[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]
Just over a year ago, hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom are here again this afternoon, spoke in a debate in this Chamber on the grave humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. At that time, the Government of Sri Lanka were pursuing a brutal military campaign, in which thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives, tens of thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were displaced and left without access to shelter, sanitation, water, food or medical facilities. The conduct of that war—the use of heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas—was brutal, inhumane and almost certainly illegal, so all of us took some comfort in the cessation of hostilities, but although the guns may be silent in Sri Lanka for the first time in 26 years, the price of peace could not be higher.
Nearly 300,000 civilians are being detained in camps in the north-east of Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka call them “welfare camps” and in the controlled images that they release to the international media, we see benevolent Ministers dispensing supplies to grateful, smiling Tamil families. The reality, though, is camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers, where latrine pits overflow and children fight for water, where emaciated pensioners lie in cramped tents and where thousands of young men disappear without trace. If the Government of Sri Lanka had even one ounce of regard for the welfare of the civilians held, they would be released without any further delay.
My hon. Friend the Minister saw for himself just how grim the conditions are, and I commend him for visiting Sri Lanka just a few weeks ago, yet since March 2008 the Government of Sri Lanka have confined virtually everyone displaced by the conflict to detention camps.
I thank the right hon. Lady very much for outlining these circumstances. Will she comment on the fact that the Sri Lankan Government frequently use the argument about land mines and use the need for demining as their reason for not releasing people from the camps? Surely that is an area where the international community could ensure that there was no question but that demining capacity was provided rapidly.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point, and I will say a few words about the issue of mines.
The numbers in the camps swelled as the conflict intensified this year and more and more civilians were forced to flee their homes. By the time that formal hostilities drew to a close in April, some 300,000 civilians, including 50,000 children, were being held in 41 camps across four districts, but the end of the war did not mean liberty for the camps’ inhabitants. Even though the Government readily declared that the war was over, they are still not ready to let people leave, so for the civilians kept in the camps, the peace dividends that the Government of Sri Lanka promised in their victory declarations have failed to materialise.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, which is on a very important subject. I have Tamil constituents who are still seeking information about loved ones in that country and about where they are today. Does she agree that we now need publication of the names of everyone who is being detained in the camps and that those people should get the legal access and support that they ought to have, so that they can challenge the Government’s decision to keep them in detention?
I absolutely agree. In fact, not to publish the names of exactly who is in the camps is against all the human rights legislation and international commitments that Sri Lanka has.
For hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians, six months on from the end of the conflict, life in the camps is worse than ever. Quite how bad life is in the camps is difficult to establish. We know that it is bad. We know that there are severe water shortages. We know that whole families are forced to share 20 litres for a couple of days, that there is not enough water to drink and that civilians who have struggled out of battle zones are now forced to bathe in the water alongside the buffaloes.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if the Sri Lankan Government are so confident that everything in the camps is going as well as they suggest, they should allow the international media in so that they can see for themselves whether what the Sri Lankan Government are saying is true?
We all agree with that point, and throughout the duration of the conflict we made the same point. At no time over recent years have the international media been able to gain access to the areas where Tamil people predominantly lived or to what was happening in the conflict, and now the same is true of the camps.
There is not enough food. We know that not just from the haunting images of malnourished children and pitifully thin old men and women that recall camps of an earlier age, but from reports from local hospitals. Their records show us that since May alone, more than 1,000 civilians have died from malnutrition-related complications. We know that sanitation facilities are primitive. Elderly women are forced to crouch over latrine pits, and families share stinking, overflowing toilets. We know that health facilities are under-resourced, overstretched and totally incapable of meeting the needs of the people detained in the camps, so people die of treatable diseases and women are forced to give birth under the trees and in front of strangers.
Therefore, we know that the conditions in the camps are bad and getting worse. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the United Nations—a man not known for hyperbole—said:
“I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.”
That echoes what I have been told by my constituents whose friends and families are trapped in the camps. Just yesterday, I spoke to a woman whose sister and three nephews are, she believes, being held in the camps. She could not tell me for sure because she has not heard from them since last January, when Government forces took control of the village where they lived. Since then, there has been nothing—not a single phone call or letter. There has been no information whatever. Her voice broke as she described her sister and her nephews, the youngest of whom she has never met. A man from my constituency told me about his five-year-old niece and 18-month-old nephew, who recently left a camp. I am talking about a little girl who had to help to dig her father’s grave with her bare hands, because her family had to flee before they had time to bury him properly, and a little boy who spent his second summer fighting the malaria that he caught in the Government camp.
Therefore, we know that things are bad, but we cannot know exactly how bad because, as we have already said, the Government of Sri Lanka will not let independent monitors or aid agencies into the camps. This Minister is therefore part of a select group of people who have been granted permission to visit the camps—so select, in fact, that even the International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, has not been allowed in since July. Nor are the Opposition parties. On Monday, I and other hon. Members met Professor Jayawardena, a Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament. He told me that members of Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have been denied permission to visit the camps. He is not a Tamil. He does not have a large Tamil electorate. He is deeply concerned about human rights.
The right hon. Lady mentions constituents both here and in Sri Lanka, but it can sometimes help to give the view of Sinhalese constituents. Although it is a challenging question, it is worth asking. An e-mail criticising what I said at the rally last weekend, stated:
“All you care about is the nearly 50,000 Tamil votes in Croydon.”
The right hon. Lady gives a stark picture of the situation in Sri Lanka. Will she take this opportunity to say that we do care and to explain what our motivation is?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We need to stress time and again that it is about human rights. When the human rights of one are threatened, the human rights of all are threatened. It is right that we should raise our voices on behalf of those whose human rights are being ridden over roughshod. That is so whether they are Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or whatever. The point is well made. Indeed, Professor Jayawardena, in saying that he is not a Tamil and does not have a large Tamil electorate, is pointing out that this is about the human rights of Sri Lankan people who are Tamils.
The humanitarian situation has worsened, and ever more people are having to rely upon international agencies and NGOs for the most basic of needs. The Sri Lankan Government are denying them that lifeline. They are denying people food, medical treatment and sleeping mats. The Government of Sri Lanka tell us that certain agencies are allowed in—but only the agencies that they choose and only on the terms that they dictate. In addition to their vital humanitarian functions, those agencies are indeed the eyes of the world. The Sri Lankan Government have deliberately prevented outside scrutiny of the camps, leaving camp residents vulnerable to abuse. Reports from the camps of abductions, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and intimidation continue.
Even more worrying than conditions in the camps that we know of are those in the camps that we do not—the secret camps, whose existence the Sri Lankan Government refuse to confirm, whose conditions are impossible to monitor and whose detainees are held incommunicado and without access to family members or legal advice. We know that the danger of serious human rights violations increases substantially when detainees are held in locations that are not publicly known, and where proper legal procedures and safeguards are not in place. Even a cursory glance at the history books shows that.
Amnesty International believes that there could be as many as 10 unofficial and unacknowledged detention sites in the country, although the number could of course be much higher; we simply do not know. However, we know that the camps are illegal and a crime against humanity. Let us be in no doubt on that point: civilians have an unambiguous and unqualified right to free movement, and a right to liberty now and not when the Sri Lankan Government get around to it.
The reasons that the Sri Lankan Government give for such detention are simply a smokescreen—an excuse for the collective punishment of the Tamil people. The Government say that they need to screen the Tamils to ensure that none of them are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Why is it that six months on from that screening process only 5,000 civilians have been released? Why are the Government continuing to incarcerate pregnant women, small children and the elderly?
The Sri Lankan Government say that it is unsafe for the Tamils to leave because many of the areas they came from are mined, as we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). That is simply not true; not all the areas were mined, and many of those detained in the camps could stay with friends or relatives far from any mined areas. Those who genuinely have nowhere to go could choose to stay in the camps, but that choice would be theirs. The Government of Sri Lanka must give the Tamil people their freedom—and they must give it to them now.
Time after time, the Government of Sri Lanka have promised to release civilians, but their promises come to nothing. In May, President Rajapaksa said that 80 per cent. of civilians held at the camps would be released within 180 days. Six months on, and about 5,000 civilians have been released. The Government of Sri Lanka tried to inflate the figure by transferring people to other camps and classifying them as having been released. However, the reality is clear: only a tiny fraction of those detained in the camps have been released.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for not being here at the start of her speech. It was due to commitments that I had with an all-party group.
The right hon. Lady is speaking about the Sri Lankan Government honouring their commitments. Will she say how important it is that they do not simply shift their goals from 180 days to the end of the year, with only 100,000 being resettled by the end of the year? There needs to be a firm commitment not only to their own version of resettlement; they need to make a commitment that people will be able to go back to their homes as soon as possible.
I agree. I was about to make that point. Indeed, this month the Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services cut the estimate in half, saying that the Government plan to release only 100,000 by Christmas.
The Government of Sri Lanka say that they are doing their best, but their best is not nearly good enough. I say that enough is enough—enough of the Sri Lankan Government’s evasions and half-truths; enough of their inaction and obfuscation; and enough of the suffering of the Tamil people. The longer they are detained in those inhuman prisons, the more difficult it will be to achieve what every Sri Lankan—Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim alike—wants: a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
Each extra day that the Tamil people are forced to live in those camps will serve further to alienate the Tamil community and exacerbate divisions; it will create bitterness at a time when reconciliation is more important than ever. As frustration grows and tensions rise, conflict is already beginning to break out in the camps. Report after report over the past few weeks has detailed the escalating conflict between the inhabitants of the camps and the military guards. As the camps grow ever more crowded, and as the monsoon season arrives, the conditions will worsen and the habitants will become ever more desperate.
If the monsoon brings water pouring into the tents, it will be an entirely man-made disaster. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who built the camps on flood-prone areas. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who rounded up hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and imprisoned them in camps designed to be only a temporary shelter, and built to hold only half the number of people that currently live there. Lest we forget, it is the Government of Sri Lanka who refuse to let them leave.
However, if the fault lies with the Sri Lankan Government, so too does the solution. They have it within their power to release the civilians and begin a process of reconciliation that will build a peaceful and just Sri Lanka. It is the responsibility of the British Government to do all that they can to encourage that process, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I can tell him that the Tamil community know that our Government have led and are leading international efforts to secure a just and lasting solution in Sri Lanka. I welcome the fact that the Government did not support Sri Lanka’s application for a $2.6 billion loan from the IMF. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to give us a little more detail about the nature of those efforts, particularly about the work of our officials in Brussels, who are currently considering Sri Lanka’s access to the EU market.
While Sri Lanka so brazenly abuses the rights of its citizens, it is inconceivable that the EU should renew GSP plus—the generalised system of preferences. It is surely time for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth and removed from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group when it next meets in November.
As always, I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s efforts and the fact that she is specific about some of the solutions. Will she join me in asking Ministers to be really clear over the next few days, before the Commonwealth conference next month, that the British will not support Sri Lanka as a host country for the conference to be held in two years’ time? We should make that clear in advance, saying that it would be unacceptable to many of our Commonwealth colleagues. We cannot set human rights standards and invite people to promote them when some in our own backyard clearly have a bad record.
I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I agree that it is completely incompatible to hold a Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka given all that has been said, and the situation that exists.
We need to send a clear message to the Government of Sri Lanka that the continued detention of Tamil civilians will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s relationship with the international community. However, we must have a united front. The whole House must speak with one voice in its condemnation of the treatment of Tamil civilians and in its appeal for their immediate release. The number of Members present this afternoon demonstrates the level of concern felt on both sides of the House, which is why so many of us were disappointed by the comments that were made last week in the House by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), when he appeared to support the Government of Sri Lanka’s application for preferential access to our markets.
I will, but just let me finish my point.
On that precise point, I hope that we can be clear. The EU extends preferential access to its markets to developing countries under a number of very clear conditions. Beneficiary countries must comply with 27 international agreements on human rights issues. Sri Lanka does not meet those conditions and is, therefore, not eligible for GSP plus. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to clarify the position of the Conservative party on that matter.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. She and her colleagues must be very careful about calling for the Sri Lankan Government to be punished by the ending of trade preferences with Europe, because she will have to explain how the Sri Lankan Government will be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure to enable the Tamils to return. If they cannot afford it because they are bankrupt, she is punishing both the Government and those who have been hurt by the dispute, and she must be able to explain that.
I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to state his party’s support for ending GSP plus status to Sri Lanka and to condemn its human rights record. I can explain why I call for the preferential status to end. There is a line to be drawn, and that line stands when human rights are being trashed and people are losing their lives. People are subject to abductions, rape, torture, extra-judicial killings and the most appalling living circumstances. They are in camps that are surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. That is where I draw that line.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Government of Sri Lanka should be able to afford to restructure and resettle Tamil communities. However, they are able to do that because the solution lies in their hands. They can stop the abuse of human rights and then they will not be subject to calls for the ending of GSP plus and for other sanctions to be taken. The solution lies with the Government of Sri Lanka, and not with them having preferential access to our markets when their human rights record is appalling.
It is exactly as my right hon. Friend is saying. When everything else fails—exhortations, appeals to humanity and international representations—there is nothing left for us but economic sanctions. The Sri Lankan Government seem to think that they can act with impunity, so let us send them a message: “Release the people from the camps, end the human rights abuses and we will assist in the rebuilding of the country.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the past few weeks, we have seen an increasing number of abusive phone calls and e-mails precisely because of the report on GSP plus? For the first time in more than six months, the Sri Lankan Government are on the run on this one, thus providing real leverage to achieve progress for the people in the camps in Sri Lanka.
I absolutely agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I should like to pay tribute to both of them for their commitment on this issue over a long period of time. I am sure that the Minister and everyone else have heard what they have had to say.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady is trying to play politics in the way that she is. All parties condemn all the human rights abuses; it is a question of how we achieve our ends. I say to her again, if the Sri Lankan Government’s economy is completely bankrupt, how will the country be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure? She must explain that if she is going to accuse us of asking such questions of her Government. How will the Sri Lankan Government be able to afford the infrastructure?
I will always give way on such issues, but the hon. Gentleman has not added anything to what he first said, and that speaks volumes about his position. Others in his party do not take his position, but he speaks from the Front Bench, and it is most regrettable that he is not able to join all of us, across the parties, in saying, “GSP plus should be withdrawn because of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.” He heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington had to say about how we would seek to respond should the Government of Sri Lanka do something about the camps and the situation in which the Tamils find themselves.
My right hon. Friend makes an exceptionally compelling case. Does she not think that if one compares the amount of military money that the Government of Sri Lanka have spent on fighting this war over the past few years with the peace dividend that they promised would come from fighting that war, there is, by their own rubric, enough money to deal with the dispersal and the rehabilitation of the people in those camps?
The right hon. Lady is right to say that GSP plus is very important. No one is arguing that Sri Lanka should be treated differently in that regard. There are rules for compliance and rules for preference. If a country does not meet the rules, they do not deserve the scheme. It is not our particular local position; it is an international one. Sri Lanka has just had a big loan from the International Monetary Fund, which Britain voted against. It is not as if it does not have access to other resources. It can comply with the rules by opening up to journalists and independent agencies so they can see that human rights are being complied with.
That is absolutely right. As the Conservative Front-Bench position is something that many of us would find very difficult to support, perhaps we should all—and I hope all—disassociate ourselves from those such as Lord Naseby in the other place and Geoffrey Van Orden in the European Parliament who have, over a number of years, sought to defend the indefensible and given succour to precisely those forces that all of us here oppose. Either we believe in human rights or we do not. There can be no halfway house on human rights. Either we all have them, because we are all equally human, or none of us has them.
The situation in Sri Lanka is dire. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians are being unlawfully detained in internally displaced persons camps. Those camps are besieged by flooding, outbreaks of contagious diseases, and inadequate supplies of food, shelter and sanitation. People are desperate to leave, and there is an urgent humanitarian need to ensure that they are allowed to do so.
There is also a broader political reason why the freedom of the Tamil people and a just and peaceful Sri Lanka are inextricably linked. The Sri Lankan Government appear to believe that if they can physically contain the Tamil people, they will put an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka. However, the only long-term solution to conflict in Sri Lanka will be a political one that is achieved by inclusive political negotiations. The Sri Lankan Government cannot keep the Tamil people imprisoned for ever, and neither can they ignore those people’s legitimate aspirations. The longer the Tamil people are denied their freedom, and the worse the conditions in which they are forced to exist become, the more difficult it will be to achieve any lasting peace. The Government of Sri Lanka must accept that and give the Tamil people their freedom now.
Order. Many hon. Members have asked to participate in this debate. We will start the Front-Bench speeches at 3.30 pm. I would like to call as many hon. Members as possible, so I ask each speaker to be sensitive to the needs of others, and I will work with you.
Let me start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate. I will not repeat anything that has already been said, as I would like to talk about this subject from a personal perspective, before making some suggestions.
Last Thursday, together with three other hon. Members, one of whom is in the Chamber, I visited Auschwitz concentration camp. We saw what man’s inhumanity to man can do, and where things can end. That most emotional trip affected and upset me greatly. I am still thinking about what we saw last week, partly because my own grandparents came from that area, and I might not have been born had the Nazi regime had its way.
In 2009, the position is simple: these camps should not exist; they should not be there. I remember—as I am sure anyone who knows their history will know—that the Nazi regime put up Theresienstadt as a model. They said, “This is where we will let the media in and this is what we will allow people to see. We will create the façade that people are happy, being resettled and getting what they want.” We know what a myth and a lie that was, and how many millions of men, women and children lost their lives.
I have been criticised by the Sri Lankan high commission for making that comparison, and I am pretty certain that I will be criticised again after I have finished speaking today. However, I do not know what is going on in the camps. My constituents do not know what is happening to their relatives, because no one is allowed in to see. They are allowed to see only a sanitised version of what is going on. Therefore, if I am making certain comparisons that are not true, I challenge the Sri Lankan Government to allow people in to see.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his long-standing campaign on behalf of the Tamil community and on the importance of respect for human rights. A cross-party campaign has existed for some years both inside and outside the House, and I pay tribute to Rachel Joyce, Andy Charalambous and others. The Foreign Secretary said that this was a war without witness, but the danger now is that any peace will also be without witness. There is an urgent need not only for the International Red Cross to maintain its presence, but for proper United Nations monitoring and freedoms, not least for the press.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments—I agree totally. We must let people from the International Red Cross and from third sector and humanitarian organisations in to see what is happening. Most importantly, let us not talk about 100,000 people, let us not say Christmas or next year, and let us not use excuses that there might be mines. I am sure that if the Sri Lankan Government asked the international community, everyone would help to clear those mines, should they be there. Therefore, the camps should be closed down now, this second, however many there are.
I cannot remember how many debates we have had in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber on this subject, but it strikes me that the Sri Lankan Government could not care less what we say. I do not think that they are listening to anything we say—they do not give a damn. I think that they will pay lip service which, forgive me, is irrespective of whatever the Government might say and whatever the political persuasion of that Government is. The Sri Lankan Government have their own agenda. Without any question, they have arrested people on suspicion of being in the LTTE who are in fact children and pregnant women—it is absolutely outrageous. If Sri Lanka will not stop its behaviour, the only way forward is its suspension from the Commonwealth with immediate effect. As I have said, I believe that the camps should be closed.
I have taken on board your comment about many Members wishing to speak, Dr. McCrea, so I will finish quickly. If we do not protect innocent Tamil people, we should hang our heads in shame because we are not doing what we were elected to do. I say that from the position of not having a vast Tamil community in my constituency that could affect the election one way or another. I am speaking as one human being, about a group of other human beings. Lest we forget what happened; it can happen again.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Dr. McCrea; I can think of no hon. Member who is more fitting: you have lived through a situation in Northern Ireland, and many people have gone from there and spoken at various stages with the Sri Lankan Government. They have tried to use the benefits of knowledge accrued in Northern Ireland to help with the peace settlement in Sri Lanka.
I remember the day when President Rajapaksa came to Northern Ireland as the new President of Sri Lanka, to try to learn from that peace process. What an absolute betrayal of everything that the people in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the politicians at the time tried to teach him about the way to achieve peace. What we have seen over the past few years has been abhorrent to the international community.
I will respect your injunction about time, Dr. McCrea, but I want to make a couple of brief points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) has eloquently said what most of us in the Chamber believe. I pay tribute to her for her speech, for securing the debate and for her long-standing commitment to fighting the injustice perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Government.
The other day, I was with a delegation of Chinese parliamentarians. Ostensibly, I was speaking to them in a meeting about climate change. However, the most important dialogue that we had was about the Chinese role in supporting and funding the Sri Lankan Government, their part in funding the military hardware that was used to secure the defeat of the LTTE and the way that they have propped up Rajapaksa’s regime. We need to see increasing pressure from our Government on China and on those in the region who support the Sri Lankan Government.
My second point was touched on by my right hon. Friend and is that when the fighting stops, it is even more important to have political dialogue that is genuine and can sustain the transition through to peace. We clearly do not have the preconditions or circumstances for that at the moment, and as my right hon. Friend said, even if people were doing their best, it would not be good enough. Sadly, nobody in the international community thinks that they are doing their best.
The Sri Lankan Government therefore have to give an indication that they are prepared to embark on a political process. All hon. Members present suspect that they will move towards a process of elections within the next few weeks. In those elections, they will emphasise the need for a strong mandate and they will no doubt use their defeat of the LTTE and the resulting popularity—as they see it—to rally people to vote for them. They will then try to secure a strong mandate and say that they will use it to try to give devolution to various parts of the country, but how can anybody believe them, when that is what has been fought over for so long?
This debate is about one thing and one thing only: the right of the Tamil people to live equally on the island—the right to self-determination and to secure a homeland called Tamil Eelam. I speak as a Scotsman who is proud to represent a constituency in London and who is proud to be, first and foremost, British. However, I am also proud of my Scottish national identity, and I recognise that such a right obtains for a Tamil in Sri Lanka as much it does for a Scotsman in England. Unless the Sri Lankan Government understand the Tamils’ genuine aspiration to self-determination and a national homeland, there is absolutely no prospect of a transition from the bloody awful war that we witnessed, through the detention camps and on to a peaceful political solution.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate. I consider myself a bit of a veteran of Westminster Hall debates, and I see a few others, such as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). What is significant about this debate, however, is that 22 Members of Parliament are, or have been, present, and that reflects the importance that Parliament gives to this subject.
I have been working closely on this issue with my Tamil community for a number of months, not because I am pro-Tamil or anti-Sinhalese, but because I am pro-human rights, and the human rights of the Tamil community are being grossly infringed and are under a sustained onslaught in Sri Lanka. The Tamils do not have access to life’s simple pleasures, and I am struck by the contrast between the conditions that we have been debating and the event that I have just come from in my constituency—I was just able to get here in time to take part in the debate. Representatives of a number of different religious communities were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Holy Trinity’s luncheon club. Our communities have such rights, but the same rights are being denied to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
My local Tamil community has made a number of simple, straightforward requests to the Sri Lankan Government, and I want briefly to list them to show how reasonable they are. No one, including the Sri Lankan Government—or their more responsible members— could suggest that these requests are unreasonable.
The first request is that the Sri Lankan Government free the people who have been illegally detained and let them go to their homes. The second is that they allow back to their homes the many thousands of people who were forced out of residential areas that were turned into high-security zones and who are now held in camps in other parts of the island. The third request, which other Members have mentioned, is that the Government publish the details of all those detained as suspects and treat them according to appropriate international standards.
The fourth request, which other hon. Members have also mentioned, is that the Sri Lankan Government allow free media access to the camps, so that we can corroborate, or otherwise, what the Government are saying about conditions in those camps. The fifth request is that the Government allow legal representation and access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to those who are detained as suspected members of the LTTE or their alleged supporters. The sixth request, which I support entirely as a long-standing member of Amnesty International, is that if the Government believe that people are guilty of something, they should press charges against them and bring them before an internationally recognised court, so that their cases can be heard.
The seventh request is that the Sri Lankan Government work towards a political solution. We in this Chamber know very well that such situations are resolved only through a political solution that allows different communities to live together in peace and dignity. The eighth request is that the Sri Lankan Government investigate human rights violations, and the ninth and final request is that they investigate war crimes. On those last two points, it is important that we show balance. If an investigation into human rights violations and war crimes is carried out, as it should be, it will clearly need to look at allegations on both sides of the conflict. It should not focus exclusively on what has happened on the Sri Lankan side, but should also focus on what happened on the Tamil Tigers’ side.
I have one slight disagreement with the right hon. Member for Enfield, North. My Tamil community does not endorse the UK Government’s actions as wholly as she has done, and it feels that the Government could press harder. I understand the sensitivities that are involved, given the UK’s past involvement in Sri Lanka, but my Tamil community certainly feels that the Government could take more action. Many Members have outlined what action could be taken in relation to the Commonwealth, GSP plus and so on. We hope that such action will be taken and that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government are pushing at all the vulnerable points to secure an outcome that helps the Tamils and brings longer-term peace and stability to Sri Lanka as a whole.
I am not taken in by what the Sri Lankan high commission has said. I, too, had meetings with its representatives earlier this year in which I was told that 80 per cent. of people would be freed—I think that I was told that that would happen by the end of the year. Clearly, that is not going to happen. There has been no explanation of why the Sri Lankan Government are making such slow progress towards releasing people from the camps, and I query whether they are likely to honour any commitment unless the international community takes overwhelming, co-ordinated action to exert as much pressure on them as possible, using any avenue available.
On that point, I will complete my remarks. I hope that we will hear a very strong statement from the Minister, so that we can all go back to our communities and reassure people that the UK Government are taking every possible action to resolve this matter.
We all agree that it is wrong to keep people encased in barbed wire and to take away their freedom of movement, and we all agree that it is wrong not to give access to journalists—that is the easy stuff. The political issue is what we do about that. We can stand here all day making speeches and feeling better about ourselves, but where, in the end, is the political clout that will make a difference? That is the question that separates the Labour party from the Conservative party, because Labour Members believe that we must use any leverage that we can to promote what we want to happen.
In 2008, EU imports from Sri Lanka under GSP plus totalled €1.24 billion. GSP plus saved Sri Lanka €78 million in import duties. If we are not prepared to use that as leverage to get people released, we are simply posing, we are simply pretending and we are simply playing at tackling these issues because we think that that will put us in a good political light.
We have been here before. We were here on South Africa. We were here over apartheid. Was it warm words and the hand of friendship that released Nelson Mandela and tore down that regime? No, it was individual Governments and people making their views known and spending their money in the way that they thought most appropriate that effected the change in that regime.
There is no support in warm speeches and warm words—the only support that we can give is in real action. The removal of GSP plus gives us huge leverage to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to do what they should be doing.
I shall be brief. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I agree with everything that she said. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing time for this important debate.
We are currently reminded daily, by the proceedings in the Hague, of the inhumanities and terrible occurrences in the Balkans. In the meantime, the international community seems to be standing by while similar things go on in Sri Lanka. It causes despair in anyone with any regard for human rights. I do not know whether I have a single Tamil constituent. However, I have several Tamil friends and am a friend of anyone whose human rights are degraded in the terrible manner that is causing the suffering in Sri Lanka. We know of the camps and that there is apparently a process under way to weed out the Tamil Tigers. No one knows how it works. The Red Cross is not allowed to go there. Still, after months of the process, there have been few, if any, releases. We now know that the Government will allow some day passes, in a limited area, in Mannar. Surely, someone who can be given a pass can be out for the rest of his life, not just a day.
Awful things are transparently happening, and we in the international community are expected to swallow that nonsense. We know about arbitrary detention, and I shall not deal with that. We also know about the inability to trace relatives and the lack of protective mechanisms in the camps. The whole scenario, and the fact that it is allowed to happen in a Commonwealth country, is a disgrace. The situation in the camps is getting worse by the day, and we should bear in mind the onset of the monsoon period. The lack of access to proper medical care grieves me as well.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said about the horrible acts under the Nazi regime. Events in Sri Lanka are not quite on the same level, but they are fast getting there, and the international community should say enough is enough. It should be baring its teeth to that evil Government who are acting in a way that is totally incompatible with anyone’s notion of human rights. It is high time that we used every possible diplomatic avenue that is open to us. I agree that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) wisely said, GSP plus should be the first thing to go. Let us go for that without delay. In the meantime, let us urgently suspend the Sri Lankan Government from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is meant to be one of the nations that observe standards. The things that are happening are not the standards of the Commonwealth.
I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the debate, Dr. McCrea; I was tied up on constituency matters. If the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) had any Tamil constituents, they would have been in touch. They are the most communicative community that this country has, and that is what is brilliant about them. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for what she has done and does, and for obtaining today’s debate, which has provoked a flurry of briefings and advice, not least from the Sri Lankan high commission, which has once again furnished us with its version of the current situation and facts pertaining in Sri Lanka.
I shall be very brief, so that others get to speak. I was first elected to the House in June 1983. In July 1983, there were riots in which many Tamil people ended up in refugee camps. There was terrible bloodshed and an outbreak of the fighting that has, essentially, gone on ever since. One could read in this Chamber now the debate that took place in the House in July 1983, and, sadly, it would not sound out of place; it would sound much the same as what hon. Members have been saying this afternoon. I have watched the situation and worked with many people from Sri Lanka over many years, and I have constantly been appalled at the level of violence, the amount of displacement and the killings. Huge efforts were made, particularly by the Norwegian Government, to bring about a long-term sustainable peace. Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful. Many others have tried to bring about such a peace, without success.
Not so long ago, we all witnessed on global television the final acts, when the Sri Lankan military moved in on the Tamil positions: brutality and killings, a huge number of deaths, the displacement of large numbers of people and the destruction of their homes. Then followed the triumphalism of the Sri Lankan army and the declarations of a national victory. That is not a good sign for reconciliation or a harmonious island of Sri Lanka in the future. The presence of large numbers of people in the refugee camps is frankly horrific. They are not in refugee camps; they are in prison camps. That is what those places are in reality. They cannot leave or be communicated with unless they have permission, and the sense of displacement and anger in the Tamil community around the world is palpable. It must be addressed.
So what do we do? Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth and a trading partner. It seems to carry on getting tourists and all the trade that it wants. I recognise that sanctions cause people hardship, but if that is the only instrument that is left to bring recognition of and reasonableness towards the Tamil people, it is a policy that we must pursue. I therefore have no hesitation in supporting that approach. In the humiliation of the Tamil people in the camps, their poverty and displacement and all the privations that they now suffer lie the seeds of tomorrow’s conflict, and the one after. All that will be created by the present policy is another version of the LTTE. It is utterly counter-productive, apart from being illegal in human rights law. I have also been looking at the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It is regrettable that the United Nations Human Rights Council could not see that when it voted at the special meeting on this subject in September.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. It is not a question of being anti-Sri Lanka. It is a question of being pro-human rights, pro-peace, pro-justice and ensuring that the Tamil people have their place, their rights, their language and their identity. That is what brings harmony. Denial of that identity brings tomorrow’s death and conflict.
The debate is coming towards its end and it is difficult not to repeat some of what has been said, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have been involved in issues to do with Sri Lanka since I was first elected in 1992 and I cannot remember in all that time a worse year than this for what has happened there: the fighting at the beginning of the year, and having people coming to see me whose families, friends and relatives were trapped in Wanni, and who did not know what was happening to them. Many still do not know what is happening to them. The point has been made already that we do not have, but should have, information about who is in the camps.
I want to emphasise a point about conditions in the camps, which has been mentioned, but perhaps was not stressed as much as it should have been, and that is what will happen very shortly when the monsoon arrives. We are rapidly heading for a humanitarian disaster in the camps. If the monsoon rains arrive and there is flooding in the camps, so that latrines are flooded, there will be disease and people will die in significant numbers. There is a disaster on the horizon if the camps are left in their present condition, with the number of people currently in them.
There has already been discussion in this debate about what the Tamil people ask for, and the response of the Sri Lankan Government. No Government who claim to be democratically elected, a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and to be signed up to international conventions should be able to ignore international opinion, as the Sri Lankan Government have been doing. It is not anything new. Over the years people have been arrested or have disappeared and there have been emergency regulations to allow detention without trial. Those things, we know, have gone on for years. That is what astonishes me about the reaction from the Conservative Front Bench this afternoon and the suggestion that we should not use pressures such as GSP plus. If we are not prepared to use such tactics—
The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity to speak in a moment; I want to conclude. If we do not use what pressures we can with the Government of Sri Lanka—not allowing preferential trade, stopping arms sales and all the sorts of thing that we have used with other regimes—we will not see the political progress that every one of us wants. Only with that political progress will we reach a solution.
Thank you, Dr. McCrea. I shall choose two points from the speech that I was going to make. Incidentally, many of them have been covered in the excellent introduction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) set the tone, and it is fair to say that it is a tone of anger. We are angry about what is going on and that it has taken so long even to get where we are.
I will make two points before I sit down in the minute that I have. Even ignoring the terrible problems in Sri Lanka—the poverty, the fact that women are not free in any sense, the sex attacks on children and so on—it is a country that is supposed to be conducting an election in 2010. I put it to the Opposition spokesman as well as my hon. Friend the Minister that we must beware of those elections and ensure that they are free, fair and transparent. Nothing else will be acceptable to the international community.
It has been an excellent debate, with contributions from all parties. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who opened with a powerful speech containing moving examples of detainees’ life in the camps. I will not go through each of the contributions, but some have been excellent.
I will, however, pick out the contribution of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who mentioned Auschwitz. Like him, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau this summer. The visit made me particularly aware that one key problem was that people at the time did not have a full grasp of exactly what was happening. The Government of the day made propaganda films giving a generous view of what was going on in the camps, but an example of what was happening in one camp was in no way a summary of what was happening in all the other camps. I know that the Minister was in Sri Lanka recently with the BBC, but whatever he saw, it is vital that what happens in every single camp is exposed. If there were nothing to hide, journalists and politicians from all parties out there, including the Opposition, would get into every camp.
More recently, I went to visit the camps in Darfur at Nyala. At that time, the Sudanese Government were also saying that there was absolutely nothing to worry about in certain camps, but when individuals saw the facts on the ground, it was easy to see that there was. Women were being abused in the camps, torture was being carried out by—
I apologise for arriving late; I had another engagement that I could not get out of. I met with Tamils from my constituency and the west midlands with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) a week or so ago. The state of the camps—flooded now, let alone when the monsoon comes—was absolutely shocking. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that Sri Lanka, once one of the most respected members of the international community, is keeping 260,000 people in what are effectively Government-run internment camps?
I certainly agree. We have all, no doubt, had an update from the Sri Lankan high commission, but on one hand we have its response, and on the other—I admit to an interest as a fully paid-up member and supporter of Amnesty International—we have a completely different point of view. We also have first-hand evidence of exactly what has happened from people with family and friends detained out there.
When the Minister sums up, will he address the questions raised by many people, including at Amnesty? The camps remain overcrowded and lacking in basic sanitation facilities, with water cascading through tents and sewage overflowing. Will he give us a report of what he saw and what can be done to ensure, as we hope, that people will be released in the immediate future, and that they have access to basic facilities and humanitarian rights until that time?
There have been reports that the military are blocking release attempts by the civilian Administration, as well as reports of torture. Has the Minister had any evidence of that, and what pressure can his Government apply to end it? There have also been reports of releases from the camps that were in fact transfers to other, unnamed camps where displaced people have been subject to re-screening by local authorities. Will he enlighten us about what he believes to be the numbers in the camps, how many camps there are and exactly where those people are who have been allegedly released? Have they just been transferred?
With the monsoon season approaching, we are at a critical time. It is right that we are having this debate to ask what more can be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster following the political upheaval. This debate is not about the justification for the Sri Lankan Government’s action against the Tamil forces, or the future political settlements that will be essential for a long-term restructuring of the country. Of more immediate concern is the fate of those 250,000-plus refugees still detained in Government-run internment camps.
It has now been almost five months since the war’s end. It is unacceptable that so many people are still essentially prisoners of war when the war is supposed to be over. Even now, the Government continue to restrict access for aid organisations and impose strict limits on what work they can do in the camps. Journalists are not allowed into many camps, with only the rarest of exceptions. Anyone looking at the official Government photographs of the camps could be forgiven for thinking that living conditions were of the highest standard.
I notice that the Sri Lankan high commissioner’s statement said that the President had written a letter to the Tamils calling this
“an important time”
in their lives, when they were
“on the threshold of a new beginning in life.”
At Auschwitz and Birkenau, people walked into the gas chambers with a letter promising them a hopeful future. I hope that what is happening in the camps does not mirror what happened in Poland. We must have immediate, open and free access for politicians and journalists in order to know that that is not the case.
Based on other reporting and inside information from the camps, a picture emerges of chronic overcrowding, fraying tents and latrines not up to the task. During late September, visiting UN Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe expressed strong concern about how few of the displaced had been able to return home and the fact that the rest are detained against their will. Despite their internationally recognised right to leave the camps, they are not simply displaced; they are detained.
I know that the Minister was recently allowed access to the camps, and I look forward to his assessment of both the humanitarian conditions in the camps and the political likelihood of resettlement being allowed in line with the agreed time scale, which already seems to be slipping. President Rajapaksa has reiterated his plans to resettle 70 to 80 per cent. by the end of the year, but I think that we can all agree that that looks highly unlikely given the slow progress to date.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said that it was important that we also discuss what sanctions and leverage we have. Again to use my constituent as a proxy to argue the Sinhalese case:
“Hasn’t the British Government learnt we don’t care about you? We have wealthy and powerful friends all over the world.”
What leverage does the hon. Gentleman think we as a nation have over the Sri Lankan Government?
I think that we have economic leverage. The GSP plus has already been mentioned as one lever that can be pulled. I think that we can press at every level to ensure that both economic sanctions and pressure can be used in all international bodies, so that people get their human rights. It is not just an argument about what might be happening to individual constituents. As has been mentioned, there are constituencies, such as mine, with very few Tamils. It is a question of international human rights.
I am sure that other hon. Members would agree with the statement of the Minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the UN last month that there would be no more aid for displacement camps apart from emergency funding. However, with the monsoon season fast approaching, it looks as though many civilians will face the rains in the camps. Will the Minister comment on the tents provided by the UN, which are not up to standard, unlike those provided by the Chinese Government? Tents that will withstand the rains are needed.
I will draw my remarks to a close because I want the Minister to have ample time to deal with my questions and those of other hon. Members. Although we may be able to appreciate the Sri Lankan Government’s desire to identify former Tamil Tigers, who may stay in the camps, we must make it clear to them that detaining thousands of innocent people is not an acceptable way to achieve any security goal. The Sri Lankan Government may have inflicted defeat on the Tamil Tigers, but Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country and the Tamil population must be part of its future. The danger is that the treatment of Tamils in the camps will undermine the prospect of a long-term peaceful settlement in a country where peace has been sadly lacking.
I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea, and I welcome the Minister to our debate. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for securing this important and timely debate.
The events in Sri Lanka since its Government launched the final stages of their major assault have been truly appalling, as all who witnessed them would testify. It is a war marked by the ferocity of its violence and by its propaganda. I join Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in calling for all humanitarian abuses by both sides to be fully and independently investigated as part of the reconciliation process. It is clear from today’s debate that any investigation into the deaths and disappearances of internally displaced persons inside the camps must be full, open, transparent and internationally monitored.
There has been intense interest in this subject in the House. A look at Hansard reveals that there was a topical debate on 5 February, an Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on 24 March, a debate in the Chamber on 20 April and a Conservative Opposition day debate on 14 May. I can think of few conflicts in which we have had no military involvement that have prompted so much impassioned and constructive debate in the House.
Tragically, the end of hostilities has not resulted in the end of suffering. On 27 August, to mark 100 days after the end of the fighting, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, declared:
“We have repeatedly urged the Sri Lankan government to take all possible measures to prevent further suffering by allowing UN and relief organisations full and unrestricted access to provide shelter, food, water, medicine, and to oversee the screening process. With the onset of the monsoon season, it is vital that conditions in the camps are improved as soon as possible.”
That is absolutely right. We have heard appalling reports of the conditions in the camps. The shortage of water, the lack of proper tents, the lack of food and the random disappearances have been mentioned today. I agree that we need a transparent register of all those who are in the camps and unrestricted access for journalists and Opposition parties. That would go a long way towards ensuring that what is happening is transparent.
Last week, we heard from the Minister that he has had access to the camps. He has first-hand knowledge of them. A press release from the Sri Lankan Government this week stated that there were still 205,179 people in the camps. It is still a serious situation, given the situation in the camps. Will he explain what discussions he has had with the Sri Lankan Government on ending the situation?
Last Thursday, the Minister said that the Department for International Development
“would no longer be funding aid for closed camps and that our aid would be directed towards facilitating movement from the camps.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 895.]
We applaud that, but how will it be carried out? What help does he expect to give to displaced people who return home? Given the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to return 80 per cent. of those who are detained in the camps to their places of origin by the end of the year, that approach seems sensible. However, is it plausible? Obviously the camps should provide all the essentials of life, but steps to make them more permanent would make the goal of returning people home more difficult.
There are two clear obstacles to the return of the IDPs. The first is demining, which has been mentioned. As we have seen elsewhere in the world, demining is time-consuming and dangerous. I have discussed the matter with the Sri Lankan high commission and the difficulty of knowing where the mines are is an obstacle to the IDPs returning home. It is essential that they return to a safe and secure environment. Will the Minister go into more detail about his understanding of the timetable for demining? If it cannot be completed to a satisfactory level by the end of the year, how can 80 per cent. of the IDPs be expected to return home?
The second and equally important factor, which has not been mentioned in this debate, is the condition of the housing and infrastructure to which the IDPs will return. The scale and intensity of the fighting caused great devastation. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on these issues. What percentage of houses are fit for habitation? What medical facilities remain? I raised with him in Question Time the hospital at Vavuniya that was bombed. What damage has been caused to water and sanitation facilities? I fully share the desire of the IDPs to return to their homes and that is fully endorsed by the diaspora in this country. However, we must be certain that they do not return to areas that lack the fundamentals of life.
I did not say that we should not use European Community trade as a lever, as some Labour Members are claiming in order to play politics. Of course we should use it as a lever. However, if the Government are going to support the European Union in ending trade preferences, they must explain how they will use that with the Sri Lankan Government to achieve the ends that we all want—to see the IDPs return. They must also explain how the cost of the infrastructure building will be met. It is no good Labour Members criticising me when they cannot show where the will and the means are by which this can be done.
No, I have given way enough on this issue.
What assessment has the Minister made of the capacity of the Sri Lankan Government to afford the necessary rebuilding? If there is a shortfall, will he explain how the British Government will assist in overcoming the funding gap? Furthermore, what assessment has he made of the potential need for his Department to intervene to provide assistance when the rations and grants that the Sri Lankan Government are promising run out?
There is a huge will in this country to assist. Do the British Government support the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) of an internationally managed development fund to channel assistance to Tamil areas? Does the Minister agree that, through that mechanism, the Tamil diaspora around the world could offer constructive support and contribute financially to the rebuilding of their country?
What discussions has the Minister had on voter registration within and outside the camps to ensure that next year’s general election and potential presidential election are free and fair and involve all sectors of society equally? That is vital to the reconciliation process. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) was sensible. As so often happens in such debates about violations of human rights around the world—which are often attended by none of the Labour Members who are present—there is complete agreement about what we want to see in these countries. One of the best ways to help human rights is to have a properly democratic society.
The final issue I would like to raise is the return of Muslims and other displaced people, which has not been mentioned today, although it touches on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). What discussions has the Minister had with the Sri Lankan Government about that issue? Some of the Muslim communities in the camps in Puttalam have been there for several decades. That is a serious issue that the Sri Lankan Government must address.
We have said a great deal about that already. The issue is clear. It is up to the hon. Gentleman’s Government to explain in negotiations with the European Union what leverage they are going to adopt if they support the measures. It is up to the Government to do that; we, the Opposition, are merely asking questions.
The ending of hostilities has created the opportunity to improve the lives of all those innocent Sri Lankans caught up in the civil strife. While the appalling conditions continue in these camps, bitterness and division will remain. Unless a lasting reconciliation process takes place, the only result will be the return of further suffering and increased violence.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) about how appropriate it is that you are in the Chair, Dr. McCrea, for this debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for securing the debate, which is not only timely but incredibly well attended. I also thank colleagues from all parties for their excellent contributions and for showing the passion and deep commitment that they have to human rights and the plight of the people who are in the IDP camps.
I should like to make a few remarks that have been informed by observations made during my visit earlier this month. I will try to address as many of the questions that were put to me as I can, but given the large quantity of questions that came in a flurry from the Opposition spokesman, it may take me more than just 10 minutes to reply to them all. I will reply in writing to those points I do not deal with today.
I went to see the camps at Manik Farm and then had meetings in Colombo with Government Ministers, UN agencies, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations. During my visit, I made it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom’s priority is to secure freedom of movement for the civilians who are currently detained in the camps. I accept that that is not something that the United Kingdom alone can achieve, which is why it is so important for all donors, Governments and UN agencies to have concerted and co-ordinated advocacy with the Government of Sri Lanka. It is also important that all parties send a clear message. I do not think we have heard a clear message from all hon. Members today, and I regret that deeply.
If the Government of Sri Lanka granted freedom of movement, frankly, the humanitarian implications of the forthcoming monsoon could easily be avoided. My right hon. Friend gave a good description of the experiences of people in those camps. I can tell her that that is nothing compared with what will happen when the monsoons hit, because the locations of those camps are totally inappropriate for withstanding heavy rain—it is as simple as that.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that at least 70 per cent. of the civilians could find accommodation easily with host families. That is a clear indication of the potential for freeing up people from the camps. Notwithstanding the recent progress on returns, which I warmly welcome—I am genuinely grateful for the work that has been done—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) asked what the numbers were that we could talk about. The latest figures, which are from 24 October, show that 35,822 people have been transferred to their home areas, principally in Jaffna, and that 16,490 vulnerable people have been released to institutions or host families but were unable to return to their homes. That is a total of some 52,300 people. In addition, about 3,000 people have been transferred to new closed camps. Those figures show the scale of the transfers that have taken place so far.
The Government of Sri Lanka have recently announced that 60,000 IDPs will be released in the next month. So, on top of the 30,000 who have been released since my previous visit, there is the potential for the Government to meet their 80 per cent. release within their 180-day framework. However, it is important to recognise that, even if those 60,000 are released on time, it will still leave 170,000 civilians detained in the camps. It has been more than five months since the conflict ended, which is more than enough time to screen the majority of people in those camps. Frankly, the entire population does not have to be screened before the first people are released. The freedom of movement for those who have been screened and shown not to have close links to the LTTE could have happened some time ago. That has been demonstrated by the speed of the returns that have been taking place over the past couple of weeks.
Much has been made in the debate about whether mining prevents the speedy return of people to their homes. I went to one of the minefields in the Mannar area, where the mines action group project to clear the mines, which is funded by the Department for International Development, is taking place. Mines are a real threat—we should not underestimate the scale of the mining operations—but the work that those people do and the speed at which land can be cleared gives us the confidence that there is the scope and the capacity for people to come out of those camps and go back to their towns and villages.
Last week, I announced that a further grant of £500,000 will be given to a specialist demining organisation called the HALO Trust, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), for mine mapping and heavy mines clearance in the Mullaitivu area. Again, that will enable a speedy return for people from the camps.
Much has been said about the generalised system of preferences plus argument—much of the debate and many of the exchanges have centred around that issue. May I just put on the record what GSP plus is all about, because I think that there is a bit of a misunderstanding about the consequences of the European Union not carrying on with the process that it has embarked upon with GSP plus? The scheme incentivises and assists vulnerable economies to achieve standards in sustainable development, human rights, labour standards and good governance. Countries apply to join the scheme—it is not forced on them—and in doing so, they commit to implementing 27 UN conventions in the areas that I have just mentioned.
We treat all countries in the GSP plus scheme objectively. The integrity of the scheme demands that that takes place. Failure to maintain the integrity of the scheme has an impact not only on Sri Lanka, but on the other 14 countries that benefit from the scheme, whose people benefit from improved human rights. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I think that he has just made the wrong call on this one. So the Opposition Front Bencher needs to go away and look again at the consequences of what he was suggesting would happen if the GSP plus scheme is not seen through and the integrity of the scheme is not maintained—not just for Sri Lanka, but for the 14 other countries, as I have mentioned.
I want to make a bit more progress. I have only a couple of minutes, but I will try to get through my points are quickly as I can.
It is clear that the monsoon has the potential to wreak huge damage the sanitation systems in the camps that are, at best, described as fragile. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West spoke about the tents. Yes, they are in poor condition, because they have been up for six months under the burning sun and are rotting away under ultraviolet light. That is the consequence of having camps that have been there for far too long.
We have heard a number of exchanges today about the situation in the camps and the need to get people speedily removed from them. The key is that people should have the choice, which is why the freedom of movement from the camps is so important. If conditions are not right in the towns and villages from where people came, the choice can be exercised by the people themselves, if they so wish.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
This is a little like playing Manchester United—you get a couple of extra minutes when you play them.
I remind hon. Members that humanitarian funding is provided by DFID to neutral and impartial agencies and that none of its funding goes directly to the Sri Lankan Government themselves. The hon. Member for Cotswold asked what DFID was doing to facilitate movement out of the camps, and I remind him of my announcement last week of two grants: one to the International Organisation for Migration to assist with the safe and dignified transport of people from the camps in Vavuniya to their areas of origin and the other to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to provide three bushels of rice seeds to every one of 8,800 returning families in the west Vanni region, providing them with the wherewithal to look after themselves for at least one year. That is the right direction of our aid. I repeat what I said when I was in Sri Lanka: we will not give further humanitarian aid, barring extraordinary circumstances, to the closed camps once the monsoon season is over. It is important that that is recognised as the UK’s position, and I hope that the international community will join us in agreeing that that is the direction in which to move forward.
The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other issues. I say to him that being in government means making judgment calls and being clear where we stand on the fundamental issues, such as humanitarian needs and human rights. Preparing for government also makes demands on any Opposition to spell out exactly where they stand on those fundamental human rights. On the evidence of last week, repeated in today’s debate, I say to the hon. Gentleman with all respect that the Conservative party has failed to measure up to that duty.