Syrian Refugees (Support and Aid)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 29th April 2014.

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Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham 4:27 pm, 29th April 2014

The River Euphrates on the Syria-Turkey border should be a place of peace, calm and holiness. Instead, at the Nizip Syrian refugee camp, which lies on its banks, the consequences of the Syrian civil war are all around. On a visit there in January this year, I, along with other colleagues present, saw 17,000 men, women and particularly children existing in giant compounds, waiting for the conflict to end so that they could go home. The refugees in Nizip, helped as they are by British overseas aid, multiple charities, some other countries and a supportive host country in Turkey, are the lucky ones. The colleagues who went there with me spent four days in the camps, and we saw at first hand and had a good chance to assess what life was like in a refugee camp, and we saw a good camp.

I want to address the state that Syria is in, the progression of the conflict and its impact on the Syrian people and their neighbours, the nature of our aid operation outside Syria itself, which is frankly very good, the limited aid in Syria and the problems that it is causing and what we can do both in Britain and as part of the United Nations to exercise greater influence and impact on what is going on. However, we must accept the harsh reality that it is everyday Syrians—the men and women in the street inside Syria—who are fundamentally affected by the conflict and who are not receiving the aid that they need to survive. Only this week, BBC journalists on the ground in Aleppo reported:

“A trickle of aid makes its way across the border but Syrians feel shunned by what they see as the indifference of the outside world. They are defenceless in the face of incessant attacks, caught between two sides determined to fight to the bitter end and with little hope of either respite or relief.”

The reality is that the Syrian conflict is a problem that will not go away, either for Britain or for the United Nations. For my part, I believe and will make the case that the United Nations must do more. Put simply, it needs to add some bite to its bark. Syria forces us to examine our consciences and ask ourselves searching questions, such as: what is the role of the UK Government and the United Nations in confronting the conflict, how do we physically save the lives of refugees who are affected by that conflict, how do we convince our voters of the wisdom—I believe it is wisdom—of spending UK taxpayers’ money on humanitarian aid and how do we ensure that that aid gets to the recipient who needs it in Syria? Put simply, what more can we do?

We have thus far chosen diplomacy as our major approach to this matter. The crisis that began in March 2011, with protests against the Assad Government, has long since escalated to a civil war between Government forces and an array of rebel militias. Having decided not to intervene in the conflict, Britain and the UN have chosen to pursue diplomacy to resolve it, but this has failed to prevent the killing and, with the war now in its fourth year, this conflict is fragmenting into ever more complex disputes. At the same time, the death toll, as we all know, has exceeded approximately 150,000 people and the number of displaced persons is a huge 2.6 million people and rising fast. Inaction is not an option.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and thank the Government for all they are doing to support the Syrian people. Does not my hon. Friend agree that there are two problems? There are now actually more than 3 million displaced people—1 million in Lebanon, 1 million in Jordan and 1 million in Turkey—and 7 million internally displaced people. Does he agree that it is a priority to get the international community, particularly the UN, to ensure that there is support for Security Council resolution 2139, which says that aid must get to the Syrian people who are currently displaced internally and with no support?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I totally agree. It is significant, is it not, that as we began the fourth year of this conflict, the United Nations finally took significant action on 27 February and passed resolution 2139, which deals with the humanitarian crisis inside Syria? Adopted unanimously, it calls for an immediate end of all violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights; it demands that all parties fully implement the provisions of the Security Council and asks them immediately to lift the sieges of populated areas and to provide unhindered cross-border and cross- line access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, stressing the need to end impunity for violations. I will talk about that in more detail.

The UN has helpfully conducted a 30-day review of resolution 2139, which means that every month it is reviewing how aid is progressing from outside into Syria and the impact that the resolution is having. I urge all parties that are interested to study those reviews— I have copies here—and note that, in reality, aid is not getting through to any great degree or in any meaningful assessment. Therefore we have to ask ourselves what more we are prepared to do.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

My hon. Friend is missing one part of resolution 2139, on the cessation of barrel bombs. Barrel bombs are highly destructive and are exacerbating an already bad humanitarian crisis. It is important that we give more teeth to the resolution, to stop the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs on its own people.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

The one action that we have taken is to attempt to stop the chemical weapons. Three shipments of chemical weapons have been destroyed already. Russia says that Syria should complete the transfer of its weapons stocks and they should be totally destroyed by 30 June. The problem is that, chemical weapons having been taken out of the game, almost—we are getting there—the preferred weapon of choice is the barrel bomb. I endorse what my hon. Friend said. The barrel bomb is wreaking havoc within Syria and is making life extraordinarily difficult, not just for Syrians, internally, but in respect of how we get humanitarian aid to those people. With barrel bombs being used regularly, it is exceptionally difficult.

Photo of Ian Austin Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North

Is not the central point that the way to solve the humanitarian crisis is to bring the conflict to an end? The way to bring the conflict to an end is to force Assad to the negotiating table and we will not do that while he thinks he is winning the military conflict. Surely, the answer is to ensure that the Free Syrian Army is properly armed and equipped and able to prosecute this conflict more effectively and to force Assad to the negotiating table, so that the conflict can be brought to a conclusion and the humanitarian crisis can be solved.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I totally respect the point that is made. All hon. Members in this Chamber and in the House, and everyone everywhere, would like a resolution to the civil war. I am concerned that, even if all those points were made, this is not a war that is going to end within six months or, in all probability, in 12 months. Even with all the actions that the hon. Gentleman legitimately and fairly mentions, that humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day, week and month. The expectation is that at least 1 million more refugees will attempt to leave Syria by the present process that we are engaged in, even as it goes ahead.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I was with him in Syria. I take his important point, which is that we should look at the aid being given within Syria, but there is a third category of those who are out of Syria but outside the camps. In Turkey, there are 600,000 refugees, but only 250,000 are in camps. UNICEF made the point that those outside the camps are not being educated, so in some ways they have many of the problems of those within Syria.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I endorse my hon. Friend’s point. We were lucky enough to go to the Nizip 2 camp, which is the gold standard of modern refugee camps, supported as it is by this country and others and by a multitude of aid organisations and charities. It is good at this point to say that we should make it clear that the work of the likes of Oxfam, Amnesty International and all the various charities involved is massively to be applauded. I am sure that the Minister will go on about the £600 million that this country is spending and I endorse and support that. That spending is popular in my constituency. Whether it is expressed by the churches in my constituency or at the pub quiz that I went to on Easter Sunday at the Feathers Inn in Hedley on the Hill, where they raised money for the Syrian refugees, there is a strong view that we are doing the right thing by supporting people in this way.

We saw in Nizip a strongly supported camp. My hon. Friend Mr Djanogly mentioned education.I went round the classrooms there, as several of us did, and saw how those involved were trying to provide education. I met Suleiman, a former engineer in Homs, who is now a teacher of year 6 and 7 children in the camp. He spoke movingly of the family members he had lost and of his desire, one day, to return, and about the difficulties of trying to provide education in a container or a tented camp on the Syrian border.

Aid is being provided outside Syria and I think that no one would dispute that this country is doing everything it possibly can in terms of the financial contribution and diplomatic and other efforts being made to ensure that the refugees, whether in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, are getting as much support as they can. We should make it clear that those three countries in particular have gone above and beyond the expectations of many and are to be supported and validated. It is noted that they have done a great deal to support the Syrian people.

I am particularly concerned about the situation inside—

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this rather important debate. He rightly mentions the support in all our constituencies for the humanitarian assistance going to those outside Syria but of Syrian origin, and rightly mentions the lack of support inside Syria. I am sure that he welcomes the open letter today from humanitarian law experts, saying that there is no legal blockage to UN cross-border operations in Syria on a humanitarian basis. Would he support calls to the UK Government to back such operations?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I certainly want the UK Government to do more. I have not seen that specific letter, but I take what the hon. Gentleman says. I would like the UK Government to do considerably more to enforce the resolutions and the law that operates to allow international aid through. I have received briefings from a number of organisations, including UNICEF, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Christian Aid and many more. Amnesty, for example, makes the case that the Security Council must ensure that resolution 2139 is effectively implemented by both the Syrian authorities and the armed opposition groups and that non-compliance should result in further measures being taken. Amnesty cites the application of sanctions and full arms embargoes against any groups suspected of human rights abuses. One has to question whether more should be done, and I will try to address that question in a second.

There are strong obstacles, and I accept and endorse that, in the statement by the Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary on 14 March 2014, the UK Government made it clear that they condemn those who are stopping such aid getting through. But the reality of the situation is that the vast majority of the parties on the ground, primarily Assad but also some extremist and opposition groups, are preventing that aid getting through, and we need to consider the further steps that the Security Council promised if non-compliance persisted after 30 days. Those 30 days have been and gone on two occasions. The last report was barely a couple of days ago. Although there have been small successes—I cite the 9 April 2014 delivery of aid to a besieged neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo and other small examples of ongoing aid that is getting into Syria—the vast majority of aid is not getting through. The consequences are significant. Frankly, the parties that are still in Syria believe there is no prospect of survival and are therefore looking to leave. The reality is that there is effectively ethnic cleansing because people are being forced out by another means. To a certain degree, there is no need to kill those people. If those people’s lives can be made so unbearable that they are forced to leave, Assad and others will think that they are going to win.

Photo of Brooks Newmark Brooks Newmark Conservative, Braintree

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Ali Gunn, who travelled with us to Nizip and sadly died a couple of months ago? My hon. Friend and I have discussed using the Nizip refugee camp as an example of best practice. Surely one of the things the UK can do is to ensure that the best practice we saw in Nizip is shared with other refugee camps, particularly in Jordan, which seems to be fairly chaotic at the moment.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I endorse both of my hon. Friend’s points. We need a detailed understanding of what the UK Government are going to do. First, what representations will they make to the United Nations so that it considers resolution 2139? For the first time—some could argue this has taken too long, but we are where we are—we have a common United Nations resolution agreed by all parties that provides a framework for getting things done inside Syria, but that resolution is not working. That may not surprise any of us who have watched, observed and visited the Syrian conflict. The question is what more we are prepared to do. It is a question not of picking a side and fighting for that side but of specifically trying to understand how aid will get into Syria.

There is a degree of pressure on individual aid agencies and charities working on the ground in Syria because, to be blunt, most of their work is limited to the Damascus area because the situation is exceptionally difficult and complicated, but they have to ask themselves whether they are doing what they need to do to ensure that their work happens.

Secondly, the British Government and the United Nations have to look specifically at how they will enforce resolution 2139. I would like to see efforts made to ensure that the United Nations, which has considerable clout even in these difficult days, does what it said it would do, because what is the point of such resolutions if we do not try to enforce them? I hope the Minister will address that point and take the message from this House that Members are keen that more is done to ensure that humanitarian aid gets through to Syria. We must recognise that we have to do all we can to support the Syrian people, because few can imagine their plight.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 4:45 pm, 29th April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Guy Opperman on securing this important debate. As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, I genuinely welcome his efforts to bring the plight of Syrian refugees to the House’s attention. I will give a broad description of what we are doing, but I hear loudly and clearly his message on what he feels is impotence in the face of a security resolution that is not being fulfilled on the ground. I will address that point.

We continue to be very concerned about the Syrian refugee situation and the impact that the crisis is having on neighbouring countries. There are more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees in the region. Neighbouring countries have been extremely generous in hosting Syrian refugees, and we urge them to continue showing that generosity by welcoming those seeking safety from violence and by keeping their borders open. Stretched services such as water and health care, however, are under increasing strain. Rents, food prices and unemployment are on the rise. Access to education and protection for refugee children, particularly girls, are major concerns.

As many here today will be aware, the UK has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response in Syria, and I thank my hon. Friend for praising the Government’s actions. The UK’s total funding for Syria and the region is now £600 million—three times the size of its response to any other humanitarian crisis. Of that total, our support for Syrian refugees and host communities in the region amounts to £292 million. That money is reaching hundreds of thousands of people across Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt and provides food to 190,000 people, safe drinking water and sanitation services to more than 213,000 people and more than 71,000 medical consultations. The money is also delivering a range of shelter and essential relief items to Syrians displaced by violence.

Food, water and medicine are not enough. More than 1.3 million children—my hon. Friend raised the plight of children—have crossed the border to escape the bloodshed. Some have seen their families split up, and some have seen their parents and friends killed. Away from their homes, many face neglect, exploitation and abuse. Even very young children are being sent out to work or beg, and girls as young as 13 have been sold into early marriage.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

Does my hon. Friend also welcome the fact that this country has approved more than 3,500 asylum applications and that the vulnerable persons relocation programme started approximately a month ago? Will she make the case that we should not be encouraging our young men in particular, but also our women, to go to Syria to try to get involved in the struggle? We should be deprecating and stopping such involvement as much as possible because the situation is well looked after by both the UK Government and individual charitable organisations.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

This country has an honourable history of receiving asylum seekers, and I am pleased that the first refugees under the new scheme arrived in March. Our young people are going to fight in Syria with what I hope are misguided good intentions. The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have made it absolutely clear that such activity should not be embarked on, as it is dangerous beyond belief and can lead to no good for those individuals or their families.

A destroyed childhood is a destroyed life, and as the crisis rages on, an entire generation of children is being shaped by this relentlessly brutal war that has ripped away every bit of normality. That will have long-term, profound consequences for Syria, the region and further afield—we cannot afford to let those children become a generation lost to conflict. That is why, right from the start of the crisis, the UK Government have highlighted the plight of vulnerable children and focused on ensuring that they have the basics they need to survive.

In September last year, the Secretary of State for International Development helped launch the “No Lost Generation” initiative, which is designed to galvanise a global co-ordinated effort to provide Syrian children with the education, protection and psycho-social support they so desperately need. Slightly off topic, but not very far off topic, is our work in Sudan. The loss of 20 years of education to the children of Sudan has affected the recovery there. As can be seen from the problems that Sudan is experiencing, a lost generation is something that we cannot afford.

Earlier this month, the Secretary of State convened a high-level summit to underline the critical need for renewed financial and political commitment for the “No Lost Generation” initiative and announced a further £20 million of funding for it, bringing the total UK support to £50 million.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central

The Minister is rightly outlining some of the humanitarian assistance, particularly for children, happening around the Syrian conflict. Will she break down specifically what support there is in Syria? What additional support can go into Syria within the legal framework?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I will come to that. It is important to recognise the impact the refugee crisis is having on the host communities, which is why we are working with partners to ensure that host community needs are incorporated into all programmes. If the host communities are not supported, only the refugees are getting support, which causes all sorts of knock-on problems. The UK also gives £12 million of funding to targeted programmes to meet the specific needs of host communities.

Conditions inside Syria continue to drive the refugee crisis as neighbouring countries’ capacity to support growing numbers of Syrian refugees is limited. We are working hard to ensure that more aid is delivered inside Syria. The UK has allocated £249 million to partners to provide assistance to all 14 governorates of Syria. That is delivering food for approximately 380,000 people and helping to supply drinking water to more than 1.4 million people.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I am sure the Minister does. No one disputes that the UK Government are allocating money, resources, food and all manner of things to individual organisations and on the ground, but the problem is that it is not getting there. The question that the UK Government have to ask themselves is about what they are specifically going to do, whether alone or as part of the United Nations. I assure the Minister that she has more than seven minutes left.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

I thank my hon. Friend. I am keeping an eye on the time, because I want to address the specific points raised. Although aid is getting through, it is not enough. Access is extremely unpredictable. Thousands of people in desperate need wait each month for relief that does not arrive because humanitarian agencies are prevented from reaching them.

To address the point more directly, I should say that the UK lobbied strongly for the UN Security Council resolution on access, and it was unanimously agreed. It was the first time that the UN Security Council came together in support of a humanitarian resolution since the start of the conflict. It is vital that the Syrian regime and its backers respond immediately to those demands, which they clearly are not doing.

On the changes we have seen since that resolution was delivered, the report on the implementation makes it clear that the regime continues to obstruct humanitarian operations, in violation of the resolution. We are expecting a further update later today—the one that my hon. Friend said was leaked.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I have a copy of it here.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

Indeed. I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s access to it; I am merely explaining that it was to have been released officially later today.

We need to maintain pressure on the regime and its allies. We need to maintain our dialogue with neighbouring countries, regional partners and the opposition. As the resolution makes clear, we fully intend to take further steps if the demands it sets out are ignored; I accept that they are being ignored. We will return to the UN Security Council to consider further measures. It is vital to the credibility of the Security Council that it acts when its will is so clearly undermined. I have heard loudly and clearly the message that my hon. Friend wants me to take back to my Secretary of State and to the Foreign Secretary about applying more pressure and going back to the UN Security Council to say, “This is urgent. These people are in desperate need. We cannot wait for things somehow to resolve.”

Obviously, things such as humanitarian corridors have been looked at, but they are simply not feasible at the moment. It therefore behoves us to press the UN Security Council to take further steps to put pressure on the Syrian authorities and on the opposition. The Syrian authorities could certainly be seen to be arbitrarily blocking access to refugees, particularly in opposition-surrounded areas.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central

Would the Minister support UN cross-border humanitarian operations?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

There is a legal discussion going on at the moment. The UK Government agree that providing partial humanitarian aid cross-border without explicit regime consent is not unlawful in circumstances in which the regime is arbitrarily denying consent for humanitarian access across borders over which it has no control and in the light of the fact that the regime is employing starvation as a method of warfare, which is against international law, against its own people. Such aid, however, must fulfil the requirements of humanity and impartiality.

On whether the UN should give cross-border aid, humanitarian agencies should deliver aid by the most effective route possible to get aid to those who need it. A decision on the UN going across borders without regime consent must be taken after consideration of not only the legal arguments, which we are having now, but the security risks and the risks of regime retaliation against humanitarian operations in other parts of the country where we are getting access to those who are in need. There could be reprisals and then more difficulties created, so worsening the situation.

We continue to urge the United Nations to do all that it can to ensure that aid reaches those who need it. It is indeed a hugely frustrating and dangerous situation, and a desperate one. Although there has been an important step forward, the UN report to the Security Council on 28 March made it clear that obstruction of humanitarian operations is going on in violation of the UN resolution. That is why, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, I will take the message back loud and clear that the UK Government need to consider what our next steps will be to press the United Nations on what further actions it might take. Baroness Amos will provide further details later today, although my hon. Friend already has the details of her proposals—I cannot comment on why his information is better than mine. I assure him, however, that the UK will do everything possible to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in the region and outside Syria. We call upon other nations to contribute their fair share in this humanitarian crisis.

I thank hon. Members for their interest and concern about such a desperate situation. The Department for International Development, working hand in hand with the Foreign Office, will continue to focus efforts on ensuring that humanitarian needs are being met, while working hard to find a political resolution to the Syria crisis—although seemingly not in the offing, that is ultimately the only way in which the region will find peace.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned.