Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 30th October 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour 8:50 pm, 30th October 2013

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, for that quite remarkable speech. She vividly brought the plight of women in Syria to our attention. I also join her in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for introducing the debate with such clarity, and indeed such conviction.

The conflict in Syria has obviously had a huge impact on the politics of the whole of the Middle East region, and of course it has divided opinion across the world. The deepening sectarian divisions in Syria and the countries around it, the role of Iran in supporting the Assad regime, and the respective roles of Russia and the United States in attempting to find a way forward to stop the fighting and the use of chemical weapons are issues all very well known to us.

The outlook is grim. Only this week United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was told by Bashar al-Assad that the civil war in Syria would end only if foreign powers ended their support for those trying to overthrow him. Yesterday brought the depressing news of the sacking of the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister, who had been among those pressing for reform in Syria. He had been liaising with Russian and American officials about peace talks which it was hoped would end the tragic civil war. Qadri Jamil has now been dismissed for allegedly spending too much time outside Syria, neglecting his duties and holding meetings without co-ordinating with the Government.

Today we are not debating the politics of the situation but the impact of the failure of politics and the political process on people in Syria and its neighbours. More than 2 million people have fled Syria, according to the Red Cross. One million of those people are children. It is the worst refugee crisis in 20 years, and we have seen nothing like it since Rwanda in 1994. Every day another 4,000 people cross over into other countries to seek safety elsewhere. They are often women with their children, without their husbands or fathers who have been left to fight. They are escaping brutality and violence which, as the noble Baroness said a moment ago, are almost unimaginable to us. Yet I am bound to say that the appalling pictures that we see in our newspapers of dead and mutilated people, and the unimaginable horror of public summary executions, which sometimes take place in front of very young children, bring home to us the reality of what is happening on an almost daily basis.

Can the Minister please tell us whether and how our humanitarian aid is now being dispersed in Syria? The websites of all the aid organisations are clear that aid workers are hugely at risk. Twenty-two Red Crescent volunteers lost their lives trying to get aid through to those who need it most. Of course, mercifully for us, thousands of volunteers still try to reach those who are in need of their help.

I shall focus for one moment on one individual, Archbishop Yohanna of Aleppo, who disappeared on 23 April this year. I thank Ministers for the updates that I have received on this. The archbishop is a man hugely respected by people of all faiths in the region. I ask the Minister to assure us that the Government will do everything that they can to continue to try to find out where he is and to work for his release.

I concentrate the rest of my remarks on the impact of this humanitarian crisis on Syria’s neighbour, Jordan. There are now more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, representing an increase in Jordan’s population of around 10%. That is like us having 6 million more people in this country. Since Jordan opened the Za’atari refugee camp 14 months ago, it has become a place where there are 145,000 Syrians, and it is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. The country has often dealt with the arrival of refugees in the past; what makes this influx so different is that the Syrians arriving in Jordan have little or no money, are living alongside their hosts and put a huge strain on Jordan’s limited resources and job opportunities.

Those of us who know Jordan well know that it is a terrific country; it is beautiful, has wonderful historic sites and vibrant and articulate people. But it has no natural energy source and little water. It has nothing like enough jobs for its own young people. Education, health and water infrastructure and the job market are under enormous strain. To accommodate the 78,000 Syrian children in the education system, schools are now working on double shift in Jordan. Health services are deteriorating, particularly in the northern governorates, and medicines and vaccinations are becoming heavily depleted.

The job market in Jordan is at breaking point. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 160,000 Syrians are now working in Jordan in construction, agriculture and service sectors, while unemployment among Jordanians is now running at something approaching 16%. This is a recipe for real tension between a host community and the refugees whom they are attempting to host.

Water and sewerage pose appalling difficulties in the refugee camps, both at Za’atari and Al-Azraq. The water is now being drawn into those refugee camps and away from established urban populations. The water bill for refugees has increased by more than $40 million in the past year or so. As a result of being good hosts to their neighbours, Jordanian communities are really suffering. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to assist not only Syrian refugees in Jordan but Jordanian people in need? They, too, are part of this humanitarian crisis. The estimated additional costs continue to rise in hosting the more than 600,000 Syrians, and now stand at $1.68 million.

Jordan is, and has been, a very good friend to the United Kingdom. It has been a positive force for moderate politics in the region in relation to Israel and Palestine and in the councils of the Arab League. If the stability of Jordan comes under severe threat because of the internal strains that have been created by the huge influx of Syrian refugees, we shall all be the poorer. The security of all of us will be undermined. Wringing our hands about the humanitarian crisis is not enough; active and committed support is needed, and it is needed now.