Support for Civilians Fleeing Gaza

– in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 6 February 2024.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 6:32, 6 February 2024

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly on the plight of innocent civilians in Gaza, although it breaks my heart that the debate is necessary. About 1.8 million people are trapped in Gaza right now. Almost all of them are multiple internal refugees, who have been forced to flee their homes elsewhere in Gaza and again several times, as places that were promised would be safe soon became anything but.

I do not want to go into the arguments about the legality or illegality, morality or immorality of what is happening there, and what has happened previously in Israel. Those debates have to continue, but I want to use this opportunity to ask what steps the UK Government are taking to save the lives of people who are in mortal danger. To no one’s surprise, I will suggest that they are not doing nearly enough.

We have already seen more than 27,000 deaths in Gaza, mostly women and children. The vast majority are completely innocent civilians who have never wished any harm on anyone. There is a real and imminent danger that that horrific death toll will increase exponentially if, as still seems likely, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is forced to stop or significantly scale down its lifesaving work in Gaza. People are already dying not just because of military action but because essential supplies of food, water and medicines are not getting through in sufficient quantities.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful start to his speech. He mentioned the innocent civilians who are being subjected to horrendous conditions. My constituent Dr Salim Ghayyda has 40 family members living day by day, trying to avoid death, the horrendous circumstances, and everything else that people have to put up with there. Is it not about time that the UK Government put in a scheme, even for relatives of UK citizens, to get them safe harbour away from the atrocities that they face every day?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Many of our constituents have hardly slept for months, because they never know when they are going to get the phone call telling them of the death of a relative, or in some cases, the deaths of five, 10 or 15 relatives at the same time. It is an unimaginable worry for people to be living with.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Member for bringing forward this debate, on a subject we all have in our mind. Does he agree that the most vulnerable people under attack in Gaza need a clear path to safety? Will he join me in urging the neighbouring nations also to step up their efforts to welcome refugees with open arms? Does he further agree that our Government should be ensuring that we do all we can to make sure that aid gets to the people who clearly need it the most?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I do not disagree with anything the hon. Gentleman said, although I would point out that some of the neighbouring countries are hosting between 1 million and 2 million refugees from Syria. That is why this is a global problem; the whole world has to take action.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. A constituent of mine is a Palestinian international student at university in York. His family remain in Gaza, and he is desperate for his children to join him, yet the Government have not opened up an opportunity or a scheme to bring his family to him. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the humanitarian thing for this Government to do is to open up visa opportunities for families to be reunited?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

Absolutely. I think the message emerging is that this situation is affecting significant numbers of people in the United Kingdom. A large number of our constituents have close family members who are in mortal danger. We cannot stand by and then wonder afterward why some did not survive.

Lives have been lost because aid has not always got through in time, and certainly not in sufficient quantities. If UNRWA has to scale down significantly, or even stop its activities, the situation will worsen—250 deaths a day is bad enough; it could get unimaginably worse. It is no exaggeration to say that if we do not start to act soon, we could see more civilian deaths in Gaza than there were in Rwanda in 1994. Gaza could become the new Rwanda. Regardless of what terminology people choose to use to describe the actions of the various warring factions in and around Palestine, regardless of the terminology used to describe what is being done to innocent civilians, and regardless of who we choose to point the finger of blame at, it is not tenable to suggest that we can stand back and let today’s figure of tens of thousands of preventable deaths grow into hundreds of thousands, or even more.

Part of the response has to be to get people out of harm’s way as quickly and in as large numbers as possible. What I am asking the Government to do, as a first step, is something that I know for a fact other countries have already done, so let us not pretend that it is something the Government cannot do. First, where civilians in Gaza have close family members in the United Kingdom, the UK Government should, at the very least, be negotiating safe passage for them to get out of Gaza. Secondly, the Government should be guaranteeing their right to come to the United Kingdom and join their families, not necessarily permanently—that is not what Palestinians want—but as a short-term, emergency measure, to keep them safe until their homeland, the land they want to return to, is once more safe and fit for human habitation. I appreciate that is not palatable to some Government Members, but the alternative is far less palatable.

I have referred to my constituent Dr Lubna Hadoura several times in this Chamber. She came here as a student, like the constituent Rachael Maskell mentioned, but she liked Scotland so much that she stayed. She has given over 30 years—her entire adult lifetime—of service to our NHS as a consultant surgeon, most of it in Fife. She has probably saved the lives of many of my constituents. She has about 20 close relatives living under bombardment in Gaza, ranging from her elderly mum to two babies too wee even to walk. Dr Hadoura loves living in Fife. Most of her family have no intention of coming to live permanently in Fife, or indeed anywhere else in the United Kingdom. They want to live their lives in Palestine; that is home for them. But most important of all, they want to live, and living is becoming almost physically impossible in Gaza.

I make a particular appeal given Dr Hadoura’s outstanding contribution to her adopted country. We owe her, and I think that even getting her mum out to safety constitutes only a fraction of that debt. Most of the Members who are present have already made similar appeals on behalf of their constituents’ families, but—this is only my personal view—I do not think that we should be stopping at people with families in the UK. I do not think that we should knowingly leave anyone to die, but sadly I hold out little hope of the Government’s willingness to go as far as that this evening.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

I wanted to add my voice to that of my hon. Friend, because, as he knows, his constituent has a sister who is my constituent, and who has also given many years’ service to the NHS. That family are in a position to financially support any relatives who might come from Gaza to the UK temporarily.

I agree with my hon. Friend that as well as considering families like those of our constituents, we should have a wider humanitarian visa. In the last few months there have been nearly twice as many civilian deaths in Gaza as in Ukraine. What difference does my hon. Friend think there is between the position of the Gazans and that of the Ukrainians that is preventing the British Government from issuing a humanitarian visa?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I can only speculate on what the Government’s thinking might be. I see no difference whatsoever, and I refuse to accept any distinction between any two human beings who are in mortal danger. We do not expect firefighters to check bank accounts or passports before deciding who is to be taken out of a burning building. We do not expect ambulance crews to check who someone is before deciding in which order to treat casualties after a road accident, although some people do. We certainly do not expect to see the heroes who man—and woman—lifeboats stopping to check people’s identities before deciding whether to pull them out of the sea. In the same way, we should not be making distinctions between those who should be allowed to live in the United Kingdom and those who should be left to die in Gaza or anywhere else, but sadly, as I have said, I do not think we will see that amount of movement from the Government today or at any time. So far, they have refused even to meet me to listen to the moral, humanitarian and imperative case for letting Dr Hadoura’s elderly mum survive, letting the rest of her family survive, and letting as many of those 1.8 million people as possible survive.

The most recent reply that I received from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was very sympathetic, very apologetic and utterly, utterly dismissive. It would be easy to look at that letter and think that it had been written by someone who genuinely could not care less about the plight of Palestinians right now. I do not think that that is a correct description of anyone in the Foreign Office, but that is the impression that the letter gave my constituent.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the hon. Member for initiating this important debate. I too have encountered issues involving several constituents. Surprisingly, there do not seem to be that many—I think that three have written to me—so I do not think there is a huge number that the Government should be concerned about. However, these are family members who are contributing to the UK economy. My constituents Rami Alfaqani and Alaa Safi have lost 52 members of their family, and another family member needs urgent medical intervention. That is why we should do the humanitarian and right thing for those people.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

The hon. Member is right to talk of doing the humanitarian and right thing. I would suggest that the situation in Gaza has become so critically desperate that the humanitarian response is the only one that can be morally tenable for any of us.

I said that the letter from the Foreign Office was dismissive, and I am sorry to have to say that it was also less than 100% honest. In a letter that was one and a half pages long, the writer talked eight times about what the Foreign Office could and could not do. Let me say again to the Minister that I am not asking the UK Government to do anything that they cannot do. I am not asking them to do anything except what I know other countries, including some of our closest international allies, have already done for the families of their citizens to get them out of Gaza. For the Foreign Office, it is not a question of “We cannot do anything more”, but a question of “We choose not to do anything more”, and I think that that is an untenable position for anyone to adopt at this time.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is making some excellent points, and I share his frustrations, having also written to the Foreign Secretary on this issue on behalf of my constituent, Sama, whose family have been evacuated six times. A recent Israel Defence Forces bombardment destroyed the family home, which took them 30 years to build. Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be some route for families in that situation? At the moment, Sama has no answers from this Government and there is no way of getting her family to safety.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. One thing that is causing immeasurable upset to my constituent, Dr Hadoura, and to many other Palestinians in the United Kingdom is that they are in contact with Palestinian families in other countries and seeing them getting their loved ones out of Palestine. They know that the UK Government say that they cannot do anything about it, but they see other countries’ Governments being able to do something. Those Governments might have reasons for not wanting to publicise it or for it to be too widely known, but they are willing to go beyond the legal minimum to get people out and reunited with their families.

The last letter I got from the Foreign Office Minister finished by saying:

“ I recognise this will be disappointing news”— disappointing? Disappointing?—

“but wanted to relay it as soon as possible, so that your constituent can take informed decisions about his family’s next steps.”

Incidentally, it was clear in my letter that Dr Hadoura was a she, not a he. That made me convinced that this was a cut-and-paste job from another letter and that they had not even bothered to tailor it to the individual constituent. And relaying it to me “as soon as possible” meant sending me a letter two months after I had contacted the Minister. By contrast, on Friday last week, within the space of about two hours, my office had two emails and two phone calls from the Foreign Office wanting to know what today’s debate was about. What does that tell us about its priorities? That it was more urgent to sort out which Minister would respond to the debate than to agree to meet Members of Parliament to try and find a way of stopping people dying unnecessarily.

But it was the bit after that in the letter that I found callous beyond belief: it had been sent so that my constituent, Dr Hadoura, could take “informed decisions” about her “family’s next steps”. Precisely what decisions are available to Dr Hadoura, to her family and to the 1.8 million others? What on earth are they supposed to decide about? There are no options. There is no survival plan for those families in Gaza because it is becoming impossible for anyone to survive there. An earlier Government response suggested that they should all apply for visas to travel to the United Kingdom. What a really great idea! It is impossible for them to apply for a visa in Gaza. Where are they going to apply to? Who still has a consulate operating in Gaza? If they try to travel somewhere else in Gaza to get a visa, there is a very high risk that they will be shot. If by some miracle they manage to reach the Egyptian border—remember, the only borders they have are with Israel and Egypt—the border guards will say, “Have you got a visa to travel somewhere else? No? Get back to Gaza, then.” And the whole thing goes round in a circle. They cannot get a visa without getting out of Gaza, and they cannot get out of Gaza without a visa. The Government fully understand that, and they are not prepared to issue visas from here, which, as has been mentioned, they have done for people fleeing from other parts of the world.

Dr Hadoura’s family’s only chance—and the only chance for any of those 1.8 million people—is to be taken out of Gaza under the protection of another Government, as some have been. They need a Government who will negotiate safe passage for them out of Gaza. They need a Government who will give them refuge until it is safe for them to go back home, where they want to live out their lives. They need a Government who will care, not only with their words but with their actions. They need a Government who can look at this human catastrophe with the eyes and hearts of human beings. Within the next 15 minutes or so, we will know whether that description can be applied to this Government.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 6:49, 6 February 2024

I am grateful to Peter Grant for securing this debate and for his thoughtful contribution. The Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, could not be here as he is attending to other duties, but I am pleased to respond to the debate on his behalf. I will try to cover the points that have been raised. I will ensure that the hon. Member for Glenrothes receives timely and accurate replies pursuant to the specific case he raised, and I will work with officials to make sure those responses are in good order.

All Members will agree that the situation in Gaza is desperate. Innocent Palestinians are suffering terribly amid the substantial and growing humanitarian crisis. The death toll has now topped 27,000, with more than 66,000 reported injured, mostly women and children. Fewer than half of Gaza’s hospitals are even partially functional, and they lack the staff, equipment and resources they need. Meanwhile, large numbers of people are living in overcrowded shelters without the most basic amenities and are suffering unthinkable trauma from the near constant bombardment. More than 1.7 million people have fled their homes, with nearly half of Gaza’s population packed into the southern region of Rafah.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the United Kingdom is doing in response to the situation, and he indicated that his view is that we are not doing enough. Of course, there are several aspects to the response, and I will address them in turn. He asked about those seeking to flee Gaza. To answer his question very directly, at this time we are not considering a bespoke route for Palestinians affected by the conflict. Moreover, the issue of resettling Palestinian refugees is, of course, complicated by the right of return, which we must carefully consider. That issue is at the heart of the middle east peace process. For many of those fleeing Gaza, permanent resettlement to a third country is not the right solution. Indeed, it may be the worst option for those whose dearest hope is to live out their days in a recognised state of Palestine. The House will know that we are a generous nation—half a million people fleeing danger have been offered a place in this country via a safe and legal route since 2015. But a bespoke route is not the right solution for the current situation.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

My hon. Friend Peter Grant was very clear that he is looking for temporary visas because, as the Minister says, Palestinians will of course want to return when and if it is safe to do so. Does the Minister not think that the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility, given the history of our involvement in the region and the Balfour declaration?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We all have a responsibility. All developed nations have a responsibility to ensure that the urgent humanitarian disaster in Gaza is made less severe by our interventions. That is what we are doing.

Right now, it is clear that we need measures to increase the provision of humanitarian aid to help those in desperate need. The Government are therefore focused on these efforts, alongside our efforts to achieve a sustainable ceasefire. That is how we will help those suffering in Gaza.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde

The Minister talks about a sustainable ceasefire, but at what point will this Government actually call for a ceasefire?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will come to that. We have called for a humanitarian pause and a sustainable ceasefire. I will remark on what that means presently, but colleagues should be aware that we have trebled our aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 7 October, committing £60 million this financial year. This supports crucial partners such as the British Red Cross, the UN and the Egyptian Red Crescent Society to help civilians with food, fuel, water, healthcare and shelter.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister says there is aid provision, but it is simply not getting through. I attended a briefing by ActionAid, among others, this morning, and I heard that dignity packs for women are stuck in a warehouse and not getting over the border. Meanwhile, women are having to menstruate into bits of tent. Does he think that is acceptable?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

No, we are not satisfied that enough aid is getting through and we are working very energetically on our diplomatic efforts to increase the flow of aid. We need to see water, fuel and electricity restored. We want to see the Erez crossing open to allow direct aid to north Gaza. We want to see Ashdod port opened. We want to see unencumbered access to aid coming from Jordan. We want the Kerem Shalom crossing open seven days a week, rather than just five. We want to extend the opening hours and capacity of the Nitzana screening facility and the Kerem Shalom checkpoint so that a greater volume of aid can pass via trucks. We want to ensure that the United Nations has the people, vehicles and equipment necessary. Part of getting that increased flow of aid is about a humanitarian pause, and we are expending a huge amount of diplomatic effort on pushing for that. The Minister for the middle east is travelling in the region pursuant to that this week and the Foreign Secretary will be doing the same in the coming weeks.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Let me return to the point in question. My constituent is here under the British Council’s scholarship scheme. He has two tiny children and his wife in Gaza. He could not afford to bring them over here on a visa, as he is a student, studying at the British Council’s request. He wants to be reunited with his little children, who have seen many of their friends and family killed. Why will the Government not reach out to that family and allow them safe passage so that they can be reunited?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Safe and legal routes do exist and if there is a case—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady’s question describes elegantly the limits of the Government’s executive capacity. Of course safe and legal routes do exist, but the way we can have a positive impact to set the conditions for people such as those she mentioned is for us to push for a humanitarian pause and a ceasefire. It is irresponsible to talk in hypotheticals otherwise. The way the situation will be improved is for us to achieve a humanitarian pause. For us to make rhetorical statements that do not pertain to reality would be simply irresponsible.

I should point out to the House—

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

No, as I must make some progress. During his visit to al-Arish in Egypt, the Foreign Secretary met representatives from the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, who are co-ordinating the relief effort at the Rafah crossing. We heard how the UK’s contributions of shelter, blankets and other vital equipment have been providing much-needed relief to the people of Gaza, but of course we also heard about the many constraints on the humanitarian operations that we face. That is why our judgment is that Israel must take steps, working with partners, including the UN and Egypt, to significantly increase the flow of aid. That includes allowing prolonged humanitarian pauses; opening more routes into Gaza; and restoring water, fuel and electricity.

The Foreign Secretary is directly engaging with Israeli leaders on that and has announced work alongside Qatar to get more aid into Gaza, with our joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of tents being flown in last Thursday. When he met Prime Minister Netanyahu at the end of January, he reiterated the need for Israel to open more crossing points, for Nitzana and Kerem Shalom to be open for longer, and for Israel to support the UN to distribute aid effectively across the whole of Gaza. We are also continuing our work with Egypt on steps to increase humanitarian access via the Rafah crossing.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

May I take the Minister back to his comment about safe and legal routes? Nobody can cross from Gaza to Egypt unless they have documents that prove they have been given the right to enter a third country, and nobody in Gaza has any way of getting such documents. Could he just describe exactly where the safe and legal route is and how Gazans are supposed to get there?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The only way that anyone will be able to come to safety is if there is a humanitarian pause and a sustainable ceasefire. So Ministers making statements about how many people we may or may not take would be rhetorically impressive but practically meaningless. We are therefore focused on the purposeful work and serious diplomacy of pushing for a humanitarian pause and then a sustainable ceasefire.

The Government want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible. The Foreign Secretary has worked tirelessly across the middle east to push for a humanitarian pause and a sustainable ceasefire. Two weeks ago, he travelled to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Qatar and Turkey, and last week he visited Oman, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Face-to-face talks with leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed bin Salman are invaluable in setting out UK views and understanding the positions of countries who can help end this conflict.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:00, 6 February 2024

As the Foreign Secretary has set out, we want to see an immediate pause in the fighting to allow vital aid into Gaza and to give space for a deal that would get the hostages out.

We are also working to turn what would be a fragile truce into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire without a return to more fighting. That means giving Israel the reassurance that it needs to end its campaign. This means the Hamas leaders must leave Gaza and the attacks against Israel must end. All Israeli hostages must be released and a new Palestinian Government formed that can deliver for all its citizens, accompanied by an international support package. It also means giving the people of Gaza and the west bank the political perspective of a Palestinian state and a new future.

Turning to reconstruction efforts, while the long-term future of a Palestinian state is important for a lasting peace, there is the immediate task of rebuilding Gaza. We should be in no doubt that reconstruction will be a daunting task. It will take a giant international effort because of the scale of destruction, and it is beyond the means of any one country, so a wide coalition of western countries, Arab and Muslim states, as well as Israel and the Palestinians, will be needed. Gaza will need as many people as possible to join the effort. Building this support is another of the Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic objectives. We will continue to push for a humanitarian pause and a sustainable ceasefire.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I want to return the Minister to the subject of this evening’s debate and the desperate situation that my constituent’s children find themselves in. They cannot come to the UK unless the UK Government give them the right to come here. The UK Government are not giving them that right, so when will the Minister allow those children, together with their mother, to be reunited with their father, here in the UK?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We are seeking to improve the humanitarian situation, including that of the individuals the hon. Lady refers to, by ensuring that there is a de-escalation, a pause in the fighting and a sustainable ceasefire. That is the way we will attend to the desperate situation that affects more than those two individuals she mentions. That is our serious purpose. Our commitment is beyond doubt, both in resource and diplomatic effort. That is the purposeful and sincere effort of the Foreign Secretary and the entire Department.

Our immediate focus is on getting more aid in and securing an immediate pause in the fighting. That is how those affected will have their lives improved. We must do all we can to generate momentum to build a permanent peace and rebuild Gaza.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.