Skip to main content

Ivory Coast (Humanitarian Situation)

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Ivory Coast.

Whatever events are taking place elsewhere in the world, Britain has not forgotten the people of Ivory Coast or Liberia. The Government are deeply concerned about the ongoing serious political crisis in Ivory Coast, the risk of regional instability, and the humanitarian impact on those who have been displaced by the violence or otherwise affected. The latest information we have is that almost 500 lives are estimated to have been lost as a result. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last Friday that Britain would provide a significant emergency aid package to help tens of thousands of people affected by fierce fighting and violence who are in urgent need in Ivory Coast and Liberia.

In Liberia, Britain’s support will provide food, shelter and basic services to 15,000 refugees; food, water and improved sanitation systems to 5,000 people living in border villages that have been overwhelmed by the refugee influx; and assistance for UNICEF’s work in ensuring that thousands of women and children affected by the crisis are protected from violence, abuse and exploitation. In Ivory Coast, Britain is planning to supply £8 million of aid to provide 25,000 displaced men, women and children with food for six months; tents for 15,000 people; and support to treat 10,000 children and adults for malnutrition, and help 3,000 west African nationals return to their home countries. Access to populations in conflicted areas remains extremely difficult, and fighting is hindering the humanitarian response. Our support is being delivered through trusted UN and NGO partners. In addition to our support, I hope and plan to meet leading NGOs working in Ivory Coast and Liberia shortly before I leave for Liberia to see for myself the facts on the ground.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The humanitarian situation in Ivory Coast is clearly becoming more desperate by the day and, as he said, is increasingly affecting neighbouring countries in west Africa. As well as in Liberia, there are now refugees from Ivory Coast in Togo and Ghana. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1 million people have already fled their homes, with the potential for up to 500,000 more refugees to arrive in Liberia alone over the next two months.

The Opposition certainly welcome the emergency assistance that the UK has given so far, but in view of what is obviously a deteriorating situation, can the Minister say how much of the assistance announced by the UK has been able to reach the countries concerned? What efforts are being made to reach the more remote areas of Ivory Coast, where tens of thousands are reported to be trapped, with no access to humanitarian assistance or medical supplies? Can he give us an update on how the rest of the international community is responding, given that the two UN emergency appeals so far have been grossly underfunded?

What steps are the Government taking to continue to monitor the situation in Ivory Coast and the neighbouring states, and are we in a position to provide more emergency assistance immediately any such need is identified? What discussions are the Government having with our international partners, particularly in the European Union, to ensure that our assistance efforts are co-ordinated with those of other countries? Is any consideration being given to strengthening the UN peacekeeping presence in Ivory Coast? Can the Minister give the House an update on the steps being taken by the international community to resolve the underlying conflict and to ensure that the outgoing regime respects the result of last year’s presidential elections?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those questions. He is absolutely right to focus on the extreme difficulty in accessing certain areas, particularly around Abidjan on the coast, where harassment, even of the international community, appears to be growing. In general, aid agencies have had some access to the north and the west of Côte d’Ivoire, though access to other parts of the country is changing on a daily basis. About 117,000 refugees have now crossed the border into Liberia, where access is not a significant issue at the moment.

We are seeking to produce the necessary humanitarian assistance, channelled through our tried and trusted UN and humanitarian non-governmental organisation partners. We have had direct contact with the NGOs. Indeed, officials in my Department are meeting representatives of Save the Children and Oxfam this morning, and the Foreign Secretary will meet representatives of leading British NGOs next week. He and the Minister of State will be meeting the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I am trying to organise a meeting with the NGOs that are leading the delivery of humanitarian responses in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia before I leave for Liberia.

The hon. Gentleman asked about other diplomatic and political activity. There is an enormous amount of activity taking place within a number of bodies. The UK strongly supports the position taken by the Economic Community of West African States—ECOWAS—in seeking to co-ordinate supportive action in the United Nations and the European Union for ECOWAS. We also support what is going on in the African Union. It is important that the UN, which passed Security Council resolution 1975 last night, is now able to use that resolution as its authority to ensure that assistance is given within the context of finding the most peaceful means of allowing the duly elected President Ouattara to take his proper place in Côte d’Ivoire. In the meantime, we have to deal with the difficulties along the western side of the country, where the refugees are flowing into Liberia, as well as the serious humanitarian crisis in Côte d’Ivoire itself.

Initiatives are also being taken by the African Union in an effort to find a peaceful outcome to the crisis. It has been active in meeting and drawing up proposals, but, as we speak, a number of violent actions are taking place throughout Côte d’Ivoire, and the concern is that the peace processes are not as yet ahead of the actions on the ground. I compliment the African Union on its actions, however, and it is important that we recognise that the UN Security Council resolution does not impede the AU’s freedom to continue its process. The resolution neither competes with nor substitutes for that activity; it is a complementary process, and the sanctions imposed by the Security Council are designed to be persuasive rather than punitive, and will not cut across the AU process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned funding. The $32.7 million UN appeal for Ivory Coast and for neighbouring countries, excluding Liberia, is currently fully funded, but an appeal revision is under way, reflecting the significant increase in humanitarian need. The $146 million UN appeal for Liberia is just 41% funded, and overall the response is reaching only a small proportion of those affected and displaced by the conflict. We have recently supported an uplift of 2,000 troops in the UN peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, and they will be coming through in the next few weeks.

Order. There is understandably a lot of interest in this subject, but there is very heavy pressure on time today, so single, short supplementary questions and brief replies from the Treasury Bench are vital.

I commend the fact that the UK Government are in the vanguard of funding the relief effort for Liberia and Ivory Coast, but is it not important that we encourage the African Union not just to engage to try to find a peaceful solution to disputes such as the one in Côte d’Ivoire, but to develop the logistical capacity to do more in these humanitarian situations in the future? It is fine for the G7 countries to fund the effort, but there needs to be more capacity within Africa to sort out the challenges that Africa faces.

My hon. Friend, who has great experience of these matters, raises an important point about capacity building behind what is indeed the good political intent and the increasingly consensual process of the African Union, which is making its best efforts to find a peaceful solution. I am sure that his comments will be widely heard. He raises an important point for the future; in the meantime, we have to tackle the immediate issues.

I welcome the Government’s humanitarian aid and the passage of Security Council resolution 1975. Does the Minister believe that there are enough UN troops on the ground? I am pleased to see beside him the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who has responsibility for Africa. Taking a political track through the EU and bilaterally, what is the UK doing to address the problem of the polarisation between the north and south of the country in the longer term?

The hon. Gentleman, with his expert knowledge, is right to highlight those issues. He gives me the opportunity to make the important point that Her Majesty’s Government are working right across a number of Departments, not least through my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for Africa. The hon. Gentleman is also right about the north-south divide in the country, especially as we hear that troops loyal to President Ouattara are now only about 120 km north of the port of San Pedro, and may have captured Yamoussoukro, the political capital. It is vital to find a way of pulling together a political process that unites a riven faction that has caused desperate humanitarian crises in the past.

I welcome the Minister’s statement on the provision of humanitarian relief and I note the UN resolution, but does he accept that what is really needed is a political solution that ejects Laurent Gbagbo from the presidency? This is a man who has rebuffed his people, rebuffed the Economic Community of West African States and rebuffed the African Union and is rebuffing the United Nations. Does the Minister accept that in this situation we have not done enough and not moved fast enough, and that this Government should do more to make sure that there is a peaceful resolution?

Of course a political and peaceful solution has to be the overriding and most desirable outcome, but we have to deal with the facts on the ground as we know them to be. Enormous initiatives are taking place across ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. I know that the Foreign Secretary spoke to President Ouattara on 21 March and discussed the need for firm action in the UN against those who obstruct the African Union’s attempts to broker a peaceful transfer of power, and on 25 March my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development spoke to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia to ensure that we address the humanitarian concerns developing in that country.

The Minister rightly mentioned the need for a political solution and the role of the African Union. In fact, ECOWAS has a well-deserved reputation for efficient delivery on the ground. Will the Minister tell us whether the Minister with responsibility for Africa has been in active discussion with ECOWAS so that we can engage further with it to deliver practical support for that political solution?

I can. Indeed, I have just had it confirmed that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for Africa met ECOWAS in Abuja three weeks ago and has continuing contacts with it, as do I in my travels through west Africa. It is a very important body to be developed to help these peaceful processes.

I welcome the Government’s efforts. The Minister mentioned assistance to refugees. Will he expand on that and explain what assistance the Government are providing not only for refugees from Côte d’Ivoire in west Africa, but for refugees in this country as well?

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, at this stage, when thousands of people are crossing the border westwards from Côte d’Ivoire to Liberia, the principal task is to provide shelter, potable water and improved sanitation systems, to ensure their survival and also the protection of thousands of children and women from violence, abuse and exploitation. It is equally important to recognise that helping west African and, indeed, other nationals to return home is part of the humanitarian response. My hon. Friend is right to highlight those issues.

Children in particular are innocent victims in this conflict. Will the Minister make it clear that we will not tolerate the increasing recruitment of children to take part in armed conflict?

We do indeed hear reports that children are again being recruited to fight as soldiers, mainly to replace members of the armed forces loyal to former President Gbagbo who are now leaving the forces or switching sides. For the former president and those who surround him to imagine that it is ever legitimate even to contemplate recruiting anyone who is under age to fight for him is completely unacceptable. No doubt NGOs and others will document the incidence of such recruitment to ensure that evidence is available should it be required for the purpose of bringing those responsible before the International Criminal Court.

I welcome the humanitarian assistance, but experience in Africa suggests that very large refugee camps invariably become difficult and dangerous places, especially for the most vulnerable. May I urge Ministers to redouble their efforts to remove people’s reasons for leaving the country in the first place, and to try to prevent it if possible? May I also urge them to ensure that when assistance is provided for the camps, the needs of the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly, women and children—are given priority?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I know from my recent visit to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, on the border with Somalia, that a large refugee camp is extremely difficult to manage. In Liberia, which I shall visit shortly, I hope to go to where the refugees are to see what the conditions are like and how they can best be managed in a humanitarian way. As for the refugees’ reasons for leaving the country, they are very plain: deep fear, deep instability, and the aggression that is being directed at their own people. All those factors are causing them to flee for their own safety. Clearly, the underlying aim must be to return Côte d’Ivoire to political stability and some semblance of democratic legitimacy.

The situation in Ivory Coast is obviously terrible and tragic, and I welcome any aid and support that can be given, but a failure of politics has brought about that situation and there must be a political solution. Although there may be different interpretations of the election result on both sides, it must be recognised that there is considerable support for Gbagbo and Ouattara in their respective hinterlands, and any political solution must take that into account. Can the Minister confirm that working with the African Union and ECOWAS is the way forward, rather than allowing the country to descend into a terrible civil war?

Like everyone else in the House, the hon. Gentleman naturally wishes to avoid any descent into civil war. The primary focus of our efforts must be on the African Union and ECOWAS, because a locally owned solution is much more likely to be both sustainable and peaceful and to take account of the relative strengths of the support currently available to each of the warring parties.

As well as encouraging Ministers to persist in their efforts to resolve the conflict, may I have an assurance that they are keeping in touch with the small but not insignificant community here in order to enable their insights and information to be used to assist such a resolution?

We must indeed maintain those links. As I have said, I am making every effort to meet all the relevant trusted NGOs and representatives of UN agencies here before I leave for Liberia, which is the closest that I shall be able to get to the scene of what is taking place. The right hon. Gentleman is right: any influence that can be brought to bear, not least by diasporic communities, will be of great importance to the future.

I welcome the Minister’s proposal to visit the region fairly soon. May I encourage him to go to the borders, where NGOs—particularly the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—are involved in a special mission? They are deeply worried about the situation, and are anxious for the final solution and agreements that we reach, if indeed we are able to do so, to reflect the wishes of the people rather than what we may think is right for them.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We are in touch with CAFOD, and it is part of the plan for my visit that I will go not just to Monrovia but up country to the borders so I can see for myself what is taking place. It is vital that we work with the grain of what people need locally, and that we are there to provide support rather than what might be regarded as a UK solution. On the contrary, it has to be a local Liberian and Côte d’Ivoirian solution to the problems the people there face.

The economic sanctions imposed by the EU, the US and some African states are clearly having some effect, as I understand Mr Gbagbo is running out of cash. However, it has been reported that he continues to be supported by a couple of African leaders, including Robert Mugabe, who has reportedly been sending him arms. Does the Minister know whether these reports are true, and if so, does he agree that it is of paramount importance that democracy is allowed to flourish and is respected, and that people get out and vote in other elections in the region, in particular those starting in Nigeria this weekend?

We have been hearing reports of that, too. However, a significant number of countries and leaders across Africa are deeply supportive of a peaceful political process through the African Union, ECOWAS and other institutions, not least the United Nations—and I might mention Ghana and Angola, to name just two countries. It would be totally unacceptable for any leader or country to seek to supply arms to either of the warring factions, and particularly former President Gbagbo. If that were to happen, it should receive the roundest criticism from all of us who are concerned and want a peaceful outcome to this very difficult situation.

May I press the Minister to outline what contingency plans his Department, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are putting in place if we have to move quickly to evacuate British nationals and others from Ivory Coast?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. We believe that about 80 British citizens would be involved, and there are, indeed, contingency plans in place for their safe return if that becomes necessary.

I welcome the Government’s actions in providing humanitarian assistance to the region. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the situation in Libya. What assessment has been made of the number of civilian lives that have been lost in Ivory Coast, and what efforts are we and our international partners making to ensure we protect civilians from another brutal leader refusing to leave?

The latest information we have is that about 500 civilians have so far lost their lives in Côte d’Ivoire, but that is very much an estimate—as the hon. Gentleman can imagine, reliable information is extremely hard to come by. All possible political and diplomatic processes are under way, and have been under way—we have been deeply engaged in trying to help and co-ordinate efforts to support that since the leadership crisis first arose in December. It is vital that we work down that track. Of course we do not want to have to take other measures, and it is extremely helpful that the UN Security Council passed resolution 1975 last night.