Refugees and Human Rights

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 24th January 2018.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 1:39 pm, 24th January 2018

My hon. Friend, having visited the region himself, is a great expert in that area. He echoes many of the things that the shadow Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend Liz McInnes, has been telling us. My hon. Friend Kate Osamor will sum up the debate, focusing particularly on the humanitarian situation in Africa.

We know that Myanmar simply will not act without external pressure—not on consent for repatriation, and not on the guarantees the Rohingya need regarding their future security, citizenship and economic viability. Will the Minister, finally, use our role as the UN penholder on this issue to submit a Security Council resolution to ensure legally binding guarantees on and international monitoring of all these issues? Until we get those guarantees, will he urge India and Japan to withdraw their offer to fund the planned repatriation?

As we work for the future protection of the Rohingya, we cannot forget those who have already suffered and died, so let me ask the Minister this as well: is it still the case that only two of the Government’s 70 experts on international sexual violence have so far been deployed in the region, despite the vast scale of crimes that have occurred? Will he make it clear that Myanmar must allow the UN special rapporteur on human rights to carry out her investigation unobstructed, or Myanmar risks once more being a pariah state and being pushed out into the cold?

The second challenge is about the countries locked in intractable conflicts, leaving millions of innocent civilians internally displaced or as refugees. I turn to Yemen. More than 5,000 children have now been killed or injured since the war began—five children every single day. Hundreds of children are now suffering with malnutrition, cholera and diphtheria. I learned only recently what diphtheria really meant. For me, it was just about my children being injected when they were young. Diphtheria is called the strangling disease: it strangles babies. It is now stalking Yemen, and 2 million children are now receiving no schooling at all.

UNICEF usually says that such and such percentage of children require support, but last week it was clear that almost every single child in Yemen now needs humanitarian aid. Resolving this situation could not be more urgent. In that context, I do not know whether the Minister was present for the Foreign Secretary’s recent Cabinet presentation on the Yemen conflict, but, according to The Mail on Sunday, his opening line was, “We have got to do something about the Saudi war on Yemen”. Well, that is what we have been telling the Government for two years now, so thank goodness they are finally listening, even if they do so only in private.

I hope that the Minister will admit another private truth today. He says that there is no military solution in Yemen—the UN says it and even Rex Tillerson says it—but the truth is that that is not what the Saudis believe. Just a few weeks ago, exiled President Hadi said that the current Saudi military offensive would

“put an end to the Houthi coup” and that, as a result, there was no purpose in peace talks. In other words, the war will continue until the Saudis secure victory, no matter how long it takes and no matter what the cost. That is unacceptable. If the Government genuinely want to do something to end the Saudi war, I suggest that, as with Myanmar, they take the following steps: pull their finger out, get their pen out and do their job. They should do the job that they have been given by the United Nations and submit a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks. Will the Government follow the lead of Germany and Norway and suspend arms sales for use in this conflict pending the result of a full independent investigation of alleged war crimes?

In Syria, the humanitarian situation is equally dire. The need for peace is just as great, and we face the same impasse in moving towards a political solution. From Astana to Sochi, and from Geneva to Vienna, we have rival peace processes with no agreed set of participants and no agreed set of goals or acceptable outcomes. As long as that impasse continues, the only incentive on all sides is to maximise territorial gains whatever the costs.

We see that Assad’s typically criminal assault on Idlib and eastern Ghouta is already triggering a fresh wave of displaced civilians. What we also see is the US plan for an open-ended military presence to stabilise so-called liberated areas near the Turkish border alongside a new 30,000 strong Kurdish army, which was idiotically named by the Americans as the Syrian border force. Therefore, while we condemn Turkey’s response in invading the border area and assaulting the Afrin enclave, we must ask the US how it thought Turkey was likely to respond. It is a hugely dangerous development, and it takes me back to what I said at this Dispatch Box some 15 months ago, which is that a long-term political solution in Syria must be predicated on the de-escalation of overseas forces, not a move to their permanent presence.

I have these questions for the Minister. First, what steps is he taking to resolve the impasse over peace talks? In particular, is he determined now automatically to reject any positive outcome from next week’s congress in Sochi? Secondly, can he tell us whether there are any UK personnel—military or otherwise—involved either in training the new Kurdish border force or in America’s proposed “stabilisation activities” in Northern Syria? Finally, as the violence escalates in Idlib and Rojava, what preparations are the Government making for a fresh wave of Syrian refugees fleeing towards Turkey and the Aegean sea?

The third challenge concerns countries caught in a cycle of entrenched division and sporadic violence, leaving millions of civilians trapped in poverty and deprivation. My hon. Friend the shadow International Development Secretary will talk later about the grave situations in Somalia and South Sudan.

Let me focus in particular on the millions of Palestinian refugees spread across Gaza, the west bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. For almost 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has supported those refugees and their descendants. UNRWA’s budget last year was $760 million. We could fund its work for the next 220 years with the cost of just one “Boris bridge” across the channel, and it would be a far better use of the money.

Thanks to UNRWA, 500,000 Palestinian children receive schooling every day and millions more receive healthcare. Last week, Donald Trump cut their funding by $65 million. I am reluctant to quote his Tweet, but he said:

“we pay the Palestinians…MILLIONS…and get no appreciation or respect.”

Young children will be denied education and medicine all because poor Donald Trump does not think that he gets enough “appreciation or respect”. How utterly pathetic!