Syria: Humanitarian Situation

Pothole and Highway Repairs – in Westminster Hall at 4:28 pm on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:28 pm, 3rd November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the humanitarian situation in Syria.

In 2015, I first became aware of Syrian citizen journalist, and now BAFTA-award winning director, Waad Al-Kateab. Ben de Pear, the editor of “Channel 4 News”, texted me with words to the effect of, “Ali, you have got to watch our report from a citizen journalist in Aleppo.” I tuned in and, with horrified disbelief, saw Waad, a film-maker and mum, show the violent attacks that families in Aleppo were going through. Her images shook this country. Bombs were falling on hospitals. We saw it, but the bombing went on and on, from Aleppo to Idlib and beyond. This debate is crucial.

I begin by thanking an number of colleagues who have always supported efforts to protect Syrian civilians. Mr Mitchell, who is not here at the moment, was, alongside Jo Cox, a founding member of the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Syria. When he speaks, I encourage the Minister to listen. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, co-wrote “The Cost of Doing Nothing” with Jo, a vital report that underpins so much of what I will say. As that report points out, what is still required from the UK today is an atrocity prevention strategy with civilian protection at its heart. I thank other Members for coming to discuss Syria today.

I also thank the team at the Jo Cox Foundation, who, along with their colleagues in humanitarian protection organisations, provide a crucial rallying point for those who believe that a person suffering because of the Syrian conflict—or indeed any conflict—has the same right to protection as any of our constituents. They are an organisation worthy of Jo’s name.

Sadly, our response for Syrians and to what our own eyes have seen has not been worthy of Jo’s name. We should always have listened to Syrian civilians. That is a lesson for my party, the Labour party, as much as for anyone else. Regret about the past is not enough, however; we need action. I want to focus on the war against humanity that is still raging; on the intolerable lack of attention towards Syrian children, who account for at least half the refugees; and on how, even now, we as the United Kingdom can make a difference. We need diplomatic, defence and development strategies that all point in the same direction: the protection of Syrians. Faced with existing military and political failures, we recognise the limits on our ability to act, but just because an ideal situation is out of our reach, it does not mean that we cannot move beyond watching and waiting.

First, on the immediate situation, it is estimated that today 6.2 million people are living in camps in Syria. Mark Cutts, the UN deputy regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syrian crisis, said:

“I was struck during our visit to Idlib this week by how many people are still in tents in the mud on the sides of the road, with little to protect them from the rain &
freezing temperatures to come”.

Winter is on its way. Will the Minister please explain how the UK’s contribution to the Syrian crisis will make life better for displaced people this winter? How will we make sure that the necessities of life are provided?

It is very hard to tell how covid-19 has permeated Syria as the data is uncertain, but given what we know about the virus in the region, the medical situation must be bad. I have previously asked Ministers what steps they can take to get urgent medical supplies into Syria and the nearby countries hosting refugees. I repeat that request today. It is not good enough simply to cite to amount of cash that we have earmarked; we need to hear how it translates into the protection of life.

What is the Minister’s latest estimate of how many children from Syria are still out of school, wherever they may be, whether in a camp or as a refugee in another setting? What specifically is his plan to change that? Nobody’s permanent home should be a refugee camp, so we need to work diplomatically, supporting our partners, to come to an agreement about the future status of camps. What is the future for the refugees who live in them? I will say more about our contribution to that later.

Food supply is a chronic problem, not only for those in camps, but for civilians elsewhere. As the Minister will know, the World Food Programme estimates that 9.3 million Syrians—approximately half the remaining population of Syria—live in food insecurity, while another 2.2 million live on the cusp. Even in the last six months of relative stability in the conflict and the economy, 1.4 million Syrians fell below the food security threshold. Between 2019 and July 2020, the cost of a standard food basket rose by 251%, and by 420% in the north-west of the country. Economically, that is the simplest representation of supply and demand failure.

It is important—if facile—to say that those humanitarian problems do not appear from nowhere. The bombs have come from somewhere. A lack of food is a consequence of the failure of the international community to protect those who are suffering. This war is man-made; it is not an act of God. I remind the Minister that when the House last debated Syria, on 24 February, he told us no less than five times that the Government were calling for a ceasefire. What is his assessment of the success of the UK Government’s approach so far? When did the National Security Council last discuss the situation in Syria and what was the outcome of those discussions?

This summer, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Government why they had underestimated the Russian threat to public life in Britain. The Prime Minister gave a characteristically defiant response. I will repeat that approach by asking the Minister what the Government are doing at an international level to ensure that Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council do not stop Britain from standing up for its values and responsibilities.

Our failings in relation to the Syria conflict do not need to be more extended than they already are. Our country has a proud history of writing the rules of conflict and participating in efforts to hold the guilty accountable wherever they are in the world. Will the Minister give us a full update on efforts to collect and preserve evidence with regard to the conflict? What resources have his or other Departments committed to that, and what ministerial oversight is there of the process? I also want to be updated on the UK’s approach to sanctions because, without the overarching strategy that I and others have always called for, it is hard to see the purpose of them. They can be an important tool in changing the behaviour of a regime, but without an underlying strategy it is hard to understand where we are headed. Without a strategy, the bombs will still fall and the refugees will keep running from starvation and attack.

There are 6.6 million Syrian refugees, most of them in nearby countries. In Turkey, there are 3.5 million; in Germany, 600,000. The UK hosts only 19,768—as the Minister will no doubt remind us, we have indeed just about achieved 20,000 by 2020. I congratulate him on ticking the box for what was barely acceptable to the previous Parliament, but what will the commitment be for this Parliament? Syrians still in limbo cannot simply be left in camps. We cannot abandon people to hunger and homelessness. What are we going to do?

In closing, I want to return to a comment that Jo Cox made in relation to refugees. Her words are a forceful rebuke to the people who tell us there is a pull factor bringing refugees to British shores. She said

“Who can blame…parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing…
one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but…
war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my precious babies out of that hellhole.”—[Official Report, 25 April 2016;
Vol. 608, c. 1234.]

There is another side to Jo’s story. It came last week in another short video shot by Waad Al-Kateab, who I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Her friend from Aleppo, Afra, stood at a London airport. Finally, after 10 long months waiting, she was reunited with her little daughter, both now refugees in our care. The video has no words but shows Afra dropping bags and, arms outstretched, running to finally hug her child, both having risked life and limb to get to safety in our country. That short film shows what we can be: not just a safe haven for those running from terror, but a country that truly understands there is no greater love than the care that we show for our children. Action is urgent. I will again quote Waad’s tweet:

“I can't describe how happy we are to be together again. A new start and future until we will be back to #Aleppo.”

The first part of repaying the debt we owe to the Syrian diaspora here in the UK is to listen to them. I ask the Minister how he plans to listen to Syrians here in the UK about how they see the future of their country. I ask him to respond to that point and all the other questions I have raised.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Colleagues, we have only until 5.30 for this debate. Two people on the call list have not shown up, so if colleagues, other than the Front-Bench spokespersons, take no longer than five minutes, no one will be disappointed. I call Mr Tom Tugendhat.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 4:38 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Most of all, it is a pleasure to follow Alison McGovern. She was extremely kind at the beginning of her speech about several of us. Perhaps I can mention how I was about 80% through writing “The Cost of Doing Nothing” with my friend, Jo Cox, when she was murdered on that terrible day in June 2016. It was a very difficult time for all of us not only because we lost a friend, but because there were so many projects unfinished and so many deeds undone that would have been at least the beginning of what was so obviously a glorious career in the service of our country. It was difficult for many of us to understand how we could complete that work and how we could put flesh on those bones. The hon. Member for Wirral South was not only kind and generous but hugely courageous in helping me to finish that paper and in making sure that it lived in the spirit in which it was written—one of co-operation, care and compassion. I have nothing but praise for her, and her extraordinary speech today demonstrates that compassion that we all love her for, so I thank her for it.

However, I want to build on her words. What we are seeing in Syria today is the deliberate act of people. It is the deliberate act of the Assad regime and family. It is the deliberate act of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its sponsors—the theocracy and theocrats in Tehran. It is the deliberate act of China and Russia, which have chosen to block humanitarian aid. It is the deliberate act of others in the region who have funded militias, inspired hatred and stirred up violence. But, here in Westminster, we must also remember that it is the deliberate act of our country too, and of others in the west who have not acted and are now finding out the true cost of doing nothing.

The paper I wrote with Jo for Policy Exchange is available online. The tragedy is that although the times have changed, the words do not need to. What it sets out—the cost of inaction and the implication of death and suffering that follows—is merely clearer, more obvious and more painful. Now, it is not 1 or 2 million refugees in Syria; it is 4 or 5 million. There are 9.3 million dependent on food aid, according to the World Food Programme. There are 11 million dependent on humanitarian assistance. This is no longer a failed state. It is barely a state at all.

The decision we have to take, and that I urge the Minister to push forward on, is to work with our partners and allies and to recognise that if the UN route fails, that does not mean a veto on our action; it is a veto on only one route of action. We do have difficult relationships in the region, and I am not going to gloss over them. We know that many of our partners make at best difficult, and sometimes frankly unpleasant, bedfellows. However, the truth is that when we are looking at tens of millions of people affected, hundreds of thousands killed, and refugee convoys and movements leading to the destabilisation of our allies and partners in NATO and eastern Europe, this is not, anymore, a matter of choice.

This is a decision that Her Majesty’s Government have to be involved in, because it affects us here in the UK. This is a decision that Her Majesty’s Government must be involved in, because our allies and partners are being torn apart by it. This is a decision that her Majesty’s Government must be involved in, because, as my dear friend, the hon. Member for Wirral South correctly said, this is a humanitarian disaster that we can change.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 4:43 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). The conflict in Syria has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Some 5.6 million people have been forced to leave the country, and 6.2 million have been internally displaced. Some have been displaced since only January this year, when Turkish-backed forces took over Afrin—a previously a peaceful stronghold that had taken in hundreds of refugees since the beginning of this crisis.

The crimes committed against largely Kurdish communities forced out of Afrin include the persistent persecution of entire families, based solely on their cultural identity. In that context, I raised the issue of human rights atrocities against Kurdish communities in northern Syria in Prime Minister’s Question Time back in February. I asked my question of behalf of Rosanna, a constituent from Syria who came to this country as a refugee and who still has many family members in the region. I asked the Prime Minister if he would make a commitment to stand up for the rights of the Kurdish people not to be displaced. During PMQs, he made that commitment to meet me.

In preparation for that meeting, my constituent provided a significant amount of information about her and her family’s welfare, much of which was personal and challenging for her to provide. Both she and I were disappointed to receive an email from No. 10 saying that the Prime Minister would no longer meet us and providing little by way of explanation. Will the Minister meet me instead to discuss Rosanna’s case and the situation in Syria for Kurdish people in general? It would mean a lot.

The Syrian conflict is complicated, with many different groups involved and countless atrocities being committed. That deters the Government from acting, cementing the idea that we in the UK can do little to ease the humanitarian suffering in Syria. However, we are making the entire world less safe by not confronting and holding to account those behind the human rights atrocities.

Civilian suffering at the hands of different armies in this long conflict has been well documented by both UN investigators and independent human rights groups, but until recently the responsible parties have escaped punishment. Earlier this month, a criminal complaint was submitted to a German court over the use of sarin gas by al-Assad’s regime. That is at least a step in the right direction. It brings with it the hope that the world will begin to hold to account those who are responsible for those crimes against humanity.

It may come too late for many people. The Liberal Democrats are asking the Government to work with international partners to ensure enforcement of the ceasefire between Russia and Turkey and to make progress towards a long-term peaceful resolution. The UK Government must also use their role on the UN Security Council to push for continued humanitarian access by funding common humanitarian transport services and establishing shared logistics pipelines.

Coronavirus and the economic collapse are threatening what remains of normal life in the region. According to a UN report from 2019, 83% of people across both Government and rebel-held parts of the country were already living in poverty. The collapse of what is left of Syria’s economy means the timing of the covid-19 crisis could not be worse. Last month, the Syrian Government introduced limits on subsidised bread available at bakeries. Many families are now risking starvation. At least half of the nearly 12 million people in Syria needing humanitarian assistance are children. How dare we turn a blind eye?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 4:47 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alison McGovern on her powerful speech, and I congratulate the two speakers who followed her. I too pay tribute to our dear friend, Jo Cox, who was a powerful advocate for Syria and Syrian refugees.

I declare an interest, Sir David. I visited Lebanon in 2013 with the international children’s charity World Vision, and I also visited Jordan with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I visited Syrian refugees during those visits. During the trip to Lebanon, I visited a number of informal refugee settlements and saw the extent of the crisis. That was right at the beginning of the crisis, but things were unbearable, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Lebanon, ultimately making up more than a quarter of the population.

Recently we have seen the challenges facing countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. They have hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, compared with other countries, including our own, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South pointed out. I saw at first hand the devastation the crisis brought to people’s lives, and especially children’s. I will never forget the hundreds of children who were living in an informal settlement of makeshift tents on the outskirts of a town in the Beqaa valley.

The Palestinians, who had fled decades ago from Palestine and moved to Syria, had been forced out of Syria during the war, into the Palestinian camp in Lebanon. I will never forget the face of an elderly woman, who had been there since the ’40s, and then the children of the successor generation who had fled from Syria and were put in the overcrowded Palestinian camp in Lebanon. The plight of Syrian refugees is horrific, and alongside that, of course, there are the many Palestinians who were living in Syria and who were then forcibly displaced once again.

Almost a decade has passed now since the conflict began, and we see no end in sight in terms of a peaceful settlement, but the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation much worse. It is vital that our Government redouble their efforts to keep the pressure on those countries such as Russia and China that are blocking peace. They have blocked efforts by the British Government and the international community to bring an end to the conflict through various UN resolutions proposed by the UK Government and other Governments back in 2011, 2012 and so on.

The pandemic has meant that refugees face even greater risk. The spread of coronavirus is impossible to control in camps, not only in the camps that Syrian refugees live in, but in many other camps, whether in Bangladesh or in other parts of the world where people have been forced out. We need a resolution on achieving peace, but we also need to provide greater assistance to those countries that are bearing the brunt when they have their own challenges. I hope the Minister can say more in his response about what we are doing to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus in camps and to provide more protection. UN appeals have historically been significantly underfunded over many years, and those countries are bearing the brunt of the crisis in terms of providing for refugees.

I turn finally to the issues around trying to get an agreement for an at least temporary peace, while negotiations continue. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire. We have to ensure that our Government take a leadership role in making that happen as we face a second wave that could spread into refugee camps.

I end by quoting the UN Secretary-General, who said at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis:

COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity—and so the whole of humanity must fight back.”

Those sentiments are more important than ever now, especially as we consider the plight of Syrian refugees in different countries around the globe and the plight of other refugees around the world. We have to act together to protect refugees and to stop the conflicts going on in Syria and elsewhere, if we are to protect people’s lives.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 4:53 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate Alison McGovern. I do not believe we have actually spoken before, but it is a great honour to be able to take part in her debate. I look forward to working together on this issue and many others around development, foreign policy and aid.

We have heard from Members across the House just how devastating the impact of covid-19 has been on humanitarian work in Syria, already beleaguered after a decade of conflict. Difficult spending choices have to be made in the light of the covid pandemic, but our debate today highlights why a reduction in our aid commitments must not be one of them. Through our 0.7% aid spending target, we throw a vital lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable people, including the people of Syria. We must not balance our books on the back of the world’s poorest and must continue to uphold that 0.7% commitment.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the gender-based violence pandemic in countries all over the world. The UN estimates that in the 12 months before the pandemic, 242 million women and girls were subject to sexual or physical violence. Experts predict that the number will rise significantly higher before the pandemic is over.

In Syria, such violence has been there for years. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the women of Syria have been subjected to some of the most appalling violence witnessed in modern times. Through my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on preventing sexual violence in conflict, I am all too familiar with the accounts of Daesh enslaving women and girls, raping them and selling them like livestock. While so-called Islamic State has been all but defeated, sexual violence in Syria continues. Just last year, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre released a report entitled “Do You Know What Happens Here?”, revealing the prevalence of sexual violence and gender-based violence at Syrian Government detention centres. The centre concluded that

“such abuses are “widespread, systematic and officially sanctioned”,

and that rape is used routinely in interrogation attempts to solicit confessions. Nor are these atrocities solely committed against women. A recent report from Human Rights Watch, “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways”, details the sexual violence to which men, gay and trans people have been subjected by both state and non-state actors in Syria. The report notes that gay and trans survivors said that they were singled out for sexual violence because they were perceived as “soft”. These same regressive social views contribute to a cultural assumption in Syria that men should be invulnerable to sexual violence, exacerbating the deep shame and stigma of male survivors. That prevents them from accessing the support services they need, and from coming forward to seek justice.

There is no doubt that we cannot allow the people who commit these atrocities to escape justice. We must urgently tackle the culture of impunity that goes with the crimes committed. I have long advocated setting up a new international body to help collect evidence of conflict-related sexual violence, and to bring those who have committed these monstrous crimes to justice. I hope that today the Government will give serious consideration to pushing for such an international body, and to using next year’s G7 and our presidency to do so. That would help deliver justice for those subjected to sexual violence both in Syria and in conflict zones across the world.

Given the prevalence of sexual violence and gender-based violence in Syria and in other conflict zones, we should also consider earmarking a greater proportion of our aid budget to tackling these crimes. Our country spends just 0.3% of our aid budget on ending violence against women and girls. As we look forward to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and girls on 25 November, the Government must consider increasing the proportion of aid spent on that vital issue to support vulnerable women and girls in Syria and across the developing world. I echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Wirral South on an atrocity prevention strategy: that is something that I would wholeheartedly support. Global Britain can lead, and it must lead. I hope that the Government will pay significant attention to the issue now and in the coming months.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:57 pm, 3rd November 2020

I thank Alison McGovern for making her point so well, as she does. She always has great compassion for her subject matter, and it is always a pleasure to hear her speaking up for those who are persecuted, those who are disadvantaged, and those who are second-class citizens in their own land.

As I have mentioned previously in Westminster Hall, we have Syrian refugees living and now working in my constituency of Strangford in the main town of Newtonards. They have integrated well and have employment. They have become very much part of the community. That has happened because the community accepted them. I say with real honesty. It is the sort of community in which I would have expected that to happen anyway, but the fact is that it happened. The Housing Executive made the effort to find them housing, Government departments made the effort to help them find employment, and church groups and community groups came together to donate furniture and clothes, and all the things families need when they come from a far-off land to a new town like Newtonards. Some could not speak the English language, but there were English language classes to help them absorb the language and get some knowledge of it. That tells me, and gives me great encouragement, that a community can adapt, and that people from a far-off land can come to a strange land and be totally and fully integrated. I had the privilege of speaking to some of them and their stories were harrowing and have stuck in my mind.

As we see the ravages of covid-19 in our country—a somewhat solvent country with good resources—I cannot begin to imagine what it is like in war-torn countries such as Syria. Reports I have read about it make it clear, in disturbing language. I have a deep interest in Syria and in the middle east, as do many of us, and that is probably why we are here. I have a particular interest as an individual and also as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I bring the issue to the attention of the Government and to the Minister on numerous occasions. I raise it at business questions on a Thursday if the opportunity arises. It is our job and our task in this world to do what we can.

A report that I read highlighted the fact that covid-19 overwhelms healthcare facilities. In Syria, 13,500 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed. It has spread as a result of an unchecked community transmission. Some 92% of officially confirmed cases cannot be tracked to a known case. The Syrians cannot even work out where the cases came from. We have a track and trace system, but they do not have that. They have no idea where it came from, who has had it and who is passing it on.

Worryingly, there are few healthcare professionals, with one Syrian doctor for 10,000 Syrian civilians, and of them 193 have tested positive and at least 11 have died from the virus. The pressure on Syria’s health system is incredible, and 18 doctors and distribution staff working at the crowded al-Hol displacement camp have tested positive, sparking fears that the virus will spread rapidly through the camp. That must be a concern.

In any debate I always like to say, and it is true, that our Government and Ministers are working extremely hard to help where they can, so I hope that in his response the Minister will say where help is going, how it is monitored and how it is delivered.

The numbers I cited are almost certainly a vast underestimate of those who have tested positive for covid-19. The World Health Organisation and the Office for the Co-ordination of Human Affairs admit that testing is limited and that the real figures far surpass official figures. Those statistics come from organisations on the ground. In north-east Syria alone, health actors estimate that the true numbers are 10 to 15 times greater than official figures suggest. Healthcare facilities are overrun.

We are reacting to covid-19 in our own country, but Syria does not have even the basics. It has just 13 ventilators and 59 ICU beds in the entirety of north-east Syria. I overheard an exchange during the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that there are 90,000 ventilators in the United Kingdom and that we are using only 4,000. Minister, could we not send some of those ventilators to Syria? If we are not using them, let us at least give some of them to those who could make better use of them.

It is frightening. We must intervene if at all possible and send funding to trustworthy sources on the ground. Employment has evaporated: between 200,000 and 300,000 jobs have been permanently lost because of covid-19 and 15% of small and medium-sized businesses have reported permanent closure. The value of the Syrian pound is cratering—I use that word on purpose because it is right down. We think that the worst inflation is in Zimbabwe, but it is worse in Syria. The informal exchange rate hovers between SYP2,100 and SYP2,400 to US$1—that gives us an idea of just how bad it is—up from a rate of SYP694 to US$1 a year ago. The price of food and basic goods is sky-rocketing beyond people’s means—food prices have gone up 90% in the past six months and 236% in the past 12 months. My goodness: what does it cost to buy a loaf of bread or a packet of tea? It must be incredible.

I am aware that we are limited in our ability—we are unable to send out our medical staff and equipment when we are under so much pressure—but we can and must persuade other countries to do what we are doing. As Tom Tugendhat said, even if the rest do not do it, we should do it. We can and must secure funding to send aid. We must share our knowledge of how effectively to prevent spread and treat patients and we must be aware of our obligations when—please, Lord— the vaccine is available and in circulation.

I agree wholeheartedly about the need for an international court to try those guilty of murder, shootings and abuse of women. I support aid for Syria through NGOs that are on the ground and have accountability procedures and remind Members that while our priority is undoubtedly our own constituents we should never, ever forget those who are less able to look after themselves. Our job, my job, all of our jobs is to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:04 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I want to start, as others have done, by commending Alison McGovern for opening the debate and speaking with such compassion. I do not think that that will come as a surprise to any of us who have watched her in the Chamber. She set up what has so far been a very consensual debate, and that has reaffirmed my view that Westminster Hall is a much better place in which to discuss policy in the House, particularly when we are so divided. There were also excellent speeches from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and from the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), as well as, of course, my dear friend, Jim Shannon.

I offer a few thoughts on behalf of the Scottish National party. Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria back in March 2011 the country has seen untold destruction, unthinkable death tolls and a refugee crisis that has spanned the globe. We have all seen the painful images from the conflict, from the war-torn streets of Aleppo, images of small children covered in dust from explosions—and, of course, the image that will I think live with all of us of Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey. The horrors of the conflict will have long-lasting effects for years to come, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that since the civil war begun an estimated 500,000 people have been killed, including more than 55,000 children. Sometimes when we stand and make a speech in Parliament we talk about numbers, but letting that sink in—55,000 children—makes us reflect. There is an onus on us in this House, who are legislators in the UK, not to turn a blind eye to that.

The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest displacement crisis of our lifetime, and as we have heard it has had an impact on 17.6 million people. Within Syria the infrastructure has collapsed under the conflict: 95% of people lack adequate healthcare; 70% lack regular access to clean water; half of children are out of school; 80% of the population live in poverty; and 70% of all Syrians live on less than $1.90 a day. The humanitarian crisis, which is now in its 10th year, now has another challenge, as Members have explained—coronavirus. The situation in the city of Idlib is desperate. Doctors say that covid-19 is now rampant in its overpopulated refugee camps, which Save the Children warns could overwhelm Syria. Precautionary measures such as social distancing and self-isolation are all but impossible—certainly in a war zone.

The Government have repeatedly failed the victims of the conflict. Only last month, Conservative MPs voted to remove child refugee protections. The UK Government have, I am afraid, also fallen short of taking on their fair share of people through the resettlement schemes. The Home Office capped the Dubs scheme at 480 children and, by default, have effectively closed it down, although there was no legal requirement to do that. By failing to provide safe legal routes for refugees to reach the UK the Government are leaving countless people vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs and a report last year by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:

“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”

More recently, the Home Office has failed even to acknowledge the refugee camp fire in Lesbos that left up to 13,000 of the most desperate people on earth homeless, many of whom were of course originally from Syria.

It is clear that the UK Government has fallen short on this issue time and time again, but moving forward there are clear steps that they can take. First, they should immediately resume the resettlement programmes that were paused in March. Italy, for example, has already done so. It is an abdication of responsibility at a time of global crisis if they do not resume those programmes. Secondly, the Government need to live up to international obligations by adopting in full the recommendations of the UNHCR, one of which is to increase the number of refugees resettled in the UK to at least 10,000 a year. The UK Government must lay out clearly what measures they will consider taking if Russia continues to be an obstacle to peace. The UK’s permanent representative at the Security Council, Dame Karen Pierce, called for a lasting solution for the situation. As a key member of the Security Council the UK should be prioritising the matter urgently, and should work to unite all parties around the table, in a desire for a resolution.

A protracted solution that works with Syrians, underpinned and led by the primacy of UN human rights principles, must, therefore, be the way forward. The Syrian people must not feel forgotten by the international community, and UK aid must be provided to the country. I agree with the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Totnes in that regard.

In stark contrast to the actions of the UK Government, though, Scotland has welcomed refugees. One fifth of all Syrian refugees have been settled in Scotland, and I am incredibly proud of that. Up until 2019, a total of 2,562 Syrian refugees were settled, which meant that Scotland met its target three years ahead of schedule through the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme. All 2,562 of those refugees are part of Scotland’s story, and we are proud that they have chosen to call Scotland home.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (International Development) 5:10 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

First of all, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Alison McGovern for having secured this important debate. She spoke with such passion and detail about the humanitarian emergency that continues to engulf Syria almost a decade on from when this conflict began; she made a powerful contribution about the need to listen to the Syrian people, and I agree. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Syria, she has been outspoken on this issue, loudly standing up for those who continue to suffer the horror of the war in Syria and for the refugee community, following on from the strong words and actions of Jo Cox. Five years ago, Jo said that we must look to the “best traditions” of our party’s history—our internationalism and our respect for human rights—as we think about the personal role we can play in protecting civilians in Syria.

I also thank my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for retelling her visits to Lebanon and Jordan, witnessing the plight of refugees. She is right that a decade on, we have seen no improvements to the humanitarian situation. I also thank Tom Tugendhat for his contribution—a veto at the UN should not, and does not, mean a veto on Britain’s actions—and thank Members from across the House, the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Glasgow East (David Linden), for their contributions.

The emergency in Syria is on the brink of descending to a new, horrifying low. The crisis has descended into an emergency, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the north-west and north-east of the country. The situation risks becoming irreversible, with lasting implications for not just the immediate future but for the next generation and the one after that, as well as for stability across the region at a time when the middle east and the world can least afford it. Some 12 million Syrians —65% of the population, including 5 million children—require international humanitarian assistance. As we have heard, 6 million have been internally displaced since the war began, and 5.6 million have been forced to flee, seeking safety and refuge in other countries.

We know that healthcare services lie in ruins, or have vastly reduced capacities. Half of all hospitals and health facilities have been destroyed by conflict, and there is a critical shortage of life-saving medicines and equipment at this vital time, including personal protective equipment. The prices of medicines in Syria have increased by more than 250% this year, and a gradual reduction in humanitarian aid access at the Security Council has recklessly and needlessly stemmed the flow at a time of maximum vulnerability for many in Syria. We know that covid has dealt a heavy blow to whatever health resilience remained, and in the north-west, there are only 600 doctors among a population of around 4 million people. Their work is truly remarkable, but there is little capacity for testing. People are dying at home, in makeshift tents and shelters, unable or unwilling to receive healthcare because of the stigma attached to covid.

If there is one thing we know about during this pandemic, it is our interconnected vulnerabilities. What happens elsewhere affects us all.

Covid and its repercussions stalk Syria. Many Syrians live in overcrowded accommodation. One exhausted mother outside Idlib describes how her family of 30 share one room and the adults sleep standing up. Nine million people in Syria live with daily hunger. That is an increase of more than 1.5 million people in the last six months alone. That is on top of the 15 million Syrians whose access to water and sanitation has been disrupted. All these things are vital in the face of a pandemic, let alone in the midst of conflict.

Words and numbers do not do the situation justice. The fears and anxieties and the hunger and exhaustion are things that no adult, let alone a child, should have to endure. Think of the terror that children experience as they watch their school destroyed by jets, seeing what was once a place of stability and warmth reduced to rubble—a future shattered as Assad and the Russian forces continue to rain terror; their hopes of a secure and prosperous future dashed in those bricks and mortar. Think of the biting hunger on cold nights, or—this is so often overlooked—the mental health toll from the stresses that conflict and trying to survive place on everyone, or the exhaustion of those constantly displaced from their homes, their communities and their livelihoods. The familiarity and solid foundation that a home gives are lost. Families leave behind everything, not knowing where their journey will take them. That is the human cost of a humanitarian emergency caused and shaped by extremism, conflict and a deadly reign of terror, political brinkmanship on the Security Council, and the reluctance and failure to protect the most vulnerable or to stand up to the rogue forces that chose to act with impunity.

It does not have to be this way. Twice this year, a deadline for the reauthorisation of the Security Council resolutions has been used to diminish border access: first, in January, when the north-east ended up with catastrophic human consequences, and again in July, when one of the two remaining borders in the north-west, at Bab al-Salam, was cut, leaving one cross-line mechanism. That delivery mechanism is operated by the Assad regime, where aid is now politicised, delayed and sometimes blocked altogether.

How has it come about that we have ended up allowing Assad to control aid to an area that he wants to recapture and a people whom he is terrorising? What is the Government’s strategy for dealing with that, and with Russia and China’s veto power on the Security Council? Failing to take on those who act with impunity has resulted in a more costly, higher-risk and therefore less effective humanitarian response. As we know, the UN deputy humanitarian chief has made it clear that the UK must work with partners to bring forward a strategy that works for the people of Syria, and doing nothing is not an option. What can the Minister do to bring forward a stand-alone resolution to reinstate access and relieve the rapidly escalating covid and health situation? Can the UK be facilitators of such a proposal? With the non-permanent membership of the Security Council now changing, what discussions has the Minister had with the 2021 intake?

We welcome the UK’s contribution to the humanitarian situation in Syria, but at a time of increasing need, the funding has dwindled: £300 million was pledged this year. That figure is down by a quarter on last year’s contribution. Pulling back now risks undermining the UK’s involvement to date and, worse, a catastrophic failure to protect innocent civilians and an abandonment of the values that we champion. Given that the UK is a leading contributor, can the Minister confirm that the UK will continue to be a leading humanitarian donor and that his Government will not cut funding from the UK Syrian aid programme for the 2021 financial year?

On sanctions, despite an agreed ceasefire for the city of Idlib in March, Assad and Russian forces continue to strike hospitals, healthcare facilities, schools, places of worship and markets, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Does the Minister agree that sanctions are no longer a deterrent to those who act with impunity and choose to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis? Will he meet me to discuss these questions and how we can ensure that the UK shows leadership on these issues? This is an emergency born out of civil war and heinous crimes, but aggravated by the decimation of health services, a refugee crisis, deepening food insecurity, dwindling international aid and now covid, as well as the reprehensible destruction and terror rained down on innocent people by Assad, Russia and other forces. We need to see leadership.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:21 pm, 3rd November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I am grateful to Alison McGovern for securing this debate. She has regularly spoken with great passion on this issue publicly and I know that she has written about it on a number of occasions over the years. In the margins of the Chamber, she has spoken with me directly. The passion that she displayed today reflects her long-standing concern on the issue—a baton that, as she said, she picked up from our dear lost friend, Jo Cox, and I am very grateful that she did so.

I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members, who outlined in various ways the humanitarian catastrophe that we are seeing in Syria and enumerated the pain and horror that so many Syrians are experiencing. I have made notes and will try to respond to the points raised, but if I cannot cover them all, I invite colleagues to correspond with me to fill in any gaps in my speech. I shall focus on three main issues, which I hope will cover the majority of what was raised: the human impact of this brutal conflict; the restrictions on aid and the non-engagement in peace resolution; and, ultimately, the UK’s humanitarian response.

The impact of the Syrian conflict is wide-ranging and horrific. It affects not just Syria but bordering countries and countries beyond the region. More than half a million Syrians have lost their lives and 5.9 million women, men and children have lost their homes and are displaced across the country, many living in squalid, makeshift camps. We have seen in previous years the impact of winter weather on those people. Some 6.6 million Syrians are refugees abroad. Within Syria, covid-19 continues to rampage and 9.3 million Syrians cannot afford basic food supplies as the economy suffers and the value of the currency plummets, as several colleagues, including Jim Shannon, highlighted.

The conflict’s destructive consequences seep out beyond Syrian borders. The crisis has exacerbated economic pressures in neighbouring countries and many Syrian refugees have travelled to Europe, including the UK, as was mentioned by several hon. Members. Syria’s humanitarian crisis will only worsen while the Assad regime continues to violate international humanitarian law, while it continues to attack civilians, while it continues to flout its chemical weapons obligations and while it continues to hinder humanitarian access.

Our position on Assad’s chemical weapons use is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond swiftly and appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which have had such devastating effects on its own people. We welcome the first report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation and identification team, which found the Syrian Arab air force responsible for three abhorrent chemical weapons attacks in March 2017.

The UK has provided £11 million to support accountability for war crimes, which is one of the calls made by the hon. Member for Wirral South. Some claim that our sanctions are causing Syria’s suffering. That is a lie that the Russians have peddled for years.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Ever so briefly, as the Minister has kindly answered my question, can he confirm that he has ministerial oversight of that evidence-gathering process?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Yes, that is part of my ministerial responsibilities. I let other colleagues know that I will not take any further interventions, otherwise we will overrun.

Russia has invested heavily in a disinformation campaign to protect its regime from accountability. The UK continues to implement EU sanctions in Syria and we will implement our own sanctions regime after the transition period. It is worth remembering that there are no sanctions on food or medicines and that there are humanitarian waivers so that essential items can get in while the tools for further oppression cannot. If Russia wants those sanctions lifted or for the UK and our allies to fund Syria’s reconstruction, it must first press Assad to agree to a political settlement.

The UK believes strongly in a UN-facilitated political process as the only way to reach a lasting and inclusive resolution to the conflict, as per UN Security Council resolution 2254. Special Envoy Pedersen has our full support. However, the Assad regime has not seriously engaged with the UN process. We call on those who have influence over the regime, including the Russian Government, to press for that engagement. That shows the importance of our aid and diplomacy working together.

Unfortunately, we have been appalled by Russia and China’s repeated use of vetoes at the UN Security Council to remove border crossings that are vital to the delivery of humanitarian aid in northern Syria. The loss of the al-Yaarubiyah crossing has already created a critical shortfall of medical supplies. It is essential that the resolution be renewed and the lost crossings revived. The UK will keep working to ensure aid reaches those most in need. We will not accept that aid deliveries from Damascus can effectively replace cross-border delivery until it is unhindered and needs-based.

Some countries may turn their back on the Syrian people in favour of politicking, but not us. The UK has committed more than £3.3 billion in response to the Syria crisis since 2012. Across Syria and its neighbours, UK aid has funded 28 million food rations, more than 19 million medical consultations and more than 13 million vaccinations delivered through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. Our support in Syria targets those in the most acute need, including displaced Syrians living in camps. Our funding helps provide life-saving supplies such as medicine and shelter, water, food and essential hygiene support.

My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall rightly raises gender-based violence, and the UK has supported the UN and NGOs in providing direct support to victims. The UK has allocated £33 million to help humanitarian partners tackle covid-19, and UK aid is helping north-east Syrian communities recover from Daesh’s brutal occupation. Many countries have turned their backs on the Syrian people; the United Kingdom is not one of them and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their time of need.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:29 pm, 3rd November 2020

Thank you, Sir David, for chairing the debate as excellently as you have. I thank all Members for participating, from the experienced ones like my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali, to those newer Members, such as Anthony Mangnall, whose interest in the subject is very welcome, to Mr Mitchell, who just joined us and who missed my comments saying that the Minister should listen to him. I am sure the Minister will have ample opportunity to do so, as my friend and co-chair of the all-party group for friends of Syria is not known for holding back in giving advice.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).