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Syria (Humanitarian Response)

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the United Kingdom’s response to the humanitarian crisis in the Syrian region. On 30 January, I attended the UN high level humanitarian pledging conference on Syria in Kuwait. The conference was co-hosted by the Emir of Kuwait and the United Nations Secretary-General, and had two objectives. The first was to raise the international profile of the deepening humanitarian crisis unfolding across the Syrian region. The second was to secure $1.5 billion of urgently needed funding requested by the UN to meet the humanitarian needs it has seen until June 2013—that represents the largest ever short-term appeal by the UN.

The pledging conference took place at a critical point in the Syria crisis. The humanitarian needs across the region are immense and show no signs of decreasing while the fighting continues. I would like to set out some of the numbers for the House, which illustrate the severity of the situation: 743,000—nearly three quarters of a million—is the number of Syrians who have had to seek refuge outside their country; 4 million is the number of people still in need in Syria; 2 million is the number of people displaced in Syria; 60,000 is the number of Syrians killed in the conflict so far; and 26 is the number of aid workers who have been killed in Syria while helping those in desperate need.

During my visit to Jordan just over a week ago, I was able to meet some of the people affected by the crisis. Walking through the Za’atari refugee camp and meeting families who had welcomed refugees into their homes, I was heartened by the scope of the humanitarian response, and by the resilience of mind and spirit shown by the people I met. The people of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and now Egypt are showing tremendous generosity, supporting the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the violence. It is essential that the Governments of those countries receive adequate support for their efforts from the international community.

I also commend the UN for its strong leadership of the international humanitarian response and the partnerships it has built. Its efforts have kept thousands of people sheltered and fed every month in contested, Government and opposition-held areas in Syria, and more than a million children protected against life-threatening diseases such as measles and polio. Those achievements are a reminder of the UN’s capacity and reach, if given adequate political and financial support, and demonstrate that the UK’s confidence in the multilateral aid system has not been misplaced.

At the Kuwait conference, I announced another £50 million of new UK aid towards the UN appeals. That was in addition to the £21 million that I announced on 26 January during my visit to Jordan—£10 million of which was specifically for Jordan— and brings the UK’s total humanitarian support for the response to the Syria crisis to £139.5 million. I am very pleased to report the successful outcome of the conference. As well as the UK, more than 60 countries participated in the pledging conference and raised over $1.5 billion, exceeding the UN’s target. I welcome the generosity that was shown by donors, particularly those from the Gulf region; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates together pledged $900 million. I should take this opportunity again to thank the Emir of Kuwait for hosting such an important conference.

I also commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for the support provided by his Department in lobbying donor countries to attend and pledge funds at the Kuwait conference. The next priority for my Department is to see that those pledges are turned into tangible commitments so that the humanitarian agencies can scale up their activities and provide the food, shelter, health and medical care that are so urgently needed by the millions of men, women and children affected by the crisis. However, although the Kuwait conference was a success, we must be realistic. The more than $1.5 billion raised, although a great sum, will support the humanitarian response only until June. The Syrian people will still need help long after that, and the shocking level of human suffering inside and outside Syria will keep rising while the conflict continues.

A political settlement is sorely needed. The UK remains steadfast in our support for the joint UN and Arab League special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, in his work towards a political settlement and transition process. It is also vital that the UN-led humanitarian response be given agreement for increased access to all areas of the country, including the ability to reach people in need across conflict lines and from neighbouring countries if necessary. Until this happens, pockets of need will persist despite the UN’s best efforts. The dire humanitarian situation deserves the continued attention and support of this Government, and I commit my Department to that effort. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The right hon. Lady and I differ on many things, but I begin by paying tribute to her for the good and important work she has done to galvanise an international response to the grave humanitarian crisis arising from the conflict in Syria. She deserves support from both sides of the House for her efforts.

Although the international community has largely focused on the political and security aspects of the conflict, the scale of the humanitarian impact in Syria and across its borders has been enormous. As the right hon. Lady highlights, more than 700,000 people have fled unrelenting violence, 2 million Syrians are internally displaced and 4 million people are in desperate need of basic assistance.

The situation inside Syria is abysmal. One quarter of schools and one third of public hospitals are not functioning, there are shortages of bread and medicine, and critical infrastructure has been destroyed. The UN estimates that 2 million people who have fled their homes are living without the most basic services: clean water, sanitation and electricity. The harsh winter has compounded their suffering and many are living in shelters lacking adequate insulation with no winter clothes and no blankets. Even those who still have homes are suffering from the cold, unable to heat their houses owing to shortages of fuel and electricity. With the UN estimating that the number of refugees will surpass 1 million by June, no end to their suffering is in sight.

The success of the UN pledging conference in Kuwait last week will provide much needed support for the millions of Syrians affected by this growing crisis. I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of an additional £71 million of UK aid to Syria. Will she clarify where she expects those additional resources to be focused? As she has acknowledged, aid to Syria is a question of not only funding but humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law. Donors have repeatedly raised concerns about support reaching all areas of the country. There is limited capacity and expertise in both Government-held and opposition-held areas, with the conflict’s front lines constantly shifting.

The right hon. Lady has said that we must ensure that co-ordinated aid reaches people across Syria, including agreed cross-line and cross-border work. Will she elaborate on how the Government are assisting NGOs and UN agencies to provide humanitarian access in the area? Is she suggesting that the UK would be open to funding projects outside the UN’s direct response plans?

Questions are also being asked about a strategic response to refugees. As the right hon. Lady has acknowledged, thousands of Syrians are arriving in neighbouring countries every day, yet the humanitarian system does not have the capacity to keep up with the growing demands on registration, co-ordination or shelter. The UN estimates that only 20% of Syrian refugees are in camps. What steps is the Department taking to develop a strategic plan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that ensures that the needs of all refugees are being met?

The conflict has taken a brutal toll on Syrians, more than 60,000 of whom have been killed. Those who have fled report stories of ongoing violence and human rights violations, including sexual abuse, arbitrary detention and indiscriminate shelling. A report by the International Rescue Committee identifies rape and sexual violence as primary factors in the decision of many Syrians to flee. Given that disturbing revelation, will the Secretary of State assure the House that UK aid will focus on the protection of women against sexual violence? Crucially, the humanitarian crisis will not be resolved until the conflict in Syria is resolved, and we must continue to push for a ceasefire.

On international efforts to bring about negotiations to stop the fighting, what assessment have the Government made of reports that the head of the major opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is willing to talk to Government representatives? Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress the Government have made in encouraging the Syrian national coalition to accept the Geneva plan as the basis for transition? What were the objectives and impact of the reported recent Israeli air strikes in Syria?

The brutality of the Assad regime is clear for all to see, but as we seek change in Syria through a ceasefire and political process, it is essential that we do not forget the here and now suffering of the Syrian people. That is why I welcome today’s statement, and I hope that the Secretary of State will keep the House informed of developments on a regular basis.

I very much appreciate the way in which the shadow Secretary of State approached his response. There was a huge effort across the international community to make sure that the donor conference was a success, and the UK certainly did as much as it could to try to make sure that that was the case. The hon. Gentleman asked how the funds would be spent. The £50 million that we donated at the conference will sit alongside the UN co-ordinated response to the humanitarian crisis. Of the requested $1.5 billion, about $1 billion goes to helping refugees outside Syria, and about half a billion dollars of that is planned to help people still suffering inside Syria. In relation to how we can make sure that we reach the many parts of Syria that are difficult to get to, we have to take the opportunities, and we work through humanitarian partners all the time. They are neutral and impartial but nevertheless have the ability to go into parts of Syria that are often contested. Some of them are Government-controlled, some opposition-controlled, but others are still contested, and as I said in my statement, they are dangerous places. We therefore support those humanitarian agencies. When I talk to the people who head up the World Food Programme, for example, they are clear that they have to take opportunities when they arise. They often find a contact whom they believe is trustworthy, and through them can gain access to a new area, and they will take that opportunity. They have to be prepared to act very quickly and flexibly. We support them in doing so, and the main concern for them in recent weeks has been funding, which is why the donor conference was so important.

As for what the UK has done directly in Syria, we have provided medical support. We have trained—I think I am right in saying—250 health workers, and we have helped open about 130 mobile medical units that provide care. We are also providing food and shelter wherever we can. The UN Security Council has called for the Syrian authorities to provide full, immediate and unimpeded access to all areas of Syria so that humanitarian support can get through. That is absolutely vital, and we urge the opposition forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian actors. It is critical, if we are to be able to use that $1.5 billion effectively, that we make sure that we have the routes to get through to the people who need our support.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the strategic response, and he is quite right to flag up the fact that this humanitarian crisis is perhaps different from many others with which the Department deals. Often we are dealing with a natural disaster, and people act to tackle the aftermath. This is a humanitarian crisis that has unfolded over many months and seems likely to continue to unfold over a prolonged period. It may be that we have not seen the worst of the humanitarian crisis in relation to Syria, which is why it is vital that Assad goes, and goes now, so that the work to rebuild Syria can begin.

We are talking with the UNHCR and other humanitarian bodies about how we can make sure that we are set up to deal with a crisis that could become significantly worse in the coming months if the violence continues. As I said in my statement, there are 2 million internally displaced people within Syria. Many of the refugees with whom I spoke a couple of weekends ago had tried their best to stay in Syria. They had moved from Homs to a different place, to a different place again and so on, but were finally left with no choice but to leave Syria. If just a fraction of the 2 million internally displaced people end up having to leave Syria and become refugees, we will see a dramatic increase in the humanitarian problems outside Syria. That is why the donor conference was so important.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at how we can make sure that we are positioned to take care of those people. For neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, the strain and the pressure put on them are immense. We should always bear that in mind when we are looking at the support that we provide. As he rightly pointed out, most of the refugees in Jordan, for example, are not in camps but in host communities. When I was in Jordan I was told that the local education system has had to absorb 22,000 children who arrived with refugee families. There are significant challenges ahead, which is why we need to continue to keep international attention focused on a very grave humanitarian situation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about women and girls, and he is right to do so. We have been particularly concerned to make sure that we have supported children. One in five of the people turning up at the Za’atari refugee camp that I visited was a child aged four or under. Nearly 60% of the refugees who have turned up at that camp were 30 or under. Alongside others, we are providing clinical care and counselling to women and we are helping to provide education to children. We are also providing specific support to about 1,800 women we believe are at risk of possibly being coerced into marriage. We are therefore providing support to them to ensure, wherever possible, that that does not happen. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is raising on the international stage the broader issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict, and it will be one of the subjects that we try to push internationally at the G8.

The hon. Gentleman asked about coalition talks. There is a general recognition in the international community that the solution in Syria is a political one, which will involve talks, including between the coalition and the Government. It is clear from talking with the coalition that any future transitional Government must be one that has no Assad as part of it. I therefore come back to my earlier comments that for things to move forward, it is time for Assad to go so that the rebuilding of Syria can start.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Israeli air strikes. It is too early to speculate on exactly what happened, but we can see that ensuring stability in that region is critical. It is why the donor conference was so important, so that in the short term we have the funding in place at least to deal with the humanitarian crisis. More broadly, we need stability in the Syrian region. That will mean a political solution to the challenges and to the civil war that is under way in Syria.

Once before, in another crisis, we made the terrible mistake of arming rebels—in Afghanistan. Can the Secretary of State give an absolute commitment that in no way, either directly or indirectly or through surrogates, are we giving any aid to Syria that can be used for any offensive purposes, for military purposes or to take life?

I can certainly be clear with my hon. Friend that DFID support is non-lethal: underpinning absolutely everything we do is the fact that it has to be humanitarian-focused. He is therefore right that we are not in the business of arming to perpetuate this violence. We want to see an end to it, and that will require a political solution.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the work that she has done in this regard. There are 150,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. So far, 23,500 have claimed asylum in the EU, mostly crossing the border between Greece and Turkey, and that is the pressure point as far as the EU is concerned. She mentioned many countries in her statement, but what support is being given to the Greek Government to help them to deal with this problem, which will eventually become a problem for the United Kingdom?

I will need to write to the right hon. Gentleman to give him further details on that. He is right to point out that a number of countries in the EU have taken in Syrian refugees, including Sweden, which has a substantial Syrian diaspora. We need to make sure that we deal with the totality of this humanitarian crisis, and that involves making sure that when refugees end up in the EU we provide the support they need.

I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, particularly the confidence that she expressed in the UN-led multilateral response. She is right that this intolerable situation needs a regional political solution. Will she therefore tell us whether Russia attended the Kuwait conference and what constructive contributions it is making to the humanitarian and political processes?

I can confirm that Russia was at the donor conference. We have pressed the Russians to work with us to get a UN Security Council resolution that will start to put in place the building blocks for a political settlement and a political solution to Syria. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that has proved to be beyond reach to date. We very much hope that through continued discussions with the Russians and, to a certain extent, with the Chinese, we will be able to make progress at some point, but thus far the signs have not been positive.

In recent months I have been able to visit camps in Turkey and Jordan for people fleeing Syria. May I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the efforts of the Governments there and elsewhere and of the international agencies, but also mention the incredible generosity of ordinary people in taking Syrian refugees into their own homes? Last night it was estimated that over 2,000 Syrians crossed the border into Jordan. Winter is now coming on, and the Za’atari camp that she mentioned faces exposure. The donor conference decisions are great, but the UNHCR co-ordinator in Jordan makes it clear that it is not the pledges of money that make the difference but the money actually getting in and being translated into action. What can we do to ensure that aid gets in and that we do not just have pledges?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The UK will certainly be doing our bit to make sure that the pledges made at the donor conference translate into real money that can make a real difference on the ground. Probably about half the $1 billion set aside to help refugees will go to those who are in Jordan. It is worth pointing out that well over 200,000 refugees have arrived in Jordan, and the total population of that country is 6 million, so in the context of its overall population it is a significant influx. It is therefore right that we look at what we can do to help the Jordanian Government, but also the UN agencies there, to deal with that.

The savage brutality of the Assad regime is plain for the world to see. I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on the work that they are doing to assist with much needed aid for people in the region. Will she join me in welcoming the fact that as a result of the conference, some of that aid that will now be coming from, and has been pledged by, the region itself, including from the Gulf states, which is particularly important in this crisis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I sensed at the conference that one of the most important aspects was not just the fact that the United Nations put out a call for funds that was met—it was its largest ever call for short-term funds—but, critically, that there had been real ownership of making sure that target was met by Gulf nations. Not only did Kuwait generously host the conference but key Gulf nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait itself made substantial donations. That was welcomed throughout the donor conference and I think it shows not only that the region itself recognises the gravity of the situation, but that it is prepared to step up to the plate and be a key partner in delivering the humanitarian aid.

The Secretary of State has commented on the political stance that China and Russia have taken. May I press her to say whether China and Russia are now making significant contributions to the humanitarian aid required?

I do not believe that Russia made a significant contribution at the donor conference. The most important thing that we would like to achieve with Russia and China is a breakthrough that would enable us to have a UN Security Council resolution, which would be similar to the approach taken in Mali, where it was possible to take action as a result of a consensus across the international spectrum. That UN Security Council resolution cannot be passed at the moment, which, critically, makes it much more complex for us to be able to reach people inside Syria with humanitarian aid. It also makes it much more complex to start the political and diplomatic dialogue needed to reach a long-term settlement. That is what is needed and I am absolutely clear that, although we are providing humanitarian support, the UK has not ruled out any action. Ultimately, however, we want to press forward on a political and diplomatic route.

I was at a conference over the weekend with both Turkish and Jordanian representatives, both of whom said, independently, that the international community could do more to help with the refugee problems in their respective countries. I say to my right hon. Friend that simple things, such as blankets to keep children warm, are needed now in the camps in Jordan. Could they not be delivered quicker bilaterally—that is, we give directly to the country rather than through the UN mechanism?

That is something that I have also considered, but it is clear that the UN process and logistics are well set up. The road block over recent weeks has been in funding. The channels and the people are there, but we have not been able to scale up support because the money has not been in place. The donor conference means that that money is now in place and the scale-up can take place. My hon. Friend is right to say that basic shelter is one of the key aids that we have given many of the refugees. It is freezing over there and they need to be protected from the cold.

The UNHCR estimates that there could be more than 430,000 refugees from Syria in Jordan by the end of this year. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how the money provided by this Government will help the condition of children who have had to flee appalling conditions in Syria?

One of the key things that can now happen is that the Za’atari camp itself can grow in a more structured way. That includes the establishment of a school and the development of education for children in that refugee camp. I can therefore provide the hon. Gentleman with some assurance that there is now a structure plan in place to grow the camp in order to accommodate more refugees as they turn up. That is about providing not just shelter but other things that they will need, such as education for the children and medical support.

I wholeheartedly support the Foreign Secretary’s preventing sexual violence initiative. Can my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary assure me that the UK Government are doing all they can to support women and girls affected by the violence, especially those affected by sexual violence?

I certainly can. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has a long-standing interest in preventing sexual violence against women and girls during conflicts. It is right that he is now pursuing that issue on the international stage. As I said earlier, we have provided specific support to ensure that there is not only clinical care but counselling for the many women and children who have been through horrific experiences as they have fled the violence.

The right hon. Lady deserves gratitude for her statement and for her work in relieving suffering in Syria. Is she concerned about reports that the most merciless slaughter of women and children has been carried out by the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda? Given that that group is part of the opposition, will she do all she can to ensure that the al-Nusra Front does not receive arms, comfort or support from us?

I hope that I can provide the hon. Gentleman with that reassurance. We have been careful to ensure that the humanitarian agencies with which we work that offer support within Syria go through the appropriate due diligence to ensure that they are working with non-extremist groups. That is one of the complex factors that have made delivering support within Syria even more challenging. As he is aware, the opposition have been quite fragmented, so humanitarian agencies have had to assess whether they can work with individual groups on a case-by-case basis.

Having visited the refugee camps, does my right hon. Friend agree, as she has just indicated, that the aid is getting through to the people who have fled Syria, but that the big challenge now facing the world community is getting aid through to Syria itself? Did Russia or China indicate that they would be willing to get humanitarian aid into Syria?

I do not believe that Russia was explicit in saying that it supported humanitarian aid getting into Syria. However, we have been clear, as has the international community, that the Syrian authorities and opposition should ensure that humanitarian workers have totally unimpeded access to help the 4 million people who are still in Syria. Many of those people are in areas that are still contested. It has been very challenging to ensure that there is coverage across the entire country. There are times when the humanitarian agencies have made progress and then, owing to the conflict, have had to pull back. The situation is challenging, and we need the international community to speak with one voice to urge those actors in Syria to allow humanitarian support to get through.

The numbers that the Secretary of State read out in her statement are truly shocking. She is right to focus on the need to get aid in and on building respect for international humanitarian law, difficult though that is to achieve. What tentative plans does her Department have to promote the long-term reconstruction of Syria after the conflict?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that in January we hosted a conference with the Syrian National Coalition to talk about how the political transition might work and the challenges that Syria will face when we get beyond the current crisis. It is vital that alongside the humanitarian work in which we are engaged, we put effort into planning for the day-after work that will have to be done. We are engaged in doing that.

Has any assessment been made of the relative effectiveness of the aid provided by different organisations on the ground in Syria?

The short answer is yes. We want to use only agencies that we can absolutely rely on. Many of the agencies that we are using have done fantastic work around the world and we know them very well. Helping those agencies to scale up is our biggest challenge. I assure my hon. Friend that we will get the most out of every single pound that is spent because it is vital that we do so.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of Syrian refugees going into Iraq and how they are being treated compared with refugees in Jordan and Turkey? She will know that Iraq initially closed its border to refugees, but then opened it shortly afterwards.

We know that several thousand refugees have fled across the border into Iraq. In fact, the British Government have directly provided about £2 million of support to refugees who have fled into Iraq. That is a good example of some of the challenges that we face. Iraq is itself in a reconstruction phase, yet it is now also having to cope with additional refugees fleeing from Syria. That is precisely why we should never forget just how important it is for the region to ensure that neighbouring countries that are having to take in refugees are provided with the support that they need to cope.

I understand the real dangers faced by people trying to get humanitarian aid to those inside Syria, which my right hon. Friend has mentioned. In my experience, the only way in which that can be done safely in such circumstances is for some kind of security organisation to be set up on the ground. I totally understand why a mandate from the Security Council is not possible, given the Chinese and Russian attitude, but would it be possible for a grouping from the region to get together and put troops on the ground, to provide security for the brave people who are trying to get to parts of Syria where others do not want them to get? Are we working towards that?

The short answer is that we do not anticipate that at this point. We are focused on ensuring that the humanitarian agencies that we are using to help to get support into Syria have unimpeded access and channels to get support through. It is absolutely clear-cut in international law that humanitarian actors should be allowed access, and that is the route that we are using.

I welcome this international aid to Syria on a combined basis, but following on from the good colonel from Beckenham, may I invite the Secretary of State to address the issue of safe havens in Syria or on the edge of it? What prospect is there of such safe havens being established in the absence of support from Russia and China, which thus far have not been of assistance?

In practice, the prospect of safe havens is virtually nil, because of course we do not have a request from the Syrian Government for any kind of military intervention. That is an incredibly important point. That country is at civil war, so it is extremely unlikely that we will be able to assure people of any kind of safe haven in a way that is realistically enforceable in practice. We must therefore ensure that the humanitarian channels are open to reach people where they are, and that when people flee Syria and seek refuge in neighbouring countries, we provide humanitarian support for them there.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we need to consider as many options as we can to provide help to people in their home country of Syria, and that is what we are trying to do. There is no doubt that it will be incredibly difficult as the crisis unfolds, but we are all trying our level best.