Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:31 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 2:31 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, spoke with real passion and feeling. The more one reads and hears about the devastating impact on the population of the now long-running conflict in Syria—as opposed to the politics of the conflict—the more one can be forgiven for having feelings of despair and utter frustration. Hence comes the vital importance of the diplomatic efforts to resolve the current crisis, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, referred.

Of course, this is not a purely internal Syrian conflict; there are other countries and different factions and groupings heavily involved behind the scenes—sometimes hardly even behind the scenes—with most of, but by no means all, those countries being within the region.

We now have getting on for 2.5 million registered refugees, more than half of whom are children, and a further 4.25 million people who are displaced inside

Syria. That means that nearly a third of the country’s population have had to leave their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation as,

“a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history”.

The figure for refugees is also only the number of those who have registered as such; hundreds of thousands are believed not to have registered with an asylum authority.

Five countries close to Syria, including Iraq, host 97% of the refugees. In two of those countries, Jordan and Lebanon, the effect has been to increase their populations by 9% and 19% respectively. One inevitable consequence has been to put considerable strain on the resources available in those countries.

Apparently, the United Nations humanitarian appeal for refugees from Syria and the region is only some two-thirds funded, following the response from the international community. We have pledged £500 million for the Syrian relief effort, which the Government have said is the United Kingdom’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.

The provision of resettlement and humanitarian admission places has not yet evoked a particularly positive response either. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set a goal of securing 30,000 places for Syrian refugees from 2013 to the end of 2014. So far, just over half those places have been pledged, of which just under 12,500 have been pledged by EU countries. Of that figure, 10,000 places were offered by Germany in the form of a humanitarian admission programme. Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU countries have pledged just under 2,500 places, with 18 EU member states, including the United Kingdom, not making any resettlement or humanitarian admission pledges. The Gulf Co-operation Council countries have not offered any resettlement or humanitarian admission places either to refugees from Syria.

With the ability of Syria’s neighbouring countries to host refugees becoming ever more strained and with conditions for refugee populations deteriorating, more are attempting to reach the EU by risking their lives, on journeys by sea or across land, to reach Europe. Hundreds, if not thousands, have drowned on journeys by boats that never reached their destinations.

The Government’s approach has been that it is better to help neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq to cope with the very considerable numbers of refugees from Syria, and we can be proud of the support that we have given and the amount that we have pledged for the Syrian relief effort. The more that can be done to enable those countries to cope and provide conditions that are acceptable, the better, since the likelihood is that those who have been forced to flee Syria will wish to return to their own country when it is safe to do so.

However, it is also our view that we should do our part, alongside other countries within the UN’s programme, to provide a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees fleeing this murderous conflict. We have referred to a figure of around

500 refugees. We do not believe that the Government should turn their back on those people. It is our moral duty to respond to the UN’s call for help by accepting some Syrian refugees, just as for hundreds of years our country has helped those fleeing persecution.

The specific issue for debate is what action the Government should take in conjunction with other European Union member states to establish a Europe-wide evacuation and resettlement programme for those fleeing conflict in Syria. It is of course for the Minister to answer that question when he responds, but he should certainly have something to tell us, since a Home Office Minister stated in a parliamentary Written Answer in October last year that the Government,

“continue to discuss the Syrian crisis with our European partners”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/10/13; col. 223W.]

Can the Minister indicate what exactly is being discussed and whether the establishment of a Europe-wide evacuation and resettlement programme for those fleeing the conflict in Syria is being discussed with European partners?

In the light of our £500 million pledge for the Syrian relief effort, we are in a good position to pursue with European countries the need to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people, in partnership with neighbouring countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, we are not in such a strong position to pursue with European countries the need to accept some Syrian refugees, because we have not been prepared to do so ourselves. Apparently, even Mr Farage thinks that we should do something in that direction; the Government, however, do not. Like my noble friend Lord Dubs, I suspect that the Government’s stance has had more to do with opinion poll judgments than any lack of compassion.

In the parliamentary Written Answer to which I referred, the Home Office Minister stated that,

“the Government has no current plans to resettle Syrian refugees”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 24/10/13; col. 222W.]

Hopefully, the Minister will be able to tell us that that is no longer the Government’s position, that plans now exist and that, as a result, we will also be in a better position to pursue with our European partners the issue of accommodating Syrian refugees.