I beg to move,
That this House has considered protecting children in conflict areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the Minister for being here to respond and hon. Members from across the House who have joined me for this important discussion.
I want to begin with a question. Why are photographs taken of children in warzones, which are the most arresting, harrowing and distressing to viewers? It is because they get to the heart of the matter. Children are the ones who suffer the most, yet have the least involvement with the players and actors of war. Children are the ones we all relate to, either because we are parents of children ourselves, or because we have all been children and like to look back at that time more often than not as being happy, loving and with fond memories.
We all remember from autumn 2015 the photograph of Alan Kurdi that was splashed across newspapers, which I have in my hands—that lifeless body lying down, washed up on the Mediterranean shore with his trainers still on his feet, after fleeing with his family from war in Syria,. He drowned alongside his mother and brother, trying to reach safety in Greece. Some of us may also know the photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting dazed and bloodied, with soulless eyes, in the back of an ambulance after surviving a regime airstrike in Aleppo. Yesterday, a new photograph emerged, taken from a video, of a young boy in a green shirt, hugging a man’s lifeless body—probably his father. He is screaming and crying, after Saudi-led airstrikes at a wedding party in northern Yemen killed at least 20 people, including the bride, and injured 45 others. I ask hon. Members to keep those images in mind for the rest of the debate.
With the growing instability around the world, new kinds of war are developing that are very different from the traditional method of thousands of mobilised soldiers fighting one another on open battlefields. Now, new weapons and patterns of conflict, which include deliberate attacks against civilians, are increasingly turning children into targets of war. This is why now more than ever, we need to make sure we protect children in conflicts. The shocking images on our televisions screens and in our newspapers of children in warzones come from the most dangerous conflict-affected countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, but also from other regions such as Myanmar, where almost 400,000 Rohingya children have had to flee to Bangladesh for safety.
Despite the collective efforts of the international community, brutal tactics are still commonly used against children. They are suffering things that no child ever should. They are used as suicide bombers and their homes, schools and playgrounds have become battlefields. The widespread use of indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster munitions, barrel bombs and improvised explosive devices, make no distinction between soldiers and children.
To give just a few examples, in South Sudan, around 13,000 children have been recruited to fight by all sides of the conflict, putting their lives at risk and changing their future forever. In Myanmar, the atrocities include girls being raped, infants being beaten to death with spades and children being forced to witness soldiers execute their families. Girls and boys in refugee camps who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh told World Vision that they fear violence daily. Almost half a million child refugees in Bangladesh face extreme danger, as the monsoon season approaches. In Syria, one in five school children is forced to cross lines of fire just to go to school. In Yemen, it is estimated that one child dies every 10 minutes because of extreme hunger and disease resulting from conflict.
The examples do not happen just in far-away places. Closer to home, on Europe’s doorstep, the conflict in Ukraine has destroyed or damaged an average of two schools every week for the past four years. Areas where children used to play and learn are now littered with landmines, killing and injuring dozens of children a year. Those children are innocent bystanders in times of conflict, caught up in the violence taking place around them. I could go on and on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting this timely debate. If we do not have the debate, all these things tend to fade into the distant past. One of the areas that does not get much attention is China. We have seen on television that schools have been bulldozed, leaving minority children in particular with a lack of education to advance themselves in future. We could do more to take children from some of those areas into this country. I do not think we have met the targets for taking refugee children.
I welcome the comments from the hon. Gentleman; they are a message to the Minister to reconsider renewing the Dubs amendment, which brought Syrian children here. I welcome the observations on China.
Last month, Save the Children published the report, “The War on Children” at the Munich Security Conference. The report shows that more than 350 million children around the world are living in conflict zones. Let us pause for a minute: that is one in every six children on earth, and an increase of 75% since the 1990s. Those are harrowing figures. The images I asked hon. Members to remember at the beginning of the debate are only three of those.
The report found that nearly half of those children are in areas affected by high-intensity conflict, where they could be vulnerable to the UN’s six grave violations, which are killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals and—last, but certainly not least—the denial of humanitarian assistance. As I touched on at the beginning of my speech, the shocking increase in the number of children growing up in areas affected by conflict has been fuelled primarily by a growing disregard for the rules of war and indiscriminate violence in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Furthermore, the increasingly destructive nature of modern armed conflict intensifies the trauma that children experience, and usually leads to long-term mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. The psychological impact of living in conflict zones can lead to a vicious cycle of conflict, in which the next generation struggles to rebuild peaceful societies following the trauma of violence.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the difficulties is not only the mental and physical health of those children, but their future education? In Syria, for example, the war is in its eighth year, so a whole generation of children has been denied the chance to prepare themselves to become the educated people that Syria will need.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Every child needs a safe environment where health and education are paramount.
In other words, history will repeat itself through our lack of intervention and as the vicious cycle continues. The findings of this report are stark and the message is clear: we need to take concerted, collective action to turn back the tide of brutality and indifference, and to better protect children in conflict; otherwise, woe betide any chance of conducting peaceful resolutions to conflict on earth in the future.
Turning my attention to the UK Government, the UK is well placed to globally champion measures that will protect and improve the lives of children caught up in conflict. Previous welcome initiatives, such as the UK leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on cluster munitions and landmines, have demonstrated that changes in policy and practice can limit the impact of conflict on civilians.
I welcome last week’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK is now signed up to the safe schools declaration, which commits the UK to take concrete measures towards protecting education in conflict. However, I urge the Minister to commit to going further to protect children in conflict and to introduce practical measures to reduce the impact of conflict on children. They must include updating the Government’s civilian protection strategy to include a focus on explosive weapons in populated areas and measures to address challenges surrounding that, and improving civilian harm tracking procedures by creating and implementing a cross-Government framework, so that child casualties are properly monitored and reported.
Furthermore, funding must be put in place for conflict prevention initiatives, peacekeeping and training for military forces on child protection. We cannot expect to implement these measures without funding designated for that purpose.
There is no doubt that more needs to be done to help children after violence has come to an end. The UK Government has the opportunity to play a leading role in responding to the psycho-social challenges of childhood trauma in conflict. We must therefore invest in programmes for children affected, including providing the right mental health support, training local mental health and social workers and assisting children with disabilities.
Children must be at the centre of reconstruction efforts, which means including them in peacebuilding initiatives and social stability. Those children are the most powerful actors in reconciliation and recovery from conflict. I urge the Minister consistently to champion independent accountability mechanisms at the UN, including stronger justice systems to hold perpetrators of crime to account, and investigations into potential grave violations of children’s rights. I look forward to hearing views from across the House on what we can do to help innocent children who are caught up in conflicts around the world and exposed to the most serious forms of violence imaginable.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman, who said that 350 million children around the world are suffering because of war. Does he agree that we should focus a lot more on prevention of such conflicts, bearing in mind the huge impact that they have on young people, including in later life?
I agree, but unfortunately certain nation states decide that war is their only option, and children are the biggest casualties of that. Prevention of war would be the ultimate best step forward, and children who have unfortunately been caught up in war in their own nations should be involved in any future prevention strategies. All children deserve peace, safety, security, and an opportunity to thrive in life, and no effort should be spared to give them a better future, free from the horrors of war. All hon. Members must fight tooth and nail to ensure that every child has access to health, education and a safe environment free from conflict and war.
I began this debate by asking Members to consider three images of young children caught up in conflict that we, and the world, are well aware of today, and I will conclude by reminding us all that such images are nothing new. Back in 1972, another image that we are all aware of shocked the world. It is of a child nicknamed “napalm girl”. She was only nine years old, naked and screaming in pain, and running towards a photographer after an aerial napalm attack on a village. That image helped to bring the Vietnam war to a close one year later. The name of that girl is Kim Phúc, and today she lives in Toronto with her family. Not only is she a motivational speaker, but she also helps other child victims of war around the world. Sadly, however, her story is unique and does not reflect the grave situation we face today. Let us begin to put an end to such photographs in our media, and to the horrific statistics of one in every six children worldwide living in conflict. Until then, however, let us keep those photos in our mind, and focus on the real losers in war, who are of course the children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) who has secured this important debate. As he rightly said at the end of his speech, children suffer more than anybody else. They lose their parents, their family networks, and their brothers and sisters. Indeed, members of the International Development Committee saw that in action in some of the areas we visited. We saw lost children who were being looked after, but not necessarily by their parents. That is a tragedy, as it is to see men and women who have lost their children and are terrorised by the thought of what has happened to them. On a recent visit to Bangladesh we saw a grown man crying. He had fled, but had not been able to go as fast as the rest of his family, and apart from one small son, he did not know what had happened to them. That is the tragedy of war. He has one young son left, and he has no idea whether he will ever see the rest of his family and his other children. That is why this debate is so important.
The hon. Gentleman reminded us of very important images brought back by journalists who, at times, have risked their lives. That is important because such images send a powerful message to everybody, and we have all been moved at different times by these terrible and traumatic photographs. The sad inevitability of war means that, unfortunately, the children who populate the countries involved in conflict are affected by it, either through recruitment and their use in hostilities, or—probably more frequently—as innocent bystanders. Armed conflicts have left children vulnerable to appalling forms of violence, sexual exploitation, abduction, mutilation, forced displacement, and amputations if they step on land mines, as happened a huge amount in Vietnam.
Conflict also impacts on the availability of education and children’s development. We heard today about the conflict in Syria, which has lasted eight years, meaning that a couple of generations of children are missing out on education. Although we are committed to helping children in conflict areas to receive education, it is incredibly difficult to ensure that they get the appropriate education, in the right language and with the right curriculum, because they have probably moved to another country to be safe. As the Committee saw in Lebanon, Jordan and other places, it is difficult for aid agencies to set up schools in refugee camps. I feel that we must redouble our efforts because once a child misses out on education, it is incredibly difficult ever to catch up.
Given that we are taking part in a Save the Children sponsored event, does my hon. Friend agree that we should thank such organisations for the enormously good work they do, particularly in Jordan? We in this country should be grateful to the countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that surround Syria, because in some ways they are risking the education of their own children by running a two-shift system in schools every day to enable refugee children to be educated.
I was not aware that this was a Save the Children sponsored event; I thought it was a debate secured by the hon. Member for Dundee West. It does not really matter who started it—it is an important debate. We should be incredibly grateful to Jordan and Lebanon, which have done an amazing job. They both have relatively small populations that have been overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees, but at least the people in those refugee camps speak their language and can be taught in local schools. The money that the Government and the Department for International Development have sent to keep those people in their own region has been incredibly valuable. If and when they can go back to Syria, they are not too far away and will not have lost their traditions, customs and language. Unfortunately, if they came to Europe they would have to do that. They would be able to keep those traditions to a certain extent, but if huge numbers of refugees came to Britain it would be very difficult for them. They would have to learn English, just as they would have to learn French or German if they went to the countries that speak those languages. We owe huge gratitude to countries that have willingly taken in refugees, even if there will be tensions in different areas.
Education is incredibly important. If children lose the opportunity of education, they are more likely to take up activities that most people would prefer young children not to get involved in. Children are more likely to become radicalised if they are disaffected, upset and have no education to cling on to, and they will have no hope of a proper job unless they have received at least basic, if not further, education. We have put a huge amount of money—indeed, we are the largest contributor —into Education Cannot Wait, which is the first global movement of aid funding dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises. Through that we are targeting some of the world’s most vulnerable children, and aiming to reach 3.4 million children through the first set of investments—an incredibly ambitious target.
I am concerned, and I have spoken repeatedly, about the sexual exploitation and abuse of children by UK peacekeepers and other personnel operating in the name of the United Nations. There has been recognition of that by the media in recent months and we have discussed it in the International Development Committee. From what evidence there is, it appears that there is a real macho culture, and a white western culture, among some of the aid organisations. Obviously, I am not talking about the majority of people who work in the aid industry, but it permeates many of the organisations working there. It is not good enough to say, “Well, they are away from home for a very long time, and they are tired.” There is no excuse for any form of sexual exploitation, particularly when it affects children, but also when it affects women. It should not happen.
There is now, from the office of the special representative on children and armed conflict, a framework of six grave violations, which are monitored and reported on annually: recruitment or use of children as soldiers; killing and maiming of children; sexual violence against children, which is incredibly important because they do not recover easily from something like that; attacks on schools or hospitals, which have happened again and again in Syria; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access. It might be interesting for the Committee to look at the reports over time, and the results.
I am particularly concerned about the number of children who are now affected, not just in Syria but worldwide. A huge number live in conflict zones and they need every bit of help that we can give them. I should be interested to hear from the Minister how we are doing. I know that 50% of DFID’s funding is directed towards fragile states and regions, and that is important because those children deserve all the help they can get.
Nutrition is one area of particular concern. Some children live in areas where we cannot get nutrition to them. If they do not get the right nutrition in their first 1,000 days, they are stunted for life and will always struggle to get a decent education and a proper job. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) commented, it is important that they can eventually get a job, and they need help while they are in the conflict zone. There will be a time of rebuilding afterwards, and particularly in places such as Syria one would hope for an educated workforce that could come back. There is a need to educate young people now, so that they can replace the educated adults affected by the situation as they get older, and fulfil their roles in jobs; there will be a huge amount to do when they eventually go back to their country.
I am pleased that DFID officials co-hosted a high-level Wilton Park dialogue addressing mental health and psychosocial support. The needs of children affected by conflict in the middle east are enormous. Some children need safe spaces before they can even think about education. They have to get the trauma out of their minds before they can even start on education. Much of what we need to do is about education and trying to protect children so that, on their return, they can play a full part in society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I want to declare, as relevant items in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I went to Jordan with Oxfam in 2015 and made two visits with RESULTS UK, which supports the work of the all-party parliamentary group on global education for all, which I now chair.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate and on his powerful opening speech. It is also a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). Both are active members of the International Development Committee, and they have raised important issues. I look forward to the response from the Minister and from the Labour Front Bench.
As I listened to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire I reflected on visits that the Select Committee has made, and was struck by the opportunities we have had to meet children who have escaped from some of the worst conflicts in the world. In Uganda last year, we met Congolese children who were being educated in Kampala. They had escaped the appalling conflicts that have scarred the Democratic Republic of the Congo for many years. In 2015 I visited the Zaatari refugee camp with Oxfam, and met Syrian children traumatised by the experience of barrel bombs being used on the communities where they had grown up. They had to flee and all that they and their families wanted was the opportunity to go back to a peaceful Syria. Most recently, of course, the Committee last month visited Cox’s Bazar—the hon. Lady told the story of the families we met when we were there.
I have also been reflecting on the experience of the predecessor Committee, when we went to Nigeria and met the amazing campaigners for girls who had been abducted by Boko Haram. One of the factors that we need to address when talking about children in conflict is the actions of armed groups such as Boko Haram, as well as the actions of Governments. The hon. Member for Dundee West was right to remind us about the children of Yemen, the appalling consequences of the conflict there, the atrocities by all sides, and the impact on children growing up there.
As crises around the world become more complex and protracted, it is vital to use opportunities such as today’s debate to restate the centrality of the protection of children to our development and foreign policies. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, schools wherever they are should surely be safe havens for children. Even when crisis strikes or even in conflict, children should not be denied the fundamental right to education, yet often schools are targets for attack by armed forces and groups. In some cases they are even turned into military bases or barracks. Even the presence of armed personnel close to a school puts children in the line of fire. There are countless examples from conflict zones around the world where that has happened. Of course there is an addition element—children’s vulnerability to recruitment as soldiers or to sexual exploitation.
I welcome the fact that the Minister last week signed the safe schools declaration on behalf of the United Kingdom, making us the 74th country in the world to do so. I am pleased about that because I and others called for it to happen when we were here to debate the Select Committee’s report on global education just before the Easter recess. The declaration is important. It commits Governments around the world not to use schools for military purposes, and to ensure that they are protected even during military operations. Now that the UK has signed it, we have an opportunity and responsibility to encourage as many other nations as possible to sign up. I hope the Minister will use her good offices to do so.
I want to state my appreciation for the efforts of the fantastic Send My Friend to School campaign, which has mobilised public opinion, particularly among children and young people in this country, on global education. In particular, it ran a high-profile campaign encouraging the UK to sign up to the safe schools declaration. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, it is a big challenge to ensure that the increasing number of children caught up in conflict situations, either internally displaced or living as refugees, get some sort of quality education.
More than half of the world’s registered refugees of school age are not in school. Funding for education in humanitarian emergencies is not readily available, and less than 2% of global humanitarian funding goes towards education. When we visited Cox’s Bazar, we saw the efforts being made to provide some sort of education, but essentially the child-friendly spaces in the camp provided two hours’ education a day. That is clearly better than nothing but we need to aim for much better. It is perfectly understandable that humanitarian support in the form of food, water and shelter is given first priority, but surely we must not neglect the importance of investing in education for children who have been forced to flee their homes. What more will the Government do to work with the authorities in Bangladesh to ensure that the fleeing Rohingya refugees have access to quality education while they are displaced?
I reiterate some of the points the hon. Lady made about the Education Cannot Wait fund, which was launched in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit. As she rightly said, the UK has played a leading role and is the biggest single funder. It is a fund dedicated to education for children in emergencies and protracted crises. DFID has pledged £30 million already, but we know that, as conflicts become more protracted, it will be even more important to have funds such as Education Cannot Wait. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister today that the Government maintain that commitment.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has long been regarded as one of the best multilateral organisations in the world. It operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the west bank, and provides services for more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who have been displaced since the 1940s. UNRWA has been hit recently by a decision by the Trump Administration in the United States to cut its funding.
Child protection is central to UNRWA’s work. Given the volatile nature of the region, Palestinian refugee children have faced enormous challenges, including as a consequence of the conflict in Syria, the impact of the Israeli occupation and the blockade of Gaza, and simply the protracted nature of their displacement. Even faced with all those crises, UNRWA has come up with innovative ways in which to ensure that children caught up in them are protected and given an education. When the Select Committee visited Jordan and Lebanon, we visited an UNRWA school in Jordan, and were impressed by the quality of education provided for those Palestinian children.
In Syria, UNRWA has developed a series of self-learning materials for children in hard-to-reach or besieged areas who have been out of education for prolonged periods. A series of summer learning activities and catch-up classes is provided to students who have missed out on education, to help them to catch up with their peers. The agency also runs recreational spaces supervised by teaching staff and support counsellors, where refugee children can learn and engage in recreational activities, hopefully free from the threat of violence. In 2012, UNRWA launched its own education TV channel, broadcasting from Gaza and providing additional educational support to students and parents. It broadcasts English, maths, Arabic and science lessons to refugee children across the region, to ensure they do not miss out on learning the vital skills they need for their future.
I urge the Government, and the Minister if she has time in her response, to both reaffirm the UK’s long-standing commitment to UNRWA, and say that we will work with other donors to ensure that funding cuts by the US do not hit the vital work it does.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should support moves from other multilateral education funders such as the Global Partnership for Education to look at funding non-state actors where they control particular regions, such as the Kurds in the northern region of Syria, so that they can access education funding for their children?
That is an important point for both GPE and Education Cannot Wait. The agencies best placed to provide education in some of these emergency situations are often non-state actors. It is important that informal as well as formal education receives the necessary funding. Last week, I met with Alice Albright, the head of GPE, to discuss what more the organisation can do to support Syrian refugees, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, and Rohingya refugees. GPE is looking at those issues, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw our attention to them.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire touched on the important issue of sexual exploitation in the aid sector. I put on record again my tribute to her personally. She has been raising the issue for some time, well ahead of recent public and parliamentary interest. I remind colleagues that that follows damning reports of sexual misconduct by Oxfam aid workers in Haiti. As a result, our Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into sexual exploitation. In Haiti, aid workers exploited aid recipients after the earthquake in 2011. I thank The Times, in particular, and other journalists for shining a light on that appalling situation.
As the hon. Lady rightly reminded us, there have been long-standing concerns that some United Nations peacekeeping missions have failed the children they are meant to protect. In February, the UN revealed that it had registered 18 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers and civilian personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of those involved were minors, and we have had previous complaints about actions by UN staff in a number of countries, including from Senegal, Uruguay and South Africa. In those instances, people who were sent to protect children from crises tragically became the very people committing violence, adding to the crisis. If we are to protect children in future crises, surely we have to be able to trust the people who are meant to be there to provide that protection.
My final point is one that has already been touched on: the mental health impact of crises on children. Of course, when a crisis strikes, the first step of any humanitarian response is the basic services of food, water and shelter, but the psychological impact of those conflicts on children should not be overlooked. Without access to proper mental health and psychosocial support, there is a risk that children will develop greater problems later in life, and that their ability to rebuild their lives after conflict will be limited.
Last December, War Child published a report calling on the Government to commit a minimum of 1% of humanitarian funding to mental health services for children and their support networks. I ask the Minister to set out in her response what priority the Government place on the challenges of mental health and psychosocial support for children caught up in crises. Protecting all children caught up in conflict is important. That means protecting them from the threat of violence in whatever form it might take, including sexual violence, but also, in so far as we can, it must surely mean allowing children to live as normal a life as possible and preparing them for life after conflict.
That is why education is so central to this debate on the protection of children, and why the UK has such an important role to play not only in our bilateral work on education, but in the multilateral organisations such as Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership for Education. The right to education surely does not end when a conflict begins. It is critical that children caught up in conflict are still provided with every opportunity to continue to learn.
Order. I want to call the three Front Benchers at 10.30 am, and we have three more speakers. If hon. Members could keep their contributions to not much above five minutes, then everyone will get the opportunity to speak.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for bringing this important issue to the Chamber’s attention and for speaking so passionately on the subject.
Unfortunately, today’s debate could not be more relevant, and it was pertinent that the hon. Gentleman brought to the attention of Members in the Chamber pictures that remind us of the impact that war, and living in a conflict zone, can have on young people and children. I am sure that all hon. Members here have witnessed the horrific pictures of injured children in the aftermath of the chemical attack in Douma only a few weeks ago. Seeing children gassed by their own leader is truly terrible, and I am glad that the United Kingdom, with her many allies, has spoken out against that and stood up to it. We must act to stop any further use of these despicable weapons, especially on civilian populations where vulnerable children will inevitably be victims.
That is evidently not the only area where children are affected by war. According to Save the Children, around one in six children live in conflict zones. Whether those children are recruited as soldiers, attacked in their schools or killed in their homes, the consequences of these conflicts are devastating.
I applaud the Department for International Development for doing all it can to alleviate the horrendous situations that children find themselves in, through no fault of their own. Committing 50% of aid to conflict zones shows the United Kingdom’s dedication to this cause. That includes our £45 million of support to the United Nations children’s fund in Syria, to help with humanitarian assistance in the wake of the civil war, as part of the wider £2.4 billion aid package to Syria as a whole. We are also providing almost £40 million to places such as Vietnam to help to clear landmines, which can maim or even kill children many years after a conflict has passed.
The funding provided by DFID for education, vaccinations and democracy in many countries around the world also helps to reduce the possibility of conflict; as countries grow their economies, they produce healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous nations. I am very proud to support the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, and we should all be proud that the United Kingdom— alongside only six other countries in the world—achieves that target. The long-term continuation of that funding will help to eradicate more diseases, empower more women and, importantly, ensure that those who are caught up in conflict, including children, are protected from the horrors of war.
I conclude by again congratulating the hon. Member for Dundee West on raising this important issue. I hope that we can all work together, on a cross-party basis, to ensure that more children in every part of the world can grow up in a safe environment.
I am delighted to contribute to the debate, although, like probably every Member here, I wish it was not necessary. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) secured the debate. It is timely, as we have heard, given international events and the February 2018 Save the Children report, “The War on Children”.
We have heard throughout the debate that the sad fact is that children pay the heaviest price for war, but they bear no responsibility for causing it. They may survive conflict, but their innocence is murdered. War robs them of their sense of themselves, their homes and, too often, their parents. It is an indictment of mankind as a species that the number of children living in conflict zones has increased by more than 75% from the early 1990s, when it was around 200 million. It is now more than 357 million—around one in six of the world’s child population. Some 165 million of those children are engulfed in high-intensity conflicts, where there is often no access to schools or health facilities, and where they are much more exposed to violence.
The middle east is where children are most likely to live in a conflict zone. In 2016, about two in five children in the region lived within 50 km of a conflict event in their own country. Africa, where one in five children are affected by conflict, is second in this grotesque league table. Children are more at risk of conflict now than at any other time in the last 20 years. Research shows that the trends are very clear: there has been an escalation in the number of UN-verified cases of killing and maiming children, with an increase of nearly 300% since 2010. Incidents involving denial of humanitarian access have risen fifteenfold in the same period, and there has been a growing trend of abductions, because war opens the door to, and invites in, the chaos in which such licence thrives.
We also have to accept that increasingly brutal tactics are used: the use of children as mere weapons of war—as suicide bombers—and the targeting of, or the launching of weapons from, schools and hospitals. We in this Chamber are extremely lucky that we can only speculate; we cannot even really begin to imagine what effect living in such conditions has on children. A culture of violence often breeds a culture of violence in the next generation, and peaceful societies become harder to build and rebuild as a result.
We need real and concrete international action to ensure that children’s lives and safety are protected. Save the Children has called on the United Kingdom Government to use all the influence at their disposal to improve measures that protect children and to ensure that there is a greater focus on explosive weapons in populated areas. It also calls on them to bring in measures to address the challenges surrounding that; those measures include the provision of training and support to the forces of other states, the establishment of a cross-Government framework to track civilian harm and ensure the comprehensive recording of civilian casualties, and the consistent championing of independent accountability mechanisms at the UN and other forums, including investigations into potential grave violations of children’s rights.
The UK Government should seek to show leadership in delivering humanitarian assistance, working with allies to prevent the long-term damage of armed conflict. Responding to the psychosocial challenges of childhood trauma in conflict and toxic stress is extremely important. There is an opportunity here, and there ought to be the political will, to drive forward global action and investment in children’s mental and psychosocial health, thus helping to reverse the long-term damage that will be done to a generation of children.
The earlier point from the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) about the UK Government’s absolute duty to fulfil, in full, the terms of the Dubs agreement was well made. The UK’s endorsement of the safe schools declaration is, of course, to be welcomed. As the lead in the global partnership to end violence against children initiative, the UK must use and prioritise aid to protect and champion children, to protect them against violence and recruitment into the worst forms of child labour.
Children do not create wars; they, more than any other group, are victims of war. The UK Government and the international community must take note and act. It is time to do all that can be done to end this murdering of innocence.
It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Sir David. It is great that the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who is actually a good man and a friend, brought the debate. Well done, you. [Interruption.] I am not allowed to say you. Well done to him.
As the hon. Member for Dundee West said, about one in six children on earth have the bad luck to live in conflict areas. We should thank our lucky stars that our children are safe from war. However, we have a duty to try to reduce the threat to the lives of nearly 17% of the world’s children. They can be active participants in conflicts—as soldiers or suicide bombers, for instance—but in the main it is their bad luck to have been born and brought up in the wrong place. The problem is compounded because more and more conflicts and armies operate more and more among the people, in villages, towns and cities, where the majority of children live.
The problem is getting worse. According to the United Nations, in its report from the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, 10,068 children were verified as being killed or maimed in 2016. In 2003-04, that figure was 3,223. Those are just the incidents that we know about. That is a 300% increase in kids being killed or maimed in conflicts around the world. We can clearly see from those figures that the situation is getting worse.
It is their innocence and lack of knowledge that puts children even more at risk than adults in conflict areas. Let me use an instance from my own experience. In 1993 in Gornji Vakuf, central Bosnia, a soldier from my battalion, which was working for the United Nations peacekeeping force, was on patrol when he saw a child pick up what the soldier thought was a bomblet. He could not speak the boy’s language, but he moved close to him and gestured to him to put the thing down gently. Instead, the child threw it to the ground. There was an explosion. My soldier was hit in the head by a ball bearing from the device, but luckily he survived. Thank goodness the child was unhurt. The point of the story is that the child had no idea of the danger that he faced when he saw something attractive lying on the floor, and of course armies sometimes use attractive things such as flashlights to make people pick them up.
Save the Children is calling for greater investment in training for military forces on child protection. I must admit that I never had any myself when I was a soldier, but honestly, protecting children should come automatically to anyone, soldier or not. I presume that the training for which Save the Children is asking would include measures such as not using schools as bases, not firing near schools and playgrounds, and ensuring that weapons and explosives are not used near children, but for goodness’ sake, is that not obvious to normal, decent people? I do accept that sometimes it is very difficult when soldiers are in the middle of a battle and children are nearby.
It is not just in far-flung places that children are used in conflicts. To my knowledge, from seven tours in Northern Ireland, several attacks were carried out by the Provisional IRA in which a terrorist gunman opened fire on our soldiers and then, at a pre-arranged signal, children were encouraged to come between our soldiers and the gunmen. I am proud to say that, in such cases, our men immediately stopped firing, but of course that encourages unscrupulous terrorists to use the tactic again—because it works.
Personally, I was educated on my responsibilities to children in conflict by one simple comment when I was the UN commander in Bosnia. An International Committee of the Red Cross delegate asked me to take responsibility for a six-year-old Bosnian girl and look after her in the house where I was quartered. She told me that the girl had been woken up very early in the morning—at about 5.30, I think—on 16 April 1993. Her mother and father had told her to dress quickly and come downstairs with her brother. She did that, and her mother and father and she and her brother were then taken out by soldiers and laid on the grass, face down. As the girl said, there was a lot of noise and her mummy, daddy and brother did not get up. The man who was going to kill her could not do so, and she was thrown into a prison camp.
When the ICRC delegate asked me to take in the girl, I was surprised and immediately replied, “No, I can’t! I’m the British UN commander; I’ve got enough on my plate without taking children into my house.” Her tart, barbed response was to ask me what the hell I was doing there if I could not do such a thing. She said, “What’s the point of having soldiers here if you can’t help a little girl to live?” I felt ashamed and I had no choice but to agree, albeit reluctantly. I did not know how I was going to do this or where it would lead and I was extremely concerned. I could not see how I would square it with the Ministry of Defence that I would have a child living in my house.
The girl, whose name was Melissa Mekis, was brought to me by the ICRC delegate the next day. I could not quite believe that I was taking possession of a six-year-old kid. She was filthy dirty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed—a Muslim girl, as it happened, not that it mattered what her religion was. She was left with me and my soldiers. My so-called bodyguards boiled up a billycan, filled a bath and bathed her. They went and found fresh children’s clothes from Save the Children’s house nearby, and they fed her, particularly with sweets. Clearly, they pampered her as much as they could. They made up a bed for her between their own two camp beds and checked on her all the time.
After a few days, the ICRC delegate who had brought Melissa to us located her uncle in Novi Travnik and came to take her away and reunite her with her real family. She did not want to leave my two soppy bodyguards, whom by then she adored, but of course it happened. I gather that Melissa Mekis eventually went to the United States, where she married and she has two children.
The moral of the story is that wherever we are and whatever we are, we should all take responsibility for trying to protect the one in six of the world’s children who suffer because of conflict. That includes us in this place.
My goodness, how can I possibly follow that account? I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). As always when I hear him speak, in any debate, he contributes something from his own experience that sets us all thinking about our own responsibilities and what more we can do in the world. I thank him for sharing that story, and I thank him and his bodyguards very much for taking that responsibility. We have to wonder what would have happened to Melissa without that and where she would have gone. They at the very least gave her somewhere she felt safe, which was a hugely important thing to do. If the MOD got the hon. Gentleman into trouble for it, it certainly should not have, because he did absolutely the right thing, and we should all express our appreciation.
Robert Owen said that
“no infant has the power of deciding at what period of time or in what part of the world he shall come into existence”.
That is true, because no child would want to be born in a conflict zone or grow up in one, but those are the circumstances in which so many children find themselves—it is one in six of the world’s children and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, disproportionately those in the middle east and Africa. The brilliant briefing by Save the Children gives us food for thought on what more we can do in that respect.
All hon. Members have said strongly and passionately that the first thing that we should try to do is to protect education for children, because that is the foundation on which all other things will be built for the future, for the children individually, for their communities and for their countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) highlighted, if we do not protect children’s education, that will breed further violence. There will be a cycle of violence that the country will not be able to break out of. The responsibilities that we hold as a significant player in the international community and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council should therefore include, in as many circumstances as possible, ensuring that the protection of education becomes a priority in all those different areas. That is the basis on which the countries will be able to get themselves back on their feet once the conflicts hopefully conclude.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned the safe schools declaration, which seems like a hugely positive step in making places of education safe spaces where children can come together. I am glad that so many countries have signed up. We should use our pressure in the world to get other countries to come on board. I suggest we prioritise Saudi Arabia, which is not yet a signatory.
I do not mention Saudi Arabia and Yemen lightly, because as we saw with the attack on a wedding this week, it is a huge problem. We have responsibility because we are selling arms to a country that is disproportionately targeting civilians in the attacks it carries out. The evidence is there to see in the picture that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) held up. It is also evident in projects such as the Yemen Data Project, which collects airstrike data for Yemen. The results do not make good reading. At least one third of Saudi airstrikes have hit civilian targets. Last month’s data identified that a school had been targeted and hit, and that parks and residential areas have also been targeted. This should give us cause for concern as a nation. The Government are signing off on arms deals to a country that is not taking its responsibility for the safety of civilians in conflict seriously. We must cease these arms sales before more children are severely damaged and lose their lives forever.
The UN convention on the rights of the child is almost 30 years old, but this is clearly a time of increasing danger for children. Many hon. Members have mentioned that children are becoming part of the very mechanisms of war, and are targeted by state and non-state actors. It is a huge worry to us all not only that chemical weapons are coming back to countries such as Syria—as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said—but that children, whom we have always tried to protect in war, are becoming part of the target. We should be extremely worried about that and use our international influence to maintain international norms and standards. If children are becoming a routine part of conflict and the target of weapons, the fabric of international society and conventions is fundamentally damaged. We must be very afraid of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West movingly showed us four photographs, which stick in our minds and resonate. I went recently to an exhibition of photographs by Antonio Olmos and Young Lens Syria at Anderston Kelvingrove church in my constituency—they showed the journey of Syrian refugees from their home countries to Europe. It strikes me that families in conflicts make decisions, not choices—there really is no choice in such situations. They want to keep their family and children together if they can, and keep their children safe by all means possible. It has often been said that people will not put their child on a boat in the sea unless it is more dangerous than staying on land. That is the non-choice and the decision that families make every single day. We will continue to see that until their countries are safe.
We must also bear in mind our responsibilities when those children reach Europe and the UK. Organisations I have spoken to in my constituency have taken in child refugees who are on their own, and tried to support them and give them the counselling that we can perhaps better offer than their home countries—we have the professional expertise and the counsellors who can do that. There is barely any counsellor in some countries, never mind one for all the children who need one. What those organisations cannot offer, but the Government can, is certainty for those young people. They do not know how long they will be here, whether they have a future here, or whether or when they will be sent back to a country where they feel unsafe, and where they might have seen their families killed, as the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned. We must do all we can to ensure that the young people that we as a country take into our care feel safe, that they do not feel that they cannot put down roots here, so that they can start to heal from their traumatic experiences. If they cannot do that, they will not be able to fully engage with the services that are trying to help them and will continue to feel unsafe.
I thank everybody who has spoken in the debate and look forward to hearing what the Minister will do. We have a responsibility to children all around the world. They are not somebody else’s children. They are the world’s children—they are our children. We must do all that we would do for our own children to ensure that they stay safe and get all the rights that we expect for our own.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this debate. It is clear that in his official capacity on the Front Bench he takes these issues seriously, but I know that he has a real personal passion for all these important development topics, especially the rights of children.
We have heard some excellent contributions, not least from the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I realise that we will be in this Chamber many more times over the coming years, which is a delight. My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), is Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. I know how much time and energy he puts in every day on these really important topics. He reminded us today that the fundamental rights of children need to be put front and centre in all of our debates in this area.
My hon. Friend mentioned UNRWA. I had the privilege of travelling to the West Bank and seeing some of the work that UNRWA does over there. I believe that more than half its employees are teachers working with children and young people across that region. It is so important, as the Minister has said in the past, that if there is any negative impact from the announcement from the Trump Administration, we look at how the UK can lead the way in securing additional resources from all our partners. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) really illuminated what this looks like on the ground. I want to give him my appreciation for telling us that story of his real lived experience.
We must remember that as we debate, children are being abducted to fight in wars. They are being trained to use weapons. They are being abused and targeted as deliberate victims of war. As we heard, protecting education and schools needs to be one of the main priorities for the UK Government and all global institutions. Today we have heard a number of alarming statistics, and we could continue simply to exchange them for the rest of this debate. The most alarming is that one sixth of all children in the world are affected by conflict. Heaven knows that these statistics are deeply shocking, but they do not alone do justice to what we are talking about today.
I want to begin by telling James’s story. James lives in South Sudan, a country that was born out of decades of bitter conflict to become the world’s newest independent state in 2011. Tragically, South Sudan has been plunged into bitter internal conflict in the years since. James’s happy family life in a small village with his mum, dad, brothers and sisters was disrupted when he was only 13 years old. James tells his story:
“I was betrayed by my own brother, who forced 15 of us from the same village to become boy soldiers. It was a very hard life and there was so much suffering.
I saw soldiers abusing civilians—I saw them with guns, powerful guns—I knew then that we could be powerful like them if we had guns. One day we received an order that we had to march from Unity State; it was a terrible ordeal.
We marched without food and water, in a terrible heat. I watched some of my colleagues die of hunger and exhaustion.
Later I was shot in the shoulder, and I hid in the bush. It took a month for me to recover. I hid and eventually I found a school that took me in.
But after 7 years as a boy soldier, I then found out that my mother and father had passed away.”
James’s story is typical of South Sudan, and of the conflict zones that girdle the globe. Since 2003, well over 12,000 children have been recruited on both sides of the conflict inside South Sudan. Untypically, perhaps, James’s story is now a happy one. Eventually, he trained as a United Nations child protection officer and 15 years on, he uses his experience to help others who, like him, have been caught up in conflict that is not of their making.
Virginia Gamba, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, presents an annual report on children and armed conflict to the UN Secretary-General each autumn, as the world gathers for the UN General Assembly in New York. Last year, she told a handful of journalists at a press briefing:
“The tragic fate of child victims of conflict cannot and must not leave us unmoved; a child killed, recruited as a soldier, injured in an attack or prevented from going school due to a conflict is already one too many”.
It was not the fault of Ms Gamba or the few journalists gathered that attention was largely focused elsewhere—when disturbing and uncomfortable facts are presented, it usually is.
Ms Gamba’s report referred to children from countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In the 20 countries covered by her report, at least 4,000 verified violations were committed by Government forces and more than 11,500 verified violations were committed by non-state armed groups.
We look to the United Nations, UNICEF, the International Red Cross and others to provide leadership in forcing global leaders to act, and we commend UK charities and non-governmental organisations—such as Save the Children, World Vision UK and War Child—that continue to make the unarguable case for action. It is important to support their calls to increase investment in education for children in conflict areas and in improved mental health opportunities for children who are living through major conflict or where conflict has ended.
I also commend the work of Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education and former Prime Minister, for all the work that he has put into the safe schools initiative, which has helped to bring about the safe schools declaration. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on its signing last week.
From the other side of the House, I pay tribute to Gordon Brown’s work, which is largely unsung—as, indeed, are so many things that he has done. I really appreciate and commend him for the work he has done since he left Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and associate myself with his comments.
Britain has a continuing and strong role to play as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a leading member of the Commonwealth and a member of NATO. We have put our global influence to good use by being at the forefront of initiatives to combat sexual violence in conflict and to ban the use of landmines and cluster bombs. Will the Minister commit to updating the Government’s civilian protection strategy to ensure that those and other explosive weapons are explicitly avoided, that their impact is mitigated and that when we train foreign forces, we ensure that explosive weapons do not contribute to the deaths of civilians and children?
Let us not fool ourselves: some of the Government’s other actions go completely against the commitment we share in this debate to protect civilians and children. On Monday, the BBC reported that 20 people, mainly women and children at a wedding, were killed in an air strike in northern Yemen, as has been mentioned.
According to the United Nations, Yemen is a now a failed state. Let us be absolutely clear that the so-called Saudi-led coalition, which the Government continue to arm heavily, is responsible for the lion’s share of the death and destruction. How can we arm the Saudis with one hand and provide humanitarian aid to the suffering Yemenis with the other? Where is the sense and where are the ethics?
In the last week, my hon. Friends and I have twice, without receiving a clear response, asked Ministers from the Department in the Chamber why, if the Government are concerned about children in Yemen, they did not insist on full and permanent humanitarian access in Yemen and on an immediate end to the bombing of civilian areas before they signed what is, I am afraid, a disgraceful new £100 million aid partnership with Saudi Arabia last month. That partnership whitewashes that country’s reputation but does nothing to protect children in Yemen. I hope the Minister will answer that question.
UN Special Representative Virginia Gamba said:
“If you have no justice, there is no law, there is no order, there is no fair deal and there is no fair play.”
Those words should ring in our ears, because our country has an ability and a special responsibility to behave in a consistent manner to champion an international rules-based system. To achieve that, we need a foreign policy based on human rights and social justice, and for that, it is increasingly clear that we need a Labour Government.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate. I recognise the important and passionately argued personal contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden).
The protection of children in conflict situations is clearly close to many of our hearts. I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Dundee West used pictures. As politicians in Westminster Hall, we have to rely on words and try to match the power of those pictures with them. In preparing for the debate, I was struck most powerfully by the shocking statistic that in the last six years, more non-state armed groups have been created than in the previous 60 years. That brings home the scale of the issue that we are dealing with as a world.
The numbers bear repeating. A staggering 246 million children are living in countries affected by armed conflict, 61 million children are missing out on part of their basic education, and millions more are migrating in the hope of a better life, risking violence and exploitation along the way. Clearly, those children deserve our attention and protection if they are to reach their full potential.
We have heard about the gravity of living in conflict or crises for children. It is harrowing to hear those individual and collective stories about losing the opportunity for education, being separated from loved ones, being forced into marriage or slavery, suffering from the worst forms of child labour, being trafficked across borders or, increasingly, recruited into armed groups. As hon. Members rightly pointed out, the effects are not just physical, but mental. The trauma and distress caused during times of conflict can endure for a lifetime—well after the conflict has ended—and need appropriate help.
The UK Government are not sitting on the sidelines, but showing leadership in protecting the worst affected people. We have heard many allusions to that. I reiterate that the UK’s aid strategy commits 50% of our aid to fragile states and regions. In such places, protecting children is a policy priority.
In the time allowed, I will highlight three themes of the debate: our provision of education to children in crises; our work to reform the humanitarian system; and our protection of children from violence, abuse and exploitation, including modern slavery.
First, the need to get children back into school came up throughout the debate. During a conflict situation, it is critical to support them, because it helps to regain a sense of normalcy above all and invests in their education and the human capital that will be needed post-conflict. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby asked specifically about the Education Cannot Wait initiative. The UK will continue to make multi-year investments in quality education in crisis contexts that prioritise child protection and support children’s psychological and social wellbeing.
I am proud that the UK has been a leading supporter of quality education for children affected by the devastating crisis in Syria. We have played a key role in the “no lost generation” initiative. The UK has helped over 350,000 Syrian children to access formal education, and future support will reach a further 300,000 children.
In Uganda, we have reorientated our education support to ensure that we reach the children who have been displaced by conflict in South Sudan—an issue that was rightly highlighted by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton—as well as the communities that are hosting refugees around the world.
I am glad that hon. Members appreciate that the UK has just signed the safe schools declaration, underlining our important political support for the protection of schools during military operations and in armed conflict, and of course the UK will encourage other countries to endorse the declaration.
Secondly, our humanitarian reform policy, which was launched last October, demonstrates our continued commitment to reforming the humanitarian system to protect children in conflict. It reaffirms our commitment to international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law, and it states that protection should be at the centre of all humanitarian action. We call for all humanitarian agencies to put protection of civilians at the centre of their work and to ensure minimum standards for the protection of children. That includes the work that we have done since the situation with Oxfam in Haiti was revealed by The Times, and the leadership that the Department has shown in ensuring that all the organisations we work with have really robust safeguarding measures in place.
We also continue to support agencies that work specifically with children in conflicts. People have mentioned the important work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, and how much of that work will be funded by UK aid. Questions were specifically asked about United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA—an unlovely acronym. I have said it before but I will repeat today that we are a firmly committed supporter of UNRWA, which provides vital services to refugees, and we are very concerned about the impact of reduced donor funding, particularly from the US, so we are working very closely with other partners on how best to ensure continuity of services.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. I just wanted to highlight that she has not mentioned the International Committee of the Red Cross, which the British Government hugely support. The ICRC is always there—always there last, when everyone else pulls out, and normally there first in conflict areas. It does hugely good work and I just wanted to highlight that point.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that absolutely remarkable organisation, which, as he said, enjoys considerable support from UK aid. It is trusted to reach places that other organisations cannot reach and it is seen as being impartial in so many different situations around the world. It is right to pay particular tribute to its work.
Hon. Members asked about the Dubs amendment. I want to highlight, because no one else has done so, the fact that the UK has already welcomed over 10,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria, nearly half of whom are children now making their lives in the UK, and that is well ahead of schedule in terms of the commitment that the UK Government made.
Another topic that came up was the Rohingya crisis. Clearly, we are working in that area through UNICEF to respond to the needs of unaccompanied children, including a provision of specialised protection assistance, which was rightly mentioned.
Syria was recently described by Save the Children as the most dangerous conflict-affected country for children. Of course the UK continues to be at the forefront of the response to the crisis there. In 2016-17, our funding in Syria provided access to education for over 430,000 children, and psychosocial support for nearly 3,000 children. In addition, hundreds of thousands of children were provided with food, water, relief packages, medical consultations, vaccinations and nutritional support, and Members will be aware that the Secretary of State for International Development is in Brussels today to announce our increased allocation for the coming year.
Thirdly, I will highlight the need in protracted crises to do more to help strengthen systems, in order to prevent children from falling through the cracks in the first place. I can highlight examples of the work that we are doing in Somalia, where we are helping children to have a legal identity, without which they are obviously at greater risk of family separation, trafficking and illegal adoption.
We are also a leading donor to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children; indeed, the Secretary of State for International Development is on its board. We hope to see many fragile and conflict-affected countries commit with new vigour to ending violence against children.
In conclusion, the protection of children in conflicts and crises remains a top priority for the UK. We will continue to show global leadership on this issue. We will also continue to be flexible enough to respond to emerging threats in a changing world, going beyond delivering humanitarian assistance by building better systems and societies for children of the future. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West on securing this debate and I leave the last word to him.
I thank the Minister for her response, and for giving us assurances about what is being done and mentioning some pathways for the future. As outlined in this debate, there is a lot more that we can do if we are serious about protecting children in conflict.
I thank you, Sir David, for chairing this debate, and I thank each and every Member for their poignant and powerful speeches and contributions to it. In addition, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his personal testimony about his time in Bosnia.
In many ways, this debate has been difficult to listen to. The atrocities committed against children during conflicts are so appalling that we need to confront them and we need to begin doing so now. The sheer scale—one in six children across this world live in conflict—can no longer be ignored. After listening to the debate, I hope that the Minister will take on board the unanimous view of hon. Members and go further. In doing so, she will have our support and—I am sure—support from across the UK, to show how deeply we feel about what is happening to children in conflict and the urgency of the action that is required.
I will finish by mentioning an issue that has already been raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and it was also raised yesterday in an urgent question on Yemen. There have been over 17,000 targeted bombings in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, with one in three targeted at civilian targets. Our weapons are being sold to Saudi Arabia and used against those targets; our British military are involved in intelligence and service there. So, if we want to end the suffering of little children, the first step we should take is to halt arms sales now and end the atrocity that is happening in Yemen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered protecting children in conflict areas.