[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Like many others in Britain, I have watched with horror as the situation in Syria has developed. I have friends with relatives trapped in Syria, and the pictures of people streaming out of that country have been almost too shocking for me to watch.
Last November, in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on refugees, I travelled to Jordan to witness for myself the conditions in which Syrian refugees are living, to hear their stories and to see first hand the strain that supporting more than half a million extra people is putting on local communities in countries across the region. The details of that visit are, of course, recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Jordan is a relatively small country with a population, before the refugee crisis, of some 6.5 million people, but that figure includes more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees and tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees, all in what is considered to be one of the world’s 10 most water scarce countries—a country with an economy that has struggled greatly in recent years.
On my first day in Jordan, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which I thank for organising the visit. The Zaatari refugee camp is just a few miles from the Syrian border. At the time of my visit, the camp had a population of around 100,000 Syrians, which made it one of the largest settlements in Jordan.
The UNHCR showed me the route that newly arrived refugees from Syria take when they arrive at the camp, and we began by going to a large tent in which several families were gathered. The families were still recovering from their overnight journey and were yet to go through the formal process for registering as a refugee. Via an interpreter, they told about the journeys they had taken to get to the camp. If they were lucky, the journey had taken several days, but in most cases the journey had taken weeks—weeks across desert, weeks of having to find food and shelter where they could. For much of the journey, they were terrified that the planes they could hear overhead would spot them en route.
When I visited the region, the Jordanian Government had all but closed the border crossing closest to the camp. Most of the families I met at Zaatari had come from Daraa in the south of Syria, not far from the camp itself. The closing of the border crossing forced people to cross hundreds of miles of desert. At best, it took two weeks to reach the only open crossing, which is up in the corner with the Iraqi border.
We heard about families who had endured days out in the rain without shelter, with freezing conditions at night. They were finally picked up in no man’s land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders by the Jordanian army and driven through the night back to Zaatari camp, arriving in the early hours of the morning. Most arrived at Zaatari with very little, perhaps only the clothes on their backs, having fled their farms and villages with what they could carry and having discarded belongings along the route. They were all tired, hungry and covered in dust from the journey.
A short sleep and a shower awaited them on arrival at the camp before they began the registration process with the UNHCR, which entitles refugees to a mattress, some emergency provisions and a tent that will be their home during their time in the camp. It is a meagre existence for families who have typically spent their lives living in first-world conditions not dissimilar to our own, with all the luxuries that we would expect. When we see pictures on the television, it is worth reminding ourselves that most of the people we see have been living in conditions not dissimilar to what we consider to be normal.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has outlined some of the horrific and awful conditions that face those 500,000 people. Does she agree that we need a strategic international resolution to the issue before those people are affected not only by the oncoming winter but the regional problems that will emerge if the situation is not resolved?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The situation in Iraq is only making the plight of people in Syria worse, because many of them have fled into Iraq. As it happens, many of those people are travelling up to Kurdistan. Even so, the sheer movement of people in the region is worrying, and it puts extra strain on the countries that are taking the bulk of the refugees. I will return to that point in a moment.
During my visit to Zaatari camp, I met Doctors of the World and Save the Children to see their work supporting refugees. I pay tribute to their work, and I place on the record my admiration for the many people who support those very vulnerable people—they are usually separated from their own family and friends, living a long way away. Despite the hard work of many, conditions in the camp are extremely difficult due to the lack of privacy, the cold of living in a tent and the shared toilet facilities, which have provoked persistent allegations of sexual harassment. That makes it a difficult life for anyone to bear.
Overall, it is the children who stay most in my mind. I was shown some of the provision in the camp, including a football pitch built with funding from South Korea, a playground with swings and a slide, and a project run by Save the Children that does excellent work giving the camp’s children space to learn, play and speak about their traumas, but that is not what stays most in my mind. What stays most in my mind is the sight of children working, as I saw most children doing.
Refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan, yet many are desperate to supplement the small levels of support they receive, so their children work. Children digging are a common sight in the camp, and it took me a minute to notice what they were doing, as at first sight I thought they were playing. When I looked a bit closer and talked to staff in the camp, I realised that they were actually making cement. The Jordanian authorities have banned cement from being brought into Zaatari, so instead the residents of the camp make their own. Groups of children dig through sand and dirt for many hours in the sun to get at the finer material needed to make cement.
Conditions in the camp are so difficult that many choose to leave and take their chances living in neighbouring villages or, if they are lucky, Amman, where they may have friends and relatives. They get more privacy that way, but the conditions for those living outside the camp are also terrible, and it requires raising further funds to support housing costs. Child labour is therefore endemic. In Jordan’s capital, Amman, I visited a team from the Jesuit Refugee Service, which goes out to visit families that are almost invariably living in cold, damp and unfurnished apartments.
None of the children from those families is in school. Instead, many of them are out working to pay the rent for the property in which they live, including a 10-year-old boy I met called Bashir. He is the sole bread winner for his family of six, whose lives are particularly difficult because two of the children have severe disabilities. Bashir sells vegetables on the streets from 8 am until 10 pm. He has no time for school or play, and he is not the only child I saw on that street doing exactly the same thing. That is the reality for refugees in Jordan, and it is a reality mirrored in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
I visited Lebanon with the support of World Vision, as I have declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The difference there is that there are no established camps in Lebanon and the nearly 1 million people are dispersed. Only 23% of the international community’s funding commitment has been delivered in 2014, which makes it difficult for the agencies to provide support to register people quickly. That is often a huge blockage.
Has the hon. Lady observed similar problems? Does she agree that our Government need to take a stronger line on encouraging our international partners to ensure that the funding commitment is honoured urgently?
I did see similar things. There is one set of difficulties for refugees living in camps and another for refugees living in communities. The thing that really bothers refugees living in camps is the lack of privacy and the shared toilet facilities. Most of them are living in tents, although the UNHCR has gradually been trying to replace the tents with more permanent caravans. The lives of people living in camps are extremely hard, and many get to a point at which they can no longer cope. That is when they move out into the community. However, in the community, they are not having their housing costs paid, so they find that they run out of money. Some people cycle between one and the other as they try desperately to find a bearable situation. It is quite obvious that a lot of agencies are not reaching people living in communities. Those who are living in the cities and have been picked up by an agency are luckier than others.
I do not want to go too far into the question of aid, because I am trying to outline some of the conditions before moving on to talk about the relocation scheme, but I hope that the hon. Lady finds the opportunity for a detailed debate on the issues relating to aid in Lebanon and other countries, because they are very important.
I was talking about the five countries—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt—that currently host 2.8 million refugees. I am going to say that figure again because it is really important: when we talk about the numbers in this country, it is worth bearing in mind that there are 2.8 million refugees, half of whom are children. Of those children, six in 10 are not enrolled in school. Of all households, one in four is headed by women, who face a lone fight for survival. It is extremely difficult for them.
Despite the conditions I saw, nearly every refugee I spoke to was desperate to return home. They consider the phase they are in to be temporary and are desperate for peace to begin so that they can start their lives all over again. However, with no end in sight to the conflict in Syria and with the crisis in Iraq growing bloodier by the day, as we discussed a moment ago, the pressure on neighbouring countries to cope with the constant influx of refugees continues to mount and the prospects for safe return to Syria continue to diminish.
By contrast to Syria’s neighbours, Europe has been relatively unaffected by the refugee crisis. Excluding Turkey from the figures, only 4% of all Syrians who have fled their homeland have sought asylum in Europe. That is a total of 123,600, of whom a mere 4,084 have applied for asylum in the UK. I am going to repeat the number I cited a minute ago: 2.8 million. Of 2.8 million refugees, 4,084 have applied for asylum in the UK. That is a drop in the ocean.
Last September, the UNHCR called on countries to admit 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission or other programmes by the end of 2014. That 30,000 sounds like a big number, unless we keep repeating 2.8 million. We then remember that it is a really small number. In February, with the refugee crisis growing by the day, the UNHCR expanded its call, seeking an extra 100,000 places in 2015 and 2016. So far, 31,817 resettlement places have been offered by European countries, including Germany offering 20,000, Austria 1,500, Sweden 1,000 and Norway 1,000. The USA has an open-ended number of available places.
What about the UK? The British Government have been among the most generous donors to the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and I want to place on the record my congratulations to them on their strong leadership. However, they have been much slower to move on resettlement issues. In the words of the UNHCR representative to the UK, Roland Schilling:
“this is an extraordinary crisis requiring extraordinary measures”.
He also said:
“International solidarity and burden sharing is now an imperative if we want to ease the suffering of Syrian refugees, assist the neighbouring counties and avoid further destabilization of the region.”
Back in January, I was delighted that the Government announced that the UK would set up the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which would run in parallel to the UNHCR’s resettlement scheme. The Government were late to make that decision, and it took concerted effort and leadership from the UNHCR, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International, among many others, to persuade them to make it, along with strong advocacy from MPs from across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, the Government did make that very welcome announcement.
I was not concerned that the Government were running their own scheme in co-operation with the UNHCR rather than as part of the UNHCR scheme; what is important is that those vulnerable refugees for whom returning home is nigh on impossible—for example, those who have suffered sexual violence, or who would face persecution or need specialised medical care—are offered resettlement in the UK. However, I am extremely concerned that, six months on, very little seems to have come of that announcement.
Answers to parliamentary questions show that so far only 50 refugees have been resettled through the Government’s scheme, although perhaps the Minister will correct me if I have the wrong figure; if it is out of date, he can update us. When the scheme was announced, the Government said that there would be no quota but that those who were deemed the most vulnerable would be prioritised. However, despite the Government’s not providing a quota, it was suggested that the scheme would support
“several hundred people over the next three years”.
Will the Minister explain why the number of people who have managed to come here has so far been so very low? Assurances were given to the House that the Government were committed to the scheme. What has happened to delay the resettlement of refugees? Why has the take-up been so slow?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her outstanding work as chairman of the all-party group on refugees. We will miss her hugely when she leaves the House next May.
One important element might be the involvement of the diaspora community in this country. I have been approached by so many members of the Arab diaspora, including Syrians who have been settled here for many years, who want to help the Government and to assist in bringing more people over. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important to include members of the diaspora? They might be able to help to increase the numbers from the very low figures we currently have.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There are obviously going to be some sensitivities relating to why a person is so vulnerable that they need to be resettled, but there are certainly areas of the country with a significant Syrian diaspora population and the Government should encourage councils in those areas to work to ensure that support systems are in place. I encourage the diaspora to pressure the Government and councils to take part in the scheme and try to increase the number of people we are able to resettle.
I return to the questions I was asking a moment ago. Will the Minister comment on how the figure of “several hundred people” was reached? The VPR scheme appears to be based on need, and that need is obviously increasing, as shown by the UNHCR’s call for more resettlement places. Has the Minister considered re-evaluating that “several hundred” figure upwards? If not, why not? What are the Government doing to ensure that their commitment is delivered and is not just an announcement?
It is worth re-rehearsing the reasons for beginning the scheme in the first place. In the run-up to agreeing to the VPR scheme, Ministers argued that it was more favourable for Syrian refugees to remain in the region and for us to supply aid rather than resettlement places. I and many others made the point that it was not an either/or but a both/and situation; doing one does not preclude the possibility of doing the other well in a targeted and effective way. Both are necessary to cope with the ongoing crisis and to support those countries in the region that are supporting by far the brunt of the refugee population.
The scheme was necessary for the following reasons: first, because some refugees simply cannot adequately be resettled in the region because of their particular vulnerability, as recognised by the name of the scheme; secondly, because, as Roland Schilling hinted at in the quote I read out, there is an acute need to show political solidarity with the countries most affected by the refugee crisis—if we are going to argue that they must keep open their borders so that refugees have a chance at life, we must do something to demonstrate our equal commitment; and thirdly, because if we do not provide safe routes for refugees to travel, they will find unsafe routes, as we are already seeing.
Neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with the numbers, resulting in increased numbers of refugees making dangerous journeys to Europe to seek safety. In 2013, the number of people who arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean sea reached nearly 60,000—almost three times the number who arrived the previous year. That increase has been driven at least in part by the ever-increasing numbers of Syrians taking to boats in the Mediterranean, mostly departing from Libya, Egypt and Turkey. For example, last year Syrians were the No. 1 nationality arriving by sea, with one in four arrivals being Syrian or Palestinians from Syria. Many of them were children, with more than 3,600 Syrian children arriving in Italy last year alone, including 1,224 who were unaccompanied.
This year, the trend has continued. During the first six months of the year, 60,000 people arrived by sea in Italy alone: a fourfold increase on the same period in 2013. Those are not journeys that people choose to take lightly. They are the actions of people who are desperate and see no other option.
In December, some parliamentary colleagues and I boarded a migrant boat on the Thames outside Parliament for international migrants day. It was a tiny boat that had brought around 30 migrants into Lampedusa from Libya. We were given permission to have just eight on board after modifications for safety, and on a fine day on the Thames the boat rocked in ways that gave me a real insight into the dangers that people face travelling on an ocean in an overcrowded boat.
Resettlement programmes offer safe and legal routes for refugees to find safety in Europe. Each year, the UK takes around 750 resettled refugees through the gateway protection programme, something that we as a country should rightly be proud of. We cannot watch the tragedies happening in the ocean around Lampedusa and pretend that it does not have any relevance to us and that we bear no responsibility. Unless we are prepared to offer safe routes into Europe, we bear responsibility for some of those people who drown in the Mediterranean.
I want the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to be something we can be proud of, like the gateway protection programme. For that to be the case, the Government need to be bolder and more ambitious. The UNHCR now predicts there will be 4.1 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. Through the vulnerable persons relocation scheme we are on course to have offered only 100 resettlement places by the end of this year. That is 0.002% of all Syrian refugees. We have to do better than that.
We have a proud history of offering sanctuary to those fleeing violence, and we have shown real leadership on humanitarian aid. It is time we lived up to that reputation here and resettled more refugees.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and thank her for all the hard work she does. I also thank her for her presentation to Westminster Hall today and for setting the scene for all of us here. No one present today will not support the hon. Lady’s argument; I am convinced of that. All of us have compassion and interest in others, and that is why we are here—to convey that through this debate. I was disappointed when the debate was postponed from last week, but at least we can revisit it today. Given the continuing violence in Syria, it is a matter of the highest importance, and it is good to make a contribution.
Each day, we read of the atrocities taking place in Syria, and a particular concern of mine is the despicable persecution of Christians in particular that is being carried out by ISIS. Syria continues to rise in the world watch list. The civil war has seen an increase in violence in general across the whole of Syria, but a rise in Islamist extremism is putting even greater pressure on Christians in Syria at the present time. Syria’s Christian minority, which primarily resides in the capital city, Damascus, is generally respected. That has been the case for many years. Christians make up 6.3% of the population, and they enjoy freedom and stability—at least they did—unparalleled throughout the middle east. Although there is freedom to worship, if Christians evangelise Muslims and share their faith openly, overt persecution is a possibility, but since the conflict began three years ago, the freedoms that Christians enjoyed have ceased to exist, and with increasing Islamising, Christians have faced some of the worst persecution.
I want to put the issue into perspective, because it very much ties in with the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Killing of Christians in Syria more than doubled in 2013, with the charity group Open Doors confirming the figures as 2,123 compared with 1,201 in 2012. The head of research for Open Doors claimed that this was a minimum number, confirmed by media reports and its own research. The thought that that is just the minimum number of people who have been murdered because of what they believe is truly horrifying. The murder and killing of those in Syria who would benefit from the relocation scheme is something I want to highlight. The figures are testament to the need for us—I use “us” in the general sense, as the UK Government—to act.
It therefore should not come as a surprise that I welcome the relocation scheme and wish to see it extended and promoted, with more people getting the advantage of it. With sky-rocketing food prices and a shortage of water and other essentials, many Christians are facing malnutrition, as are others in Syria. Access to water, electricity and communications is very limited. It is perhaps the traumatised children of Christian families who suffer the greatest hardships. The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the children in her speech, and we always see the children’s faces in any conflict. Whatever the war and whatever the reasons for it might be, it is the children, the women and mothers who suffer the most, and that is of great concern to all of us. Many face great danger, since rebel forces have even targeted Christian schools.
Terrorist groups have focused on people with Christian beliefs. They believe that Christians are westernised and are therefore supported by the United Kingdom and the USA, which is not the case. They are simply following their faith, as they should. An estimated 600,000 Christians have fled the country or lost their lives as a result of the civil war, and there are fears that Christianity will soon cease to exist in Syria. That is the magnitude of what has taken place. There is a massive humanitarian crisis taking place. The hon. Lady referred to the countries around Syria that are taking many of the refugees. That is having an impact upon those countries’ ability to look after not only their own people, but those who come to the country. That must be addressed. Although it might not be his direct responsibility, I am sure the Minister can indicate what help can be given in relation to health and hygiene and the prevailing issues of fresh water and sanitation.
For those reasons I fully support the scheme, although I recognise the importance of conducting appropriate and necessary checks to identify those who are most at risk, as well as working alongside migration and local authorities to ensure that our border control remains a priority. We understand the need for border control, but there is also a need to be compassionate and understanding towards those who are under direct pressure and who need help now. Again, I hope the Minister will be able to address the issue. I have no doubt that he will, but I would like to hear a wee bit more about what the Government are doing.
The UNHCR representative to the UK, Roland Schilling, stated:
“Humanitarian admissions and resettlement are part of our protection strategy for Syrian refugees.”
There is a clear role being played. He continued:
“As much as they provide solutions for vulnerable individuals and families, these efforts are also a concrete gesture of solidarity and burden sharing with countries in the region currently hosting more than two and a half million Syrian refugees.”
It is important that we all take a direct interest in how we can help the Syrian refugees. Any man of a compassionate hue recognises those who are less well off and in need of help, and, without a doubt, our country, the United Kingdom, is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of both the aid and support that it provides to those in need around the world. It is always good to know that we have kept our commitment. The Government and the Department for International Development have kept their commitments and sent aid to other countries. Christian Aid is grateful and supportive of that as well.
The first group of Syrians have arrived in the United Kingdom, and I trust that the Government and local authorities will do all that they can to integrate them into the community. I am pleased that the families who have suffered so greatly will now experience both peace and the freedoms that they have been denied. It is important that we as a country help those people to integrate into society here. I know that MPs will always support that, but I urge everyone, including our constituents, to support those people and make sure they are made very much at home.
Critics of the scheme—and there are critics—need not fear that the UK will be inundated with Syrian migrants, because the latest figures have proved that that is not the case. If the figures in The Guardian are correct—the Minister will confirm the figures or not—only 24 Syrians have come to the UK under the vulnerable persons scheme. Many of the critics are simply trying to spread fear in the same way they did when we opened our borders to Romanians earlier this year. There is no comparison between the two countries. I always despair when people do not see the real issues of those who most need help.
Latest figures suggest that Sweden and Germany have received the highest number of asylum applications, with just over 24,000 and 23,000 applications respectively, compared to the figure for the UK that the hon. Lady referred to—3,947 applications. Given that 2.8 million Syrians have fled the country since the war began three years ago, these numbers are small indeed and it is time that we as a country helped more, or at least considered the need to increase the number of applications to the UK. I know that Opposition and Government Members are keen to see the Government expand that number, and I would also like to see it expanded.
The Minister himself has noted previously that our country has a proud history of granting protection to those who need it; he is on record as saying that and I support his comments entirely. We in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have provided nearly £600 million in relief efforts, and to conclude today I will say that the greatest contribution that we can now make is to provide safe homes and environments for those who are most at risk. I am delighted to support this scheme and I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate on it and giving us a chance to contribute. I look forward to the responses of both the shadow Minister and the Minister. Like others in this House, I will continue to seek assurances about the protection of Christians and those who are most at risk in Syria, and indeed across the whole world.
I do not want to bring a discordant note to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on all the superb work that she has done for refugees; she will be a loss to this House when she goes. However, she mentioned the proud tradition of this country in rising to the challenge of refugees, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just echoed her. To be frank, there is not a proud tradition; I do not accept the claim that there is. The one time that this country was asked to respond to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe was in 1939-40 and we failed to respond. As a result, large numbers of Jewish families, including their children, went to the gas chambers. I thought that we had learned the lesson then; I thought that we had learned that when there is an international crisis such as this one in Syria, our response is not only about providing financial help but about providing refuge. And to be frank, it is shaming of this country that among the European countries our performance is possibly the worst.
Here are the numbers. First, 50 families have been received here. And the other figures from the House of Commons Library that have been quoted today are absolutely staggering. The figures that the hon. Lady set out are just horrendous. Also, we can look at what the countries surrounding Syria have to face. There are 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey; 400,000 in Iraq, which itself is in crisis; and 800,000 in Jordan, which has a population of 6.3 million, so a sixth of the country’s population now are refugees; and in Lebanon, there are 1.6 million refugees in a population of 4.5 million.
Here we are, a country of 60 million or 65 million people, and we accept 50 refugees. That is shaming—absolutely shaming. Providing financial assistance of £600 million is welcome, but what people are desperate for—we are talking about the most vulnerable groups within this category of those seeking asylum—is safety, and it is clearly not being provided, either within Syria or outside it. There are now 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced, and there were 2.4 million Syrians who had fled abroad but we think that the figure is now 2.8 million, of whom 2 million are children who cannot even go to school as a result of their displacement.
What those people want is somewhere to be safe and in many ways that means leaving the region, because it looks as though the accommodation and provisions within the surrounding countries are so overwhelmed that those countries cannot even provide basic shelter, education and—in some instances—supplies of food. So it is no wonder that people are desperately trying to get across the Mediterranean, risking their own lives and those of their family and children in boats. And yes, I was there on that boat that the hon. Lady referred to. In fact, it was relatively seaworthy in comparison with what we know of the boats that have been used to try and cross the Mediterranean.
It is no wonder that these people are desperate, yet we provide—so far—50 places. Some of the people who have already applied and who are being considered in the figures up to 4,000 are people who are already here and who cannot return to Syria, so that is not exactly “receiving” people either. I do not understand why we have responded in so small a way. I just wonder: is there a figure that the Government are willing to go to? Antonio Guterres set the goal at 30,000. Is the figure that we are going to accept 10,000? Or is it our objective to accept a higher goal? And have we taken only 50 people because of processing issues, or are there other obstacles that have so far restricted the number of people who can take up the opportunity to come to this country? What is the problem? Is there a target figure? If there is, let us hear it, and if there is not, what is preventing us from receiving more people? This situation is a disgrace. When people are absolutely desperate, this is a disgrace and we need to look at the system that is failing to enable people to come here and find the refuge that they seek.
As I say, our performance is absolutely shaming. This is not a party political point; this is a point that, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, has been made across the House in previous debates. We have been willing to say that we want to do more. If there is an administrative problem let us sort it out, but if it is a policy issue then let us have that out in a debate out in the open. At least let us confront the issue rather than letting the situation drag on, because these people are absolutely desperate and this level of refuge and support that we, the sixth or seventh richest country in the world, are providing by way of direct assistance and by allowing people to come here, is just not acceptable. It is not civilised behaviour. As a result of the performance of the programmes that we are considering, we are not meeting our obligations to fellow human beings.
I would welcome hearing the Government’s response to the question: what are we going to do about it? What sort of numbers do we aim to achieve by the end of this year? What emergency measures need to be put in place to improve our performance on this matter, because we are letting down not only the Syrians but our other European partners? And we will look back on this period and wish that we had done more, done it more effectively and done it much more speedily.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dobbin.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for raising this issue. It is an important one, and we need to focus on the Government’s response to what is an extremely serious crisis in the middle east. I listened with great interest to her account of her visit to the region. I have not been there in the current circumstances, but she painted a very clear picture of the pressures that exist.
Nevertheless, I genuinely cannot begin to understand what it means to be lifted out of a city such as Aleppo, where I may have lived a perfectly normal and busy working life, and to be removed from my country in circumstances of civil war before being placed in a foreign country, where all elements of humanity have gone and where there is a major humanitarian effort just to maintain a basic standard of living. Even in my constituency, which is in the far-flung regions of north Wales, there are people who have been in touch with me to tell me about the circumstances of their relatives in Syria who have been displaced in cities such as Aleppo. The hon. Lady has therefore done a service in bringing this issue to the House today.
I also took on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said about his understanding of the experience of people in Syria. And the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of persecution, particularly of Christians, which is an important one that we need to reflect upon and consider in the context of today’s debate. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said that a wider issue—the political situation in Syria—needs to be resolved. It does, to stop the haemorrhaging of refugees from Syria in the first place.
I pay tribute to the Government for their humanitarian response in-region. I think that the Department for International Development is the second biggest donor in the world in terms of in-region activity, which is extremely good and positive. However, I go back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and others have said: people are leaving the region because they cannot live there. They do not wish to leave; they want to be back in the region where they have lived, grown up and made their lives and careers. For them to do that, we have to respond in a helpful way and achieve the humanitarian aims we have set.
Since the conflict in Syria began more than three years ago, some 2.8 million people have fled the country. The vast majority are being sheltered by a small number of neighbouring countries, and although the international effort is helping, those countries are now struggling to cope. Lebanon, which has been mentioned, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is now sheltering more than 1.1 million refugees from the Syrian conflict. The hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned Jordan, which was sheltering about 500,000 people in September 2013.
More than 50% of Syrian refugees are children. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Antonio Guterres, said:
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century—a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
Earlier this year, I met Roland Schilling, the UNHCR’s UK representative, and I have met the Refugee Council, to see what we can do to take matters forward.
Members will know that there was pressure for us to adopt a scheme to allow refugees to come to the UK. Last Christmas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) called publicly for Ministers to accept up to 500 Syrian refugees who met strict criteria—that they were torture victims, people with family connections in Britain or women and girls at high risk. She did that in response to the UN call for assistance, and we have been given the figures for other countries, but they are worth repeating. Some 21 countries have responded to the UN call for refugees to be accepted. Some 20,000 have been accepted by Germany, 1,500 by Austria, 1,200 by Sweden and 1,000 by Norway. The United States has given an open-ended commitment on resettlement. The many other countries that have taken refugees under the UN scheme include Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, France, Finland, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and Belarus. We have to respond, and I hope the Government will, to ensure we play our role in meeting those international obligations.
The Government did not initially warm to my right hon. Friend’s call for 500 refugees to be accepted. We had a statement in the Commons, Home Office questions and an Opposition day debate calling for the matter to be addressed. We had pressure from Government Back Benchers during the statement and the Opposition day debate. During Prime Minister’s questions, pressure was put on the Prime Minister by not only my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, but Members on both sides of the House.
There was concerted pressure, but the former Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said any proposals would be a “token” gesture—that was the word that appeared in Hansard. However, the Government ultimately announced in a statement that they would accept refugees, reflecting UN proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, therefore, there is not a proud tradition on this issue. As a result of pressure from outside and inside the House, the Government accepted the need to act, and I was pleased when they did act.
I want to help the Minister, but my concern is that, as a result of the statement in January about accepting refugees, we have not seen materialise the sort of numbers—I am waiting for more information later—that would meet even the obligations my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford spoke of last Christmas.
I think there is a willingness in the nation we represent—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—to see greater numbers coming here from Syria. If that is what I and other Members feel, it is up to the Government, and the Minister in particular, to respond with the numbers we wish to see coming. That is the issue: if people want this, the Government should reflect that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I hope I can call him that—for raising that issue. We need to put on record the fact that refugee status is not the same as immigration. There is general concern about immigration, but these people would, I believe, ultimately want to return to their home nation when the situation there was settled and the conflict that drove them out of their home nation in the first place was resolved. There is a willingness to help, and there has been historically.
Members may not be aware of this, but a poll was done of first-time voters during refugee week. It showed that 70% supported the Government’s decision to resettle in the UK some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. I just want to give the Government some confidence that this proposal is popular; they are not working against a tide of popular opinion—people genuinely want this to happen.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I appreciate the way in which she has phrased her remarks, although Governments sometimes have to do things that are unpopular, even if those are the right things to do. That aside, this is the right thing to do.
In the short time I have, I want to test the Minister on a number of the practicalities of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. First, I would genuinely welcome an update on how many people have arrived under the scheme, which was announced in January. The last answer to a parliamentary question on this issue was on 24 June—three weeks ago—and it indicated that 50 individuals had arrived as part of the scheme. I would welcome confirmation of how many have arrived as of 16 July. Like other hon. Members, I would also welcome an assessment of how many people are in the pipeline and may arrive in the next six months.
I accept, although I may not agree it was justified, that there were difficulties in establishing the Government’s scheme, rather than using the UN’s existing scheme. I would welcome an update from the Minister on whether proper assessments are in place to deliver a number of individuals. I would also welcome his assessment of how many people will go through the system and arrive in the UK in not only the next six months, but up to the general election next May, although we cannot commit beyond that.
I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of how many local authorities have signed up to assist with the Government’s scheme. I asked the Minister that question earlier this year, but he was unable to given an indication. He may not want to name the local authorities, but it would be helpful if he said that there was a certain number, that they were in London, that they were metropolitan or regional authorities, or that they were in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, just so that we can get some flavour of how the scheme will progress downstream. When people arrive, they have to be dispersed and to have accommodation.
I would welcome an assessment of whether there are problems with local authorities. I have picked up that they may be worried about their ongoing costs and whether the Government will commit to meet those costs beyond a particular time. I would also welcome the Minister’s comments on what he regards as the minimum standard of support for those who arrive. The scheme is different from the UN one, and I would welcome his outlining the support he anticipates those arriving in the UK will receive from the Government.
In a further answer to a parliamentary question from me, the Minister said:
“Costs will be recovered wherever possible, including from the EU.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 427W.]
I would welcome an indication from the Minister of how much resource the Government have spent to date on the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, what he expects to spend by the end of the first full financial year, which started in April, and whether he expects to recoup any or all of that money from the EU.
I would also welcome an overall assessment of the longer-term picture. We do not know who will be in government post-May 2015, but does the Minister believe, on the basis of the position today, that the scheme will progress after that time? If so, how will it progress and for how long, given the still devastating political instability in the region? I believe that we need to respond in a positive way, as Opposition Members and the hon. Member for Brent Central have said. She has performed a service in bringing the matter before the House today. The House has been pressing the Government to say how their aspirations are being met on the ground and what support—when, where, how and for how many—they are giving through the scheme. I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing a debate on such an important matter. We have benefited from her direct testimony of visits to refugee camps, in which she explained the conditions and the situation. I recognise the passion, commitment and focus that she has brought to the issue, not just in the past few months but for a considerable time. She is committed to dealing with the refugee issue, which has motivated her to obtain this afternoon’s debate.
My hon. Friend made important points about the crisis in Syria, together with the continuing instability in Iraq, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also pointed out. It is right that the question of what support we provide to those in need provokes passion, and that was exemplified by the speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the contribution that this country should make to supporting people who are vulnerable and in need, and who are suffering during a huge humanitarian crisis.
I am sure that all hon. Members share our deep concern about the appalling violence in Syria and the suffering and hardship that that has caused for millions of people. Nearly 3 million refugees have now been displaced into surrounding countries and 6.4 million people are internally displaced inside Syria; 10.8 million require humanitarian aid. The scale of that tragedy caused my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central to pause in her speech, and it is worth pausing and reflecting on how staggering the figures are. The Government have always been clear that the crisis is of international proportions and that it needs a fitting response from the UK and the international community.
The Government have three clear priorities in Syria: supporting efforts to find a political solution to the conflict; alleviating suffering; and protecting UK security by tackling extremism and getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. I strongly believe that only a political settlement will ensure that Syrian families who have fled the crisis can return to their homes and livelihoods in peace. In the meantime, only humanitarian aid can help the majority of those in the region who so desperately need our help. Aid is also the best way to ease the enormous burden on Syria’s neighbours, and I think that was clear from what my hon. Friend said about her visit to Jordan and the pressure that the situation is causing in the countries that are most generously hosting and supporting refugees.
That is why the UK has pledged £600 million to the regional relief effort, making us the largest bilateral donor after the USA. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) acknowledged and appraised that fact fairly. UK funding is helping to support hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. The hon. Member for Strangford was seeking detail about that in some of his questions. For example, the UK provides food for up to 535,000 people a month, drinking water for more than 1.5 million and funding for more than 300,000 medical consultations. I think that that is the largest humanitarian aid effort that the UK Government have ever attempted, which shows the huge scale of the tragedy that has unfolded before us.
It is important to recognise the way in which aid can be focused on some of the most vulnerable people. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central highlighted the situation of children, and their lack of education. The UK helped to launch and mobilise international support for UNICEF’s “no lost generation” initiative, which provides education, psycho-social support and protection for Syrian children.
Humanitarian aid is the best way to ensure that the UK’s help has the greatest impact for Syrian refugees and their host countries. Compared with aid, resettlement can only ever support a comparatively small number of people in need. However, we recognise that there are some particularly vulnerable people who cannot be supported effectively in the region. That is why, in January, the Home Secretary launched the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to provide sanctuary in the UK for displaced Syrians who are most at risk.
We are working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify the people who need our help most. In particular, the scheme prioritises support for those with serious medical needs, survivors of torture and violence, and women and children at risk. Beneficiaries of the scheme are granted five years’ humanitarian protection, with all the rights and benefits that go with that status, including access to public funds, access to the labour market and the possibility of family reunion. All people who arrive under the scheme also receive a 12-month package of integration support to help them to start to build a new life in the UK.
I announced the scheme in January and am pleased to say that the first group arrived at the end of March, just eight weeks after that announcement. Groups are now arriving in the UK on a monthly basis. We expect more arrivals in July and August, and we intend to relocate two or three families a month. The figure of 50 people that has been cited is the number who had come by the end of June. We intend to provide the House with quarterly updates; as we publish transparency data in the Home Office, we intend to provide an update on the numbers who have benefited from the scheme, to keep the House and the public updated. Those who have benefited include a number of adults and children with severe medical needs, who could not get the treatment they desperately needed in the region.
The right hon. Member for Delyn asked me to provide estimates of future cost, but that is difficult, given that the needs will relate to particular families’ and individuals’ specific circumstances. We are not working on a quota at all. Rather, we are working on the basis of need with the UNHCR. Given the severe vulnerabilities of the beneficiaries, it is important that we ensure that the support and accommodation they need is in place before they arrive. As I said, we are working closely with UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and local authority partners to achieve that.
Yes, the first update is due in August. We are providing quarterly updates on that basis, in that regular pattern. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see, quarterly, on our transparency release, the numbers of people who have benefited from the scheme. The intent is to provide a regular update in that way and that is fair and appropriate.
The shadow Minister mentioned regional variations. Has there been any discussion with the devolved Assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to see whether they can contribute to the resettlement of the refugees, at least in the short term? I am keen to know whether that is so. If there has not been such a discussion, I am keen that there should be.
Of course. I am keen to support more local authorities signing up to the scheme. Across the UK, a number of local authorities have already indicated their willingness and we are in discussions with others that have expressed an interest. Obviously, the scheme is based on vulnerability, including women and children at risk, medical needs and survivors of torture and violence.
I apologise, Mr Dobbin; I could not be here at the beginning of the debate due to a constituency commitment.
Will the Minister say a bit more about the process and the criteria by which the number of vulnerable cases is identified? It is difficult to imagine that there are not very many more who would fit the criteria, but who we are not taking. I am interested in liaison with the UN and how the numbers are determined.
In respect of liaison, we are working with the UN to identify families and then to ensure that the support that they need is there before they arrive. As I said, two to three families are arriving steadily each month, under the regular plan for continuation of the scheme that we have in place. I will come to the overall numbers and reaffirm the commitment made by the Home Secretary in that regard.
The scheme is to ensure that families receive the support that they need in local areas, given their vulnerability, and central Government are responsible for its overall funding. However, as was mentioned, we will recover costs, if possible, from the EU and other funding sources, and work and discussions continue in that regard.
The Government have delivered what we promised in January: a bespoke scheme to complement the UK’s humanitarian aid, focused on giving sanctuary to the most vulnerable refugees and ensuring they get all the care and support they need in the UK.
I want to press the Minister a little further, because there is concern about numbers. I want to get from him a sense of whether this scheme is proceeding at the pace he expected. Was the Government’s initial ambition simply that we would only resettle two or three a month or was it higher? Has there been a problem and, if there has, what is it and what are the Government doing to try to resolve it? Two to three families a month is a small number; even my own council manages to move more people into accommodation per month, and this is across the whole of Britain. What is the problem?
To respond directly to my hon. Friend, we said we would support several hundred of the most vulnerable Syrians over the next three years. It was always envisaged that there would be a focus on a steady process of identifying families and seeing that they have the support that they need to be settled, working with the UNCHR, delivering the commitment to taking several hundred over the next three years. I believe that we remain on course to deliver on the commitment as a result of the excellent collaboration with the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.
I calculate that there will not be several hundred if we are taking only two to three a month, but never mind. How did we arrive at several hundred? What assessment was made about only several hundred wanting to come here or whether we would cope with that demand?
That was the basis of the statement made by the Home Secretary in January, on assessing specific needs and the ability to ensure that resources and capabilities could be in place to see that some challenged family groups—it is groups that will see this continued roll-out through the coming months—are supported, to ensure that there is appropriate integration.
I believe that we remain on track to meet the commitments that we stated to the House at the beginning of January. That is obviously in addition to the places available to refugees of other nationalities under our established programmes, which offer the opportunity of a new life in the UK for those in long-term, protracted refugee situations, for whom the only viable long-term solution is resettlement.
The Minister did not quite answer the question put by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), which I also asked. The Minister mentioned the basis of the Government’s statement, but did not explain how we arrived at the position of saying that we would support several hundred, as opposed to several thousand or tens of thousands. Why that particular figure?
Clearly, the Government considered what would be a suitable figure, to ensure that the scheme could deliver on its aims and ambitions to meet the needs of some of the most challenged and vulnerable, including some who need specific medical care and assistance, and ensure that they could be resettled within the UK with that support and that package. It was on that basis that the assessment and the programme was drawn up.
Given their vulnerabilities, it is essential that we give beneficiaries of the scheme the specific care they need as soon as they arrive in the UK. We have therefore had to ensure that the support and accommodation they need is properly in place before arrival, and we have been liaising, in the way I mentioned, to achieve this. Successful delivery of the scheme depends on the capacity of local authorities and health bodies to provide the high level of support required by beneficiaries of the scheme. Our emphasis is therefore on quality, not quantity. We are extraordinarily grateful to local authorities and health and education partners who have supported the scheme; they have played a vital role in helping those arriving under the scheme settle into a new, safe life in the UK.
We are, of course, continuing to consider Syrian asylum claims under our normal rules. Since the crisis began in 2011, we have received over 4,000 Syrian asylum claims. During the same time, we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to more than 2,700 Syrian nationals and dependants. We also operate an immigration concession for Syrian nationals who are already legally present in the UK, to enable them to extend their stay or switch immigration category without leaving the UK.
I should like to take the Minister back a little and question him on local authorities and health services. What is his Department doing to encourage local authorities to take more people? Is he having difficulty persuading them? If so, are there any particular barriers? Knowing that would help those of us who are interested in this issue, partly to see whether there might be anything we can do to help encourage local authorities increase interest. Will he give a bit more information on his discussions in that regard?
There have been discussions with local authorities, a number of which have been extraordinarily generous and positive in taking part in the scheme. As I said, other local authorities are expressing an interest in joining the scheme. Hon. Members have commented on individuals who have volunteered their homes and their personal support.
Having seen correspondence on my ministerial desk, I am struck by the generosity and desire of so many people wanting personally to see what they can do to provide support and assist in this appalling crisis. There have been ongoing conversations. I am confident that more authorities are coming forward, that we are able to house vulnerable Syrians fleeing the conflict and that we will provide support for them in different parts of the country.
We are, of course, aware that the international community has responded to the crisis in different ways. In the face of such an enormous challenge, it is right that the international community should use all means to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. It is ultimately for individual states to decide for themselves how they help those displaced by the crisis, but we would not want to see a strengthened focus on resettlement detract from the international community’s continued relief effort to support the majority of refugees who remain in the region and their host countries. I do not see that it has detracted from that, but we need to retain focus on that.
I am conscious that the hon. Member for Strangford is no longer in his place, but I wanted to respond to the point he raised about protecting Christians in Syria. I share his concerns about those who are at risk due to the crisis, including Syrian Christians. There are a growing number of reports of Christians and other minority groups being targeted in Syria. The Syrian National Coalition has responded to those reports, emphasising that they are contrary to the coalition’s vision of a future Syria that protects pluralism and the rights of all its citizens. In that context, it is important to note that it is not only Christians who are being identified, brutalised and murdered as a consequence of their faith; we are aware of other minority communities that are also being targeted on that basis.
It is important to recognise that a brutalising group such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant does not seek to concern itself in virtually anything. ISIL is a brutal organisation that kills those who do not hold the perverse beliefs that it puts forward. That means killing Muslims, whether Shi’a or Sunni, and other minority groups. That is why it is so important that we support the international efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria and that we support the Government of Iraq in finding a solution for that country that brings together all faiths and confronts the challenge that ISIL has brought forward.
To come back to the focus of the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central, we believe that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme will make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable refugees, who can only be supported in countries such as the UK. I am delighted to see those who have arrived so far settling into their new homes and receiving the care they need, and I look forward to us welcoming further families to the UK as the scheme progresses. We must not, however, lose sight of the majority, who remain in the region. Continuing our efforts to help them must remain our highest priority, along with providing a long-term political solution for Syria.