Middle East and North Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:28 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 8:28 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, on returning home on Saturday evening, I switched on my television to catch up on the news, but instead caught the revellers at the Last Night of the Proms, singing:

Land of Hope and Glory, mother of the free”.

It rather upset me in the circumstances. Sadly, we no longer have cause to be proud of ourselves as a nation after the last few weeks. In the eyes of the world, I am sorry to say, the Conservatives have turned the nasty party into a nasty Government, with their failure to act quickly in the present humanitarian crisis. On reflection, however, I do not entirely share that view; I hope to be constructive, and I commend the Prime Minister for his visit this week to the Middle East and refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Last year, I visited Zatari camp in Jordan and this year I saw several camps and enclaves of refugees in Lebanon, a country which has taken more than 25% of its population again as refugees in the last few years—a burden it simply cannot bear. These countries, together with Turkey, have taken hundreds of thousands of people, while UNRWA, which deals with Palestinian refugees, and UNHCR, which deals with the others from Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, are chronically underfunded. I congratulate our Government on being the second largest donor to UNRWA after the United States of America, but it is not nearly enough. That is the problem. Most refugees want a safe place to protect and feed their families until they return home, but the camps are overflowing and life in most of them is very grim. The fitter and braver ones head for Europe—and who can blame them? Our response should be on three fronts.

First, it is not enough to take a few selected families to come and live here. They are safe in the camps and should stay there. We should take the number requested of us and there must be European Union agreement on this. The United States of America should be involved and also the United Nations. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, who has left the Chamber, recognised this as a global problem and of course it is. This evening I heard that refugees have been tear-gassed at the borders of Hungary with Serbia. We should be ashamed of what is going on in our continent.

Secondly—this is my main request—we and our allies must step up the funding to UNHCR and UNRWA immediately, and ensure that those bodies can do a much better job as long as is necessary. It needs action by the USA, the UN and our country to raise the estimated £2 billion now needed for a really good network of safe, well-run camps in the Middle East allowing people to stay close to home. As the Minister said, this could ensure that the children in particular receive proper food and education, and safety from the traffickers, over the next few years. It could prevent young people being attracted by extremist groups. I know that both suggestions are very expensive but remind the House that Trident costs £2 billion a year simply to maintain, and replacement would cost probably a hundred or two hundred times that amount—I do not know. We have the money. I know where I would rather spend it.

Thirdly, and as the noble Lord, Lord Green, mentioned, before the civil war, there were refugees from Palestine all over the Middle East. More than half a million were in Syria, looked after by UNRWA there. They had been looked after for decades. I have been unable to establish how many Palestinians are among the people fleeing Syria at this time, but have the Government pointed out those Palestinians to the state of Israel? More than 26,000 people were immigrants into Israel and welcomed last year alone, mostly from affluent countries, so apparently it has the room and wealth to cope also with refugees. Last week on “Thought for the Day”, I heard the Chief Rabbi express quite rightly what I have experienced: the generosity of the Jewish people. He called for a paradigm shift in the response to this crisis. Finally, here is Israel’s opportunity. Give Palestinians fleeing war once again the right to return. Sadly, miracles no longer happen.