Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:36 pm on 30th October 2013.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 9:36 pm, 30th October 2013

My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating the debate. The scale and horror of this crisis are difficult to comprehend, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, said, it is vital that we keep reminding people of precisely what is going on. Almost one third of the population have fled their homes due to violence, insecurity or a lack of basic services. It is extremely difficult to access water, food, medical and other supplies; 60% of all hospitals are affected by the conflict, with nearly 40% completely out of service. A further 2.1 million people have fled to neighbouring countries—an eightfold increase from 12 months ago, when there were 230,000 refugees. Over 100,000 people have been killed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, in her UN capacity, said last month:

“Inside Syria, protecting civilians is paramount ... The rise in the level of sectarian and sexual violence and ongoing human rights abuses are a major concern”.

Families are being torn apart, and mothers and young children are being separated. Justin Forsyth of Save the Children, who recently returned from Lebanon and Jordan, described his shock at the,

“targeted and systematic violence against children”.

He said that the children he met had been,

“shot at, tortured, detained and separated from their families”.

Oxfam recently produced a report called Shifting Sands, which highlights the fact that many refugee women and girls no longer have access to the resources and services they used to have in Syria before the conflict began, which enabled them to fulfil their traditional gender roles. What assessment and action are the Government undertaking to understand and tailor policies to the impact of the crisis on the women affected, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, reminded us, by the increasing violence against women and girl refugees?

Syria’s neighbours have stepped up to the plate to provide support to refugees fleeing conflict, but as we have heard tonight, they cannot cope with the scale of the challenge. Approximately 1 million people have fled to Lebanon, and now represent a quarter of the population. As my noble friend Lady Symons said, officials in Jordan have estimated that the country needs a $6 billion investment in infrastructure as it struggles to cope with such a huge increase in its population—11% or even, as we have heard tonight, more—owing to the influx of Syrian refugees.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, in Lebanon and Jordan the majority of refugees are living in towns and cities rather than camps, and basic services such as health, education, water and sanitation have reached their capacity. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to help the host communities not just to address the needs of the refugee population but to mitigate the impact on public services and the local economy, as we were so ably reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons? Like everyone who has spoken in the debate, I pay tribute to the Government for the generous assistance provided by the UK, but despite this the humanitarian appeal for Syria is still only some 40% funded.

As many noble Lords have said, the UK Government must continue to urge the international community to fulfil their pledges of support for refugees and their host countries. Without more funding the Syrian Arab Red Crescent warned that 150,000 people might have to go without food in October. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, acknowledged earlier this month that the Government would clearly have to work extremely hard to make sure that the pledges to which countries have committed themselves are delivered. While she expressed pleasure that the figure had reached the £1 billion mark, she also acknowledged that aid to Syria is a question not only of funding but of humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law. NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns about support reaching all areas of the country in both government and rebel controlled zones. As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said, my noble friend Lady Kinnock referred in the same debate to the MSF view that the Syrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors driving freely through areas of desperate need while ambulances, food and drug supplies are blocked.

Despite Security Council agreement on access for humanitarian aid, there has been little progress. With most aid being channelled through regime controlled Damascus there is a huge risk that relief is not being provided impartially on the basis of need. As my noble friend Lady Symons said, humanitarian access from Damascus is also being impeded by bureaucratic procedures imposed by the Government of Syria, including delays in issuing visas and lengthy customs procedures, multiple checkpoints on the road and fighting and insecurity which put many brave aid workers at risk, as we have heard. Will the Minister indicate what further action the Government are considering, in concert with the international community, to encourage the Syrian Government to grant those rights of passage for humanitarian reasons?

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, also referred to the efforts being taken to bring forward the peace process with talks planned in November, as we have heard tonight, with the UK Government focusing efforts on bringing the opposition coalition to the talks. It is vital that these talks are carefully constructed to navigate the most likely path to peace. As we have heard, many NGOs are concerned that without a clearly planned process of moving towards ceasefires the conflict could intensify as the sides seek to establish or gain territorial advantage. Initial areas of focus should concentrate on creating openings for looking at reinforcing locally defined ceasefires, as so ably expressed by the right reverend Prelate, and creating opportunities for wider ceasefires and humanitarian causes. As the right reverend Prelate said, Geneva II should seek to establish a process of negotiation and efforts towards building the foundations of peace through inclusive talks, civil society engagement and establishing conditions for ceasefires in a much broader context.

Of course, a political solution is urgently needed to stop the fighting and to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis. However, until agreement is reached we cannot afford to stand idly by as the tremendous suffering of men, women and children continues.