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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:56 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat 1:56 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I appreciate this opportunity to lead the discussion in this House on what has been termed,

“the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times”.

More than 850,000 Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, inflating the country’s population by almost a quarter, 575,000 refugees are in Jordan, 560,000 refugees have crossed the border to Turkey, and 130,000 have fled to Egypt and 210,000 to Iraq. Following news on Tuesday that Iraq is reopening a border into its Kurdish region, this last number is set to escalate.

The total number of Syrian refugees is now estimated to be 2.3 million, of whom only 0.5%, around 12,000, is spread across the whole continent of Europe. Bulgaria, whose people were so demonised in the lead-up to 1 January and which is the European Union’s poorest country, is bearing the brunt. An estimated 100 Syrians enter Bulgaria every day, many of them illegally. Those who arrived last year were five times the country’s annual asylum quota. This poor country simply cannot cope.

While the numbers are important, we must not let them mask the human sorrow, the tragedy, the catastrophe, that is the real substance of this crisis. The UN and its partners in the region face many pressures. They have to safeguard the health of millions, many of whom are now at risk of contagious diseases, such as polio. Their ability to deal with the extraordinary, such as survivors of torture and victims of chemical attacks who now have severe respiratory problems, is obviously limited.

These organisations are also fighting to ensure social stability, which is an uphill battle. In Lebanon, where the population has grown by an extra 25%, essential resources, space and labour are all causes of significant social tension. Near a village in east Lebanon, a makeshift refugee camp providing shelter for hundreds was burnt down last month, a sign of the increasing social tension in that area. The violence is spreading. The Lebanese town of Tripoli saw bloodshed mirroring the Syrian conflict in the past few months. Car bombs in Beirut are once again headline news. Lebanon’s recovery from its own civil war has been long, slow and difficult and is far from over.

The Syrian civil war is enough to spark renewed violence that can destabilise the whole region. The spread of violence will continue unless practical and immediate measures are taken to relieve the pressures on Syria’s own neighbours. They are generous, but can they cope? The international community has responded admirably to the United Nations high commission’s call for financial assistance for refugees. The UK has pledged £500 million in aid—4.1% of the 2013 aid budget. A further £16 million was pledged only a few days ago. However, refusing to provide further practical help can undermine the overwhelmingly generous response from the UK public to this crisis.

It is immediate, hands-on, practical help that is now needed. We have so far failed to allow any extra space for Syrian refugees, but I suggest that it is now absolutely imperative that we do so. I received a Written Answer on 28 November from the Minister, informing me that the Government refuse even to consider relaxing the financial requirements in the family immigration rules for the extraordinary cases of Syrian nationals resident in the UK. I consider this response reflects a deplorable lack of compassion on behalf of the Government, considering how we as a nation and a society could combat that international crisis. Simplified and expedited family reunions for Syrians here, on any kind of visa, should surely be considered further. What proactive efforts have been made to reunite refugees in the UK with their families? Will the Minister make a declaration on the status of Syrian students in the United Kingdom?

On Tuesday, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that we have accepted 1,500 Syrians seeking asylum in the UK. This number, however, needs to be taken in context to be properly understood. First, it represents only those who were able to reach the UK independently using the normal asylum process. That precludes so many—millions—of those who are most in need of our help. Secondly, I understand that 352 Syrians were refused asylum. Indeed, by the third quarter of 2013, there were still 446 Syrians awaiting a decision on their application made through the normal channels. The truth is that ignoring the problem and accepting Syrians seeking asylum only through normal routes can be hugely damaging. The UN has called for us to take Syrian refugees in addition to our current resettlement quota.

I am not at the moment calling for the creation of another EU body. Under the auspices of the UN, a working resettlement programme already exists. The UN aims to register all refugees, and in so doing document those in particular need. When other developed nations answered the United Nations’ call for resettlement, they responded to the cry for help from the UN on behalf of these most vulnerable human beings. Not all countries have used the same method but they have, in their own way, responded to the need. Norway, Finland and Sweden have each accepted 400 to 1,000 refugees on a permanent basis. The Government of Canada have accepted 200 refugees, but have also pledged a further 1,100 places through private sponsorship. Germany, taking the lead, has pledged 10,000 places, staggered across the next three years, on the basis of a pilot humanitarian assistance programme, limited to a two-year stay. On a similar basis, Austria and France have each offered 500 places. Even Moldova, with a GDP of just over $2,000 per person, is taking 50. We have said that we can take nobody.

Does the Minister agree that only a firm, global or continent-based resettlement programme will offer a durable solution to this crisis? Both in financial and in practical human terms, the current, unequal levels of response are totally unsustainable. The United Nations is already working closely with these countries to select and assist the most vulnerable, including women and girls in danger of sexual violence, survivors of torture, refugees with severe medical needs and disabilities, those in need of family reunification, and those who face persecution because of their political views, sexuality, ethnicity or religion. We hear so much about the persecution of Christians in that part of the world. We are saying that we are not going to accept these people. We are denying them a place and saying that they must make do with what other countries—Jordan, Turkey and others—are offering. The priority is not only to accept those who are in danger, but also those who will be invaluable in the rebuilding of Syria once this dreadful conflict has ended.

Amnesty calls on us to accept 10,000 of those in need. I fully support that call. Does the Minister? He will say, “Ah, but that is a big number”. With the Vietnamese boat people in 1979, we did accept 10,000. The fears of a public backlash in that case were totally unfounded. The British people proved their compassion and their hospitality. Of course, a decade earlier, in 1968, the east African Asians were another example. Forty-five years on, and in the light of the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times, we are called upon to do so again. When the Minister says that we cannot possibly have a resettlement programme, where does he get his knowledge from? Where is the difficulty? The UK has a proud history of providing support in this way, most recently in the Balkans. What has changed?

I suggest to the Government and to this House that we can no longer afford to sit back and wait. The social, financial and human cost of doing nothing is mounting by the minute. The cost will surely be felt by all. As a Government, we can move and assist so many people in a very practical way.