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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:06 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 2:06 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on having secured this debate. It could not be more timely, and I very much agree with what he has said. The background for this debate is of course a wider discussion on immigration in this country, a discussion which I regret; I do not regret discussion about immigration, but I regret the tone of the immigration debate which is taking place. However, this is not the occasion on which to debate that.

We are talking about a specific humanitarian issue: dealing with an absolute nightmare in Syria. The figures are terrifying: 2.3 million people have fled Syria; 4.25 million people have been internally displaced; and there are more fleeing that country every day. Against this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made a modest request that Europe should accept 30,000 vulnerable refugees who fled Syria—vulnerable people being pregnant women and children—and I would add those with strong family links and some member of their family already in the United Kingdom. Of course it is good that the United Kingdom has made a substantial cash contribution, but that should not be the end of our responsibilities. They should go much wider than that.

What about the current burden on countries like Jordan and Lebanon, to which reference has been made? Jordan has 500,000 Syrian refugees already. One in five of the population of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Prince Hassan of Jordan was asked whether his country was running out of patience with Syrian refugees. He said:

“We’re not running out of patience, we’re running out of water”.

The sheer burden on Jordan of coping with the numbers means that it is frankly at the point where it cannot cope anymore. The UNHCR is asking for a small gesture from a country as affluent as ours, because we are talking not just about Jordan and Lebanon but about Turkey and Egypt.

The question is whether our Government are running scared of public opinion. I expect, deep down, that that is what they are thinking. I believe that British public opinion is better than that. I believe that the British people are much more willing to accept what is a humanitarian responsibility. I am convinced that we should not be running away from the issue because we are afraid of what some of the newspapers might say.

Just before I came into this House, and indeed for a short period after that, I was chief executive of the Refugee Council. We dealt with a programme for Bosnians at the request of the British Government. At very short notice we were asked to make arrangements for 4,000 Bosnians who had been detained in those vile Serb concentration camps—people who were absolutely traumatised, as are the Syrians today. Those people came at short notice, and we arranged for reception facilities and that they should then be moved on. We arranged that they should not all come to London but that those people should be in regional clusters to make it more acceptable in other parts of the country—and it worked. There was virtually no public objection that I can remember, but enormous public support. The people of this country knew what the Bosnians had suffered—we saw it in our newspapers—as they know, day in, day out, what the Syrian people have suffered.

To make the wider community understand, we had a reception centre in Newcastle, for example. We arranged an event where we invited local councillors, doctors, social workers, churches and the wider community to come along to meet and to welcome the Bosnians, and it worked. They came there and they were happy to say, “We welcome you in this country as individuals”, and there was no terrible public outcry. Indeed, on the whole the Bosnian programme worked pretty well. Lessons had been learnt from the earlier Vietnamese programme about dispersing people in small units, because in the experience of the Refugee Council it was better that people should be together with other members of their community for mutual support, language, religion, culture, and so on. That is all manageable, and indeed, we have the experience of how the Bosnian programme was managed. It was not perfect, but we learnt a lot from that process.

The UNHCR has a very modest target of 30,000. As the noble Lord said in opening the debate, Germany has already agreed to take 10,000. Even Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has taken or pledged to take 50, and Norway, for example, 1,000. Surely as a country we can do better than to say, “Yes, we will be generous with the cost of running the camps, but no, we don’t want any of you”. As a country, we can do better than that. We should fully face up to our humanitarian responsibilities and say, “Yes, we will take a proportion of these people”. I am not saying that we should take more than Germany, but we should see if we can match the German numbers or at least make a significant effort to take a good proportion of the people that the UNHCR has asked us to take. We, as a country, can do no less.