Forced Displacement in Africa — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 1:30 pm, 4th July 2019

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. I will say something about Sudan a little later in my speech, but he is absolutely right to raise the specific context of Darfur. Similar challenges exist. I will say a bit more in a moment about some of the progressive policies that a number of African Governments, including the Ugandan Government, have pursued. Those tensions often do exist, and it is incredibly important that policies pursued support the host communities and the displaced communities. We have a good example of that with the approach taken in Jordan, but we need to learn lessons from that for other parts of the world, too.

DFID needs to support Governments in Africa to uphold the principles of the Kampala convention, which contains legal protections for IDPs, while encouraging other countries that have not yet signed up to do so.

I will say something about the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls who are refugees or internally displaced. Protection is a critical part of our response to forced displacement. It is important that DFID ensures that the highest standards are applied to safeguarding refugees through its own work and, critically, that of its partners, as well as ensuring that the right mechanisms are in place to support anyone who experiences or feels threatened by sexual abuse and exploitation. As we know, tragically that sometimes includes aid and health workers.

Putting women at the forefront of refugee responses is one way we feel as a Committee that protection could be improved. We took powerful evidence that suggested giving women a much more senior and prominent role in refugee response and humanitarian support for refugees could make a real difference in safeguarding some of the most vulnerable people.

We were alarmed by reports of cases of corruption, mismanagement and other harmful conduct at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That came to light during this inquiry and during our previous inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse. Where such cases arise, the UN must act urgently to put safeguards in place while it investigates to prevent disruption to life-saving operations. DFID, in turn, has a responsibility to react swiftly and proportionately to protect UK aid and, above all, to limit the impact on refugees who rely on the UN’s services.

Despite those extremely serious cases, we found that overall UNHCR does an extraordinary job under incredibly difficult circumstances as the sole agency mandated to protect refugees around the world. Given that its work remains more important than ever, and its challenges greater than ever, its efforts to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the world need to be supported by the UK. We received good evidence that DFID is one of the most generous donors in the world in responding to emergency situations, and UNHCR thanked DFID for its support.

DFID is also a leader in supporting refugee education, and I welcome the commitment to prioritise the education of children in crises in the refreshed DFID education policy paper last year. Only half of refugees in low-income countries get even basic access to primary education, compared with a global figure of 90%. Since it was established in 2016, the Education Cannot Wait fund has helped provide education to hundreds of thousands of children and young people. The United Kingdom has been a strong supporter of Education Cannot Wait, and I warmly welcome the Minister’s recent commitment that we will increase our commitment to the fund in its forthcoming replenishment. She will not be surprised that I take another opportunity to urge the Government to make that pledge as soon as possible and to put a higher figure on their commitment. The earlier we make a pledge, as we have demonstrated this week with the Global Fund, the more likely it is that other donors will follow. That will ensure that this excellent fund can play its part to support education in emergencies.

Evidence to our inquiry showed the need for refugees to be integrated wherever possible into national education systems in host countries. I am pleased that the Department agreed with the recommendation that it should work with host Governments and communities wherever possible to facilitate that integration. I hope the Minister can say a bit more about how the Department will provide the technical and financial support needed to achieve that. Throughout our inquiry, we heard about the importance of enabling refugees to be self-reliant, including giving them the right to work and to move freely. Professor Alexander Betts told us:

“If refugees can be self-reliant and achieve autonomy it is better for them, their communities, the host societies, and indeed donor assistance.”

For obvious reasons, I realise that granting refugees unfettered rights to work is challenging for Governments in many parts of the world, but we were impressed by some of the progress we saw. Uganda has arguably the most progressive policy in the region and possibly the world in that regard. Since 2006, refugees living in Uganda have had freedom of movement, subject to some limited restrictions; employment rights; and equal access to services such as health and education. Refugees are granted a plot of land to cultivate. During our visit, Committee members saw at first hand the care and attention that refugees give to those plots of land.

This January, the Parliament of Ethiopia revised its existing refugee laws, making it easier for refugees to obtain work permits, live outside camps and access education. Central to that is the Ethiopian jobs compact, which seeks to create at least 100,000 jobs, including at least 30,000 for refugees. DFID has rightly invested heavily in the jobs compact. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has been very positive in its assessment of the compact. If we want countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia to continue with policies that are progressive and, let us face it, potentially unpopular in their own countries, we must equip them with the resources and support they deserve.

The UK Government, however, need to look at what example this country is setting through our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers here. Evidence to our inquiry emphasised the importance of donors leading by example, including by allowing asylum seekers in the UK the right to work. We concluded that DFID cannot ask the poorest countries in the world to grant refugees the right to work while the UK Government significantly limits those rights here in our own country. It is extremely disappointing that the Government rejected our recommendation, and I urge them to reassess that policy. Little could carry more weight with our partner Governments in Africa than the UK practising what it preaches.

For the many refugees who cannot return home, integration into their country of asylum is often the most desirable means of rebuilding their lives. That comes at a big financial, logistical and political cost for host countries. Our ability to advocate, as we do, for refugee integration in Africa is hampered by the United Kingdom’s limited commitment to integrate refugees here in the UK through resettlement and asylum.

Lucy Hovil, chair of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, gave evidence to us. She said:

“At the end of the day, this is about political will. Who has the leverage to persuade Governments that are hosting enormous numbers of refugees to begin to offer local integration, without a similar level of commitment?”

Resettlement is a really important option for refugees who cannot return home. Yet at a time when more resettlement places are needed than ever, the number available is sharply in decline, largely because of the policies of the Trump Administration in the United States.

In 2017, the last year of figures, the UNHCR was able to submit only 75,000 refugees for resettlement—a 54% drop from the previous year. In this country, we have policies to be proud of in our resettlement of some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. However, we have been much less open to vulnerable refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, taking in just 448 in 2017-18. Providing those limited resettlement opportunities is a crucial part of the responsibility principle, which is at the heart of the refugee compact.

The UNHCR has said that it would like the UK to increase our total resettlement numbers to 10,000 places a year—almost double the current number. It is a not a large number, particularly in contrast to the numbers taken by some of the poorest countries in the world. The Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, George Okoth-Obbo, told us in evidence that that would both

“help people and have an incredible demonstration effect.”

He said:

“The word I would use for that would be ‘tremendous’.”

It would show those countries hosting the lion’s share of refugees that we in the UK are willing to shoulder some of that burden and provide people with alternative opportunities to rebuild their lives in the UK.