[Mr Adrian Sanders in the Chair] — Backbench Business — Refugee Camps

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:33 am on 22nd July 2014.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (International Development) 10:33 am, 22nd July 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Sanders.

I congratulate Pauline Latham on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for us to discuss the vital issue of refugees and the conditions in the camps where so many have no choice but to reside. I congratulate my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, who spoke movingly of the camp for Congolese refugees that she saw in Rwanda. She was eloquent in speaking about the many issues that have to be faced. The hon.

Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) made important points, as did Jim Shannon in his comprehensive remarks about the serious challenges that exist. Finally, I have not visited a refugee camp, but Guy Opperman made it clear why it is important for Members of this House to do so, and to share with us the experience of people who live in camps. I commend the work he has done on that.

There is a simple fact at the heart of today’s debate. The world’s refugee problem is growing, and that trend shows no sign of reversing. By the end of 2013, according to estimates of the UNHCR, there were more than 51 million people worldwide—almost the population of England—who had been displaced, whether by persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Over the 12 months of 2013, 1.1 million people became refugees or asylum seekers, while just 415,000 returned to their countries of origin. The net impact on the global numbers suffering displacement is clear from those figures; there is a rapid and continuing expansion. The cost and impact of that growth falls overwhelmingly on the poorest nations. Developing countries host 86% of all the world’s refugees. In the light of such figures, it is absolutely right that we should discuss what we can do both to pre-empt the process of people becoming refugees through conflict prevention and poverty alleviation, and to improve the lot of those who are already displaced—particularly the vulnerable millions scattered across the world’s refugee camps.

As has been mentioned by several Members, the terrible, unabating conflict in Syria is one of the key drivers of the upward trend in refugee numbers, as civilians forced from their home by the violence stream across the borders of neighbouring countries. Many end up in refugee camps, while others filter informally into the existing Syrian diaspora communities in those areas. More than 2.8 million refugees have fled Syria, and the vast majority are now located in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. There is still much to do to improve conditions for refugees housed in camps in those nations, but it is right to pay tribute to the work of the Governments of those countries, all of which have their own significant domestic issues to deal with, for their commitment to and support of hundreds of thousands of new residents.

Perhaps the starkest example of what I have described is Lebanon, which is home to more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees—a figure equivalent to a quarter of that nation’s permanent population. Given the unimaginable strain that such situations place on the often fragile and overburdened systems of health, education, employment and security in host countries, it is essential that the UK should do what it can, alongside the international community and the development sector, to support people in refugee camps.

Hon. Members have already mentioned some high-profile failings at refugee camps, and I will not describe those again. They are often due to a shortage of support, a lack of planning or a failure to learn the lessons of previous experience. In the Syrian crisis, the Zaatari camp, just across the border in Jordan, is worrying in many ways. Apparently uncapped expansion of the camp has been allowed, way beyond what local resources can support; later arrivals have been housed in makeshift, unsanitary conditions, in tents with little protection from the extremes of heat and cold of the Arabian desert. The camp sprawls over five square miles, with limited and often constrained food supplies. Security is limited, and violence—especially sexual violence—is a threat and a worry, as are health facilities that are less than we might want. There are also constraints on education provision.

However, as hon. Members have described in depth, incredible work is under way to improve the situation at Zaatari, and some of the other Syrian camps have learned the lessons. Those lessons include localising facilities around the camps rather than concentrating them in one spot, improving access and reducing potential for conflict. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for International Development has visited the Azraq camp, which is also in Jordan. It works on the basis of villages, each with its own clinic, playgrounds and facilities, and there is accommodation in prefabricated huts housing a maximum of five refugees each. That is hardly a great home, but it is better than what passes for refugee accommodation elsewhere, as was forcefully described in the opening speeches. What is the Minister’s assessment of the effectiveness of that model, and what logistical and technical support is her Department providing to Governments in conflict-ridden areas, who suddenly find they must establish such camps, so that lessons will be learned and best practice will not go to waste?

The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire asked, as I do, whether the Minister has had the opportunity to examine the effectiveness of top-up cards for refugees to pay for food and supplies—the shadow Secretary of State saw that in the Azraq model—instead of relying on sporadic handouts of aid.

The financial and resource strain that a sudden influx of refugees places on host nations such as Lebanon, Jordan and countries in Africa is unimaginable to us. Inevitably, with the need to provide shelter, water, food and security for hundreds of thousands of newly arrived refugees, other needs, including education, tend to be neglected by the host nations. The hon. Member for Hexham made that point well. Yet a failure to provide at least a basic education can have the most damaging long-term impact. Those who flee conflict and violence are often disproportionately young, and it is the young we are trying to remove from the violence. In Lebanon, there will soon be nearly 500,000 children of school age in camps, yet few have access to schools in the camps or in Lebanon’s towns and cities. The Lebanese Government lack the funds and teachers to provide that education safety net.

As the Syrian conflict drags on, the prospect of many children missing out completely on education rises, ingraining illiteracy and poverty. Will the Minister update us on what support her Department is providing to help to ensure that when refugee numbers are so great that they overwhelm the resources of host nations, young people, particularly those fleeing Syria, can receive at least a basic education? Will she assure us that her Department is making long-term funding available for education for young Syrian refugees, as well as supporting emergency schemes to get some basic provision in place now?

All too often, refugee situations, whether in Syria, Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, switch from being short-term humanitarian emergencies to long-term challenges for the refugees, the host nations and the international bodies that support them. Refugee camps that were intended to be temporary become homes to hundreds of thousands of refugees for years, or even decades in the worst cases. It is crucial that we choose how to use our limited resources sensibly. The urge to give aid to tackle an emergency refugee situation is strong and often right, but we must examine carefully how that can be balanced against the long-term funding that is so necessary in refugee camps that persist for many years, to ensure that they do not become homes for the hopeless—those without education, without health care, even without the hope of moving out of extreme poverty and living their lives securely.

I pay tribute to everyone in this country who supports the City of Sanctuary movement and all UK volunteers who work to support refugees. Their work is not unnoticed, and we are very grateful for it. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire on securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the many vital points that have been made this morning.