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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 2:24 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and bringing the plight of the people fleeing Syria to the attention of the House once more. As he says, it is a great exodus of people; it is estimated that, by the end of this year, 4 million people will have left Syria. At the moment, it is 2.3 million, but it is growing all the time. The conflict is continuing much longer than expected; initially, it was assumed that the UNHCR, with an appeal to the international community, would be able to cope. This has not proved to be the case, and the numbers of people fleeing are simply staggering. More than half of the 2.3 million are children, and 75% of those children are under the age of 12. Noble Lords can imagine the terror that they are living with

Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are hosting some of those people, and we know that they are not coping—and I shall not repeat what other noble Lords have said. Resettlement is desperately needed, if only in the short term, until Syria is stable again. I will repeat the figures. Excluding Germany, which has pledged 10,000 places, the EU in total has offered 2,340—not really very many—and we in the UK none, even though I believe that Nigel Farage of UKIP has suggested that we should take Syrian refugees, which is a very great recommendation. Up to now, 17 countries have offered places up to a grand total of 16,000 places for 2.3 million people. Even Australia, which, as I have been reading recently, is not known as a state that welcomes asylum seekers and refugees, has offered 500 places—but the UK none. The only solution, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said, will be a political one, but that seems far off, although we must hope. So the resettlement being asked for will not necessarily be permanent but could give people security and breathing space and, above all, care and education for the children, who always suffer disproportionately in these situations.

Those of us who have been to Syria know what a wonderful country it is. I was there three years ago with the Council for European Palestinian Relations, which has already been referred to, a fine organisation that hopes to introduce parliamentarians in Europe to all sides of the situation. We visited refugee camps for Palestinians, some of whom have been there since the creation of Israel—since the Nakba, in fact—when some 8,000 or 10,000 were killed or driven from their homes. The subsequent war between Israel and the Arab states added to that refugee crisis. Others were forced to flee neighbouring Iraq after the Shia Government took control following our ill judged war on the Iraqi people. Palestinians who fled the terror of the Nakba on the creation of the State of Israel and went to Iraq were, when I was there, fleeing into Syria because of the actions of the Iraqi Government, and are now fleeing Syria because of the civil war in that country; that means four displacements in 40 years for those people, and there is estimated to be up to 500,000 of them. It is worth noting, too, that President Assad’s Government gave the Palestinians a lot of help in the refugee camps; they had housing, right to work and healthcare and education. They did not want citizenship, only the right to go home to Palestine.

Those people who have now fled Syria cannot be officially helped by the UNHCR because they are not refugees unless they are fleeing their own country. So it falls back to UNRWA, created to help the Palestinians after the State of Israel was created, which in those days was catering for 750,000 people, to cater now for 5 million Palestinian refugees, still in camps all over the Middle East. As we face the problem of Syrian refugees, we must not forget the Palestinians among those refugees and the Palestinians all over the Middle East, who still have no home to go to.

I have a dream, my Lords. I have a dream of what a wonderful force for good Israel could have been, and I think still could be, if only it dropped its exclusivity of being a Jewish state and agreed to share with others land and resources—particularly water, in relation to Jordan, as was mentioned earlier. Israel could be part of the solution in the Middle East by joining the Arab League and western Governments in helping with the resettlement of this latest tremendous wave of refugees from Syria and by coming to some agreement on the right of return for Palestinians. Sadly, that is a dream, but in the mean time I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that we in this country will play our part by taking refugees from Syria.