Middle East Peace Settlement — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 14th January 2014.

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Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 8:00 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for securing this debate. We meet at a time of terrible difficulties in the Middle East. The Geneva II Middle East peace conference is due to start on 22 January. It is to be hoped that it will lead to disarmament, ceasefires, reintegration et cetera.

However, I want to talk about displaced people. The United Nations says that there are about 6 million people now displaced inside Syria, with more than 2.3 million registered refugees living across the region in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, all of which are struggling to cope with the number of refugees. About 20% of the refugees live in camps; the rest are in other communities, often living in profoundly difficult circumstances.

Last autumn, I visited a refugee camp for Syrian refugees, Camp Zatary in Jordan. It has a population of between 125,000 and 145,000. It is difficult to know how many there are because people come and go with such fluidity. Some people think that those camps are used by the Syrian fighters for R&R. As refugee camps go, Camp Zatary is a model location. It has a paved street, three hospitals and many shops—you can buy a washing machine or a television—and electricity is available, but it is still a refugee camp, and only Syrians can go there.

However, there are many refugees from Syria who are not Syrian. I think in particular of the Palestinians, about whose plight is there has been so much international comment, effort and so on, but which still remains unresolved. It is important, as the parties move to attempt to change the situation in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, that we do not forget the plight of those who have been living for decades in various Middle Eastern countries as displaced people without refugee status and with no proper access to life.

When I was in Jordan, I visited a Gaza camp at Jaresh, a long drive from Amman, perched on the side of a barren mountain in the desert. It has been there since the people fled from Gaza in 1967. They are not recognised as refugees; they are displaced people. The only body that helps them is UNRWA, established in 1967 to care for them. It has very limited resources. In 40-plus years, it has not been able to achieve as much as the UNHCR has achieved at Zatary. The people cannot go back to Gaza: they have no identity, no right to work in the public service or, really, in the private sector, no homeland, no ability to travel and no experience of the world.

There are more than 5,000 children in the school in that camp, educated to a limited degree. They cannot go to university because, apart from a very small number of them, they have to pay international fees. The teachers try to teach them. When we met the children, they told us what they want. We met the girls, and I should like to tell noble Lords what these beautiful, bright, articulate young women, living out their lives on a bleak mountainside, told us. They said that they want to be recognised as human beings with rights, not as people with no identity who are helpless. They want the right to own property. They want to be able to work. They want an education but they said, “If we can’t get an education, we’ll study”. Above all, they want to be happy. They said that everything is about grieving. Even when there might be some happiness, there is still sadness for all that is lost. They want to make a contribution.

The European Union and those who support it could make a difference to those young lives. They could encourage funding to allow those bright young people to take their place in the world. They could conduct an audit of conditions in those forgotten camps. Above all, the United Nations could be facilitated and encouraged by the European Union and its international partners to recognise the responsibilities it has to those forgotten people. UNRWA is not enough. Something needs to be done to improve conditions and bring hope to those displaced Palestinians.