Syrian Refugees — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 29th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 3:10 pm, 29th October 2015

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for securing this debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. It is a short debate, but it has been a very well-informed one. We could have spent much longer discussing the issues that we all feel so passionately about. The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, has pointed out a number of things that DfID and the UK Government are doing but, as with all these things, it is good and right that we remind ourselves that as a country we have taken the lead in many areas in ensuring that we persuade others to make their mark to try to help those who live in such terrible conditions, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said.

In Syria and the region, the Syrian conflict has taken a terrible toll. The humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic proportions. The UN estimates that 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and almost 4.2 million refugees are in neighbouring countries. The UK has a proud record of leadership on the response to the Syrian crisis. As has been pointed out by a number of noble Lords, we have pledged more than £1.1 billion to date. That is our largest response to a single humanitarian crisis. Again, as was rightly pointed out, we are the second-largest bilateral donor after the US. By the end of June 2015, our support in Syria and the region has delivered almost 20 million food rations. Each ration feeds one person for up to a month. We have provided more than 2.5 million medical consultations and access to clean water for 1.6 million people in Syria.

We have been at the forefront of efforts to push the United Nations and other agencies to co-ordinate better and deliver more effectively. There have been substantial improvements in co-ordination which have saved lives over the past year. We have also co-sponsored and lobbied hard for UN Security Council Resolutions 2165 and 2191, which have enabled the UN to deliver aid across borders without the consent of the regime. By 30 September this year, the UN and its partners had delivered 189 convoys of aid across the border since the adoption of Resolution 2165 in July 2014. These convoys of aid have helped to provide food, blankets, water kits and vital medical supplies to the thousands of people in Syria.

Furthermore, the UK continues to play a leading role in encouraging the international community to make generous pledges in response to the humanitarian crisis. We have lobbied hard and mobilised funding from other donors ahead of the third Kuwait pledging conference in March, which raised $3.6 billion. Now we are exploring with the UN and other major donors how best to ensure that the momentum on fundraising is maintained over a longer period, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about.

Longer term, Syria needs hope and opportunities. To increase their prospects of being able to stay in the region close to home, specifically we need to give Syrian children education and the adults the chance to earn a living. That is why the UK helped to launch and continues to support UNICEF’s No Lost Generation initiative to provide education protection and psychosocial support for children affected by the crisis.

We are also scaling up our support for longer-term stability and resilience-building work inside Syria and neighbouring countries, which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, asked about. It is not just about the now, but about the rebuilding once this crisis is resolved—sooner rather than later, we hope. We want to make sure that we help to expand job and education opportunities for refugees and assist with the impact on local services. All that requires a long-term sustained and scaled-up commitment from donors.

The conflict in Syria has intensified in recent weeks with major regime offences on several fronts, with Russian air support. One such front is Aleppo, as the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, identified. Hundreds of thousands of people living in areas under the control of armed opposition groups are at risk of displacement. The United Nations and NGO partners are reviewing and revising the Aleppo contingency plan. A negotiated political settlement in Syria has never been more pressing. The worsening conflict has already led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed, and left millions in need and displaced from their homes. It has created space for extremism to spread through the region and beyond. Political transition by mutual agreement of the Syrian parties, supported by the international community, remains the only way to bring about sustainable peace in Syria.

The UK’s vision for Syria is for an open democratic society with greater social, economic and political participation, where violent extremism does not have a place and where refugees will feel safe to return. To that end, the UK has committed more than £84.5 million to support governance, security and livelihoods in Syria and the region. In particular, we have trained and equipped civil defence teams to carry out search and rescue operations, trained Syrian journalists and activists to help develop an independent Syrian media, and funded local-level peacebuilding projects within Syria and between communities in neighbouring countries where refugees are based. We are also supporting the Free Syrian Police, which is responsible for providing basic civilian policing in large areas of opposition-controlled territory.

A great range of questions has been asked today. I will endeavour in the remaining five minutes or so to answer as many as I can. However, in the event that I do not, I undertake to write to all noble Lords and place copies of those letters in the Library.

The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, said that the emphasis should be on a political solution. I could not agree more. A negotiated transition in the Syria area is the only way to end the conflict and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Political dialogue remains active between the UN and the international community, but we have to make sure that those who are in this conflict do not add to the complexity. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said, it is really important that debates and discussions are held collectively with a common goal of peace for the people in that region. Ending the conflict in Syria and addressing the national security threats posed to us from there will of course take time, resolve and determination. Defending our national security means that in Syria we must support moderate groups and tackle extremists and the drivers of extremism. That does mean tackling ISIL directly, as we and our allies are doing, and there is a case, of course, for doing more. In parallel with that, we must put pressure on Assad. We need to build the conditions for political settlement and a Government who can represent all Syrians. The only way that will happen is if we work together to undermine the extremists and defeat ISIL in the long run.

I know that my noble friend Lady Morris is incredibly passionate about her work. She asked a number of questions about what she has seen being done with Palestinians in Syria. As my noble friend is aware, we have been supporting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other UN partners for Palestinian refugees in the Near East to ensure that the needs of highly vulnerable Palestinians are addressed both within Syria and in neighbouring countries. To date, the UK has allocated approximately £59 million to UNRWA to provide food parcels, relief items, hygiene packs, education and cash assistance for Palestinian refugees affected by the violence. She asked if I would agree to a meeting with herself, a group from the Refugee Council and Richard Harrington MP. I am happy to do so and I will ask my office to contact her directly to put the meeting in place.

As is the way with these things, I am running out of time so I need to gallop on a little to address a few more questions. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about our support for Turkey. We have allocated £34 million for programmes supporting Syrian refugees, including the provision of food, shelter and primary healthcare, and we are working in partnership with multiple Turkish institutions on targeted projects in order to build capacity to target irregular migration. He also asked about the cuts made to the UN World

Food Programme. As I stated earlier, we are the second-largest donor to this programme. Since the start of the crisis, we have committed £227 million to provide food support in Syria and the region, but we acknowledge that the needs continue to grow and that the UN World Food Programme is underfunded. We will be working to secure more funding with our partners, but we know that we need to direct what we are delivering into the areas where it is most needed and encourage others to do the same. The noble Lord also asked me how many people we will have taken in by Christmas. I think that the number in my brief is 1,000, but I will correct it if it is not.

I have run out of time and I still have a huge bundle of questions to go through. I apologise that I have not been able to answer them all, but I think that we all realise that a transition away from Assad to a more inclusive Government who can represent everyone is what we envisage the Geneva process delivering. We will continue to work with our international partners and, as I said earlier, I undertake to write to all noble Lords.