Syria Crisis: UK Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 8th February 2016.

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Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Secretary of State for International Development 4:19 pm, 8th February 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement updating the House on the recent Syria conference, which the UK co-hosted with Kuwait, Norway, Germany and the United Nations last Thursday.

For nearly five years, the Syrian people have suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Assad regime and, more recently, Daesh. Inside Syria, 13.5 million people are in desperate need, while a further 4.6 million people have become refugees. As we have seen over the past 72 hours alone, the impact on the people of the region is terrible and profound. When I was in Lebanon and Jordan last month, I spoke to refugees, some of whom were spending their fifth winter under a tent, and their stories were similar. When they left their homes, they thought they would be back in weeks or perhaps months at the most, but for an overwhelming number it has turned out to be years, and there is no end in sight.

Not only is Syria the world’s biggest and most urgent humanitarian crisis, but its far-reaching consequences are being felt across Europe and touching our lives here in Britain. More than 1 million refugees and migrants risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean last year. Of these, half were fleeing the bloodbath in Syria.

Since the fighting began, Britain has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syria conflict. Aid from the UK is already helping to provide food for people inside Syria every month, as well as clean water and sanitation for hundreds of thousands of refugees across the region. Our work on the Syria crisis gives people in the region hope for a better future, and is also firmly in Britain’s national interest. Without British aid, hundreds of thousands more refugees might feel they had no alternative but to risk their lives seeking to get to Europe.

Despite all that, more was needed. The UN Syria appeals for the whole of last year ended up only 54% funded. Other countries needed to follow the UK’s lead and step up to the plate. That is why the UK announced we would co-host an international conference in London on behalf of Syria and the region, building on three successful conferences held in Kuwait in previous years. Last Thursday, we brought together more than 60 countries and organisations, including 33 Heads of State and Governments. The stage was set for the international community to deliver real and lasting change for the people affected by the crisis, but in the end it was going to come down to choices.

Could we pledge the record-breaking billions needed, going much further than previous conferences, and commit to going beyond people’s basic needs and delivering viable, long-term solutions on jobs and education for Syria’s refugees and the countries supporting them? At the London conference, the world made the right choices to do all of those things. Countries, donors and businesses stepped up and raised new funds for the crisis amounting to more than $11 billion. This included $5.8 billion for 2016 and another $5.4 billion for 2017-20. It was the largest amount ever committed in a single day in response to a humanitarian crisis, and it means that more has been raised in the first five weeks of this year for the Syria crisis than was raised in the whole of 2015.

The UK, once again, played its part. We announced that we would double our commitment, increasing our total pledge to Syria and the region to more than £2.3 billion. Going beyond people’s basic needs, the world said at the London conference that there must be no lost generation of Syrian children and pledged to deliver education to children inside Syria and to at least 1 million refugee and host-community children in the region outside Syria who were out of school. This is an essential investment not only in those children, but in Syria’s future. It also gives those countries that are generously hosting refugees temporarily the investment in their education systems that will benefit them in the longer term.

The London conference also made a critical choice on supporting jobs for refugees and economic growth in the countries hosting them. We hope that historic commitments with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan will create at least 1 million jobs in countries neighbouring Syria, so that refugees have a livelihood close to home. That will also help to create jobs for local people and leave a legacy of economic growth. By making those choices, we are investing in what is, overwhelmingly, the first choice of Syrian refugees: to stay in the region, closer to their home country and their families who are so often still in it. If we can give Syrians hope for a better future where they are, they are less likely to feel that they have no choice other than to make perilous journeys to Europe.

I wish to thank all those civil servants from my own Department, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for working so tirelessly as a team to help us deliver such a successful and vital conference. It is not often that civil servants get the thanks that they deserve, so on this occasion I decided to put my thanks on record.

The world has offered an alternative vision of hope to all those affected by this crisis, but, in the end, only peace will give the Syrian people back their future. The establishment of the International Syria Support Group at the end of 2015 was an important step on the path to finding a political settlement to the conflict. The Syrian opposition has come together to form the Higher Negotiations Committee to engage in negotiations with the regime on political transition, and the UN launched proximity talks between the Syrian parties in January.

The UN special envoy to Syria took the decision to pause these talks following an increase in airstrikes and violence by the Assad regime, backed by Russia. The UK has called on all sides to take steps to create the conditions for peace negotiations to continue. In particular, Russia must use its influence over the regime to put a stop to indiscriminate attacks and the unacceptable violations of international law. Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. It is brutal, unacceptable and illegal to use starvation as a weapon of war.

In London, world leaders demanded an end to those abuses, including the illegal use of siege and obstruction of humanitarian aid. Our London conference raised the matter of resourcing for life-saving humanitarian support, which must be allowed to reach those who are in need as a result of the Syria conflict, irrespective of where they are.

I also want to take this opportunity to provide an update on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Since my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last updated the House on the campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the global coalition, working with partner forces, has put further pressure on Daesh. Iraqi forces, with coalition support, have retaken large portions of Ramadi. In Syria, the coalition has supported the capture of the Tishrin Dam and surrounding villages as well as areas south of al-Hawl.

The UK is playing its part. As of 5 February, RAF Typhoon, Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown more than 2,000 combat missions and carried out more than 585 successful strikes across Iraq and Syria. We are also leading efforts to sanction those trading with, or supporting, Daesh. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gained agreement at the European Council in December on asset freezes and other restrictive measures.

Since day one of this crisis, the UK has led the way in funding and shaping the international response. We have evolved our response as this incredibly complex crisis itself has evolved. There will be no end to the suffering until a political solution is found. The Syria conference, co-hosted by the UK and held here in London, was a pivotal moment to respond to help those people and countries affected. We seized the chance to offer the Syrian people and their children hope for a better future. The UK will now be at the heart of making that ambition a reality and keeping the international community’s promise to the Syrian people. That is the right thing to do for those suffering and, fundamentally, for Britain, and I commend this statement to the House.