Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 9th January 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:37 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, in concluding this debate, I should like to begin my contribution to it by thanking my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for tabling the Motion, which gives us the opportunity to talk about this very serious issue. He graphically described the catastrophe that has overtaken the people of Syria and the consequential problems for the people not only of that country but of neighbouring countries. The Government share many of the deep concerns expressed by noble Lords today; if there are disagreements between us, they will be about how we best handle the issue.

Conflicts of this magnitude, with such a severe impact on civilian populations, require a commensurate response from the international community. The Government are proud of the fact that the UK is playing its full part in that response. The UK has pledged £500 million for the Syrian relief effort, of which more than £470 million has already been allocated to partners both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. This represents the United Kingdom’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. It is also the second-largest bilateral contribution by any country behind that of the United States—until very recently, we had given more money than the rest of the European Union put together.

By providing aid in this way, we believe that we can help far more people than we could by resettling what could be only a token number. I think that all noble Lords will agree that the numbers that have been mentioned today are tokens compared with the massive figure of 2.3 million people who have already left that land.

We are proud of the UK’s record of offering protection to those genuinely in need. In the EU, the UK is the third-largest recipient of asylum seekers from Syria, behind Germany and Sweden. As the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier this week, in the year up to September 2013 the UK had received more than 1,500 asylum applications from Syrians. Over the same period, more than 1,100 were granted refugee status. We also operate an immigration concession for Syrian nationals who are already legally present in the UK, designed to make it easier for them to extend their stay or switch immigration category.

In response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in some cases reiterated by other noble Lords, 30,000-plus Syrians have sought refuge in the EU so far, not the 12,000 he quoted. We recognise that Bulgaria is under considerable pressure. We are supporting efforts by the European Asylum Support Office to build capability in Bulgaria. UK aid is providing immediate practical help to Syrians in the region. Family members of Syrian refugees in the UK are eligible for family reunion under Immigration Rules and 90% of Syrian asylum claims are granted. We recognise the scale of this process and we respect the views and values which want to resettle Syrians, but our own view is that aid in the region will help more. I think I have made that clear in my response so far.

The Government have discussed with EU partners on a number of occasions, both in Brussels and bilaterally, the best way to respond to those fleeing Syria. I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that these are active negotiations. We have also spoken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other partners in the UK. We are very aware that some, including the UNHCR, would like to see a more proactive programme of resettlement of refugees currently hosted by countries neighbouring Syria. We have considered these options very carefully and respect the views of those countries who favour a resettlement programme, but we maintain that our top priority and that of the EU should continue to be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people in the region, in partnership with neighbouring countries, UNHCR and other UN and non-governmental partners.

Beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, our priority must be to help neighbouring countries provide sustainable protection in the region. With more than 2 million people, as we know, now having been displaced from Syria, regional protection is the only realistic means by which the rights of the vast majority of displaced persons can be safeguarded. Accordingly this should be our focus, rather than resettlement or providing “humanitarian admission” to displaced Syrians, initiatives which provide only very limited relief to the neighbouring countries and can have only a token impact on the huge and increasing refugee numbers.

Turning to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I recognise his interest in this issue. We are not running scared of public opinion; we have considered all options very carefully and concluded that we can make the biggest difference through our generous humanitarian package, which is second only to that of the USA, as I have said. We considered the Bosnia-style approach, but there is no EU support for such an approach and there is a difference: Bosnia is on the border of the EU and was easier to access and to handle than the Syrian situation.

I say to my noble friend Lady Tonge, whose interest in these issues I respect, that we have considered resettlement arguments carefully and respect the right of other countries to offer resettlement programmes, but we believe we can make a bigger difference through generous aid efforts in the region. We have so far given UNRWA £23.5 million to help Palestinian refugees.