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Syrian Refugee Crisis

Volume 623: debated on Thursday 23 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2015-16, Syrian refugee crisis, HC 463, and the Government response, HC 902.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. In January last year, the International Development Committee released our first report of this Parliament, which focused on the refugee crisis that has arisen from the conflict in Syria. On 15 March, the Syrian conflict marked its sixth anniversary. The scale of the conflict has been well documented: it is enormous, in terms of both the humanitarian challenge and the number of lives lost. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that since the start of the conflict, 450,000 people have lost their lives. Last year, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, almost half of whom—6 million —are internally displaced in Syria. In January 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there are 4.8 million registered refugees.

I refer to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: in 2015, I visited Jordan with Oxfam. A third of Jordan’s population are refugees. When I visited the Zaatari refugee camp alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), we heard the same message repeatedly from the refugees: all they want is the opportunity to return home to a peaceful Syria.

We have seen six years of repeated atrocities. Let me highlight two examples. Last September, the Syrian Government bombed a UN aid convoy, killing 14 aid workers. The convoy had been organised by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and was carrying food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies destined for families in areas of the country controlled by the opposition. A UN report released earlier this month said that the attack was deliberate, meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out. Then, of course, there was the long siege of Aleppo, which the same United Nations report called a war crime. It was reported that the Syrian Government and their allies were carrying out attacks on areas packed with civilians while the city faced chronic shortages of food, medicine and fuel. We have seen all those events unfold in real time on our television screens. We saw the shocking image of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy sitting in the back of an ambulance. We need to work together to bring an end to this conflict as soon as possible.

As with all conflicts, there are many parties acting for good in both Syria and the surrounding region. I want to draw particular attention to and praise the work of the White Helmets—the 3,000 members of the Syria Civil Defence—who work tirelessly to protect civilians caught up in the conflict and are often the first on the scene after bombings. We should also praise the work of the various non-governmental organisations and United Nations missions that deliver aid on the ground in some of the most challenging conditions ever seen.

Our Committee’s report made a number of recommendations to the Government, and principally to the Department for International Development, including on increasing the opportunities for cash-based assistance to the region, identifying and developing opportunities for investment and job creation in Jordan, ensuring that vulnerable refugees outside camps receive appropriate levels of support, and pressing the Lebanese Government to resume the registration process for new refugees. We urged the Government to come to a quick decision on Save the Children’s proposal that 3,000 unaccompanied children from Europe be resettled in this country.

DFID has led the way with its efforts to alleviate the suffering and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that still grips Syria and the surrounding region. The UK plays an active role in encouraging other countries to pledge money and resources to the region. A year ago, in February 2016, the Government hosted the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference, in which nearly $6 billion was pledged to help the UN co-ordinated appeals. An additional $5.4 billion was pledged up until 2020, bringing the total to more than $11 billion. That was followed up with an event this January, co-hosted by Finland and the United Nations, which launched a further appeal for $8 billion to relieve the humanitarian crisis. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what progress was being made towards achieving that, and what the United Kingdom’s contribution is.

In our report, we made it clear that we welcome DFID’s cash-based assistance efforts in the region and want them developed further. Many refugees exhaust their savings just to get out of the country, and many are heavily in debt. That is exacerbated by the fact that they are often not allowed to work in the country in which they have refuge. Cash-based assistance has proven to be a value-for-money approach to humanitarian assistance. I welcome the fact that DFID has already distributed nearly 1 million vouchers in the region.

Job creation, investment and economic growth are vital factors in ensuring that refugees in the countries around Syria are able to regain a sense of normality when the conflict eventually ends. During the Syria conference in London last year, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon—the main recipient countries of refugees—promised to open up their economies to help generate job growth, for both refugees and, very importantly, their host communities. I want to put on the record that the Jordanian Government and people have responded particularly positively to that. Syrian refugees are now able to apply for work permits in Jordan in sectors of the economy in which Jordanian participation is low— for example, construction, agriculture and other service industries. Those changes have allowed roughly 37,000 Syrian refugees to gain employment in Jordan—up from 4,000 at the time of the London conference. Jordan has also gained preferential access to European Union markets, which will give designated development zones the potential to provide more than 100,000 jobs to both Jordanians and Syrians in the future.

The United Kingdom is the second largest bilateral donor to Syria and the surrounding countries. As a result of the funding that humanitarian organisations have received, we are able to keep refugees close to home, so that when the conflict comes to an end they can return to Syria. Providing basic humanitarian assistance is vital, but it is not enough. There needs to be a sense of hope for a better future.

The UK Government, and DFID in particular, have taken some very positive steps to ensure that the humanitarian situation in Syria and the surrounding countries is well managed and well funded, but there are some areas where our Committee feels DFID could and should do more. In our report, we recommended that the Department make use of the Commonwealth Development Corporation’s expertise in that regard. We believe that the Government already have a good story to tell on job creation and investment, particularly in Jordan, but more could be done to provide sustainable job opportunities for both refugees and host communities if CDC’s expertise were engaged. Legislation has now gone through Parliament to increase significantly the amount of capital available to CDC. I urge the Government to look again at the question of whether CDC can invest in at least some economies in that region, particularly in the run-up to the forthcoming publication of the corporation’s five-year strategy.

Other outstanding issues were addressed in our report. The Syrian conflict has disproportionately affected certain minority groups, especially ethnic and religious minorities and disabled people. The best solution for them is often resettlement in other parts of the world, but for reasons of stigma or fear of persecution, many do not register, so they fall through the net. Only 23% of Syrian refugees live in formal camps, and there are no such camps for them in Lebanon or Egypt. There is the tragic situation in the berm, the area between Jordan and Syria, where a large number of refugees live, in often very desperate circumstances, in a state of limbo, unable to get out.

As the conflict has worn on, more people have sought out support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing with UNHCR and civil society to ensure that support reaches everyone who needs it, whether they are registered or not. Registration is an important step, but more needs to be done to ensure that all those eligible for resettlement, either here in the UK or elsewhere, are granted it.

On 9 February, The Independent reported that the Home Office wanted a “temporary limit” on requests from people with mobility problems and learning disabilities because of a lack of “suitable reception capacity” for them in the UK. Will the Minister include in his response the Government’s position on the temporary limit, and will he say whether they are planning to lift it? I simply make the point that the most vulnerable are those who need our support the most.

There is also long-standing concern about a policy in Lebanon that has inhibited UNHCR’s ability to register new refugees in that country. DFID has allocated £46 million to UNHCR’s efforts in Lebanon, but I am concerned that the policy may prevent people from accessing basic services. The Lebanese Government say that there are more than 500,000 unregistered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and that more than two thirds of the Syrian children born in Lebanon have not even had their births registered. Will the Minister update us on that Lebanese policy? Is it still in place, and if so, what is the United Kingdom doing to work with the Lebanese Government to make progress, so that, ideally, all refugees in Lebanon are registered?

Last December, the UK Government co-sponsored a UN General Assembly motion that sought to establish an independent mechanism to assist in bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious crimes in Syria. The UK has also worked closely with the French and American Governments on a motion to hold Daesh and the Assad regime to account for their use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the motion was vetoed by Russia and China. Will the Minister update the House on that, and in particular on the potential for an independent UN mechanism that would enable us to make progress in bringing to justice all those who have used illegal weapons in Syria?

The UK clearly has an important role to play in diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. It is promising to see that the UN-mediated political talks between the Syrian parties resumed in Geneva last month, and the next round is due to take place later this month. There have been calls for the 30 December ceasefire to be strengthened, so will the Minister tell us what role the UK will play in ensuring that the ceasefire holds and that we can make progress through diplomatic means?

The final issue from the report has probably attracted the most attention and public debate, and that is the Save the Children recommendation on 3,000 unaccompanied children. Last year, before the Government had an opportunity to respond to our report, Lord Dubs put forward an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have legally bound us to resettle 3,000 unaccompanied children from Europe. Ahead of the vote, the Government announced that they would resettle 3,000 vulnerable people from the middle east and north Africa over the course of the Parliament. Those people would not solely be unaccompanied children, but that was nevertheless very welcome.

When the Bill became an Act, it stated that the number of children to be resettled

“shall be determined by the Government”.

By September last year, no child had been brought to the UK as a result of the provision, which is still known as the Dubs amendment. By November, according to what the Home Office’s Minister for Immigration told the International Development Committee, about 140 children had been resettled, including 80 from France. We welcomed the progress. Last month, however, the Government announced that a total of 350 children would be resettled over the course of the Parliament, with 200 already in the UK. The Immigration Minister told the House in a written statement that the 350 number met

“the intention and spirit behind the provision”.

That figure is of course a fraction of the 3,000 proposed by Save the Children, a figure that was based on an estimate of the UK’s fair share of the 30,000 unaccompanied children who had made their way to Europe by 2015—and estimates suggest that the figure has since trebled. The Government can do more to ensure that children who have made the journey to Europe alone are protected. In 2014, an estimated 13,000 unaccompanied children arrived just in Italy, about 4,000 of whom have gone missing. There is real concern that some of those children might have become the victims of people traffickers and been forced into prostitution, child labour or the drugs trade. We cannot stand by while that happens on our doorstep.

Meanwhile, in the past two months, President Trump has signed two executive orders that prevent Syrian refugees from claiming refuge in the United States. The US has a positive and progressive track record of resettling refugees from many conflicts around the world; President Trump has broken with that. He said that European countries had made “a tremendous mistake” by admitting millions of refugees from Syria and other middle eastern “trouble spots”. How can giving people refuge from conflicts that are destroying their country be described by the President of the United States as a mistake? President Trump’s executive order does nothing but further complicate the humanitarian situation in the region. It is vital that the United Kingdom does not follow the Trump Administration’s lead.

Would the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcome clarification of whether the Dubs amendment scheme is in fact closed? There seems to be uncertainty about that. Will the Government welcome any additional contributions offered by local authorities that feel that they may have more capacity in future?

The hon. Gentleman is a relatively new member of the International Development Committee but already an active and committed one. I thank him for his work on it. I absolutely agree with him. If the Minister could respond to that point, I would be delighted. I agree that it is not entirely clear whether the scheme has been completely closed. I hope that it has not, and that there will be further opportunities for unaccompanied children to be resettled, beyond the 350 to which the Government have already committed.

I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate our report and the Government response. I thank fellow members of the International Development Committee for their work—a number of members from all parties are present for the debate—and I put on record my appreciation of the fantastic team of staff who support the work of the Committee. I look forward to listening to all contributions to the debate, which—this is my final point—we are holding in the context of great public and media concern about, and scrutiny of, international aid and development. I and other members of the Committee from different parties have argued consistently that those of us who believe in UK aid, and who defend the 0.7% target and DFID as a stand-alone Department, have a particular responsibility to demonstrate that that aid is being delivered and makes a real difference to the most vulnerable—that we truly have value for money.

In her statement to the House last week on the counter-Daesh strategy, the Secretary of State for International Development said that our work in Syria and the region

“shows Britain at its best and exactly why we have UK aid. It shows not only how the British Government lead across the world, but how we influence security and stabilisation”—[Official Report, 15 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 448.]

in many of these areas. I echo her remarks; she is absolutely right. The investment that this country has made in aid to Syria and its neighbouring countries in recent years is one of the finest examples of how humanitarian aid can make a real difference in a crisis. Our aid is crucial, but it is equally important that we redouble our efforts to find a diplomatic solution, so that the people of Syria can at last have the peace and justice that they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs our International Development Committee and gave an excellent and thorough speech. I thank Syria Relief, Islamic Relief and Save the Children, which gave evidence to the Committee and provided vital information about the impact of our aid to ensure that we were up to speed with what was happening on the ground.

I will not reiterate all the issues that the Chair of the Committee so eloquently raised, but I shall highlight several issues that came to the fore of my mind during our visit to Lebanon and Jordan. What are the Government doing about child labour in Lebanon? That issue was raised with us. I understand that the registration process means that families cannot gain employment, so children as young as six are sent out to work for as long as 12 hours for only a few dollars a day. That is basically child labour, abuse and exploitation. What is happening there? What are we doing to address that very concerning issue? Those children are traumatised and are being exploited. We should take that situation seriously and highlight it to the Government to ensure that they are aware of it and that measures are taken to try to ensure that children are not exploited in that manner.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the berm. What is happening there? When the Committee visited Jordan and Lebanon, we were not able to visit the berm, due to security issues. However, we heard about the absolutely desperate situations of people trapped there. They are trapped alongside extremists and encouraged to join extremist groups. They have little opportunity to do anything else with their lives and are absolutely desperate for money, so they are forced into situations in which they are exploited.

What is happening with the berm? When I raised the issue with Ministers we spoke to there, they downplayed and minimised it, which ran counter to the information that aid agencies on the ground gave us. We need to highlight and to press the issue in our liaison with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to do all we can to ensure that people in the berm have not only aid but the opportunity to leave that area and access refugee camps, where they and their children will be secure and their children can receive education, which we help to provide.

Will the Minister also comment on mental health support for children? When the Committee visited the region, we saw children who had been traumatised by their journeys, the atrocities they had witnessed and having lost family members. I am sure that some of them could not even speak. Fortunately, they had some mental health support. How do we contribute to mental health support to ensure that those children recover as much as possible, start to lead their childhoods again and are enabled, so far as possible, to go on and achieve their full potential?

I was also troubled by the lack of electricity at the al-Azraq camp, which we visited. I was told when I raised the issue, “Well, that’s just about to happen,” but when I spoke to aid agencies, they said, “Yes, but for months lots of visitors have come and that’s what everyone has been told.” What is happening in that regard? Is any electricity available in that camp? How are we supporting the basic needs of refugees?

I am also concerned about the plight of Christians in the area. We heard evidence that Christians were frightened to go to camps where they would be in the minority, so they tended to live outside camps, in quite desperate situations with little access to aid. What is the Government’s strategy or policy? What do they hope to do to secure aid and protection for minority groups such as the Christians we heard about?

When we were in Lebanon, we heard about Palestinian camps. We must remember that these communities have hosted refugees for years, and we should commend the work that they have done. However, some quite distressing issues were raised about the services in the Palestinian camps. I know that we provide support in that regard. One crucial issue—I was tremendously upset when I heard about this—is that Palestinian people are electrocuted almost every other week because there is no appropriate electricity system. When it rains, people are electrocuted by live wires. We have been putting money into those camps for many years, so why are such basic things not in place? Surely, in this day and age, that should not be happening.

On the issue of vulnerable children and the Dubs scheme, will the UK consider taking more children than the 350 they announced? The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby stated that some councils have come forward to say that there may be additional capacity. Surely, if that is the case, we can work with councils to do all we can to ensure that as many children as possible are safe in the UK. The Independent reported that the Government have stopped taking disabled children through the MENA vulnerable children resettlement scheme. What is happening? How many disabled children have been relocated to the United Kingdom? I asked the Home Secretary that question on the Floor of the House more than a month ago and was told that, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, I would receive a written response, but I still have not received any response and I remain very concerned. Disabled children are some of the most vulnerable children in this situation, and we should do all we can to identify their whereabouts and ensure that, wherever possible, we offer them refuge.

What liaison is taking place among United Kingdom Government Departments about Syria’s disappeared? Evidence of human rights abuses continues to mount against the regime of President Assad. What do we know about the underground network of detention centres where reportedly men, women and children have remained missing over a number of years, with families hearing little or no news as to what has become of them? In terms of diplomatic efforts, what are we doing to ensure that, where human rights abuses are taking place, we are directly addressing those with the appropriate authorities and Ministers?

Our aid has had a tremendous impact on the people it reaches; I have seen that first hand. It is true that our compassion sets us apart in terms of our leadership in this field, but much more can be done, particularly for vulnerable children: those who may be on their own in Europe without parents, who have suffered trauma and long journeys, who are going missing and who are being exploited and abused. I would like the Government to try to address those issues compassionately and show the leadership those people very much deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the International Development Committee on securing time from the Liaison Committee for this debate and the one that is about to follow. The Scottish National party has issues about the estimates procedure, but while it exists in its current format I hope he will be able to persuade the Liaison Committee to find some time for debates on his Committee’s reports on the Floor of the House. DFID might be one of the most scrutinised Departments in terms of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the excellent work of his Committee, but a lot of scrutiny in debate by other Members of Parliament goes on here in Westminster Hall, so DFID Ministers do not get their fair share of time at the Dispatch Box. Whenever they do, Members across the House show willingness to participate in such debates. I hope that we have more of them.

It is telling that the report is more than a year old, as is the Government’s response to it. That is the length of time we have had to wait for this opportunity, despite the fact that business in the main Chamber keeps collapsing. Without getting bogged down in procedural matters, I wanted to put that on the record.

Both of the reports are highly relevant, and sadly there has been little improvement in many of the areas covered in them. I offer my backing to the Committee’s findings and recommendations. It is worth reflecting on media reports suggesting that, just yesterday, while this place was under attack, 33 people were reported dead after an airstrike on a school acting as a shelter for internally displaced people in northern Syria. Yesterday, we had a terrible and tragic taste of a reality that people in Syria and elsewhere in the world—not least Nigeria, as we will hear later—live with on a daily basis.

I echo the general points made about the importance of the Government’s commitment to the 0.7% aid target. The global leadership that demonstrates is particularly important in the context of Brexit. It is important that we all defend and make the case for the continuation of that commitment.

I will look at two key areas of the report: support provided in Syria and the surrounding region, and the impact of the refugee crisis on the UK and western Europe in particular. We all recognise, as the Chair of the Committee did in his opening speech, the significant logistical challenges of delivering humanitarian aid on the ground, especially when land access is difficult. The tragic case mentioned of the aid convoy is a real example of that. That is why the SNP has repeatedly asked about the possibility of aid drops to areas under siege. If manned missions are not possible or risk airborne conflict, what serious consideration is being given to the use of drone technology? In the main Chamber, various Members have raised the US joint precision airdrop system, and we know that DFID—admittedly on a smaller scale—was trialling drone delivery of medicine and aid in Nepal and Tanzania, so what discussions is the Minister having with the Ministry of Defence, the FCO and international partners on that? If we can drop bombs, surely we can find a way to drop aid.

I will also ask the Minister about support for NGOs on the ground and faith-based organisations in particular, who are often best placed to deliver aid. If it is difficult for the multilateral agencies to get through, what support can we provide for organisations on the ground? A big element of the counter-Daesh activity is cutting off finance and supply and using disruptive technological interventions. Can the reverse be true: is there a way of making finance and resources available under the radar? It would be interesting to hear about that.

In the wider region, NGOs, civil society organisations and faith-based organisations in particular have a role in the border countries, where much of the immediate displacement has occurred. Again, it would be useful to hear about support. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made important points about Christian and more general religious persecution in the area.

The Government are rightly a significant contributor to support in the formal refugee camps, but support outwith those camps, particularly in Lebanon, is also important. The report touches on the concept of cash transfers, which are a very—and increasingly—important method across development interventions. That shows respect for the individual’s dignity and empowers people in an often otherwise oppressed situation. The Government should be commended for trying to press ahead with that. It would be interesting to hear any reflections the Minister can provide on that. Provision of education is also crucial in these scenarios. Otherwise, there is a risk of future generations being radicalised or simply missing their life chances and opportunities. As the crisis becomes increasingly protracted, there is the risk of not just one but more than one generation growing up like that.

I draw the Minister’s and the House’s attention to my early-day motion 1054 on the work of a former constituent of mine and his organisation Journeys of Hope, or Mishwar Amal, which supports refugees in Lebanon. It provides diverse opportunities, including travel, expeditions and entertainment for young people in particular in the camps who have been displaced from Syria and indeed Palestine. That is also indicative of the incredible response and generosity of people in the UK to the crisis. He was a constituent of mine, as I said, but he uprooted and has now made a home there, running that fantastic initiative.

There is also a role for the CDC, as the report says and as the Chair mentioned in his speech. The opportunity is there for the Government to live up to the potential they spoke of the CDC having when increased funding was asked for during the passage of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 2017.

On the impact of the refugee crisis here, Scotland and my city of Glasgow have been proud to welcome refugees from Syria and indeed around the world. However, I echo the comments of the earlier speakers: 20,000 over five years from the camps is not a fair share, and 350 under Dubs is certainly not. The issue of unaccompanied children in particular is of huge concern to the general public, to constituents of mine and I suspect to all of us. There have been clear indications from local authorities that they are willing to take more children. The time is still there to put that right, do the right thing, reopen the scheme and ensure that more children can be safely relocated. I was interested to hear—I had not heard—that the number of unaccompanied children has potentially trebled since 2015. That is incredibly worrying, and that calls on us to do more.

Questions are raised by the Department, the Committee and me about the spend of official development assistance by Departments other than the Department for International Development. The resettlement of refugees is a legitimate way to use ODA, and I think none of us would disapprove if some of the money was going to that and that allowed the Home Office to increase the number of people it was willing to take.

There must be support for those refugees when they come here. I notice that the report speaks about English for speakers of other languages, which is important. I have encountered difficulties on that issue in my constituency. The voluntary organisations that provide that service are under pressure because there is so much demand, and that has an impact on the ability of refugees to access services. That is something that some of us encounter when we are trying to deal with refugees in our constituency surgeries.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow spoke about the need for mental healthcare particularly in the refugee camps, but it is also true for people arriving here. I have met severely traumatised refugees who have come here to make their home but who still live with the scars of the dreadful things that they have witnessed. We have to ensure that support is there, both for them and the people who can provide the right kind of support.

The situation is a tragedy and is increasingly protracted and long term; as the Committee Chair said, we are past the sixth anniversary. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow gave the example of electricity in the camps. There are lessons to be learned even from the initial response to the crisis and from how we continue to respond. There should be no excuse for not learning the kind of lessons outlined in the report and modifying and adapting our responses as appropriate. I welcome the Committee’s work on this and hope it will continue to monitor and scrutinise the situation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. May I say—this is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so in an official capacity—that I am sure all hon. Members will join me in offering our sincere condolences to the family and friends of victims of the attack yesterday afternoon? We offer our greatest thanks to PC Keith Palmer, who fell in the line of duty yesterday, and to the emergency services both in London and across the UK, who go to work every day to keep all of us safe. They are people we must remember in our thoughts and prayers. The business of the House continues as normal today. We are sitting and debating the issues that matter to us and to our constituents, which shows that we will not be beaten.

I applaud the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who has brought this important debate before us. He made some important and pertinent points in what I thought was a very passionate speech. In particular, he referred to the six years of atrocities in the region, the long siege of Aleppo, the attacking of civilians and the real shortage of food, medicine and immediate emergency medical supplies. I align myself with his praise for all the NGOs, voluntary organisations and many others that do fantastic work on the ground in some of the most difficult conditions. He also rightly made the point about the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which has received increased money to spend. The region is clearly in need of investment, and my hon. Friend is right that we should do more to support the economies there.

I am also grateful for the contribution of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who raised one or two very important points, particularly on the children’s mental health services that we provide. That is a massively important point that can be so easily overlooked in the totality of the situation. I am sure the Minister will inform us of how that particular issue is being looked at. The hon. Lady also made an important point about the protection of minority groups in the region, which is a worry. We have all seen reports showing that more needs to be done on that.

The Opposition broadly welcome DFID’s commitment to supporting refugees caught in the Syrian emergency. It is extremely commendable that it is taking more than its fair share of the responsibility for the situation, with significant levels of funding. After all, the UK has so far committed more than £2.3 billion to the emergency, the majority of which has gone to supporting countries in the region. I also express my support for the assistance that DFID is providing to in-region countries. As has been pointed out many times, it is far more economical to support refugees residing in the region, allowing us to spread more funding to those who desperately need it. That is not to say that more could not be done to refugees in Europe; I will come on to that shortly.

While we are broadly supportive of DFID’s work in the region to help Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal conflict, there are questions about that work that need answering. First, despite DFID’s exemplary funding, there is still a significant funding shortfall in the Syrian emergency, with just 3% of the needed funds raised as of February. About £4.5 billion is required for the UNHCR to properly meet its regional objectives and assist almost 5 million registered and the many unregistered refugees, so that low figure is particularly concerning. The Government must therefore redouble their commitment in negotiations, discussions and diplomacy to bring weight to bear on other nations to step up to the plate and fulfil their obligation to spend 0.7% of their GDP on development. That would ensure that the UNHCR and other emergency programmes in and around Syria are properly and adequately funded to do their job.

I also find interesting the way in which funding is distributed to refugees across the region. While not always popular, cash programming has proven to have considerable benefits for both refugees and their host countries, as has been stated. For every £1 given to refugees in Lebanon, for example, £2.13 is generated in the local economy, so there is a clear advantage in using cash programming as part of a wider development strategy while also aiding refugees. I will be grateful if the Minister can inform me whether it remains a measure used by his Department, and what the Department is doing to ensure that it is joined up with the broader development strategy in the region.

As I have said, helping refugees in the region is the most economical way of supporting them. It also creates the least upheaval for the refugees involved, because a common language is often spoken, many have either friends or family nearby and it is often in their best interests. However, as the conflict in Syria continues—it is now in its sixth year—there is a danger that countries in the region that are supporting refugees, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, will become saturated, threatening refugees’ wellbeing.

A lack of legal access to work often means that refugees are forced into informal sector jobs that do little to help them out of poverty, with low pay, insecure working arrangements and poor employment conditions. It is important to help to get them legal access to work, and to foster economic growth, which will provide jobs. That is particularly pressing as the conflict has no end in sight. We must ensure that refugees are suitably relocated for the medium to long term. I will therefore be grateful if the Minister updates us on DFID’s work on economic investment in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. As I stated earlier, I believe the CDC is an appropriate vehicle to provide economic investment in the region.

As all hon. Members who have spoken have stated, we must consider the situation of unaccompanied children, who have seen far too much of the world and its tragedies at far too young an age. The UK has a duty to accept our fair share of those vulnerable children. The Government originally committed to resettle 3,000 vulnerable children and family members from the region, which I believe was widely supported by all, by accepting the Dubs amendment. However, I share the deep concerns raised today about their recent backtrack on that commitment and the capping of the number to be resettled at 350. For the many reasons that have been stated, I believe that we must overturn that and accept vulnerable children who are fleeing conflict.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while there is suffering elsewhere, the middle east is the true epicentre of suffering? Does he welcome, as I do, the effort of the British Government to take 3,000 unaccompanied children from the region—an effort that is not necessarily matched by our international counterparts?

Of course I welcome that, and it is a point well made. However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are at least that many unaccompanied children in Europe who are at serious risk. Some have already been exploited and many are at serious risk of exploitation through criminally organised gangs. I believe we have an absolute duty to those children. To say we will accept a very small number is not the right way.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to address capacity? If people and children can be abused and exploited in a developed, peaceful country such as France, things could happen over here if we do not organise ourselves in the UK. We need to ensure they have the best care, and we can only do that by addressing capacity, which is what the Dubs amendment that was actually agreed and voted on in this House was there to do.

I absolutely agree that capacity is important. Whether or not we have the capacity is something we could talk about further. I certainly believe we have more capacity than the cap that has been put in place. The hon. Gentleman raised the point earlier that some local authorities are coming forward to say they believe they have more capacity, but he makes a generally valid point. My strong view is that if we do not reverse the cap and address this issue, history will not forgive us.

In conclusion, we broadly support the work that DFID is doing in Syria and the region to resettle and support refugees. The Government are providing a substantial level of funding and ensuring that refugees are properly supported as a result. However, they can put more pressure on our friends and allies to do more, and they need to ensure that countries such as Lebanon are not overwhelmed. We also need to meet our obligation to provide a safe refuge for vulnerable Syrian children fleeing conflict. I hope and am sure that the Minister will address all those points and elaborate further.

First, I join the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), in offering my condolences and those of all of us here today to those who have been so terribly affected by events yesterday, including Keith Palmer, who gave his life in protecting this place and the democracy that we are continuing the work of in this debate and in the House and across the estate and Government today.

It is a stark reminder of the challenges faced by many people across the world every day and of the stories we hear emanating particularly from the middle east and Syria—of the terrible events that so many people face as part of their ordinary lives and have done for many years now. We are looking at six years of the most terrible conflict, with tragic human consequences. It is welcome that when we debate these issues, the tone is—without exception—the one we have seen adopted by Members today. Despite what are so often our differences of party policy, ideology and outlook to the world, we unite in agreement that we want to see the UK play a lead role in addressing these issues. We share a common view that we want to see the most good done that can be done with the resources we allocate and the work we do.

To that end, we should recognise the significant role that the UK has played and is playing in addressing the humanitarian crisis in the middle east and the fallout from the conflict that sadly continues in Syria. More than £2.3 billion has been committed, and this year’s expenditure, which was agreed to be £510 million at the “Supporting Syria” conference, has now been exceeded to around £550 million. The UK, I am proud to say, is the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor after the United States.

We continue to work through international agencies to support some of the world’s most vulnerable and in-need people. I can reaffirm the Government’s commitment to that. On behalf of my Department and the Government, I recognise the level of interest taken by hon. Members, reflected in the breadth and depth of questions and understanding today, and thank members of the International Development Committee and its Chair, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for their work in the report. I have some sympathy with the comment from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) that it would have been nice had the report been debated in a shorter order of time, but the fact that so many questions and issues have been raised today reflects the ongoing interest.

The Chair of the International Development Committee raised a broad range of issues, including the CDC and what its involvement might be. The next five-year strategy, as he said, will consider what role the CDC can play in Syria and regarding Syrian refugees in the region more broadly. There may well be opportunities there, and we are keen to ensure that where such possibilities exist, they are properly explored and considered. I do not want to go further than that or potentially tie the hands of an arm’s length organisation, but the point that he and other Members have made is a good and important one.

Questions were asked about Lebanon, a particularly small nation that has been heavily impacted by the conflict on its borders. In October 2014, the Government of Lebanon introduced tougher measures to reduce the flow of refugees, including the closure of borders to refugees, stopping registration by UNHCR and introducing a prohibitive and, to be quite frank, expensive process for acquiring residency permits. The UK Government, other UK agencies and international actors have been working with and making representations to Lebanon, and significant improvements have since been made. A statement of intent was signed in London at the “Supporting Syria” conference, and the Lebanese Government have removed the pledge not to work from residency permits and recently waived the residency permit fee for most Syrian refugees. That is a significant step forward. We continue to make appropriate representations and support where we can, but we should recognise where progress is being made.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) asked about children in Lebanon and the most vulnerable groups affected by not only the more obvious health concerns but the mental impact, toil and toll that conflict can take. With the support of the Government of Lebanon and other international actors, but primarily through the UK’s support, I am pleased to say that we have been able to assist the Government of Lebanon in getting 203,000 Syrian children into its public school system, supporting the necessary infrastructure to go with that and the provision of the health services that are needed, and looking particularly at the humanitarian, educational and economic needs of women and girls.

We have worked with international agencies to design programmes targeting those groups specifically, because we recognise that it is sometimes the most vulnerable who find it most difficult to have their voices heard in such situations. It is the duty of the international community to recognise and reach out to all groups, not only those who shout the loudest or whose need is the most obvious, as important as those groups also are.

The Chair of the International Development Committee raised the issues of the ceasefire, illegal weapons and the diplomacy aspect of our involvement in the region. We continue to work with our partners, through international agencies and bilaterally, to keep pressure on where we can and to support initiatives where appropriate, to try to stabilise the continuing situation there as much as is possible in the circumstances. That is something we will continue and are, I am proud to say, a leading nation on.

The hon. Gentleman also asked specifically about the Helsinki appeal. It is, I understand, currently about 18% funded. He will be aware that the UK is co-hosting a conference in Brussels very soon, from 4 to 5 April. That will be an opportunity to take this and other issues further. We hope and expect to see further progress made, but we should recognise that, as dire as the need is, the international community has contributed a significant amount to address some of the needs in and around Syria, which is welcome.

There is more to do. We will continue to work with our partners to go further, and of course continual work is needed on the scrutiny of how money is spent and the effect it is having. However, we should recognise that so far the international community has done a good job of recognising the severity and importance of what is happening. We intend to continue to press that message home with our friends across the globe and meet our obligations in supporting those who most need it.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow brought up the berm—the border between Syria and Jordan—and the dire situation that affects so many people there. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in December a further £10 million of funding, £6 million of which was specifically for the Syria-Jordan border. There are challenges in getting support to those who need it there, but we recognise them and are aware of the depth and breadth of the need. Again, we are working with international partners to see what more the UK may be able to do and what more is needed to address the terrible situation in which so many find themselves.

I welcome the reaffirmed commitment of the hon. Member for Glasgow North. He never misses an opportunity to impress on those who will listen, whoever they may be, the importance of our commitment to 0.7%. I was proud to support that legislation in the previous Parliament; it is one of the great achievements of global Britain. He is right to recognise that particularly post-Brexit, as we are given the opportunity to shape the UK’s place in the world going forward, the work that we do on international development is an important aspect of that, including our 0.7% commitment, which is world leading both in its scale and in our implementation of it. It is welcome that there is cross-party support for it, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it, as he invariably remembers to do.

The hon. Gentleman asked about aid drops and the possibility of getting to harder-to-reach areas. We must of course be careful. We always review whatever possibilities there might be to get support to those who need it, and in the right way, but we must ensure at the same time that no harm is done. Many conflict-affected areas, by their very nature, have groups in them that we would not want to supply with aid and that might misuse what we supply were we not able properly to monitor it. We must retain public confidence in the money that we spend, the aid that we deploy and how it is used, and we must recognise that in conflict areas there is danger to operators who will try to deliver by conventional means and challenges with the deployment of drones for large-scale, heavy drops of the type that we might be discussing. We remain committed to reviewing innovative methods of delivering support and aid where appropriate, but the challenges at present make air drops to areas under siege difficult. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue before, including on the Floor of the House, I believe. I suspect that he will continue to pursue it, and, as always when he raises and pursues issues, the Department for International Development listens and ensures that we respond appropriately and ambitiously. We will continue to review all options, where they might arise, to do more good with the resource that we have.

The hon. Gentleman asked about under-the-radar support for NGOs operating in areas where we might be able to provide support, but perhaps in a way that is less obvious to those who would want to frustrate it. It would be easy for me to say that, by the very nature of under-the-radar support, it would be inappropriate for me to talk about it in a forum such as this, but I also want to recognise that challenges come with it—challenges of accountability, deliverability and ensuring that the work we do does no harm. I do not want to pretend to have secret information up my sleeve that I am not sharing; rather, I ask hon. Members to recognise that, even if I were able to comment on such activities, this is not a forum in which I would be able to do so. However, the hon. Member for Glasgow North made an important point, and it is on the record.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned early-day motion 1054 and the work that his former constituent is engaged in with Journeys of Hope. I have never been a signer of early-day motions; I am a long-standing sceptic. However, I will undertake to review that early-day motion and its signatories following the debate. He has done the job of an ever diligent and good constituency MP in ensuring that his former constituent and his good work is raised and recognised and put on the record in the House, not just in the form of the early-day motion and the signatories to it, but in the Hansard report that will follow this debate. That ought to be recognised. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue to promote the good work of his former constituent through appropriate means.

The shadow Minister raised a range of issues, including cash programming and cash transfers, which can be controversial. They require careful thought and planning, but are appropriate in some circumstances. I have seen a number of cash transfer programmes in my time in the Department and have been impressed by what I have seen. They have, potentially, a role to play. I welcome the shadow Minister’s statement of support for what can be a controversial area of activity, as I do the agreement that the Chair of the Select Committee expressed from a sedentary position as he nodded and smiled and “Hear, hear”-ed. It is recognised that this is an area that we should not close the door to in ensuring that we deliver the maximum good and the maximum utility for the taxpayers’ money that we spend. We have not just a duty to British taxpayers to do that, but a duty to those who receive the support, because every pound through which we can drive more efficiency is an additional opportunity to help more, to do more and to do more good with the resource that we allocate.

There was a debate, which I hesitate to reopen, about the Dubs amendment, which has been quite widely discussed on the Floor of the House and debated at some length. I do not mean to reopen the debate in its entirety, but I will of course speak to some of the comments that hon. Members have made. First, we should recognise the significant work that the UK is doing regarding support to refugees, both in region and at home. Under a separate scheme, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said, 3,000 refugee children are being supported by the UK. UK local authorities were asked in a consultation what more they felt they could do, which is where the number of 350 has arisen. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow asked, “What if we can find more?” Local authorities are of course free to offer more and talk about the resources that they have available, but there is also a need, which we should recognise, to ensure an equitable and appropriate distribution among host authorities throughout the UK. That factor may also be considered in how we approach the ultimate delivery of this policy.

We must recognise, as the shadow Minister said, that it can be more economical to support refugees in country. For the likely cost of supporting 3,000 unaccompanied children in the UK, the UK can provide support to 800,000 refugees in region. We have to be very careful with the money that is available to us, to ensure that it does the maximum good that it can. A local authority receiving an unaccompanied child refugee aged under 16 currently receives support of more than £41,000 a year. It is right that when we place people in communities in this country, we provide appropriate support, ensure that facilities are there and recognise that we have to do it carefully and sensibly to avoid the risk of exploitation. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) made that point very ably, and it was welcome that he did so.

We should also recognise that for every good action we take, there is the opportunity cost of another action that we could have used that resource for. That leads to difficult decisions and quite a challenging reading of morally difficult circumstances, but we should recognise that we need to deliver the maximum benefit that we can to those who most need it with the budget available to us—the very significant 0.7% commitment that we have made. We must constantly reinforce support for that in the broader community, with our constituents and the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it.

There was a range of other questions, which as always I will be happy to discuss with hon. Members. I am of course happy to ensure that if Members want to write specifically, with detailed follow-up from the debate, the Department will answer as fully as it can. I place on the record my thanks to all hon. Members who have attended the debate. I particularly thank the Select Committee for its continued work and diligence in this area and the shadow Minister for the collegiate and non-partisan way in which the shadow team approach this very important issue.

We should be proud of the UK’s contribution. We should be proud of what we do diplomatically, of what we do in terms of aid and of the guidance and leadership that we are sometimes able to provide to the international community in ensuring that we do aid and support in the right way and that it gets to the right people. That has cross-party support, and perhaps today, following the events of yesterday, it is even more poignant than normal.

I thank hon. Members for taking the time to come and contribute and ask questions. I thank all those who, in the field and at home, work so hard to deliver the interventions, policies and work that allow the money that we allocate to make the difference that it does. It is not the politicians sitting here—although importantly, they set the debate—who are on the frontline delivering the work; it is the many hard-working people in the Department for International Development, in the agencies with which we work and in the international agencies with which we partner. They do incredibly challenging jobs in an incredibly difficult environment, and I take this opportunity to thank them on behalf of the House and to pledge our support to assist them in whatever way we can to continue the important work that makes a difference to so many.

I echo the Minister’s thanks to everyone who has participated in the debate. Not least, I thank him for his response and, on the Committee’s behalf, I thank all those who have enabled us to undertake the inquiry by providing evidence. As a Committee, we are trying to follow up our reports. Although this report was published just over a year ago and was our first report of the Parliament, we are keen to ensure that we review our recommendations and progress on them. In the light of that, we followed up the report a few weeks ago with a further evidence session, which included our taking evidence from Lord Dubs.

I absolutely agree—I think this is the Committee’s view—that we can be immensely proud of the UK’s work in region, both with internally displaced persons in Syria and with refugees in the surrounding countries. My argument is not that we should not be proud of that, but that we could do more here. I was encouraged by the Minister’s response, which I take to mean that the door is still open on Dubs if certain conditions are met. That is the challenge for local authorities, civil society organisations and others, and I am sure they will rise to it.

Let me welcome three things that the Minister said. First, the update on Lebanon and the progress there was very welcome. Secondly, I was encouraged by his response on the CDC; our Committee will pursue that with the CDC and the Department. Thirdly, I absolutely echo what he and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), said about the role that properly managed, carefully targeted cash transfer schemes can play in supporting some of the most vulnerable people. The evidence base is very powerful.

Thank you for chairing the debate this afternoon, Mr Stringer; it has been a good opportunity for us to update the House on an important issue. Let us hope that by the next time we meet to discuss it we will have seen real progress towards peace and reconstruction in Syria.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2015-16, Syrian refugee crisis, HC 463, and the Government response, HC 902.