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Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

2. What recent reports she has received on the humanitarian situation in and around Syria; and if she will make a statement. (902820)

The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. The UN now estimates that 9.3 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid in Syria. At least 6.5 million people in Syria have been forced to flee their homes to other areas of the country, and there are now more than 2.5 million refugees in the region.

Two key issues now face children in Syria: first, polio is rife, and vaccination levels are extremely low; and, secondly, UNICEF confirmed to me only yesterday that 2.5 million children in Syria or in refugee camps are receiving no education whatsoever. I know that those are major challenges, but will the Secretary of State tell me what the British contribution might be on those issues?

We have already been part of the effort to vaccinate more than 200,000 children against polio in Syria—I think that I am right to say that—as part of the emergency support. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight that issue. In relation to education, the UK has played a leading role in designing the no lost generation initiative, which is all about making sure that we do not forget the impact of this terrible crisis on children, not least the lack of education.

The UK contribution to humanitarian relief in the middle east has been unparalleled. Indeed, the United Nations would have had difficulty coping without it. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that it is difficult to sustain, and what is she doing to ensure that other countries, including France, make comparable contributions?

We regularly raise our concerns about the lack of full funding for the UN appeal in relation to the Syrian crisis both in the European Union and more broadly internationally. My right hon. Friend is right to say that the UK has played a leading role: we are the second largest bilateral donor after the US, and we have already committed £600 million of funding to provide the vital humanitarian services and supplies that people need.

Nobody can fail to have been affected by the heartbreaking scenes from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus last week. Will the Secretary of State update us on the situation now, as I understand that the ceasefire has broken down and the risk of starvation is very real?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to flag up the terrible situation in Yarmouk, which has been under siege for many months. He will be aware that since 18 January, UNRWA has been able to deliver just over 6,000 food parcels, which have provided some support. I was also shocked by the scenes that I saw. I assure him that one of the most important things to work on now is to make sure that the Security Council resolution on access is adhered to by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by the opposition.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent Project Maja trip, which some of us took part in, to the Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey. The wonderful and formidable Ali Gunn was a key player in making that trip happen. Sadly, Ali died recently. She was trying to ensure that there were books in Arabic for many of the children and young people in such camps. Would it not be a wonderful tribute to her if we were able to do that and, at the same time, help those refugees?

I would like to pay tribute to Ali’s work not only in organising that visit, but more broadly in this whole area. Turkey now has more than 600,000 refugees, many of whom are children. As part of the work that we are doing with UNICEF, we are focusing on making sure that the children affected get education, including by funding textbooks in places such as Lebanon.

The Secretary of State, like everyone else, will not want the understandable focus on the political crisis in Ukraine to result in a lack of focus on the situation in Syria. It is three years since that dreadful conflict began and I will be travelling to Jordan and Lebanon next week. She rightly says that there are 2.5 million refugees. What is her assessment of the capability of neighbouring countries to continue to absorb those refugees? Parliament sensibly agreed that there should be a UK resettlement programme so that a small number of refugees could come to the UK. How many refugees have been resettled as part of that programme?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, he is right that one of the biggest challenges we face is the flow of refugees over the border to neighbouring countries. We must help those countries to cope with the refugees who are in camps and, critically, those who are in host communities, which is the overwhelming majority of them. We are doing our best to work with countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to ensure that they can cope.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, we are getting the vulnerable person relocation scheme up and running. We will be working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ensuring that we target the most vulnerable refugees whom we can support.

We look forward to hearing news of the first refugees arriving in the UK.

As the Secretary of State knows, food is being used as a weapon. That is not an innovation, but it is utterly unacceptable. There is news this morning that people in Yarmouk are resorting to eating cats to survive. What is being done to ensure the passage of humanitarian supplies and food into the cities that are under siege? Women and children have been allowed to escape from Homs, but men are being detained for further questioning. What is her assessment of those who have been freed from the sieges?

It is deeply concerning. The passing of the UN Security Council resolution was potentially a major step forward. It is now incumbent on all people who are involved in the crisis to work alongside that resolution, not least the Syrian Government and opposition. I spoke to the head of the World Food Programme, Ertharin Cousin, only yesterday about what progress she thinks can be made now that the resolution has been passed. It is critical that we seek access to provide humanitarian support where it is needed, including in places such as Yarmouk.