlier, we will be talking to both the Welsh and Scottish Governments. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration will be writing to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Administrations on this matter.
I recognise that a number of hon. Members were in the House earlier for my statement, but I reiterate that the vulnerable person relocation scheme will be based on three principles. First, to ensure our assistance helps those refugees at greatest risk, it will focus on individual cases where evacuation from the region is the only option. Secondly, it will be run in addition to the two resettlement programmes we currently operate in partnership with the UNHCR: the UK’s gateway protection resettlement programme, which resettles a number of refugees from a small number of targeted locations every year; and the smaller mandate resettlement scheme, which is designed to resettle individual refugees who have been recognised by UNHCR and have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. Thirdly, because we want to focus our assistance on the most vulnerable people, we do not intend to subscribe to a quota scheme. Instead, our programme will run in parallel with the UNHCR’s own Syria humanitarian admission programme, and will be carried out in close consultation with UNHCR offices in London, Geneva and in the region.
I want to be clear that we are not signing up wholesale to the UNHCR’s existing scheme, because we think we can best contribute through a complementary scheme focusing on the most vulnerable cases. Our scheme is, however, entirely consistent with the UNHCR’s wider programme and we have its full support. Indeed, the UNHCR’s representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, has welcomed
“the announcement of the UK government to provide refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, in cooperation with UNHCR.”
He has said:
“This decision will help to provide much needed solutions for vulnerable Syrian refugees many of whom have been deeply traumatised and face immense hardship. It is also a concrete and important gesture of solidarity and burden sharing with the countries neighbouring Syria as they continue to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis.”
Others, including the chief executive of the Refugee Council, have also welcomed our action today.
With widespread support for our approach, including from the UNHCR, I hope the shadow Home Secretary and other hon. Members will agree that this scheme is clearly within the spirit of today’s motion. Now is not the time for politics, but for sending a clear message that the United Kingdom will continue to do its bit to help those who are suffering. On that basis, I hope that nobody thinks it necessary or appropriate to divide the House on this issue.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. There is absolutely no doubt that today’s announcement will be welcomed by everyone in this House and by constituents who have contacted us with their concerns. Does she accept, however, that there are still concerns about the UK’s failure to sign up to the UNHCR programme, and will she acknowledge that those concerns have not been fully addressed by what she has said today?
I have to say to the hon. Lady that the key people we should look to, to see if they are concerned, are those in the UNHCR. The UNHCR has been absolutely clear that it does not have any concerns about us not signing up to its programme. It has welcomed the scheme that we are putting together. I think that across the country people will welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the plight of Syrian refugees and have been willing to take this action, particularly with a focus on those who are most vulnerable.
In addition to the scheme announced today, we continue to consider asylum claims under our normal rules. We have a proud tradition of giving sanctuary to people in genuine need, and since the crisis began, we have taken in nearly 3,500 asylum seekers—the fourth highest in the EU—with 1,100 Syrian nationals recognised as refugees in the year to September 2013. Where Syrian nationals were working or studying in this country when the conflict broke out, we have also made it easier for them to stay here until there is a resolution to the crisis.
As Ministers have said consistently, we believe that the best way of reaching the greatest number of people is by focusing humanitarian efforts on the region, and that is the only realistic way in which the rights of the vast majority of displaced persons can be safeguarded. Let me outline what the £600 million that Britain is providing is helping to provide.
I commend the Home Secretary on today’s very welcome announcement, but I want to ask her about the wider issue of humanitarian aid. I visited Zaatari refugee camp not long ago and witnessed at first hand the extent of the UK aid to Syrian refugees. Does she share the concern that I and others, including many of my constituents, have about the level of help being given by other EU member states and others in the international community? As well has taking refugees, they need to contribute more financially to help those in the greatest need.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We can be proud of what we have done. As I indicated earlier, our £600 million is the second largest bilateral contribution—second only to the United States—and I agree that other countries need to look at what help they are providing.
We have the totals of what has been pledged by countries around the world. For example, the UK, with its £600 million, is, as I have said, the second largest contributor, whereas Germany, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, is contributing the equivalent of £350 million—less than us—in humanitarian aid.
Thanks to our funding, food, water, shelter and medicine are being provided to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. Almost 320,000 people a month are being given food inside Syria or in the surrounding region; more than 900,000 people a month are being provided with drinking water; almost 316,000 medical consultations have been enabled; and 300,000 people inside Syria have received basic life-saving items, such as blankets, shelter and clothing. We are also acutely aware of the impact the crisis is having on the lives of children, 1 million of whom are now refugees. We are leading the No Lost Generation initiative with UNICEF and others, which is allocating £30 million to provide protection, trauma care and education for children affected by the crisis.
At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the need for immediate and unfettered access so that all those in need inside Syria, including those trapped in besieged or hard-to-reach places, can receive aid. The deliberate obstruction of aid has been a particularly sickening aspect of this conflict, and there are reports of people being allowed to starve to death, which is utterly inhumane. Humanitarian aid must be allowed to reach all those in need, and we will not let up until that is done in the besieged city of Homs and across the country.
One of the considerable consequences of this conflict has been the immense pressure placed on Syria’s neighbouring countries. More than 2.3 million Syrians fleeing Assad’s brutality have sought refuge in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. I cannot commend highly enough the humanitarian spirit demonstrated by these countries, and we cannot underestimate the strain placed on their infrastructure. Through the humanitarian assistance we are providing in the region, we can help them better to shoulder that responsibility. In the face of the vast scale of this crisis, the resettlement of small numbers of refugees from those countries will provide them with only very limited relief, whereas funding to support a larger number of refugees in those places will help ease the stress on their systems.
We have also pledged support to a regional development and protection programme that will provide protection in neighbouring countries to those displaced from Syria, making it easier for them to return home when it is safe to do so. In addition to the £600 million we are providing in humanitarian relief, Britain is also providing £12 million in development funding from the Arab Partnership economic fund to Jordan. It is clear that the best and most immediate way to help displaced Syrians caught up in this terrible conflict is to focus on the region and neighbouring countries, thus reaching a far greater number of people and minimising the trauma and the displacement so many have already endured.
Britain can and should be proud of the role we are playing in supporting the Syrian people during a time of great crisis. As I have made clear, British money is helping to provide food, water and shelter to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians every day. We are providing humanitarian assistance to people inside and outside Syria, working hard to achieve improved access to humanitarian aid and pressing Assad’s allies to push the regime to do much more, and through our relocation scheme, we will provide emergency sanctuary to some of the most vulnerable caught up in the war, including children and victims of torture and sexual violence.
The only real way, however, to ensure that the horror, the misery and the killing stop is through an agreed political settlement. That is why the Government will continue in their determination to urge all those involved to find a peaceful and sustainable solution to this crisis, and it is why we must keep up the pressure on Assad and his allies. Only when the fighting stops can the conditions for a solution to the humanitarian crisis be created, and only then will the men, women and children who have suffered so much and been so cruelly torn from their homes be able to return in safety to their homes and livelihoods, which is what the vast majority of Syrians so dearly wish.
Order. As will be obvious to the House, a large number of Members wish to contribute in this short debate. I have therefore imposed a six-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time.
My parents were refugees. They came to this country from Polish ghettos to escape religious and political persecution. Subsequently, most of their families were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, which has been commemorated this week, but despite the trauma they were able to build new lives here. In the summer of 1939, my parents took into their home a young girl who was one of the last to escape on the Kindertransport. She, too, was able to build a life in this country, and my most recent information is that she has a grand-daughter at Manchester university. Helping refugees has lifelong benefits.
The current situation is being watched with anxiety and distress by the Syrian community in Manchester, with which I recently attended a meeting held at the British Muslim heritage centre in my constituency in memory of Dr Abbas Khan, whose murder caused such distress. If my postbag is any guide, that anxiety is shared by those of all ethnicities in my constituency and more widely. There is special concern for Palestinian refugees, who are refugees twice over—from their own country and now from a war for which they have no responsibility, with which they have no connection and in which they have not taken a side. They are enduring death and deprivation in Syria.
The al-Yarmouk camp, just outside Damascus, has been under siege for six months. It was inhabited by more than 155,000 Palestinian refugees, but of those fewer than 20,000 now remain. A list has been published, which is in my possession, of the names of those who have died in the camp and the causes of death. Again and again, that cause is listed as starvation. Refugees in this camp are surviving on grass, animal feed and spices dissolved in water. Extreme human suffering in primitive conditions is the norm. Only 200 food parcels have been delivered to the remaining 20,000 people marooned in the camp.
Some 560,000 Palestinian refugees are living in Syria, and more than half of them have been displaced. Their restrictive travel documents mean that the majority would be unable to leave the country and seek safety abroad even if there were an opportunity for them to do so. Neighbouring countries—I pay tribute to them for the help that they have provided—are overwhelmed by Syrian refugees who have managed to get into their territory.
Let me compliment my right hon. Friend on his speech, and on the work that he has done on behalf of Palestinian refugees. Is it not also the case that tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees have recently arrived in Syria, mainly from Iraq but also from other countries, and that they are in a very dangerous and very vulnerable situation? Some have not even received permanent settlement in Syria, and are therefore particularly vulnerable both to the civil war and to any refugee programme that may ignore them in the future.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. No one—apart from the Syrian Government and another authority to which I shall refer in a moment—can be faulted for the efforts that are being made, but the situation on the ground is exceptionally difficult.
Although, as the Home Secretary has pointed out, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have done their best to help, one neighbouring country that has not made the tiniest effort to do so is Israel. A large number of Israel’s population are refugees and descendants of refugees, and one would have thought that it would have some kind of conscience about the plight of refugees who are, in some instances, within yards of its borders, but the callous Government display no concern. The plight of the Palestinian refugees is their direct responsibility.
No one pretends that this situation can be dealt with easily. I join others in paying tribute to the Department for International Development for providing such huge amounts of money: that is the kind of thing that needs to be done, both because of its direct impact and because it demonstrates the determination of all the people of this country, and all the parties in the House, to do something about this ghastly situation. It is essential that we do not look back on it with the gnawing misgiving that we could have done more.
The scale of the human tragedy in Syria is horrendous. More than 130,000 are dead, including thousands of children; there are documented cases of torture and summary execution; about 9.5 million men, women and children are in need of humanitarian help; and 2.3 million refugees, half of them children, are spilling into neighbouring countries—Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. Those countries are absorbing 97% of the massive influx of refugees, and it is threatening their stability. Lebanon is on course to receive 1.6 million refugees by the end of this year, which, for that small country, is the equivalent of 20 million refugees coming to the United Kingdom. Terrorism is back in Iraq, which has witnessed a resurgence of al-Qaeda. The war in Syria is inflaming its own sectarian battles.
Every day in Syria, the death toll, the atrocities, and the numbers of displaced persons and refugees are climbing. Against that relentless backdrop, the UNHCR wants countries to take 30,000 Syrian refugees in addition to the current resettlement quotas. That is a drop in the ocean. The United Kingdom has taken more than 1,000 Syrian asylum seekers this year. We have committed ourselves to helping some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, and I welcome the Government’s announcement today, which confirmed that.
It is absolutely right for us not to commit ourselves to arbitrary numbers. A quota of 500, 1,000 or even 5,000 Syrian refugees may achieve much in humanitarian terms, but in overall terms it achieves very little, because it does not tackle the root cause of the problem. As the Home Secretary pointed out in her excellent speech, the only meaningful solution to the refugee crisis—the only way in which to secure a better future for countless innocent Syrians—is a political solution. The refugee crisis has to be considered as part of an overarching foreign policy, and not in isolation. Talks in Geneva this week show us how difficult a task that will be. There are about 1,200 different rebel groups in Syria who have no interest in negotiating. Our best hope of dialogue is of dialogue between Syria’s national coalition and the Government, but they will not talk face to face: self-interest is getting in the way.
With uncompromising preconditions being dished out on both sides, the scope of Geneva II is inevitably limited. Even the deal that was hammered out to aid trapped residents of the war-torn city of Homs now appears to be threatened. The rebel alliance on the ground has issued further demands which it says must be met before anyone can be evacuated. There is nothing new there—this is politics—but it is costing lives and livelihoods.
Whether we like it or not, political progress in Syria will never succeed without directly engaging the puppeteers of this war of attrition. If Iran and the Gulf states withdrew their cash and supplies of arms on the Syrian battlefield, refugees would have some prospect of a safe return. We must stop the supplies of deadly arms, and put pressure on the armed militias that are terrorising Syrian communities. The United States and Russia have discussed a ceasefire in Syria, and only a ceasefire will make the delivery of humanitarian aid to the besieged, rebel-held areas possible as the civil war intensifies. That has already happened in some parts of the country, but millions are still trapped and under siege, and beyond the reach of help.
We have our work cut out for us in trying to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those who really need it. That may well mean allowing the regime to transport food and medical equipment to areas that it controls, no matter how unpalatable discussions with it may be. Better systems should be introduced to improve the conditions of refugees in camps: reports of domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape from camps on the border are sickening, and more needs to be done.
I am proud that the Government are leading by example. The United Kingdom is the world’s second largest bilateral aid donor, and British taxpayers’ money is providing food, shelter, water and medicine for hundreds of thousands of people. However, we should be urging other countries to carry their fair share of funding the effort in Syria. They should be contributing more to the humanitarian effort where the refugees need our help most. Given that there are more than 2 million of them now and that the number is expected to increase to 4 million in the coming year, calling on the UK to agree to a fixed number seriously misses the point.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr António Guterres, has said:
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century—a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
I want to focus on attitudes towards refugees, and to ask whether we are doing everything that we can and should be doing.
This week we marked Holocaust memorial day, and the theme this year was “journeys”. We remembered those who had sought refuge, safety and a better chance of survival. At the United Kingdom commemoration here in central London, we heard personal testimonies from holocaust survivors of the Nazi death camps, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia Herzegovina. The Leader of the Opposition spoke very movingly about how members of his family had survived the holocaust, and about those who had not. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government spoke with conviction about the contribution of holocaust survivors who were able to start new lives in Britain; we heard something about that from Sir Gerald Kaufman.
I was sitting next to a lady from Leipzig, who asked me “Will we ever learn the lessons of history?” She got out of Nazi Germany just in time, on the Kindertransport, finding refuge in the UK, but many did not. We rightly laud the efforts that were made and saved 10,000 children. It was the Jewish community, the Quakers and others who organised the evacuation, and many Jewish and non-Jewish families hosted the children. But why was it that only children were allowed into the UK? The parents were not given refuge. We should remember that many past, and sadly some present, attitudes to the treatment of refugees, including in the UK, are difficult to justify. We should never forget that, after the Anschluss in March 1938, rather than relaxing entry requirements for Austrian Jews, the British Government tightened them, introducing strictly controlled visas precisely to restrict their numbers. With the benefit of hindsight, we understand that more than 65,000 Austrian Jews were murdered in the holocaust.
Today we are debating a cross-party motion tabled by the official Opposition which acknowledges the positive UK Government role in supporting people from Syria in their region, but are we doing enough to help refugees and are we learning the lessons from history? More than 2.1 million refugees have been registered by the UNHCR in Syria’s four neighbouring states. Hundreds of thousands more are known to be living outside Syria’s borders without access to aid. The UNHCR has expressly asked that the international community accommodate 30,000 refugees. Belatedly deciding to take a number of hundreds of refugees, the UK Government have acknowledged that we all have a responsibility to give refuge and assistance in the UK. I welcome that. However, according to the latest UNHCR figures, the following number of refugees are being accepted by other countries: Germany, 11,000; Canada, 1,300; Sweden, 1,200; Norway, 1,000; France, 500; Australia, 500; Austria, 500; and Finland, 500. The list goes on. Are we doing everything we can to help as many people as possible?
Amnesty International is right to describe the Syrian refugee crisis as an international failure. Positive political leadership from the UK and others in the international community is about financial support to assist refugees in Syria and the displaced refugees in neighbouring countries. But, after assessing needs and calculating what can be done in the region and what needs to be supported internationally, the UN is saying that the international community must accommodate 30,000 refugees.
We have also been challenged in wider areas—that we should share responsibility for refugees from Syria more equally, in particular through significantly increasing the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places, over and above annual resettlement quotas.
In April 1993, I took an orphan girl into my house when I was the British commander in Bosnia. My soldiers looked after her. Her parents and her brother had been shot dead in front of her. We thought that we should take her out of the country and that that was the right thing to do. In the end, we found a distant uncle and she stayed in Bosnia. The Home Secretary has said that that is the best option. We should bring people out of the region only if no other option is available to save their lives or look after them properly.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. I underline my comments that, if the UN has assessed that there is a need to accommodate 30,000 people internationally, no doubt it has looked closely at all the factors to which the honourable and gallant Gentleman has referred.
EU member states and the EU have been challenged to strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to identify boats in distress and assist those on board; ensure that those rescued are treated with dignity and that their human rights, including the right to seek asylum, are fully respected; and ensure the end of unlawful push-back operations that deny refugees and migrants their rights, particularly on the Greek-Turkish border. All countries receiving refugees from Syria have also been challenged to automatically provide all people fleeing Syria, including Palestinian refugees—this has been mentioned several times—who were resident in Syria, with a status giving them international protection. Countries receiving refugees from Syria should also facilitate family reunification for refugees from Syria, including by applying flexible criteria to take into account the nature and needs of different families.
In these awful times for the poor people of Syria, it is right to provide aid and support in the region directly. It is also, however, a duty and humanitarian obligation to do whatever we can to help refugees closer to home. The lessons of history are plain to see. There will always be siren voices pandering to the lowest common denominator, who give a million reasons why we should not give refuge and accept people in need. The UK Government have belatedly accepted the case to accept a limited number of refugees. In times like these, we need political leadership to explain why helping refugees is the right thing to do and get on with it.
I am pleased to take part in the debate. I commend the motion and the way in which it was moved. I unreservedly welcome the efforts of the Home Secretary and many Front-Bench colleagues to respond to the crisis. I wanted to take part in the debate because Yvette Cooper, who speaks for the Opposition, moved the motion in a conciliatory and considered manner. I thought over the past couple of weeks that that was not necessarily the tone being taken by people outside. I felt strongly that there was a danger that a Government who had done an extraordinary amount in relation to the crisis might end up on the wrong side of the argument.
The Government’s basic position is absolutely correct, as all colleagues have tended to endorse. It is best to help in the region where people are concentrated, and the extraordinary efforts being made by neighbours have been helped by the most generous contribution that this country has ever made to such a crisis abroad.
However, as times and needs change, a bit of flexibility is not always a bad thing. Therefore, the response to what the UN has been saying has been important.
As all colleagues have said, it is important to work with the UN. We have been its biggest supporters in going around the world asking for higher contributions to meet its appeals. As colleagues have mentioned, a number of countries have not stumped up. It would have been difficult, had we done all this, if the UN had turned on us and said, “You’re not doing enough.” It is good, therefore, that we have reached this position. It is better than just taking a slightly smaller number of people. Targeting the people we can help most, particularly those caught up in sexual violence, bearing in mind all that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done in relation to this, makes an even more important point. The help is targeted, and I think that the response has been absolutely right.
On a wider issue, I too, as colleagues would know and expect, have visited those who have been working with refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. There is hardly enough that we can say about the generosity and hospitality of those countries, or about the skill and expertise of our own aid workers—often technical specialists in the camps and outside. I visited a small town in Jordan where people had been decamped. They are in the local economy and that puts pressures on as well, to which we have been responding. However, the extraordinary skills that people have been displaying to assist those who work for the NGOs and who work through DFID, have all played a part. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done a tremendous job in keeping up interest in relation to that. Therefore, the combination of what the UK is giving by working locally and the response here has been particularly effective.
One or two colleagues say that we should take special notice of Christian victims. I have not spoken much on the matter before. It was a policy I was looking after, but I want to make two or three quick points because it is an important issue. It is undeniably true that the Christian community in the middle east has been under particularly severe pressure in a region where lots of people have suffered, but the answer is not to single them out but to say that the rule of law has to protect all. The importance of that is that it is not being politically correct; it is ensuring that Christians are not identified with the false claim of the extremists that it is a western construct and a western religion. To give any sense to that and to say, however well meaning, that there is a welcome for them in a “Christian country” feeds that narrative and assists the extremists. Therefore, I urge colleagues and people outside who are rightly concerned about the Christian community to take a lead from his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Prince Ghazi of Jordan, who are working with Muslim leaders in the region to recognise the particular issues facing Christians and to work through those leaders to provide relief there.
I want to make a final point on the conflict itself—[Interruption.] The trick to avoiding coughing during a speech is not to eat yoghurt-flavoured peanuts to keep you going. It is not the yoghurt that gets you; it is the peanuts. I shall return to my serious point about the ending of the conflict. I was in Geneva yesterday with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and I took the opportunity to meet one or two friends who were involved in the talks. The news coming out of the talks is poor. The situation is extremely tough: the Syrian regime does not feel the need to concede, because not enough pressure has been placed upon it.
We are absolutely right to support the Syrian opposition coalition. As colleagues know, I take the view—one that is not shared by all—that they should be allowed a greater opportunity to have the means to defend themselves against the barbaric attacks, because changing the balance on the ground could help the negotiation process and thereby bring about a quicker end to the conflict. It is essential that we focus all our attention on that. Looking after the refugees is important but it is a symptom, not the cause.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s analysis. Of course it is right that we should address the problem in the surrounding countries, but real success will involve getting humanitarian access into Syria as well. What more can we in this country do to put pressure on the regime to allow such access?
This is genuinely very difficult. The regime thinks that it is winning. We talk about there being no foreign intervention in Syria, but there is. The boots on the ground are from Iran and from Hezbollah, and support is coming from Russia. In addition, the Gulf countries have supported those groups that they believe to be in a position to remove the regime, but they should be focusing all that attention on the official opposition, rather than on the extremists. Starvation and sieges are being used as weapons, which is one of the reasons why it is difficult to get stuff into the country. The regime has played a desperate role in relation to the citizens who have been caught up in the conflict. I believe that extra pressure needs to be placed on the regime. We also need to work with Russia, because it is in that country’s interests that the conflict should end sooner rather than later. The sad truth is, however, that it will end only when that suits other people’s interests, and not, alas, the interests of the people of Syria. We should never lose sight of that fact.
The support of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the people of Syria has been remarkable throughout the conflict, and it is important to stick with them. It is worth working in this way. Only this week, the Tunisian people approved a constitution after three years of difficulty but without the kind of turmoil that we have seen elsewhere. I still believe that, long term, the Arab awakening will work, but there is, alas, much pain still to be experienced in the region. What the United Kingdom is doing to relieve that pain is quite remarkable, and the Home Secretary deserves every praise for bringing forward her proposals today.
The Home Secretary is no longer in her place, but she will no doubt read what I am about to say. I had the privilege of asking her a question earlier, and I did so because I am interested in international development and in these important issues. I am the chair of the Friends of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and I am active in other such groups. I have been worried over the years about the link between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office and, more recently, the link between DFID and the Home Office. My question was intended to draw out the thinking of the Home Office on these matters.
I do not wish to appear ungrateful to the Home Secretary; her responsibilities as she sees them are for matters such as border control. Nor do I wish to speak for the Secretary of State for International Development, who is perfectly capable of speaking for herself, but I imagine that DFID would identify its priority as dealing with humanitarian practicalities based on the information that it receives from those on the ground, day after day. We had an example of that in the House during DFID questions last week, when I put a question to the Secretary of State about the impact of the Syrian refugee problem on education in Lebanon. She was able to tell the House that she had visited schools in Lebanon the previous week, and she gave us an informed account of what was taking place.
It is because I want to see a co-ordinated approach to these matters that I am taking part in the debate today. I welcome the fact that considerable progress has been made, even since last week. I believe that today’s motion has made a contribution to that progress, as have the aid agencies and the non-governmental organisations that have been pushing hard on the humanitarian issue. The pressure that they have brought to bear is understandable, given that 6 million people have been displaced as a result of what is going on in Syria.
Organisations such as CAFOD and Christian Aid are telling us that there are two major issues. First, the British Government should be seen to be playing a leadership role in supporting vulnerable people by offering resettlement to some of the most vulnerable refugees; secondly, such action would send a message of solidarity to the leaders of the regional Governments. When I listened to the Home Secretary today, I think I knew where she was coming from, but I ask her to try to understand the enormous pressure that those neighbouring countries are facing as they try to deal with the refugee problems. Countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are facing great problems, and the NGOs working there are under huge strain as they try to deal with the impact of 2 million refugees.
Just before Christmas, CAFOD held an Advent meeting. I want to quote the words of Father Faddoul, who works in Lebanon and is president of Caritas Lebanon, a partner organisation of CAFOD. He said:
“Many Syrian refugees are now living in desperate conditions: families are struggling to survive in tents surrounded by snow, sometimes without shoes or warm clothes. Many children are unable to go to school. The crisis has caused huge instability here in Lebanon and across the region. We are living on a knife-edge.”
The House needs to bear that in mind.
It would be ungracious not to recognise that Britain is the second-largest contributor, and that we have tried to give a lead in this situation, but I also want to put on record that the UNHCR has appealed for western Governments to accept 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from the region. In doing so, we would be joining countries such as Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the United States of America, and demonstrating our commitment to a shared responsibility. We would all welcome that. We have made considerable progress today, but I hope that the Secretary of State will not mind my repeating that point.
I thank Yvette Cooper for her generous reference to me, but as she herself pointed out later, we have today seen the confident assertion of the responsibility and authority of the House of Commons, which has proved capable of bringing about a change of heart and a change to the position that the Government set out only last week.
As I have said already, I would have preferred that the United Kingdom’s efforts were a part of the United Nations programme, but my disappointment about that is, to some extent, mitigated by two factors. First, the UN will be heavily involved and co-operating with the United Kingdom and, secondly, we have the endorsement of the Refugee Council of the United Kingdom.
What we have seen today is a recognition of a humanitarian obligation, and one that is much more acute because of this country’s permanent membership of the Security Council of the United Nations. Like others, I have always challenged the notion that the very generous financial provision that we have made can be seen as an alternative to implementing the humanitarian obligation towards refugees. It has been notable in this debate that there has been very little effort to maintain that proposition.
Another proposition that has been aired in the course of the past 24 hours is that people do not want to see us being dictated to by the United Nations. The United Nations is not in a position to dictate; it is not a world Government. The United Nations makes requests. If it makes a request, all members, particularly those that enjoy the privilege of permanent membership of the Security Council, have a responsibility to respond.
We have also seen a change of policy. I am glad to say that there has been no sense of triumphalism. Those terrible words “U-turn” have not been used as far as I can recall at any stage of the debate. That is because common sense and humanity have prevailed. It is said that the proposals that the United Kingdom Government want to talk to the United Nations about will have flexibility—flexibility no doubt over the particular qualifications of an individual that would demand that they be included in the UK-UN programme. I hope, too, that flexibility will also apply to the question of numbers. If we had to set some arbitrary limit, then, as ever, there will be deserving cases that could not be considered simply because they fall outside that limit.
I strongly support the observations made by my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt in relation to the suggestion that somehow the British effort should be confined to Christians. That is something that was raised by Mr Nigel Farage. On one day, he said that he was in favour of us taking our responsibility. On
I will end on a slightly lighter note. Much has been said about the contribution made by refugees in this country. Let me take the House back to the wonderful Olympic games of 2012 and to Mr Mo Farah. Having won his second gold medal—he won the first in the 10,000 metres and the second in the 5,000 metres—and still panting with the exertion of the race, a microphone was thrust under his nose by someone from the BBC, who said, almost as his first question, “Wonderful. Well done. Would you not like to be representing your own country?” Mr Farah, who came here when he was six, was standing there with a Union flag around his shoulders. He said, “No, this is my country now.” If ever there was an illustration of the contribution that refugees can make to the quality of life and the achievement in a society such as ours, it is surely to be found in that incident.
I am proud to be a signatory of today’s motion. A few months ago, Plaid Cymru voted against military action in the wake of the suspicions over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. If an attack had gone ahead then, we would not have seen the relinquishing of the chemical weapons. I should also add that since that decisive debate and vote, Iran has been persuaded to enter talks on its nuclear programme. For the first time in years, there appears to be a better prospect of some agreement. I am not naïve about this, but there are signs of progress. Only time will tell whether I am right, but President Rouhani shows strong signs of being willing to engage with the rest of the world. The avoidance of military intervention last year undoubtedly helped to create the space for that to happen. However, I must express disappointment that Iran is not at the table at Geneva II. None the less, there is a growing consensus that those talks are now Syria’s only hope, and we must not lose sight of their importance. Journeys to peace are seldom without their roadblocks, and there are certainly no shortcuts. To be utterly fair to the Government, they have led the way in appealing for and sending aid to Syria, as today’s motion notes.
Diplomacy is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria. Of course we understand that there are no quick-fix solutions and that many different factions are now involved in the fighting. We wish to see a ceasefire agreed at the current talks in Geneva, and I urge the UK Government to do their utmost to convince the regime and the opposition’s main backers to bring their influence to bear.
The UK has been one of the largest financial donors of humanitarian aid, and that is most welcome. The Government should also commit to being generous in the numbers of refugees. The Prime Minister has rightly described the situation in Syria as the greatest refugee crisis of our time. We all know that a resettlement programme is the only means of offering a durable solution for the most vulnerable who struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of the region.
The UNHCR programme focuses on the most vulnerable. About 30,000 people are being helped, which is a mere fraction of the estimated 4 million refugees who have fled Syria into neighbouring countries. Vincent Cochtel, director of the UNHCR’s Europe bureau, said:
“From the perspective of the refugee it would make a hell of a difference.”
By that he means signing up to the scheme. He went on to say:
“The big picture is that there are 2.4 million Syrian refugees. When you zoom down and take a country like Turkey, it has taken 700,000 refugees, while the 47 countries that make up the rest of Europe have only taken 70,000 refugees. That gives you an idea of the scale of the problem.”
Talking of countries that could help, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be nice to see other countries in the middle east open their borders and take in refugees and give more money to support those poor people who have to exist on the borders of Syria?
Of course in any refugee crisis, if somebody’s suffering can be alleviated nearer home, it is always better to do that than displacing them to a country further away. I fully agree with that. I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to consider the UNHCR scheme. I have heard what the Secretary of State has had to say on the matter, and there is some force in her argument, but I cannot understand why we are not part of the scheme. The all-pervading hysteria about migration of any sort seems to have clouded the issue. Surely humanity should dictate what we all do. When I questioned the Home Secretary earlier on, I made the point that the refugee status under international law is entirely different and should in no way be affected by the toxic debate about migration, to which we are all being subjected by the media. As one who does not have any nightmares about the UK Independence party or about Farage and that bunch, I add that Wales has a long and proud tradition of welcoming people from around the world. I urge the Government to involve the Welsh Government in this most important of policies. Plaid Cymru has in the past called for Wales to be taken into account by the Migration Advisory Committee, which develops policy. The committee works with Scotland and Northern Ireland but, for some reason, not Wales. I hope that there will be a change in that policy shortly.
I urge the Government to continue to pursue a diplomatic solution and I hope that they will bring further pressure to bear on Russia in the talks. I know that such things are going on and it is fairly obvious and trite for us to state that they need to, but it is right that we should detail them. We all realise, I am sure, that Russia is key to persuading Assad and his supporters to reach some form of reasonable compromise. It is possible that the current round of talks will produce consensus between Russia and the United States on what the next steps towards peace should be.
Today’s statement is very welcome as far as it goes, but despite all the speeches so far I am still unclear about why the Government cannot commit fully to the UNHCR’s resettlement programme. The Government have been sending humanitarian aid, but it is now urgent to ensure that there are safe corridors in that troubled country so that aid can be sent to where it can be effective. That question was touched on by the Home Secretary earlier, and I think it is crucial that that should happen.
In the spirit of the consensus that seems to be developing on all but one or two issues, I hope that we will not divide on the motion today but will move forward with a consensual approach. I hope that the Government will keep everybody fully informed of progress over the coming weeks and months.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I welcome the Government’s statement, which is a positive step in response to a positive call, and I am pleased to hear that we will not descend into a political argument over this.
It is hard not to be moved by the images of suffering and pain that we have seen on our television screens and in our newspapers. The humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding is, as we have heard, the greatest in modern times. The numbers vary, but at least 2.4 million are displaced externally and many millions more internally. It is a story of human misery and suffering and a growing humanitarian crisis on which we cannot turn our back.
Some might notice that I am still wearing the Holocaust memorial day badge and I am doing that to remind us of our duty. Yes, we have duties at home, but our duties do not end at our borders. They extend beyond them. These are men, women and children who need our help and I for one am proud of what we have done so far and today. I hope that the combined actions will stop the crisis becoming another in a growing list of examples of man’s complete inhumanity to man.
We talk proudly of the £600 million we have given in aid, and we are right to be proud of that. It is an achievement, but having just visited a camp on the borders of Syria and Turkey as part of an Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists group, I must say that the countries in the region are playing their part, too. We might be giving aid, but they are delivering it on the ground. Turkey estimates that it has spent about £2 billion on setting up camps to house its guests.
The purpose of the visit was to get a better idea of the situation, and I certainly think that we did. We met Turkish politicians to hear about their efforts and understand their commitment. They have a lot to be proud of. We met the Syrian opposition groups, both the Syrian Opposition Council and members of the Free Syrian Army. The opposition is a complex group representing the majority, but not necessarily all, of those who oppose the current regime. Understanding that is part and parcel of trying to find a solution.
The most important and moving part was visiting the Nizip 2 camp, one of 22 camps set up by the Turks which house approximately 140,000 of the 600,000 or 700,000 refugees who are now in Turkey. The camp we visited is home to 5,500 people, half of whom are under 18, and is made up of nearly 1,000 containers and other buildings. During our time there, we met the refugees—or guests, as the Turks like to call them—and the overwhelming view was that they just want to go home. They are waiting. They are cared for, they are safe and secure and they are fed and watered, so moment by moment they are okay. Scratch the surface, however, and there is fear, frustration and—dare I say—desperation.
As you go about the camp, seeing beautiful, happy, playful children, it is quite cheering until you stop and think, and ask what their future will be. Are they the lost generation? What are their education opportunities or their life opportunities? You start to feel their pain and try to carry out a small act of kindness, giving out sweets and warm clothing, only to be mobbed. A sense of how a situation can change strikes you and if you think too much about it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sense of loss of hope.
Those people are our fellow humans, and anyone who is not moved by their plight needs to see it first hand. The problem is that Syria is a long way away and it is easy to push it out of sight and out of mind. If we were more local and it was in our own backyard, we would do even more than we are now, and we would persuade other people to do even more.
As I have said, I am pleased by today’s announcement. I have no objection to playing our full part in the UNHCR’s call for countries to take a number of refugees. Indeed, I feel that it is our moral and ethical obligation to play our part in helping the weak and the vulnerable, the displaced and the war-weary, but I do not want our action to be tokenistic. I am also concerned that we are taking people away from their natural communities and local support networks just to salve our consciences. I still believe that, as I have seen, the best place to provide the widest possible support to the largest number of people is on the ground, locally, within the region.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I was also on that trip and what struck me most was the fact that the camps were so well organised in providing education for the many children who are there and who want to go back and rebuild their country once the regime has gone. Does he not think that the investment in providing education to those children is a crucial element of the support we offer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One feature of the camp we visited is the service the Turkish are providing in education and access to skills learning. Unfortunately, however, only 14% of children receive any form of formal education. The Turks are doing their best, so if we really want to help we could expand such services on the ground.
All that having been said, however, there are some who would truly benefit from the security and safety that Britain can offer. I support that, but we must remember that whatever we do will be only a small drop in a very large ocean and that by far the best way to help the largest number of people is, as we have heard, to bring all the sides together to resolve the conflict so that the poor souls we met on our trip who have been displaced can return home and start to build the secular, democratic and secure country that I am sure the majority desire.
I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the Secretary of State for International Development, in particular, on the £600 million in aid that she has been able to give to Syria and the region.
My seat of Tottenham can be described as one of the country’s gateway constituencies for people claiming asylum or seeking to immigrate into this country. That has been the case for many hundreds of years and it makes the Tottenham constituency the most diverse three-mile area in Europe, with more than 250 languages spoken. At the corner of my constituency, for example, is the Orthodox Haredi Jewish community, which had to flee parts of eastern Europe because of the pogroms and the awful anti-Semitism displayed in Europe at that time.
Of course, my constituency is also the place to which my family came from the Caribbean, my father arriving in 1956. It took me some time, as the son of immigrants, to understand that some of my classmates at primary school, secondary school and university, were not immigrants, as my parents were. They were refugees, building a life for themselves in this country. Poverty, finding one’s way in a new system and sometimes dislocation are part of that, but they also had deep scars and had suffered deep trauma.
Looking over the four decades of my life, I think particularly of those fleeing Cyprus and this country’s outreach to the Cypriots. I think also of those fleeing Uganda because of Idi Amin’s terrorising and expulsion of Ugandan Asians. I think of the Vietnamese boat people and the Vietnamese I was at secondary school with. Then I think of those who, at about the time I was graduating and onward, came here from Bosnia and Kosovo. In each case, we reached out to those people, in part because of a shared understanding of the importance we must always give to refugee status.
That is scarred on the history of this country, beginning to some extent with the first world war, which we will commemorate later this year, and those who fled Belgium and the lowlands. Then, the second world war brought the holocaust, which we remember this week, and the many millions who fled, some finding refuge in our country. So when we talk about the UNHCR, we talk about a very important institution. Of course I welcome the statement, and I am pleased that we will not divide the House on the motion, but I have reservations about the manner in which we are choosing to exclude ourselves from the UNHCR scheme. There are times when we look to others—recently, in the context of Syria, to China and Russia—to play their part in the international family that is the United Nations. If we then step outside the UN systems, what message does that send?
In evoking the Ugandans, it is important to remember that in 1972, this country took in 25,000 Ugandans. In thinking of Cyprus, we should remember that we took in 50,000 Cypriots. In thinking of the Vietnamese boat people, we recall that we took in 10,000 Vietnamese. In thinking of Kosovo, we remember that we took 10,000 Kosovans into this country. Although we welcome today’s announcement, the way in which we set the language of “several hundred” should be seen in that context.
It would be remiss of me not to say how sad it is that this debate is held against a backdrop of concern in this House about immigration. Refugee status is quite different. The truth is that, because of legislation passed under the previous Government, those coming to this country as refugees now account for only 4.5% of people coming to this country to make a life for themselves. There is an elephant in the room, but I hope that we will look again at the numbers, because I fear for those who are trying to escape Syria today.
As I said during the statement, I am absolutely delighted that Britain is to take refugees for resettlement. I have a particular interest because I visited projects serving Syrian refugees in Jordan last November. They included projects inside Zaatari camp provided courtesy of the UNHCR by Doctors of the World, UNICEF and Save the Children, and outside the camp by the Jesuit Refugee Service.
It seems to me that there are three reasons why it was right of Britain to agree to take some of the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement. The first two have been spoken about quite a bit, but the third has not. The first—humanitarian reasons—is obvious. I will offer a few remarks on that from my experience in Jordan.
The second reason is solidarity. That was clear to me when looking at the pressure that taking so many refugees puts on Jordan, a country that already has difficulties, with enormous pressure on services. The generosity of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq in providing for the huge exodus of refugees from Syria is extraordinary—staggering—especially when one considers the debate here about taking just a few hundred. Like others who have spoken today, I think it would have been better had we chosen to take part in a UNHCR programme. It would have easier for us to make the arguments of solidarity, but if we are working hand in glove with the UNHCR, that is probably the most important thing.
The third reason, about which few have spoken, is that if there is no legal route—no hope—for people to get out, the risk increases that they will take extremely difficult journeys to escape. Already, the boats coming into Lampedusa are carrying significantly more Syrians, whereas previously they were dominated by people coming from Eritrea. That is very worrying indeed and shows precisely the reason why we need to provide legal routes for people who are desperate to get out.
When in Jordan, I was able spend a day in Zaatari. It was sobering to see the conditions for the people living there, which are difficult for anyone, let alone the very vulnerable groups of people we are talking about resettling. The UNHCR walked me through the route by which people get to Jordan, and it is worth rehearsing now. Since Jordan started managing its borders, the only way into the country from Syria is to traverse great swathes of wilderness and desert to reach the easternmost point of Jordan where it borders Iraq. Families have to sleep exposed to the elements—rain, snow and frost—for 10, sometimes 12, days. We saw the pictures just before Christmas; those are the sorts of traumatic conditions people are having to endure, so they are already extremely hungry and tired and often have no belongings at all.
The UNHCR gives them the basic building blocks to rebuild their life, but it is a meagre existence for one who previously lived a first-world life. It is worth our thinking about what it would be like for one of us—accustomed to gadgets and soft comforts—to go into a camp such as Zaatari or tried to live in the conditions that many living outside the camp are coping with now.
Uniqlo donated 500,000 items of clothing to Zaatari camp for the winter. That is staggering generosity. It is worth highlighting when people do good things in order to encourage them to do more. However, the security conditions and particularly the toilets in the camp have been driving many out of the camp to live in host communities, and their plight is stark. They are reliant on the World Food Programme for food vouchers and have no access to rent, and they are not allowed to work in Jordan. Some work illegally, but most send their children to work. I did not meet a single family, either in the camp or in the host community in Amman where I visited people in homes, whose children were in school. That highlights the potential for a lost generation. People are living in poor, overcrowded, damp and difficult conditions.
It is worth remembering that Jordan has already taken many refugees. It took many refugees from Iraq in particular, and they still cannot work. It was also the backbone of the service that the Jesuit Refugee Service was providing, both its educational project in east Amman and the home visiting team. To end on a moment of hope, I saw there refugees serving other refugees, building a sense of community, working from their own experience and supporting others to integrate in difficult circumstances. That demonstrates what can be done if we provide people with the space to serve others.
I want to speak only briefly, but I want to make some points, not least on behalf of my constituents, who over the weekend expressed to me how strongly they felt that Britain should play its part.
There are now nearly 2.5 million refugees, and the UNHCR states that they are at significant risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Other Members have talked already about the reasons—not least the conditions in the camps. However, the refugees also face more mundane but none the less significant challenges: the inability to earn money, to feed themselves, to have housing and shelter, and to be able to educate their children and to access basic services that will keep them healthy. The UNHCR says that the majority of refugees are reliant on humanitarian food aid. We know that food banks in this country are wrong. The indignity of relying on others for food is a problem, even in the face of more violent and terrible horrors.
Refugees also face troubling and significant health problems. We have seen the return of polio, and communicable diseases such as measles, tuberculosis and other infectious conditions make life as a refugee troubling. UNICEF says that 68% of Syrian refugee children are now not in education, as Sarah Teather mentioned.
British people never fail to show their solidarity, and I pay tribute to all who have put their hands in their pockets to show support for the Syrian people. They recognise, as the Home Secretary said, that refugees are ordinary citizens, just like us, caught up in a terrible war not of their making.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the charity Open Doors has recorded that, in 2013, 1,213 Christians in Syria were martyred for their faith? Does she feel that while we address the refugee issue, we should also ensure that there is assistance on the ground for those who wish to stay?
There is a range of ways in which we need to show our support. I was sorry and surprised last week to hear Ministers describe the UNHCR programme as “token”. We must do good wherever we can, and I do not hold with the view that has been expressed that because the scale of the problem is huge, each individual action that we can take for each individual at risk is not important in itself. I believe that it is. I would like to pay tribute to each and every one of those people, many of whom are UK citizens like us, who have worked to help those who have been made vulnerable by this conflict. Their work is important and we pay tribute to their efforts.
My hon. Friend is talking powerfully about intervention to help those who are suffering as a result of the crisis in Syria. One point that is often lost in these debates is the plight of urban refugees. Many people imagine that refugees are only in refugee camps—and they certainly face real threats—but almost half of them are in urban areas.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The conditions in the camps were well described by the hon. Member for Brent Central, and we must all remain focused on that important situation, but there is also a massive crisis, which could quickly turn into an economic crisis, for those countries that have welcomed refugees into their cities. We must support not only the refugees, but the host communities. They were not wealthy to begin with and now, as a result of their generosity, risk a difficult economic future.
I will end my remarks by sharing with the House the words of some of the refugees, as documented by the support agencies. I think that it is important that we listen to the words of those affected. The World Food Programme reported on the condition of refugees in December 2013 and told the story of Zakiya. She and her three daughters fled to Latakia, carrying little more than the clothes on their backs. She said:
“It was a matter of life and death the day we fled; we could hear the fighting approaching our area quickly and we had to run; we had no choice… I only had time to collect some cash and it was barely enough to cover our transport, let alone buy bread and water to survive”.
It is very important that we remember not only the reality of the situation faced by refugees fleeing present danger, but the possible long-term crisis for a whole generation in the region. They will have to cope with the limits that have been placed on their hopes and ambitions by the absence of sufficient education and health facilities. They are facing not just the return of polio and significant diseases, as I have said, but more mundane risks from illness and infection disease—threats that we all live without because we have everyday health care.
We all just assume that our children will go to school. Reema—not her real name—told Oxfam:
“I miss my teachers. I miss my classes, my English classes, my Arabic classes, my music classes. Now I’m just sitting here every day.”
There is real despondency. That is why I believe that we must take this opportunity, in this House of Commons, to show that we are not helpless in the face of this terror.
Order. We have very little time remaining. Members who have not been here for the whole debate have sought to intervene, and the time given to each Member who speaks is increased with each intervention, so those who have waited all afternoon to speak will not have a chance to do so. The hon. Gentleman may make his intervention, but the hon. Lady will not get extra time because of it.
I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Given that the UK Government have already committed £600 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees, which is 12 times more than France has donated, and indeed more than the rest of the European Union put together, does the hon. Lady agree that what we really want is for more countries to make the commitment to the Syrian refugees that the UK has made?
I am proud of the UK Government’s contribution, but I do not believe that it is my place as a British politician to judge others. Rather, I wish to encourage them to do all they can.
In conclusion, as we have seen today, we are not helpless in the face of this terror. We can step in and stand between refugees and destitution. I am glad that, by and large, this House has today agreed to do that.
Order. As Members who have spoken have taken interventions, and because some Members who have not been here for the whole debate have intervened, I have no choice but to reduce the time limit to four minutes.
I am pleased to follow the moving speech of Alison McGovern. I strongly welcome the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister and the statement by the Home Secretary today. As several hon. Members have pointed out, it is fitting that this change has taken place in the week of Holocaust memorial day.
I attended a very powerful and moving event in Cheltenham earlier this week. We talked about not only remembering the past, but learning from it and, in particular, about the importance of challenging the hysterical stereotyping of foreigners and of reaching out to those at risk of persecution. I reminded people at that event that I am the successor of Daniel Lipson, who was the Independent MP for Cheltenham during the second world war. He was also president of the Cheltenham synagogue. He spoke out in this House for the rights of refugees and for tolerance, particularly for the peoples of the middle east. I am very proud to be his successor.
I confess that when the Refugee Council first came to me and asked for my support for this campaign, which I was happy to give, I was a little sceptical of its chances of success in the current political climate. Its success is a real tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister and others in government, as well as to hon. Members on both sides of the House, including many Conservatives, who have pressed for a change of policy, but most of all it is a tribute to the Refugee Council, Amnesty International and other organisations and their supporters who have campaigned for change. They can be very proud of what they have achieved this week for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
I am very pleased that the Government have adopted a scheme that will prioritise those most at risk, particularly women and girls at risk of sexual violence. That group is also a priority in the UNHCR programme, and I remain slightly puzzled about why the Government have not simply adopted that programme. May I ask Ministers to agree to keep the idea of a separate arrangement under review, and perhaps consider adopting the mainstream UNHCR programme in due course?
I want to echo two remarks made earlier today. First, Mr Baron asked about the separation of families in the process. I am pleased that the Home Secretary replied that the Government have no intention of separating families, but I wonder whether a slightly firmer guarantee might be given.
Secondly, the point about the difference between refugees and migrants has been made several times. Yvette Cooper and others have asked whether refugees could be excluded from the net migration figure used by the Government, and I support that idea. If the right hon. Lady agrees with Mr Nigel Farage on that point, the Conservative party can probably be reassured that its right flank has been well and truly covered, and that Government policy might helpfully be modified.
It is important to remember the context in which this step is being taken. This will be a valuable and good drop in the ocean, but it will still be only a drop in the ocean. If hundreds or even a few thousand refugees are accepted into this country, that number will still only be tiny compared with the millions who are refugees or displaced persons in Syria. We have even heard distressing examples of Iraqi refugees inside Syria who have been doubly displaced: they are now refugees again elsewhere, and still cannot return home.
Nevertheless, the British Government have done a huge amount: we are the leading humanitarian aid donor; we are actively supporting the Geneva II peace process, which is enormously important; we have taken more asylum seekers already than many other European countries; and we are supporting those who are still fighting for freedom and democracy in Syria. We have a proud record of supporting the Syrian people, but it has just got a little better.
This is a really good day for Parliament. Since 2010, I have often been asked whether it is frustrating to be in opposition. This is one of those days that I can say, “Well, sometimes in opposition you can achieve something.” That has been shown by the arguments made during the past 10 days.
Those arguments have also been made by Government Members. I pay tribute to Mark Pritchard for how he spoke last week, and to Sir Menzies Campbell. They have contributed to the groundswell of opinion that has made the Government move their position. I welcome that, and I think that they have done the right thing.
We have a superb record of aid in the region. That is acknowledged on both sides of the House. I am sure that the Secretary of State for International Development will expand on that when she sums up. One thing remains that needs to be clarified. In opening the debate, the Home Secretary made much of the distinction between the programme that she is seeking to implement and the UNHCR programme. However, that is a distinction without a difference. I agree with the Home Secretary that the most important element is the response in the region, but in trying to differentiate her scheme from that of the UN, she said that she did not intend to subscribe to a quota scheme. However, the UN programme is not a quota scheme, as she knows. She needs to establish why, other than for political surface argument, her scheme is different from what is offered by the flexibility of the UNHCR scheme. She has manifestly failed to do that.
For every refugee that we take into the UK for resettlement, it will be life changing. To give one case from my constituency, an Iraqi woman sought the assistance of my office in bringing her sister’s family to the UK. They fled Iraq and went to Syria in 2008 when the husband was killed. Before they could be safely transferred to the UK, the youngest daughter tragically died of an illness that could not be treated in Damascus because of what was going on there. I am delighted that, under the gateway programme, the family have been transferred safely to the UK for resettlement and are rebuilding their lives in Manchester. That is wonderful. There must be no confusion between the UN gateway process, which we have always been a part of and is our normal process for admitting refugees, and what is being embarked upon here. For the torture victims, abandoned children and other vulnerable refugees to whom the Government have agreed to offer sanctuary, time is of the essence.
I have one remaining question. What was it that persuaded the Home Secretary that allowing a few hundred Syrian refugees into this country was not tokenism, which the Government maintained it was last week? Was it the images of the disabled children in refugee camps, was it the tragic stories of rape victims, or was it the prospect of losing a vote in this House?
I welcome the tone of the debate and of the motion, which I was pleased to sign. I welcome the Home Secretary’s earlier statement, although I wish that our scheme was part of the UN’s wider scheme. I will use the few minutes that I have this afternoon to make a stronger plea for greater generosity in respect of the absolute number of people we will allow into this country.
So many hon. Members have wanted to speak in this debate because of the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding. As many people have said, this is the greatest refugee crisis of our time and we have a moral responsibility to act. The UNHCR predicts that the number of Syrian refugees fleeing the country will be more than 4 million by the end of the year. That will be the largest refugee population in the world. None of us have forgotten what the millions of Syrian people who need help are fleeing from: the death and violence preceding and following the deplorable chemical attacks on civilians in Damascus last August. The traumatic images of those attacks are etched on all our minds. We can only begin to imagine the scars that have been left on the surviving refugees by a conflict with an estimated death toll already of 130,000.
In the face of this enormous crisis and the horrifying number of desperate people that we can hardly begin to imagine, all that is currently being asked by the UNHCR is that 30,000 Syrian refugees be admitted to other countries. I stress that that figure is what the UNHCR thinks is politically and logistically realistic, not the full number of vulnerable people who may need to seek refuge on our shores. We should not get fixated on the figure of 30,000, because the number could be much higher. Although I welcome the fact that the UK has agreed to help an unspecified number of refugees, I fear that that number will be very small.
I want to compare that situation with the huge strain under which Syria’s neighbours are already buckling. Not surprisingly, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are under enormous pressure, and there is real concern that they may begin to feel that they have to turn refugees away from their shores. Scores of people trying to escape the fighting, including families with small children, are already being denied admission by those neighbouring countries. According to an April 2013 survey, 71% of Jordanians want the border with Syria to be closed to new arrivals. With thousands of people fleeing Syria every day, that would be catastrophic. That is why western countries have a moral responsibility to show solidarity with Syria’s neighbours by sharing responsibility for protecting some of the people fleeing Syria.
The current situation in Syria’s neighbouring countries is incredibly fragile. For example, the current estimate is that refugees equating to approximately a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million have already fled there, and by the end of the year the UN expects Lebanon to have 1.6 million Syrian refugees, an enormous 35% of the population of a country that was ranked 67th in GDP per capita in 2012. We, on the other hand, are a member of the G8 and one of the world’s largest national economies, and we are potentially being seen to be quibbling about a tiny number of people. The bottom line is that I fear we are not doing as much as we could and should, and that we risk sending out a signal to other countries that it is acceptable for them to do the same.
I hope that we can talk about taking numbers of refugees not just in the hundreds but in the thousands, and that we can talk about what is needed, not the number that it may be politically expedient for us to accept.
I welcome the chance to it put on record that we have had a genuinely informed, passionate and, rightly, occasionally emotional debate about how the House, the Government and the UK population can most effectively support those seeking refugee status here and in other countries. I also want to put on record the Opposition’s appreciation of the Government’s continuing financial support for Syrian refugees, and welcome last night’s announcement that we will enable as many as several hundred to settle in the UK.
The worst thing in government is not doing the wrong thing; it is continuing to do the wrong thing when the evidence points in a different direction. All Governments are tempted by the instinct to carry on regardless from time to time, for the fear of losing face or of an Opposition screaming loudly in the media and the Chamber that it is a U-turn. Today, the Opposition have not made that charge, and the Government have not lost face. At the end of the debate, the Government will have done the right thing.
Of course, there remains concern that the UK will not participate formally in the UN scheme, but the most important thing is that some refugees will have the right to settle here. We therefore accept the Government’s announcement without fully agreeing with their argument about the UN, so the House will not need to divide on the motion. However, we look forward to the International Development Secretary setting out in more detail the rationale for staying outside the formal UN process. The US is part of the scheme and does not accept a quota, and other countries are in a similar position.
Today’s speeches have reflected the fact that we are all trying to find the most effective way to help those who may not be able to survive in the camps. They are children who have lost both their parents, women who have been raped or those who have been victims of torture and will struggle to recover from their ordeal—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The programme is for those who believe that they will find it hard to get through the coming weeks and months in their current predicament. They are not asylum seekers. They cannot travel to apply for asylum here or anywhere else, and they are already certified as refugees by the UN.
Let us never pretend, in the media or elsewhere, that we stand alone on this matter. The Germans are taking 10,000 refugees, and Norway 1,000. States as far away as Australia and Canada have signed up to the scheme. Spain, Sweden, Moldova and even Lichtenstein have signed up to the scheme in their own ways. Of course, not every nation is offering refuge, but the call from the UN is clear: those that can help, should help—[Interruption.] The International Development Secretary is heckling me from a sedentary position, but as I say, other countries will support the scheme in their own way. It is right that we lend a hand and do not turn our backs.
The United Kingdom, I believe, stands for much more than an amalgam of the four geographies of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also about a set of values, a way of life, and the way we act on the international stage. We have always been an outward-looking nation, and a country that takes pride in taking care. The British public are part of that spirit; they have broken new records in recent months with enormous financial contributions to the Syrian crisis, gigantic contributions to support victims of the typhoon in the Philippines, and the Comic Relief appeal.
We have heard passionate speeches from my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), Sir Richard Ottaway, and the hon. Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), for Moray (Angus Robertson), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). They all spoke about refugees, and in some ways touched on the pressures on neighbouring countries.
The UN has asked the world community to settle just 30,000 refugees. Let us think about that. Just one country—Lebanon—is currently hosting 30 times the number that the UN is asking the rest of the world to settle. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt all face enormous pressures, and there are now parts of Lebanon where refugees outnumber the indigenous population. Last week the Lebanese Prime Minister wrote in The Daily Telegraph that Lebanon can no longer cope. He said:
“If the United Kingdom faced the same humanitarian crisis it would be the equivalent of three times Scotland’s population of 5 million crossing into England and camping out in the Yorkshire dales.”
We should applaud those nations and the Governments of neighbouring states who are doing so much to absorb and support those refugees. Prince Hassan of Jordan was asked whether the people of Jordan were running out of patience with refugees, but he replied in a different way and said
“we’re running out of water.”
That gives a sense of the scale of the crisis that those neighbouring countries are faced with, and that is why, when we spoke about the humanitarian crisis, Mr Llwyd and my right hon. Friend Mr Clarke spoke with years of experience, and why Alistair Burt struggled through his yoghurt-covered peanuts—I do not know if that is the Bedfordshire equivalent of a deep-fried Mars bar, but he did well to get through it nevertheless. In that conversation everyone noted that the humanitarian crisis is not just a crisis of human struggle, but also a struggle in a crisis of humanity. On the doorstep of Europe is a nation that has been transformed, a people uprooted and a region plunged into further chaos. The sheer number—9 million people affected—paints a picture of the scale but masks a simple truth about death and suffering. One unnecessary death is a tragedy, but as we know, 130,000 people have died in Syria. That is not a statistic; it is 130,000 family tragedies, each and every one still being mourned.
Four years ago, Syrians got on with their lives: the morning commute, the monthly pay cheque, the annual holiday and the school run. These were families with hopes and fears, plans for the future and memories of the past—people just like our constituents. Today their lives have been turned upside down and no community is untouched. Where once there was prosperity there is now just loss and terror. There is death, disease, violence and hunger; there are communities under siege, and polio is emerging as hope disappears.
That is why we wish to push the Government a little further on another matter: support for children. Young Syrians are seeing their right to an education snatched away by a civil war they did not cause and cannot possibly fully understand. Ninety-seven out of 100 Syrian children used to enrol in schools, but today if Syria’s refugees were a country it would have the worst enrolment rate in the world—five times worse than sub-Saharan Africa. No one in this House wants to forget those children, and the Government have invested substantially in supporting them. However, we wish them to go further.
In Lebanon, 300,000 refugee children cannot find a place to learn. That is why the Opposition have called on the Government to step in and get behind an international plan to get Syrian children back to schools. That innovative plan is based around double-shifting schools, using available community centres and enlisting the support of displaced Syrian teachers. Much of the thinking and work on it has been carried out by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, supported by Ban Ki-moon. The US, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates have promised to support it, and I would like to know whether the Department for International Development could do so.
Time is against us in the debate. I shall end where I began. When the Government do the right thing, the correct and proper Opposition response is to recognise it. We should support them when they do the right thing and continue to cajole and encourage them when they are not fulfilling their responsibilities. I therefore thank all in DFID. In the region, DFID is helping to provide humanitarian aid. I thank all Britons working for non-governmental organisations, charities and churches that are helping to provide such aid.
I put it on record that Opposition Members, like Government Members, want the policy that has been announced in the past 24 hours to be a success. We stand ready to provide any advice and support, and input into the Government’s thinking, over the next few weeks and months, on their policy. Those who are struggling—those about whom all hon. Members have spoken and read, and whom we have seen on our television sets—expect nothing more and nothing less than politicians on both sides of the House working together to secure their lives and provide them with some semblance of a future.
The House has heard many eloquent contributions, and many horror stories of the crisis inside Syria and the impact it has on the broader region. Caroline Lucas set that out. There are men and women inside Syria who are denied access to any form of humanitarian support, including access to food—Sir Gerald Kaufman spoke of those who are dying from starvation through a lack of humanitarian support. In a moving speech, Alison McGovern spoke of the outbreak of polio 14 years after Syria was certified polio-free. She will be pleased the learn that the UK was part of helping the World Health Organisation to immunise about 200,000 children in Syria at the end of last year in response to that outbreak.
Since the crisis began, 14 UN staff and 32 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed doing their jobs, going about providing humanitarian support to those who need it. As hon. Members have said, the crisis is having an exceptionally heavy toll on Syrian children. I have made several visits to the region. I have met refugees who had been in the camps for some time and those who had just arrived. Some started off with a lot and some with not very much, but in most cases they have very little, if anything, left to their names. Most have left having seen their towns and villages bombed and in fear of their lives. Many have moved on several occasions before finally taking the decision to leave Syria.
In Lebanon, 40% of the refugees arriving are children aged 17 or under, which is a shocking statistic. I met children who are being educated in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. When a convoy plane flies overhead delivering humanitarian supplies to the camp, the children automatically dive under the tables because they are so used to having to do that in Syria when bombs are dropping.
I assure the House that the UK is standing by the Syrian people in their hour of desperate need. As we have heard, our total funding for Syria and the region is now £600 million, which is three times the size of our response to any other humanitarian crisis. We have also heard that our aid contribution is second only to that of the United States. In fact, it is getting on for as much as all other EU member states put together. That figure represents the deep concern, which I think has been demonstrated across the whole House today, regarding the worsening plight of the Syrian people and the growing need inside Syria in particular and across the region.
May I ask the Secretary of State to assure the House that, to the best of her knowledge, refugees who get to the Syrian border and into a camp will be fed and clothed, and have their basic medical needs taken care of? We cannot do anything inside Syria, but we sure as hell can do something on the borders.
I can reassure my hon. Friend. UK aid is being supplied to more than 300,000 people a month, many of whom are in camps. We are supplying water to nearly 1 million people a month, which is vital.
We have provided more than 300,000 medical consultations for people who would otherwise be without the sort of medical support they were often used to in their previous lives. Syria was a middle-income country and people had lifestyles that we would recognise. For them, the transition into camps has been harsh.
I was going to refer to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks. He is right to highlight the pressures that the influx of refugees is having not just on countries as a whole, but on so-called host communities. Many have seen their populations literally double, and that is having the sort of effect we can all imagine. It is stretching health care, hospitals, schools—I will come on to talk about some of the work we are doing to support children—water, sanitation and sewerage systems. The UK was instrumental in working with the World Bank to set up a trust fund, focused in that case on helping Jordan, to invest in basic services. We want to ensure that not only are refugees taken care of, but the people in host communities who have been very generous in accepting refugees and have been hugely affected by doing so. Another example, which is part of our work to support children in Lebanon, is that we have recently provided more than 300,000 packs of textbooks for children in public schools. Most of the children receiving those textbooks will be Lebanese and about 80,000 will be Syrian. It is important that we reflect and recognise the support needed by host communities.
Millions of Syrians are facing the harshest winter of their lives. For many, it is the third winter they are facing as refugees. I was in Bekaa valley in Lebanon earlier this month. The UK has provided about £90 million for so-called “winterisation”: winter tents, warm clothing, heating, food, blankets and shelter kits. I pay tribute, as Mr Clarke did, to the non-governmental organisations. They are often the organisations that provide this support on the ground. The whole House should pay tribute to their dedication and efforts in what are incredibly challenging and often dangerous situations.
We are deeply concerned about sexual violence. The UK is funding specialist programmes that prioritise the protection of women and girls who have been affected by the crisis, both inside Syria and in the region. We held an international summit, which was a call to action on the overall issue of protecting girls and women in humanitarian crisis situations so that they are not victims of sexual violence. The hon. Member for Wirral South was right to highlight some of the health issues faced by women, in particular, in these circumstances.
Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable groups who find themselves most at risk. Last September, when I was in Zaatari camp, I met a number of women who were living there. It was interesting to hear the views of my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, who has also been to that camp. Many of the women are stoic about the situation in which they find themselves, but once they begin to talk one hears more about the traumatic experiences they have been through. The thing they worry about most, whether they are men or women, is the impact of the crisis—[Interruption.]
Order. There are Members now in the Chamber who have not sat through this sombre debate, but who are making so much noise that I cannot hear the Secretary of State. Everyone else has been heard. Members ought to show courtesy to other Members.
The thing that parents worry about most is what the crisis is doing to their children and the experiences their children are going through. I have met children who have clearly been traumatised by these events. Many, on the outside, seem to be coping with the crisis, but when talking to them, one realises that their heartbreaking experiences will mark them for the rest of their lives. When they draw pictures in school, they draw pictures of planes bombing their homes, and when they talk, they talk about chemical weapons attacks and their concerns about what they have done to Syria.
As highlighted today, the big challenge is that Syria’s children are in danger of becoming a lost generation. They will grow up and become adults, and we all have a choice about what kind of adults we would like them to become and the kind of opportunities we would like them to have. That is one reason why the UK has worked hard with UNICEF—we are now its biggest bilateral donor—to focus international attention on the No Lost Generation campaign, which is about ensuring that children, in particular, are taken care of.
The thing about UN appeals that are only half funded is that while many life-saving measures, such as those mentioned today, are taken, those extra things that children in particular often need, such as education and psycho-social trauma counselling, tend to get left out. That is why it is important that these UN appeals be funded, and why the UK has provided so much funding and why the rest of the international community needs to work harder to ensure the appeal is fully funded.
It was particularly interesting to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who have seen refugees in Turkey for themselves and who eloquently set out their views on how it was affecting children. I can assure the House that the £30 million that we have invested in UNICEF to provide protection, trauma care and education, particularly for children, will not be the final word in our investment to help those children.
Some 4.2 million children are in need inside Syria, and 2 million of them are school-aged but not in school. We know that many schools in Syria have been bombed. About 500,000 child-registered refugees are not enrolled in school, and as we have heard, some are sent out to work, but some have parents too scared to take them out of the tent and into school, because they do not want to let them out of their sight in camps as big as Zaatari. One of the most important things to do, working with the NGO community and UNICEF, is to ensure that parents feel secure in sending their children to school, often in alien environments.
I have met teachers in Lebanon in schools running two shifts, and they are amazing professionals. They sat down with me and talked about how they and head teachers had work as teams to ensure schools could operate double shifts—in the morning for Lebanese children, and in the afternoon for Syrian children. It is remarkable to see how these children rub along together and have come to understand more about each other’s experiences as the term has gone by.
Clearly, the international community needs to do more. Countries such as Lebanon and Jordan in particular, but also many others, have been incredibly generous in opening up their borders and allowing refugees in, and it is absolutely right that today my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the UK Government would continue to evolve our support for those affected by the Syrian crisis by extending that support and providing sanctuary to the most at-risk refugees from this war. Mr Lammy talked about Ugandan-Asian refugees coming here. One of them is now the leader of Wandsworth council, which shows the contribution that many refugees make to Britain.
I can assure Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Murphy and the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) that we will work hand in hand with the UNHCR. I had a good talk with Antonia Guterres in Switzerland last week about how we could ensure the programme worked effectively.
I think that, ultimately, we all recognise that Syria needs a political solution to end the fighting. That point was made very eloquently by someone for whom I have a huge amount of respect, my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt, and also by my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway and Mr Llwyd.
In the meantime, as we all have hopes for the Geneva II process but retain a heavy sense of the level of the challenges that remain, the British people can be proud of the role that Britain is playing in conveying humanitarian assistance to those who need it. As we have already heard today, not only is that the right thing to do, but ending the conflict and bringing stability to the region is in Britain’s national interest.
Britain is on the side of the people in Syria about whom we have talked today. We will do everything that we can to achieve a political solution, but during that process we will continue to be at the forefront of the humanitarian response.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Government’s £600 million response to the unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis; further welcomes the UK’s leadership in the appeal for aid and supports calls for the rest of the international community to ensure the UN humanitarian appeal for Syria has the resources it needs to help those suffering from the conflict; is concerned about the plight of the most vulnerable refugees who will find it hardest to cope in the camps in the region, including victims of torture and children in need of special assistance; and calls on the Government to participate in the UNHCR Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission of Syrian Refugees Programme.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, during Prime Minister’s Question Time, I said that child poverty was on the increase in Britain. That was disputed by the Prime Minister, who claimed that it was, in fact, going down.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am a diligent fellow, and I was once called “a perspicacious terrier” by Mr Speaker himself, so I double-checked with Save the Children this afternoon. I can now confirm that absolute child poverty is rising in this country, and that, just this month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released projections showing that, whichever way the Government measure child poverty, it is set to increase massively over the next decade. Madam Deputy Speaker, could you—
Order. Whatever Mr Speaker may have said about him in the past, the hon. Gentleman has not made a point of order so far. What he is making is a point of debate in disagreeing with something that was said earlier. Unless he wishes to raise a matter, further to his point of order, that can be dealt with by the Chair, I must congratulate him on getting his point on the record, but say to him that it is not a point of order for me, as the occupant of the Chair.
Because you were not in the Chamber at the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was trying to explain to you exactly what had happened earlier. Can you now advise me on whether it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to come back to the House and apologise for misleading—or inadvertently misleading—the House?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the proceedings in the House earlier. However, I must say to him “Nice try, but it is still not a point of order.”
What is said in the House is relevant and a matter for each Member, and I am sure that, given that the hon. Gentleman has been described as someone who is persistent, he will find another way—although not this afternoon—in which to pursue his point with regard to the information given by the Prime Minister.