Relocation Scheme (Syrians) — [Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 16th July 2014.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 2:51 pm, 16th July 2014

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I congratulate Sarah Teather and thank her for all the hard work she does. I also thank her for her presentation to Westminster Hall today and for setting the scene for all of us here. No one present today will not support the hon. Lady’s argument; I am convinced of that. All of us have compassion and interest in others, and that is why we are here—to convey that through this debate. I was disappointed when the debate was postponed from last week, but at least we can revisit it today. Given the continuing violence in Syria, it is a matter of the highest importance, and it is good to make a contribution.

Each day we read of the atrocities taking place in Syria, and a particular concern of mine is the despicable persecution of Christians in particular that is being carried out by ISIS. Syria continues to rise in the world watch list. The civil war has seen an increase in violence in general across the whole of Syria, but a rise in Islamist extremism is putting even greater pressure on Christians in Syria at the present time. Syria’s Christian minority, which primarily resides in the capital city, Damascus, is generally respected. That has been the case for many years. Christians make up 6.3% of the population, and they enjoy freedom and stability—at least they did—unparalleled throughout the middle east. Although there is freedom to worship, if Christians evangelise Muslims and share their faith openly, overt persecution is a possibility, but since the conflict began three years ago, the freedoms that Christians enjoyed have ceased to exist, and with increasing Islamising, Christians have faced some of the worst persecution.

I want to put the issue into perspective, because it very much ties in with the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Killing of Christians in Syria more than doubled in 2013, with the charity group Open Doors confirming the figures as 2,123 compared with 1,201 in 2012. The head of research for Open Doors claimed that this was a minimum number, confirmed by media reports and its own research. The thought that that is just the minimum number of people who have been murdered because of what they believe is truly horrifying. The murder and killing of those in Syria who would benefit from the relocation scheme is something I want to highlight. The figures are testament to the need for us—I use “us” in the general sense, as the UK Government—to act.

It therefore should not come as a surprise that I welcome the relocation scheme and wish to see it extended and promoted, with more people getting the advantage of it. With sky-rocketing food prices and a shortage of water and other essentials, many Christians are facing malnutrition, as are others in Syria. Access to water, electricity and communications is very limited. It is perhaps the traumatised children of Christian families who suffer the greatest hardships. The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the children in her speech, and we always see the children’s faces in any conflict. Whatever the war and whatever the reasons for it might be, it is the children, the women and mothers who suffer the most, and that is of great concern to all of us. Many face great danger, since rebel forces have even targeted Christian schools.

Terrorist groups have focused on people with Christian beliefs. They believe that Christians are westernised and are therefore supported by the United Kingdom and the USA, which is not the case. They are simply following their faith, as they should. An estimated 600,000 Christians have fled the country or lost their lives as a result of the civil war, and there are fears that Christianity will soon cease to exist in Syria. That is the magnitude of what has taken place. There is a massive humanitarian crisis taking place. The hon. Lady referred to the countries around Syria that are taking many of the refugees. That is having an impact upon those countries’ ability to look after not only their own people, but those who come to the country. That must be addressed. Although it might not be his direct responsibility, I am sure the Minister can indicate what help can be given in relation to health and hygiene and the prevailing issues of fresh water and sanitation.

For those reasons I fully support the scheme, although I recognise the importance of conducting appropriate and necessary checks to identify those who are most at risk, as well as working alongside migration and local authorities to ensure that our border control remains a priority. We understand the need for border control, but there is also a need to be compassionate and understanding towards those who are under direct pressure and who need help now. Again, I hope the Minister will be able to address the issue. I have no doubt that he will, but I would like to hear a wee bit more about what the Government are doing.

The UNHCR representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, stated:

“Humanitarian admissions and resettlement are part of our protection strategy for Syrian refugees.”

There is a clear role being played.

“As much as they provide solutions for vulnerable individuals and families, these efforts are also a concrete gesture of solidarity and burden sharing with countries in the region currently hosting more than two and a half million Syrian refugees.”

It is important that we all take a direct interest in how we can help the Syrian refugees. Any man of a compassionate hue recognises those who are less well off and in need of help, and, without a doubt, our country, the United Kingdom, is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of both the aid and support that it provides to those in need around the world. It is always good to know that we have kept our commitment. The Government and the Department for International Development have kept their commitments and sent aid to other countries. Christian Aid is grateful and supportive of that as well.

The first group of Syrians have arrived in the United Kingdom, and I trust that the Government and local authorities will do all that they can to integrate them into the community. I am pleased that the families who have suffered so greatly will now experience both peace and the freedoms that they have been denied. It is important that we as a country help those people to integrate into society here. I know that MPs will always support that, but I urge everyone, including our constituents, to support those people and make sure they are made very much at home.

Critics of the scheme—and there are critics—need not fear that the UK will be inundated with Syrian migrants, because the latest figures have proved that that is not the case. If the figures in TheGuardian are correct—the Minister will confirm the figures or not—only 24 Syrians have come to the UK under the vulnerable persons scheme. Many of the critics are simply trying to spread fear in the same way they did when we opened our borders to Romanians earlier this year. There is no comparison between the two countries. I always despair when people do not see the real issues of those who most need help.

Latest figures suggest that Sweden and Germany have received the highest number of asylum applications, with just over 24,000 and 23,000 applications respectively, compared to the figure for the UK that the hon. Lady referred to—3,947 applications. Given that 2.8 million Syrians have fled the country since the war began three years ago, these numbers are small indeed and it is time that we as a country helped more, or at least considered the need to increase the number of applications to the UK. I know that both Opposition Members and Government Members are keen to see the Government expand that number, and I would also like to see it expanded.

The Minister himself has noted previously that our country has a proud history of granting protection to those who need it; he is on record as saying that and I support his comments entirely. We in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have provided nearly £600 million in relief efforts, and to conclude today I will say that the greatest contribution that we can now make is to provide safe homes and environments for those who are most at risk. I am delighted to support this scheme and I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate on it and giving us a chance to contribute. I look forward to the responses of both the shadow Minister and the Minister. Like others in this House, I will continue to seek assurances about the protection of Christians and those who are most at risk in Syria, and indeed across the whole world.