(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement on humanitarian aid for refugees in Greece and the Balkans.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and to you, Mr Speaker, for giving the House the chance to discuss this important matter today. As the House will be aware, more refugees made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe last month than in the whole of 2014. Indeed, in October 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, bringing the total for the year so far to more than 750,000. Greece and the Balkan states have borne the majority of that burden and although the response is being led by the Governments of those countries, the UK has led the way in supporting them and has provided essential humanitarian assistance across Greece and the west Balkans. That was part of the EU Ministers meeting that I attended last Monday, where we also discussed the issue of migration.
In September, anticipating the impact of the colder winter months, we released £11.5 million of life-saving aid for refugees in Europe, in the Balkans and in Turkey. This past weekend, I announced a further £5 million to provide sleeping bags, hygiene kits, nappies, food and clean water for people in need in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia. In total, the UK has committed nearly £25 million to support refugees arriving in Europe as well as those on the journey in north Africa. We continue to respond to the requests that have been made. I recently approved a UK contribution to the EU civil protection mechanism, which deals with requests for in-kind assistance from other European countries. Of course, that is alongside the support that my Department has given in the Syria region over the past four years.
A total of £1.1 billion makes us the second largest donor country and that support has enabled the vast majority of Syrians affected by the crisis and displaced to stay in the region rather than feeling that they need to make the journey to Europe. Only a tiny fraction of the total number of displaced Syrians have therefore sought asylum in Europe and without the UK’s humanitarian response, that number would have been far higher. Of course, we continue closely to monitor the situation across Europe and we will consider further support as needs emerge.
I thank the Secretary of State for the work that her Department is doing in the region and in Greece and the Balkans, but she will know that across Europe we are simply not doing enough. Too many people are dying and too many children are suffering on Europe’s soil and off Europe’s shores.
I stood on the north shore in Lesbos and watched the flimsy dinghies pull in. We heard that smugglers are giving discounts when the weather is worse, so more people are arriving, and although valiant work is being done by residents and volunteers on the island, there is simply not enough basic support to help. There are not enough rescue boats in the area, and HMC Protector and HMC Seeker have been sent home. One family was in the water for five hours, with a baby pulled out by fishermen who then managed to resuscitate him. There are not enough boats, but there also is not enough shelter or support. There are not enough blankets or enough basic sanitation—toilets and taps. An aid worker told me that they are worried about cholera in Europe. There are not enough doctors, ambulances or even morgues to help.
Yesterday, someone from Save the Children said:
“I was stopped in my tracks by a child shivering…her hands and lips…blue…Minutes later, we found three young men unconscious with hypothermia…forced to sleep for three days in a field”—
to queue for papers—
“there are not toilets for those waiting in those queues—so faeces is mixing into the flowing streams”
of drinking water. This is in Europe, so we are all failing.
May I ask the Secretary of State to do three things? First, will she go to Lesbos and to the Balkans herself to see what is happening, particularly in the Moria camp, which is just appalling and should shame us all? Secondly, will she call for more direct immediate humanitarian aid, both from Britain and from Europe more widely, before more people die? Thirdly, will she ensure that the British boats can return to the Mediterranean to assist with search and rescue so that people do not drown? Winter is drawing in and this is on our conscience. All of us need to make sure that there is action now.
The right hon. Lady raises some very important points, which I and my Department have spent many years working on directly. She is right to set out the desperation that leads so many of those people to try and make what can, in some cases, be a fatal journey from the Syrian region to Europe. I can announce to the House that having been in touch with Frontex to offer further support, the UK will as of Thursday deploy a new ship to help provide search and rescue facilities in the Mediterranean. That offer has been accepted so VOS Grace will be part of that effort, which is good news. It is worth reflecting that the support from the UK by means of Border Force cutters and Royal Navy ships has saved over 8,000 lives to date.
The right hon. Lady is right about the need to press European partners to do more. We can be proud of the work that we as a country have done to help people affected by the crisis in Syria and latterly as they have arrived in Europe. That is not just the work I spoke about in relation to saving lives in the Mediterranean; we have provided asylum for thousands of people and, as I have just set out, we are actively helping key agencies on the ground, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration. The right hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that more needs to be done. That was precisely the point I made in Luxembourg last Monday at an EU Ministers meeting. Britain cannot do this work on our own. We can be proud of the work that we are doing—no country in Europe has done more—but we need other European states to join the effort, and I very much welcome the right hon. Lady’s highlighting of the issue through her own efforts.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she is doing. Some 10 days ago I was in Kos as a member of a small delegation from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We could see with our own eyes how many of those hapless people have been cruelly misled into thinking that there is a place for them in Europe. My right hon. Friend refers to Syrians, but a large number of the people we saw were from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Why can we not do something to ensure that these people are processed, if that is the right expression, on the Turkish mainland, without the need for them to risk their lives crossing the Aegean?
Much of the discussion in Europe has turned to how we can work more effectively with Turkey. It is worth pointing out that Turkey has around half the refugees who have left Syria to date—about 2 million refugees. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that. We are working with Turkey. We have worked with it to help it in its humanitarian support. Some of the work that I have just described that we are doing in Europe more broadly relates to registration and helping countries in Europe to process the refugees arriving on their shores.
The Secretary of State will be aware that it is not enough to say that people have been cruelly misled. Some 570,000 migrants have crossed the Greek border this year, and because of the onset of winter and Russian bombardment we are seeing a spike in the number of arrivals. The mayor says there is no room on Lesbos to bury any more refugees. We note that £20 million has been allocated, the Secretary of State has announced a further £5 million emergency fund and we will be deploying a new ship, but what action will the British Government, working with EU partners, take to tackle the increasing activity of people smugglers? The Government have promised to resettle 4,000 refugees this year and 20,000 over the next five years. Can we have a progress check on this? Are there any plans to increase the numbers? Does the Secretary of State recognise that while the Government are to be commended for the money that has been spent on the camps in Syria, we are seeing a crisis unfolding in Greece and the Balkans that shames the European family of nations?
The hon. Lady raises important issues. The point I made at the EU Ministers meeting last week is that this is an issue of European credibility. We have been in New York signing off on new global goals, we have a world humanitarian summit coming up next May and the UK has been at the leading edge of providing support to people affected by this crisis. It is important that when people arrive on Europe’s shore they are effectively taken care of. I have set out some of the work that the UK is doing, but it is vital that other EU member states play their role alongside our efforts.
In relation to people smuggling, some of the work that our ships in the Mediterranean have done is not just to save lives but to catch some of the potential people smugglers. The deployment of VOS Grace later this week will enable all that work to continue. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that this is an important part of how we tackle the refugee crisis. It is not just about providing support to people; it is also about tackling the criminality that is at the heart of the situation. Many of these people have been conned into giving away their life savings and any remaining assets they have to be told that they can possibly make a new life for themselves in Europe, but by going on a boat that may never get them to where they want to get to. It is important that we tackle the criminality. That is why it is important that the vulnerable persons relocation scheme works as it does. We are enabling people to relocate without having to put their lives in the hands of a people smuggler in the first place. That is a safer, more secure route, but crucially it also enables us to target the people who are the most vulnerable in the camps and in host communities who have been affected by this crisis and who would probably never have the means or the capacity even to begin such a journey in the first place.
We have said that during this Parliament we will relocate and support up to 20,000 people to come to the UK. I can assure the hon. Lady that we are on track with our initial resettlement of 1,000 people by Christmas.
One of the challenges that Europe has had over recent months is understanding in detail the drivers behind the refugee flows. Of course, the two things that my hon. Friend set out are not mutually exclusive. Some Syrians are not only fleeing what they believe to be a very unstable region but are very well educated and want to get on with their lives and have a better life for themselves in Europe. The key drivers are instability and the search for opportunities. That is why all the work that DFID is doing, whether in humanitarian arenas such as the Syria region or in the doubling up of work that we have done over the past two years on economic development—creating jobs and livelihoods in Africa, for example—is so important. If people do not feel they have a life and a future where they are, in today’s modern world they will set off and find a better life and a better future somewhere else.
We welcome the announcement of additional support, especially as winter approaches, but I was interested in the list of provisions being made available by the UK Government. I did not hear mention of tents. Sleeping bags have been mentioned, but it would be interesting to know whether people are going to be supported so that they do not have to sleep out in the open in winter. Of course, the best thing to do is to move people into secure and safe accommodation. It would therefore be helpful to know what support and advice the Government are giving to reception centres in arrival countries as regards moving people into safer accommodation, and whether this ultimately has to include a proportion of people coming here to the United Kingdom. Should not the UK take a fair proportion of the total number of refugees coming into the EU?
The support we provide is very much driven by the needs set out to us by the agencies and non-governmental organisations with which we work. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we have provided tents—for example, in Croatia—and we are playing our role in helping to make sure that when people arrive at reception centres, they are dealt with and processed properly.
As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) set out, there is a real issue of scale, and Britain cannot solve that on its own. It is worth emphasising to the House that each of the countries where refugees are arriving is leading the response in that country, so it is up to UN agencies and NGOs to work as part of a national response by each country. As I have set out, Britain is also supporting those countries in order to have an adequate response. As the House has heard, there are real challenges, given the scale of the numbers and the flow of refugees who are arriving on European shores.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the UK taking its fair proportion. The reality is that we can be proud of the work the UK is doing to support refugees affected by the Syrian crisis—whether it is the work we are doing in the Mediterranean to save lives, the thousands of people who have been given asylum already, the approach we now have of relocating people from the camps safely and securely, or the kind of support closer to home that I have set out today. No country in Europe is doing more than the UK, and the House should be proud of that.
May I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for asking this urgent question? I entirely agree with the points she made. May I also thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all the work that she and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees are doing? May I, however, urge the Government to engage directly with the Governments of countries which now have refugees? As winter comes, we cannot allow bureaucracy or any other impediment to get in the way of making direct contact to offer our support to the Governments of Greece and the other Balkan countries to ensure that no lives are lost needlessly.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing just that. The problem he sets out is one we commonly face when we are trying to help any refugees, wherever they are. We only have to look at some of the challenges in Lebanon, where many of the refugees are in so-called informal tented settlements. That means that it has been far harder for us to put in place water and sanitation and to get education to the children in some of those camps than it otherwise would have been compared with the work in Jordan, which, broadly speaking, has been more Government-driven from the word go. We are now facing the issue closer to home on our own shores in Europe. I assure my hon. Friend that we are working with those Governments, while also urging our other European partners to step up to the plate, too.
One of the factors driving more refugees to Europe is the level of support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme in neighbouring countries. What can be done to ensure that there is the right level of resource to enable families who wish to stay in neighbouring countries to do so? I understand that the UNHCR does not have the kind of authority in Greece and the western Balkans that it enjoys in countries such as Jordan. What can be done to enhance the authority of the UNHCR on the ground in Europe?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the reality is that, even now, the UN flash appeal for Syria is just over 40% funded. As he sets out, the inevitable consequence is that it is actually hard for the World Food Programme to meet all the immediate needs of the refugees in the region, let alone to look ahead to providing some of the education that children need or some of the work on livelihoods that might, for young men, be an alternative to their setting off on the journey towards Europe. He is absolutely right to flag that up as a direct issue. On his second point, I will write to him.
We have seen great generosity across the country in relation to the refugee crisis. In my constituency a few weeks ago, I attended a church service in Irthlingborough, where local people had brought an inordinate amount of goods to help the cause. What steps can the Government take to make sure that those items go to where they are most needed and will have the biggest impact?
My hon. Friend highlights the huge generosity of the UK public in responding to the refugee crisis closer to home. I know that many NGOs are helping to get those very kind offers through to people on the ground. I recommend that he looks at the part of the Government website that sets out the key places where people can offer support if they so wish, and signposts how people can get more involved practically.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) who has quite rightly asked this question today. Like her, I recently visited Lesbos, where I found very similar things to those that she observed. Some 94% of those presenting on the isle of Lesbos are independently attested to be refugees fleeing war and persecution. It is not that there is anything wicked about being an economic migrant, but those people were clearly running away from war, fear of death and instability for them and their children. It is shameful that we as a country are not taking a single one of the people in those camps at the moment.
Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about this, but he dismissed my call for the UK Government to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. He inaccurately claimed that there were worries that some of the children would be taken from relatives. The UNHCR has since confirmed that these would be children with no identifiable family, so I repeat: will the Government now work with Save the Children to take in 3,000 unaccompanied children who may otherwise face abuse, trafficking and exploitation?
I have set out very clearly the approach that the UK has taken to helping people who are affected by this crisis. Our approach of taking people directly from the camps is safer and more secure. I have also set out how we have already provided asylum for several thousand people who have arrived in the UK, after making the journey because of the Syrian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman asks about unaccompanied children. If we look at Jordan, for example, about 80% of the children who originally arrived there unaccompanied were subsequently reunited with their broader family. The point that the Prime Minister quite rightly made is that it is very easy in this House to talk emotively about numbers and children. The reality is that we must be extremely careful to ensure that we do not make decisions on their behalf that fundamentally take them further away from the family with whom they would wish to be reunited. The hon. Gentleman has made his point very well, and I have responded to him.
Obviously, there is not agreement in the European Union on how to deal with these problems. Has the excellent Secretary of State thought of talking to the Council of Europe, which covers many more countries, about an overall solution?
We are having a range of discussions to see how the situation can be better managed in Europe. This is not just about the challenge we face in the Syria region. Frankly, that challenge is to have the kind of support at the scale needed, but which is currently not being delivered. I have seen for myself from discussions among EU Ministers from countries in the Schengen region that there is very little agreement. What we need, in effect, is a co-ordinated approach within the Schengen region, but as far as I could see at the time—this was certainly the case last Monday—there was no political prospect of achieving that.
Although such discussions need to go on, the UK is right to provide additional support on the ground. However, we clearly all need to keep in mind the key objective, which is to help Syrian refugees in the region. People are leaving the region because food rations from the World Food Programme are starting to be cut, and because they are worried about how their children will have an education when so few Syrian children can be in school, in spite of the best efforts of countries such as the UK. We were instrumental in setting up the No Lost Generation initiative, through which many children are in school, and we are working with the World Bank to look at how to have better livelihood programmes. There is no doubt that the answer involves, first, some political resolution—ultimately—in Syria, and secondly, some political resolution in Europe, too.
The Secretary of State is usually very sympathetic, but I do not like the way she has dismissed the claims of children, particularly unaccompanied children who have been separated from their relatives. Has she had any discussions with EU Ministers about what happened in Italy last year, when of the 13,026 children who arrived unaccompanied, 3,707 disappeared? What assessment has been made of where those children are? I support the request from Save the Children that 3,000 unaccompanied children be given refuge in the United Kingdom. It is not much to ask, surely.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point very clearly. The UK has helped the International Organisation for Migration to do better evidence gathering to find out what is happening on the ground. Part of the challenge is that people, including children, often turn up without any papers. Some people are even concerned about registering with the authorities in the countries that they reach because they are worried that they will not be able to continue their journey. This is a complicated situation, but I assure her that we are playing a key role in getting support to refugees who arrive here in Europe, including children.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the magnificent and effective way in which she is fulfilling the responsibilities of her office. The fact that the UK is second only to the United States in the amount of aid it is giving to the region is testimony to her efforts. Is it not the case that were all other EU countries to contribute towards aid in the region in proportion to what the UK is doing, the problem presenting itself on the Turkey/Greece border would not be nearly at its present scale?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, the cost that many European countries now face to support refugees who felt that they had no choice but to set off on a life-or-death journey is immense. That money would have been spent far more effectively, produced far greater value for money and enabled support to get to many more people had it been put directly into the UN effort on the ground, working with generous countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which have taken so many refugees. If we had worked with those countries more effectively, many of the refugees—I have met many of them in my visits to the region over the past few years—would have done what they had wanted to do, which was to stay there in the hope that, in time, they could rebuild their lives and go back to Syria.
The Secretary of State is right to be robust on criminality, but the only organisation that can deal with it on a pan-European basis is Europol. Why are we not giving more resources to Europol to deal with this problem? In the spirit of openness and transparency, will she tell the House today how many Syrian refugees have arrived in the UK following the Prime Minister’s pledge? That is a very simple question that has not been answered. It would be good to reveal that information to the House.
We have been clear that we will not give a running commentary on how many refugees have been resettled here, not least because they need to receive support and treatment and to get on with their new lives here without the glare of the media upon them. I will ensure that Home Office Ministers write to the right hon. Gentleman with further details on his point about Europol.
We have heard about the problems of the 3,000 unaccompanied minors and the Minister’s warm words on the generalities. May I press her on the specifics of the case of Mr Nawaf Ali, who fled Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime in Iraq 14 years ago and whose two daughters, aged 14 and 15, are currently unaccompanied and seeking asylum in Germany? Will she and the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees meet me to cut through the bureaucratic claptrap that I have had from the Home Office on this case, so that these children can be reunited with their parents in Wakefield?
The hon. Lady has raised that case with me, but it is not one with which I am familiar. I am happy to look at the details and, if necessary, to meet her. As she said, many of the refugees are going to Germany, where there is an existing Syrian diaspora. That is perhaps why the flows there have been larger than those to the UK, even though we have provided asylum to many of the Syrians who have arrived. I will look at that case and, if necessary, meet her.
We have been talking today about the symptoms of the crisis, but the cause, as the Secretary of State knows full well, is that 11 million Syrian people have had to flee their homes, 7 million of whom are internally displaced and 4 million of whom are refugees. What are the Government doing to stop the barrel bombing and brutality of the Assad regime? Some 250,000 people have died and many more will die as a result of Russian air strikes and Assad’s barrel bombing. What are we doing about safe havens, humanitarian corridors and the protection of the population inside Syria?
The hon. Gentleman has raised one of the most important elements of the response to the Syrian crisis. It is incredibly important that we can get to people inside Syria. Many of our cross-border supplies are going into the country from Turkey. It took us over two years to get a UN Security Council resolution even to do that effectively. The action by the Russians is taking us further away from reaching a long-term political settlement in Syria. As the Government have set out, we believe that more action needs to be taken against ISIL, which is also perpetrating huge atrocities against the Syria people.
The Greek economy is in crisis, yet the Greek islands are at the front of the European response to the crisis. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Greek people have shown extraordinary resilience in the face of that pressure? I have seen for myself half a dozen volunteers feeding 1,000 people in Greek feeding stations. The pressure on public services means that the Greeks are simply unable to process people who are waiting for transit papers on islands such as Kos and Lesbos. Will she work with our European partners to ensure that people who are desperate for travel papers do not have to wait for days in worsening weather in order that they can move on? Feeding and housing people is one thing; making sure that they can get the papers they need is another.
The hon. Lady is right that this is not just about giving people the bare essentials to be able to survive day to day. We are providing support for the kind of registration facilities that she has talked about. It is right to mention the broader issue of so-called host communities and their generosity. I have met communities in Lebanon and Jordan that have seen their local populations literally double in a matter of 12 or 24 months. That puts huge strain on the existing populations. That is why, as well as working directly with refugees, we are working with the communities that they suddenly arrive in. You may not be aware, Mr Speaker, that the refugees outside Syria are overwhelmingly living not in camps like Zaatari in Jordan, but in host communities. That accounts for 80% of them or more. That is why so much of the work that we have done has been to help local government and municipalities cope with those pressures.
I was on Lesbos three weeks ago volunteering at Moria camp and on the shore at Sikaminia, where the boats from Turkey come in. The conditions are appalling and the scale of the human suffering and tragedy is soul destroying. Every time we saw a boat, all we could do was hope and pray for a safe landing. There was a shocking lack of presence on the ground of official authorities and the larger international charities that one would expect to see when faced with such a crisis. Instead, the work was left to smaller organisations and volunteer groups, which are utterly overwhelmed. Will the Secretary of State consider visiting Lesbos and working with the Greek authorities directly to provide British co-ordination assistance and infrastructure, particularly at Moria camp and Sikaminia, because if the rest of Europe will not step up to the plate, she should bypass it and go to Greece directly?
I have been the first person to get on a plane. I have spent a lot of time in the region seeing for myself the issues affecting refugees, and I have no doubt that the European situation is no different. Such visits are important, and when I visited Lebanon we decided to introduce the No Lost Generation initiative to get children into school, because it was clear that there was so little facility. As the hon. Lady says, there are organisational challenges on the ground. Such initiatives are country-led—that is how they work—and in spite of efforts by countries such as the UK, and UN agencies, more work must be done to enable countries to cope with the flow of people arriving. Alongside such initiatives, the work that VOS Grace will be doing really matters, and we also need to disrupt criminality—the work of people smugglers is leading to the flows of people that countries such as Greece are finding it hard to cope with.
We have set out our position on the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which I think is responsible, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue of where refugees are. More than 85% of displaced people in the world—there are a record number at nearly 60 million—are in developing countries and the places least able to cope, rather than developed countries such as those closer to home in Europe. That is why the weight of our response has—quite rightly—been in the region, helping countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, which has 700,000 refugees. We do not see those refugees in the paper, but that country still needs assistance to cope with them.
Will the Minister consider further the response that she gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)? Transparency is important because the Prime Minister made a pledge about a specific number of refugees, and it is important for public confidence that we know how many people have arrived. Will the Minister think again about her reluctance to let the public know?
The Minister responsible for the overall relocation scheme is in the Chamber—[Interruption.] I apologise. He was in the Chamber earlier, and I have no doubt that he will be watching these questions. We have been clear that we will update the House, but we will not be giving a day-to-day running commentary.
I also want to ask about the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, and I am disappointed that the Minister has left the Chamber. I was at a meeting on Friday in Hull, and I was told that four local authorities in Yorkshire are keen to take in Syrian refugees under the scheme and had reached a funding agreement with the Home Office. A few days later, however, they received a letter stating that the funding had been reduced by two thirds, which means that those local authorities are not in a position to take in the Syrian refugees who we all want to bring to this country. Will the Minister write to me and explain why the Home Office did that, and say what effect that will have on the 1,000 refugees who we are expecting here by Christmas?
Turkey is playing a critical role and has taken in 2 million refugees, compared with the 20,000 that the UK will take in over the next five years. Has the Secretary of State had time to assess the impact of the AKP victory, and does she think that it will lead to changes in Turkey’s attitude to the camps in that country? What might be the knock-on consequences for Greece and the Balkans?
The continued mandate of the Turkish Government means that there is some stability in terms of the partners we have been working with. It remains to be seen whether there will be policy changes for how Turkey chooses to deal with what is now a huge number of refugees in its midst.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) asked a question on safe zones, which I did not answer at the time. Although safe zones may seem appealing, getting them in place effectively with UN backing, and enabling them to be delivered safely for people on the ground, is key. We never want to put people in the position that they faced in Srebrenica, for example, where they thought they were in a safe zone, but which proved fatally not to be the case. There is anecdotal evidence of refugees being worried that if safe zones are set up, they may be forced back over the border into Syria, and that is possibly one reason why some refugees are leaving the camps and making the journey to Europe. I assure the House that we are considering all possible means to ensure that we protect vulnerable refugees, but we also have a responsibility not to create a situation that could put people in even more danger.