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Humanitarian Situation (Northern Iraq)

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

1. What recent assessment her Department has made of the needs of people affected by the humanitarian situation in northern Iraq; what steps her Department is taking to help people affected by that situation; and if she will make a statement. (905124)

Before I reply, may I welcome the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), to his role? May I also pay tribute and give warm thanks to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who did an outstanding job in that role and is well known across the House for his expertise on the middle east?

The Department for International Development is deeply concerned about the situation in northern Iraq; the UN’s latest estimate is that 1.8 million people are displaced across Iraq. My Department has played a leading role in the response. I visited both Baghdad and Erbil last week and announced a further £10 million of funding, bringing our total UK support now to £23 million.

I did not hear an answer, but I would have been grateful if I had. I am sure we look forward to seeing the new Minister, and I hope we appreciate his performances as much as we have appreciated his silence over the past years.

The NATO summit will start tomorrow in the splendid city of Newport, and it will be followed by a Newport declaration. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that although the Newport declaration will contain some military recommendations, there will be an emphasis on soft power? Military power leaves a legacy of antagonism; soft power—the one she is mainly responsible for—leaves a legacy of good will.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Clearly, in dealing with ISIL we need to look at all the measures necessary to make sure we can tackle the threat it poses. Alongside that work on stability in Iraq, not only does political progress need to be made in forming an inclusive Government, but, as he says, there needs to be humanitarian support for people who have been affected by this crisis on the ground. I met many of them last week, and many of them have awful tales of how they have had to leave their homes overnight, with almost none of their possessions. We are doing our best to support them, but that work has to line up with a military and a political strategy.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is keen to give humanitarian help to the Kurds in the north of Iraq but is finding great difficulty in getting aid through. In particular, it took a month and a half to get a field hospital to the north of Iraq, which is a ridiculously long time. What can the Secretary of State do to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi Government to allow Jordanian overflight above the Kingdom of Iraq?

My hon. Friend rightly points out that co-ordination between the Government of Iraq—I had the chance to meet the Prime Minister-designate when I was there last week—the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UN agencies is crucial. One sticking point has been on making sure we can transport supplies and equipment quickly; many flights need to stop in Baghdad, and that is part of the delay. We are seeking to make sure that those operations run smoothly.

Quite rightly, there was a huge fuss in this Chamber a few months ago about the abduction of the Nigerian schoolchildren. I have continually asked about the plight of the Yazidi women, nearly 3,000 of whom have been gang-raped and sold into sexual slavery. I do not have a clear idea what we are doing to help those women or why we are not making it a strong issue that we should be doing something about.

I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady’s raising of this issue. As she will know, we worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we could get humanitarian supplies to Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. When I was in Iraq last week, I announced £10 million in extra support, part of which was specifically allocated to making sure that we can support women and girls, not only by protecting them from violence, but by providing the trauma counselling and support they need to help them after those experiences.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s visit to Iraq. What DFID, official and diplomatic presence do we have in the country to ensure that we are well informed about the developing situation there after her return?

First, when this crisis commenced, we quickly embedded an official humanitarian adviser in the Kurdistan Regional Government. I had a chance to ask the Regional Government for an assessment of the work that they are doing. Secondly, we have also had somebody working on the ground with UN agencies, ensuring that the initial work setting up the operations was well organised. Thirdly, we will now look to provide further official support as the team and operation on the ground in northern Iraq get going. As my hon. Friend will be aware, most of our work happens through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, but, as I have just outlined, we also provide technical assistance and support.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) on his promotion. He has a tough act to follow in the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who brought real passion and commitment to the job.

The murder of Steven Sotloff and the reports of the taking of a British hostage remind us of the bravery and dedication of those who go to the region to save people’s lives or to report the news. Over recent months, there has been a move of 850,000 internally displaced civilians into Kurdistan. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what has been done to support the Kurdistan Regional Government, and to make sure that public services do not collapse under the strain?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. When I visited Iraq last week, I was keen to ensure that I went to Erbil, and I had the chance to meet both the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Deputy Prime Minister. I was impressed by the work and the team that is in place to respond to the crisis. I met not just those at a senior ministerial level, but the mayor of Erbil who, alongside having to continue to provide basic services to people in that city, is now coping with around 100,000 displaced people who have arrived there. The camps and facilities are now being set up to cope with them. The teams are well organised, and we have a humanitarian adviser working alongside them, and we will look to see what more we can do over the coming weeks and months to support the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The whole House will look forward to hearing those updates and how we are supporting the Kurdistan Regional Government. Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen Shi’a have lived side by side in that region for centuries, and yet ISIL is now targeting non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim populations and communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that in the distribution of life-saving aid that sort of discrimination is not unintentionally repeated and that all minorities have equal access to life-saving aid and support?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in co-ordinating our humanitarian assistance, we do it solely on the basis of need.