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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:17 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 2:17 pm, 9th January 2014

I misunderstood the emphasis that the noble Lord was placing. His points are valid, but it is equally valid to say that we should do something about the crisis that is already there, not just in Syria but now in these other countries as well.

I speak as someone who has witnessed the position in Lebanon of the refugees from the Syrian conflict, and who has spoken to the leaders of that country, from the President downwards, who are having to handle this situation. Lebanon is a country that has enough problems of its own without taking in the equivalent of 20% to 25% of its own population. Just imagine what would happen if a European country was asked to take in numbers of that particular order.

I declare my interest as a member of the advisory board of the Council for European Palestinian Relations, and I have made many of my visits under its auspices. I do so slightly nervously, as the Israeli Defence Minister seems to have declared the council an illicit organisation. I interpreted his declaration to mean simply that we were doing too good a job in getting European parliamentarians to see the circumstances in which Palestinians were living.

There are now even more Syrian refugees in Lebanon than when I visited. Winter has come, and women with young children now live in the bitter cold, with nothing but cardboard and plastic sheeting for protection. Their shelter is damp, dark and unhygienic. They fled their country when the bombs started to fall not because they chose to, and women and children are living there in many cases without any male support in many of the family groupings. To some extent, we have facilitated the situation by refusing to make any real effort to take some of those people out of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Over 50% of the Syrian refugees are children. That means that more than 1 million children are living and being brought up in the most appalling conditions. The Government should reflect on how they think those young people—assuming they survive to adulthood, and some will not—are likely to feel about those affluent countries that have actually refused to take any of them. That is something that the Government would do well to reflect on—and if that was put and explained to the British people, they might give the Government a surprise, and be much more welcoming than the Government believe that they would be. I share the views of my noble friend Lord Dubs on that matter.

I do not want to go much further on the general issue, other than to say that, if it is true that Germany can accept 10,000 people and the other, poorer countries can accept people too, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, I find it shameful that we as a country are unable to make the kind of gesture that other countries have made. It is not sufficient just to give money to the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations. Could the Minister explain three things in that area? First, why cannot we emulate countries of a similar size to us in Europe in what they are doing? Secondly, why are the Government being so rigid about allowing Syrians to leave the terrible circumstances in which they are living and to come into this country to be hosted by members of their own family who are here? That seems to me reckless behaviour. Thirdly, how many of the 2,000-plus Syrians who have sought asylum here have had their asylum application accepted and/or been given leave to remain on a permanent basis? If he cannot give those figures now, perhaps he would write to me to save me the trouble of putting down a Parliamentary Question.

Lastly, I draw attention to a particular group of refugees—the Palestinians—who have been displaced already and have been living in Syria for many years. I want to draw particular attention to the 30,000 Palestinian refugees trapped in the Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus. It has been under tight siege for many months by the regime’s forces, and the regime is preventing humanitarian assistance being provided to the besieged people. Around 30 people have died already, but there are nearly 30,000 Palestinians living in those circumstances, which are probably worse than the circumstances of some of the people living in the Lebanon. What action have the UK Government taken to try to persuade the regime, if necessary through their Iranian colleagues, to help humanitarian aid to get into that camp in Yarmouk?