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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 22nd July 2014.

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Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 10:43 am, 22nd July 2014

It is a pleasure, Mr Sanders, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Pauline Latham on securing this important debate and all hon. Members on their contributions. Hon. Members throughout the House are genuinely committed to the plight of refugees, wherever they are in the world. Meeting the needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced people is at the centre of the UK’s humanitarian work, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it. I will try to respond to as many points as possible.

The debate is timely. A month ago, on world refugee day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that in 2013 the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide had, for the first time in the post-world war two era, exceeded 50 million people. The increase from 2012 has been driven mainly by the Syria crisis, as many hon. Members said, but there have also been major new displacements in Africa, notably the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

My first visit to a refugee camp was to the north of South Sudan where refugees came across from South Kordofan and Blue Nile. That was also when I had my first trip in a helicopter, because there were no roads and the rainy season had started. The logistics of bringing in life-saving supplies were quite extraordinary in the direst of circumstances. Having to fly everything into refugee camps there partly explains the cost of the camps. I will go into the different costs, because where camps are situated and the countries they are in are critical to those costs.

This rise in the number of refugees is part of a worrying global trend reflecting the complexity of protracted crisis situations with regional and cross-border dimensions and the quadrupling of overall humanitarian need over the past decade. Increasingly, many refugee situations are continuing for extended periods. In 2011, a UNHCR study of 30 major protracted refugee situations found that the average length of displacement now is almost 20 years, compared with an average of nine years in the early 1990s.

Many hon. Members referred to the longevity of the camps, and I reiterate that primary responsibility for the assistance and protection of refugees lies with the host state. The UNHCR is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide, and to seek durable solutions to refugee displacement. I agree with all hon. Members who have said that we must normalise situations that last for a long time by providing skills, education and the hope of life beyond the camps. Solutions may include voluntary repatriation, assimilation within new national communities or resettlement to third countries. In 2013, refugee returns were fewer than 500,000.

The focus of this debate has been conditions in refugee camps, but it is important to note that the majority of today’s refugees do not live in camps. In 2012, a UNHCR study showed that only 35% of the 9.5 million refugees assessed lived in planned camps, and that the majority were living in private or rented accommodation. Meg Hillier referred to that, and I will respond in due course. More recently, it was estimated that 86% of Syrian refugees live outside camps.

It is critical to ensure that those with responsibility for meeting refugees’ needs are able to tailor their responses to different contexts. Camps are not usually the preferred solution for refugees, because they are expensive and often do not have good security. I have seen jealousy in host communities. Many hon. Members referred to education, and when it is provided in camps in countries where children outside the camps are barely in school, the balance must be carefully considered. My Department must consider the context or there may be all sorts of trouble between those inside and outside the camps.

The 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol laid down the basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees. The UNHCR has further developed them into detailed standards and guidelines in every sector of humanitarian assistance and protection. Today’s debate has rightly highlighted the fact that conditions vary widely from one camp to another. The issue is complicated. It depends partly on the political willingness and economic ability of a country to host refugees. In the middle east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said, host states are relatively wealthy compared with those in Africa and perhaps more politically willing to help with refugees. Certainly, as Guy Opperman said, the Turkish refugee camps are of the highest quality. They are quite astonishing. I was at an iftar meal, as I am sure many Members in the Chamber have been. It was a Turkish evening, and the quality of the camps was referred to many times over.

Conditions vary widely depending on how well the camp has been planned in advance and where it is located. Often, as I said, camps are situated in very poor circumstances without proximity to natural resources such as water or wood. The capacity of the camp to expand to more refugee influxes is also a factor, because if different cultural groups are sited in the same place or in close proximity, it results in overcrowding and tension.

A number of Members raised the issue of women and girls in refugee camps. As I am sure everyone knows, DFID puts women and girls, and particularly preventing violence against women, at the heart of all its development programmes. The Secretary of State gave a call to action to address the danger to women and children and their vulnerability in refugee camps, as has been mentioned. One of my earliest meetings was with a number of the agencies involved, and I said that this was a first-order issue. For a long time, food, water, shelter and sanitation were the first-order issues, but it is now becoming recognised that that is not enough any more.