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Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the wider humanitarian situation in Syria, following the statement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. This House has followed developments in Syria for eight years now, since this terrible conflict began. Today, I regret that I have to report to the House little positive news on the humanitarian situation: there remain nearly 12 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria; more than 6 million people have had to flee their homes in search of safety for themselves and their loved ones—and as the locations of fighting have shifted, many of them have had to flee again and again; we now see 80% of Syrians living in poverty; 2 million children are out of school; and 6.5 million do not have food security, not knowing day to day if they will be able to feed themselves or their families. In addition, there remain 5.7 million Syrians who have called upon the kindness of their neighbours, sheltering in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. And that is to say nothing of the estimated 400,000 Syrians who have lost their lives through these eight years of bloody conflict. The situation is dire and heartbreaking. It is both morally right and in our national interest to do what we can.

Let me update the House on the UK’s continued leadership as part of the humanitarian response in Syria. I hope later this week to attend an annual international meeting of donors to the Syria crisis response, where I will commit that we will spend at least £400 million this year to help those who have suffered at the hands of the conflict. The United Kingdom is already one of the largest donors to the Syria crisis response, and this week’s pledge will take our total commitment to over £2.8 billion since 2012. The funding is targeted at those most in need, both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. In total, we have now allocated over £1.2 billion for supporting Syrian refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries. I continue to be full of admiration for the generosity of those states.

Last week, I visited Lebanon, where I had constructive meetings with His Excellency Prime Minister Saad Hariri, His Excellency President Aoun, His Excellency the Foreign Minister, and other Ministers. I reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to supporting a strong, stable and prosperous Lebanon, including the country’s efforts to help so many of those most affected by the Syria crisis. Many of my conversations focused on the large number of Syrian refugees that Lebanon continues to host. We should be in no doubt of the burden placed on host countries, and the generosity that they show in supporting refugees.

I was particularly grateful during my visit to have the opportunity to visit a local school that is part of the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme, accompanied by the Minister of Education. I was touched by the children’s enthusiasm for learning, and proud that the UK is helping to make a difference to their lives through a £160 million commitment to the goal of reaching every child in Lebanon, whether Lebanese or Syrian refugee, with education.

I wish also to mention the contribution of other neighbouring countries. Turkey is generously hosting more than 4 million refugees and is now the largest refugee-hosting country anywhere in the world. Jordan continues to show its support for the people of Syria. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan co-hosted the London Initiative 2019, an international conference for Jordan in central London. It was a great success, laying the foundations to unlock further economic growth, jobs and investment for Jordanians and refugees alike.

When I meet fellow donors later this week, as well as reaffirming the UK’s commitment to the people of Syria and to neighbouring countries, I will take the opportunity to stress again the importance of ensuring that there is regular, unfettered access for the humanitarian agencies that are trying to work inside Syria. Let me be clear: by that I mean that I will again call on the Syrian regime and its backers to end the cruelty of refusing or obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid. More than 1 million people live in what are known as “hard to reach” areas, where ongoing hostilities and shifting lines of control make it incredibly difficult and dangerous to provide the support that people need. Throughout the whole country, 50% of the UN’s requests to the Syrian regime for permission to deliver aid are rejected or simply go unanswered.

Aid agencies continue to struggle to get the necessary approvals to operate. This is only prolonging the suffering inside Syria and increasing the number of families waiting desperately for food, water, shelter or healthcare, and it has to stop. Put simply, there can be no good reason for this, and no excuse. To me, it provides the answer to the question I am often asked: whether we are entering a new chapter in Syria, whether it is time to reconstruct the country, and whether it is now time that refugees can return home. If the Syrian regime is not even seeking to support those trying to deliver humanitarian assistance to those most in need of it their country, how can we accept any narrative of change? I spoke to refugees in Lebanon over a period of time during my recent visit, and of course most of them want to return home—but only once the conditions inside Syria have improved and, most notably, only when they are confident that they will be safe.

So, we have to continue to stand firm. We must send a strong signal that we will not give up on the Syrian people who are being denied justice, security and a legitimate Government that can truly represent them. We must continue to press for a negotiated political settlement that can bring the people of Syria back together. The UN-led process is the legitimate forum to achieve this, and we will continue to call on the Syrian regime to seriously engage in the Geneva process.

The humanitarian situation inside Syria remains severe, with immense human suffering, as we enter the ninth year of this tragic crisis. But we will continue to stand firm, support the people of Syria, stand shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours who do so much and, ultimately, do what we can to bring this crisis to an end. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for providing an advance copy of his statement.

As the conflict in Syria enters its ninth year, the humanitarian needs in Syria remain overwhelming. More than 12 million Syrians still need humanitarian assistance and more than 6 million refugees are displaced outside the country. We welcome the Government’s commitment to pledge an additional £100 million of UK aid—£400 million this year—for Syria at this week’s conference in Brussels.

As we have just heard in the previous urgent question on Shamima Begum’s case, we know that conditions for refugees living in camps are not as safe as they should be, and I take this opportunity to express my deep sadness at the loss of an innocent British life in a Syrian refugee camp. The situation in many refugee camps in Syria and in neighbouring states is critical. The al-Hol camp in Syria is now at breaking point. A total of 12,000 women and children have arrived from ISIS-controlled Baghuz in eastern Syria since Wednesday morning, bringing the total population to more than 65,000. In the past three months, there have been at least 100 deaths, nearly all children, on the way to or after arriving at the camp. Two thirds of those deaths are babies and infants under five years of age. Will the Minister tell the House what plans are in place now rapidly to improve conditions at refugee camps?

In 2018, more than 1,100 children were killed in fighting, the highest number since the start of the war. What steps is the Minister taking to protect vulnerable Syrian children who are key to the country’s future? Non-governmental organisations on the ground are clear: Syria is not safe for refugee returns, and I welcome the Minister’s clarity on that position today. Any discussion on returns must be based on conditions being in place to enable displaced people to make voluntary, informed and sustainable choices about their future. Where refugees do seek to return, what steps are being taken to ensure that organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are present to provide the necessary support?

Although we must protect those caught up in conflict, what we ultimately want is an end to the conflict and a lasting peace so that people can return home. We have heard in recent days that the last vestige of Daesh control is under assault. Kurdish forces have made huge sacrifices in that battle against Daesh, so with the threat of US forces withdrawing from the region, what plans are in place to support and protect the Kurdish population there in that eventuality?

As the Minister has stated, NGOs active on the ground report severe difficulties reaching those most in need inside Syrian regime-controlled areas. Long approvals processes for programmes, activities and travel and visa restrictions are all impacting on organisations’ ability to carry out humanitarian work. He says that the Government will stand firm, and calls on the Syrian regime to stop obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid. We all want to see humanitarian aid delivered, but how realistic does he think it is to expect a change of approach by that regime on access for humanitarian organisations to reach the populations that are most in need, and will he tell the House what more he is doing?

Finally, will the Minister speak urgently with his counterparts at the Home Office to bring forward an announcement on plans for a future refugee resettlement programme here in the UK, ahead of the conclusion of the current vulnerable person’s resettlement scheme in 2020?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his questions and for the way in which he asked them.

As I indicated, UK support of £2.81 billion over the past few years has covered those refugees both outside and inside Syria. DFID works on the basis of humanitarian need, not on the basis of who controls territory. This also means that, at present, we are providing assistance to those who have been in Daesh-controlled areas and who are in need. We provide support through governance in areas that have been under opposition control, but we are also prepared to provide for need inside those areas that are under regime control.

In this specific instance, as the hon. Gentleman said, there has been a lot of focus recently on the camps where there are those who have been involved in the fighting and who are now, because of the end of the military campaign against Daesh, in that small area and moving out of it. Our understanding is that male foreign fighters are in one camp, and spouses and children are in another. The United Kingdom does not provide aid to those who are classified as foreign fighters in their camps but we do, and rightly should, provide aid and support for women and children in the other camp.

In 2018-19, UK aid has provided in excess of £40 million to address basic life-saving needs across areas previously held by Daesh, including to children in camps for internally displaced persons. In these camps specifically, DFID-funded partners are providing support, including medical screening on arrival at the camp; medical services for children through mobile medical teams; clothing for children; mental trauma counselling for children; child protection checkpoints for unaccompanied or separated children; and activity tents for children.

We are already providing support for those who are considered the most vulnerable: children, who are innocent of what has happened around them and will be immensely damaged by it, almost whatever age they are. If they are very tiny, they may have seen things that have been imprinted on their consciousness with very little understanding of them. If they are older, they may have been subject to indoctrination or the like. Regardless of that, we are helping inside the camps to try to provide them with the assistance they need.

I am conscious of the increasing numbers. Our aid is not distributed directly by DFID workers because, as we discussed earlier, access is difficult, but we do work with agencies to provide aid. I am also conscious of the increasing needs. The recent announcement of the £400 million, including the extra £100 million, is flexible. We can adjust where that might be distributed, according to need. We are conscious of the pressures everywhere, so I hope that this will provide flexibility to deal with those concerns.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned support for children generally. When I have been in international areas, I have been impressed that there has been recognition of what the United Kingdom has sought to do in order to support children who have been displaced by the crisis, wherever they have been. We have sought to provide support for children with education both in Lebanon and Jordan, and have provided a lot for needs. Our support has helped the Lebanese education system to reach 215,000 children, and has provided access to non-formal education for almost 71,000 refugee children. Improved infrastructure and services in 200 of the most conflict-prone municipalities has helped children who have moved there, and our support has also provided psychological support, trauma counselling and basic medical assistance in the camps. Since 2012, we can say that UK support has delivered nearly 28 million food rations, 14 million medical consultations and 10 million vaccines across the region, and of course a lot of the vaccination work has been with children, so we have specifically recognised the needs of children.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about keeping in touch with agencies as the situation in Syria becomes clearer. Absolutely—it is still a conflict zone in many places, but that will gradually change, enabling us to do rather more. At present we cannot go into the areas that are conflicted, so we work through the agencies. We are doing all that we can to keep in touch with UN agencies such as the World Food Programme and others to ensure that we can give them the support that they need. However, as I mentioned in my statement, the regime is reluctant to give approval for agencies to go in at Rukban. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we made repeated efforts to get the UN convoy in there, but only two have got through—the second one recently. There is no good reason why that should have been delayed. We have pressed the regime to allow the humanitarian agencies to do their work.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the situation of the Kurdish community on the north-western border.[Official Report, 25 March 2019, Vol. 657, c. 1MC.] The situation there remains an uncertain stalemate. There is no clear indication of what the boundaries may be of a so-called safe zone. Turkey is entitled to take steps to ensure no terrorist attacks on it. It is very clear that it has no issue with the Kurdish population; 10 million Kurds live peacefully in Turkey. It is only concerned about those who might be outside its borders planning terrorist attacks and is looking to create a safe zone that might resist that. That situation remains unclear. Since the American forces announced their withdrawal, an anticipated Turkish incursion has not taken place, and we remain hopeful that that will be the case. I should be clear that this is not directed against the Kurdish community per se but only those who might be engaged in terrorist activities. We hope that this will be resolved diplomatically and without any fighting. We are doing all we can to support that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about hopes for the regime and any serious change in these areas. At present, it does not look very good. He will know that both Lebanon and Jordan are very keen to return refugees. Refugees, in general, are keen to return, but that cannot be universally taken for granted. Some have made different lives in Lebanon or Jordan. They have now been there for many years, and are thinking about whether it may be better for them to remain. This is very difficult for Lebanon and Jordan. One thing that would help considerably is for everyone to know that they would be safe if they returned. However, those who have returned to southern Syria and are in contact by telephone with families elsewhere talk of the regime still interrogating people when they return, preventing people from returning by crossing them off lists so that they cannot go back, imposing forced conscription and the like. No one is going to be safe in those circumstances, and no international agency or collection of countries is going to urge or encourage refugees to return in those circumstances. The hon. Gentleman is right: there has to be real evidence of change by the Syrian regime. This will come only through the political developments that are taking place through the UN. But unless people can see that, the United Kingdom will not be engaging in reconstruction and will not be urging Syrian refugees to return to unsafe areas.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to be in contact with the Home Office in relation to resettlement programmes and the like. I will certainly pass on his concerns, but of course we have had a lengthy explanation from the Home Secretary of issues affecting the Home Office and returns to the UK. He spoke very clearly and very properly about those situations.

I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend’s important statement today. In a bleak situation, British humanitarian leadership and the expertise of DFID shines out. The House will want to pay tribute, too, to the extraordinary bravery of many British and international humanitarians who so stoutly put themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow human beings.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Britain has given more help to those suffering in this dire humanitarian situation, both inside Syria and in the countries around it, than the rest of the European Union added together? Will he again pay tribute to the quite extraordinary generosity of the surrounding countries—particularly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon—in taking in so many people who have been driven out, often under gunfire, from Syria? Will he put pressure on other humanitarian donors and wealthy countries who are in a position to help—and sometimes, indeed, contractually bound to help—to boost their support and follow Britain’s international leadership on this matter by putting their money, too, where their mouths are?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his usual perceptive comments. He knows a great deal about the background to this. He asks first about the courage of aid workers. Bearing in mind the dreadful circumstances of yesterday’s air crash in Ethiopia, and recognising the number of aid and humanitarian workers who were on that plane from the UN and the World Food Programme, it is appropriate to recognise that those who are in conflict areas, and even those who are travelling around the region following what they believe is the right thing to do to assist humanity, are taking risks. We grieve for those who lost their lives. I am quite sure that I speak for the whole House in putting on record our sadness at yesterday’s events.

In relation to the extent of aid, I absolutely agree—the £2.81 billion has been an extraordinary contribution. Last year in Brussels, we made the third largest pledge of £750 million, and the £2.81 billion that has been spent by the United Kingdom is indeed, I believe, a stronger sum than that provided by the European Union altogether over this period.[Official Report, 25 March 2019, Vol. 657, c. 1MC.] But our support also goes through the EU, and some of its funding is very significant and important to us.

In relation to urging others, later this week there is a conference in Brussels that, all things being equal, parliamentary business being dealt with and whipping being sensible, I am very keen to go to. I hope that will be the case. These international conferences do provide the opportunity for us to work with others. As the House will know, I keep in regular contact with other significant donors in the areas—those in the Gulf, European colleagues and the like. I am quite sure that, just as with Yemen, states have recognised their needs and responsibilities. The Brussels conference, I hope, will be an indication from all states, following the United Kingdom’s example, that this is a conflict not to turn away from even though it has lasted so long.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for setting out the massive humanitarian disaster that has unfolded, and is unfolding, in Syria. The resources that he sets out are of course welcome, but I am sure he will agree that we are looking at a massive reconstruction effort that may take the better part of decades. I echo his words about the generosity of Syria’s neighbours and the people of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. On refugee returns—I can fully understand why that is being discussed in these countries given the burden that they are under—what more can he tell us about making sure that any returns have to be done safely? I was somewhat reassured by his words earlier.

I join the Minister and others in paying tribute to the work and the bravery of the non-governmental agency sector, and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the air disaster in Ethiopia yesterday. I reflect on the work done by UK NGOs such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and others, but also some smaller NGOs such as Donna Jennings’s Sam’s House in my own constituency. What can we do to protect humanitarian workers, and what work is ongoing in terms of access to those who are most in need? That continues to be a challenge and may be so for years to come. Can any future efforts be done in partnership with these NGOs, because they cannot begin and end in Whitehall?

Finally, I hope that the Minister’s Department will commit to work with the Scottish Government and fully support their efforts, including to support and empower Syrian women and their role in the peacebuilding process.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. On reconstruction, the support that the UK provides at the moment is termed stabilisation and resilience, in that people who have absolutely nothing need access to food, water and shelter. There is a distinction drawn between providing for the immediate needs of people—stabilisation and resilience—and what is termed the longer-term reconstruction, which is the rebuilding of infrastructure and of the country. There is an international difference of opinion. There are those who have taken the side of Syria during the time of the regime in saying, “This is what Syria needs going forward in order to settle its people.” However, we have a concern about this reconstruction being provided to an unreconstructed regime, where, as I have indicated, all the evidence suggests that there are refugees it deliberately does not want back for political reasons, and that for those who do come back, there are risks attached.

It seems to us that to ask United Kingdom taxpayers, and this House, to support a reconstruction programme in those circumstances is not correct. Accordingly, we—this is a joint EU position—have taken the position on reconstruction of saying no, until we know for certain that this is a different Syria that will provide properly for its citizens and will not provide the basic background that can then be exploited by extremists and terrorists in future because they are dealing with a population that is being appallingly treated. I think we are right to stick to that, but the hon. Gentleman can be reassured about the stabilisation and resilience support.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the neighbouring countries. To put some figures on the record, over the last few years we have provided £608 million for Lebanon, £483 million for Jordan and £319 million for Turkey—a total of £1.34 billion to support the 5.7 million refugees in the region and cover their needs. We are supporting the various programmes that are being run. It is a difficult balance for those states. They want to care for those who are there. In some cases, they are caring for refugees who have been there for a very long time—the Palestinian refugees—and, accordingly, we are building up issues about the length of time that host countries are able to support people for. I am sympathetic to the needs of those host countries, but it must be clear that refugees cannot be put back into a situation of danger, and the international community has to work together to deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned aid workers and, in particular, Sam’s House. He has written to me previously about it, and I commend the work of that small but very necessary agency. We work in close conjunction with it, as indeed we do with any such agency. I visited Holyrood not too long ago and had a good conversation with the Scottish Minister responsible for international development. Of course, we look to support our friends there. The protection of aid workers is about supporting the campaigns we see from time to time which say that aid workers and journalists are not a target, and ensuring that people know how important that is. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments.

I warmly commend everything that the Minister, wearing his DFID hat, has been doing to help Jordan in particular. The King and the Government are our close friends and allies, and they have been truly heroic in this situation. I have a little concern about the Minister’s position wearing his Foreign Office hat. Does the Foreign Office accept that President Assad and his regime, brutal though they are, have won the Syrian civil war? If they were to show a greater willingness to behave in a more humane way to returning refugees, would the Foreign Office and DFID be prepared to offer aid to those returning to Syria under the Assad regime’s control?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. It would be unlike him not to have slight concern about some of the things that the Foreign Office does. I appreciate the situation. First, let us be clear: there cannot be any definition of “winning” this conflict when something like half a million people have been killed—the vast majority at the hands of the regime, and a significant number at the hands of Daesh—and millions have been displaced. Should the regime and its backers claim to have won, I am sure this House would speak with one voice in its disgust at such a term.

Is it correct to say that the situation on the ground indicates that the regime is likely to stay in control of areas that it currently controls and regain control? Yes, that is likely to be the situation. The regime was rescued by Russia on one occasion and by Iran and Hezbollah on another. We do not need to rehearse the events of August 2013, but there are consequences of both intervention and non-intervention, as the House understands. The situation is plain, and my right hon. Friend is correct; the regime will count its survival as a success in the dreadful circumstances.

What happens next is really important. As I indicated earlier, if Syria’s regime and governance returns to where it was, Syria will never be at peace. First, people’s human rights will continue to be trampled on. That will provide the base of conflict for the future, and those who seek stability in Syria through the return of the regime will not get it. It is clear that there must be a response from the regime to provide for its people decently, as opposed to the conditions of war that it has waged upon its own people for the past few years. When that time comes, I will be able to answer my right hon. Friend’s question.

I welcome this statement. We can all be proud of the UK’s substantial contribution to humanitarian relief in Syria and neighbouring countries. I want to ask the Minister two questions. The first is about the area of Syria that has been liberated by Kurdish-led forces. He rightly referred to security issues in that part of the country. What are we doing to support humanitarian and development projects in that part of the country, working with its leadership?

Secondly, the Minister referred to there being 2 million children out of school. We know from Syria and other emergencies that more and more children are spending longer and longer periods of their childhood and adolescence in these protracted crises. Investing in their education and support is vital. Will some of this additional money, which is so welcome, be invested in education for children in Syria?

The International Development Committee and the hon. Gentleman, who chairs it, have kept a constant watch on this issue, which has really been appreciated by DFID and all our partners. We have recognised the support needed in areas that have been freed from Daesh. At the moment, DFID-funded partners are aiding the humanitarian effort by providing support to health facilities, child immunisation, de-mining activities—that remains so important—and child protection and education, as well as providing emergency supplies such as food and cash. Between January and June 2018, support to the Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor governorates provided 260,000 medical consultations, 23,000 food rations, 300,000 cash grants and more than 5,500 people with sexual and gender-based violence services. The humanitarian services are quite significant and complete.

However, in the camps, where the women and children of foreign fighters are concerned, there are no cash transfers.[Official Report, 25 March 2019, Vol. 657, c. 2MC.] The Secretary of State has taken the view that that would not be appropriate. Cash transfers are extremely valuable in many circumstances. They provide some flexibility for refugees and those who are dependent on them and help people to make easier choices. There is little evidence of any abuse, and it can be a most practical way of delivering aid. But in the particular circumstances of the women and children of foreign fighters, in order to ensure that there was no risk of divergence to terrorist sources, my right hon. Friend took the decision that cash transfers would not be used.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about children. I am impressed with the number of international meetings I attend where support for children and their education and counselling has moved from a nice add-on to the protection provided by shelter and food and protection from harm to something that is absolutely fundamental. Like me, he will have seen UK aid workers and those we fund engage with children in camps. When the children arrive, their drawings are horrific and of deep violence, but after they have had some time with skilled and experienced counsellors, they can begin to exhibit signs of normal childhood, which they deserve. He and the Committee can be sure that we will continue to keep that as a serious priority.

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the London initiative 2019 and his officials on the outstanding way in which they organised that conference. He is absolutely entitled to claim it as a great success if the international representation that the United Kingdom delivered for Jordan at that conference is reflected in future help for Jordan. He and his officials deserve plaudits for that.

My substantive question is about the custody of British foreign fighters under the aegis of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The Government appear to have taken a policy position not to return those British citizens to the United Kingdom, so they will remain in the charge of the Democratic Federation authorities for the foreseeable future. What help are we giving or will we give to best oversee those British citizens?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments about the Jordan conference, which we hope will indeed be a significant success. As was said earlier—and I will repeat it from the Foreign Office—we do not have consular access to Syria, and that is not in a situation to change imminently. Of course, at some stage in the future it will, and that will change matters significantly.

I know, but at present, just to reiterate, it is not possible for us to do so, so there is no question of bringing any foreign fighters anywhere. If, like others, they return to the United Kingdom through their own devices, as they have done, then they are subject to UK control when they come back. As was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary earlier, that process has already happened. If fighters continue to return in that way, that will be the process.

For those who are there, my hon. Friend’s point is absolutely pertinent. It came up in Washington a couple of weeks ago when we had the global anti-Daesh conference. We were indeed very cognisant of the fact that many states wish to see justice served in an area where offences may have been committed, which implies that those currently holding and detaining them will continue to do so and will also need resource to handle the legal and judicial consequences of holding them. I can assure my hon. Friend that how best we make a contribution to that is under active consideration.

I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment of these new resources to help people in very desperate humanitarian states in Syria. It is clear from what he says about the interrogation of people who return, and indeed from the Syrian regime’s refusal to let humanitarian aid through, that there is no hope of safe return for refugees in the short term at least. May I ask the Minister about what we do as the United Kingdom to accept refugees? We have promised to take 20,000 through the vulnerable person resettlement scheme by 2020 and, separately, to take 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. How many of those have to date been resettled in this country, and if the prospects for peace in Syria remain as bleak as they are today, does he think that the programme needs to be extended beyond next year?

The hon. Lady’s question covers more than my own portfolio, but my understanding of the refugee programme has always been that it is on track. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa tells me that something like 7,000 of the 20,000 are already here. My understanding is that the programme for 20,000 is on track to be fulfilled, but it is always kept under review in relation to who the most vulnerable and where the United Kingdom can provide most assistance.

None the less, it remains clear that the policy—I think it has been absolutely right—is to concentrate our support in the areas to which refugees flee most quickly, because that provides the best opportunity for them to return. There is very little prospect of those who have come to Europe returning to Syria. It is much more likely that those who have made their homes in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will do so, which has got to be the right answer both for them and for Syria. Again, I will bring to the attention of the Home Secretary the question the hon. Lady raised about the refugee programme.

The Minister has already mentioned Iran, which has a substantial military presence in and a close relationship with Syria. Is that a force for good or, as is my opinion, is it holding up the normalisation of Syria?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. Iran will say that its support for the Syrian regime was designed to stop extremist forces taking over Damascus at a crucial stage of the civil war. On the other hand, there is no doubt that support by Iran for the regime has also contributed to a civil war being waged against the Syrian people and has involved support for various atrocities carried out by the Syrian regime.

There is no doubt that Iran’s presence in Syria is a cause of great concern, not least to Israel, with the stationing of sophisticated weaponry in southern Syria that does not appear to be directed at Daesh or anyone else. Iran will have some questions to answer about how it sees its presence in the future of Syria. What we want to see is an independent Syria, free of foreign constraints upon it, but no longer a regime that wages war on its people. Those who have been its partners will need to answer for the part they have played in the past, and it remains open whether they can play any constructive role in the future.

I thank the Minister for his very thorough and thoughtful approach, as always, to this region and its problems. He says that 50% of United Nations requests to deliver aid are rejected or ignored by the Syrian regime, so I would like to ask him how he thinks we are ever going to be able to trust this regime’s assessment of when it will be safe for refugees to return, what measures and methods of assessment we are going to apply to evaluate when and to what extent it is safe, and whether he can tell us anything about what work is planned to rebuild the capacity of civil society to ease that transition. If he is able to say anything about that, I would be grateful.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I thank her for her kind comments. Essentially, it is a UN assessment. The UNHCR and UN agencies are the bodies most likely to give their assessment of when areas of Syria have become safe for return in every sense of the word—not only an end to physical conflict there, but the circumstances being right for people to return—and we support the UN agencies in doing that.

The most likely difficulty will be differences of opinion. For example, it is clear at the moment that it is the practice for some in Lebanon to return to Syria at the weekend or from time to time. Those who fled earlier go back to certain areas, and the Lebanese Government draw attention to that and say that people would not be going back if they did not feel safe to do so. None the less, that is not a definition of safety per se.

I think the honest thing to say is that there is real pressure, rightly so, from host nations that are worried about the burden they are bearing. The first thing we can do is to make sure we continue to support them and that we do not, just because of the passage of time, neglect their needs. Secondly, we should make it clear that we do wish for and support the return of refugees. However, the international community must continue to say that that can only be when the conditions are right for safe and dignified return, and at this stage the facilitation and promotion of returns does not meet that test.

Daesh would not have been defeated in Syria were it not for the valiant efforts of the Syrian Kurds in eastern and northern Syria. When it comes to the post-conflict political settlement in Syria, will Her Majesty’s Government be pressing for secure and effective regional autonomy for the Kurds?

My hon. Friend is tempting me towards a British Government view of the ultimate political settlement that will be decided by the Syrian people and by the international community as well. The situation is that he is absolutely correct to say that the turning back of Daesh at Kobani and the work by others to make sure that Daesh was pushed back was fundamental, as was the work done in Iraq by the Kurds and by the Iraqi security forces in Lebanon, where the Lebanese armed forces again turned back Daesh at a crucial time. Right throughout that region—supported by coalition air support, in which the United Kingdom was involved—all that has been a move in the right direction, but it is clearly correct to recognise the Kurdish activity.

It is not for the United Kingdom to determine what the ultimate political settlement in that region will be. What I do know is that representatives of the Syrian opposition have included Kurdish representatives. Clearly, no settlement in the future that will promote calm in the area can be complete unless there has been a recognition of those of Kurdish background, but also unless there is clearly an end to any risk of terrorism from those who have perpetuated that particular form of attack on others in the past.

The Minister rightly referred to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and the millions of refugees they have taken. Refugees from Syria have also gone to Iraq, and they were not mentioned in his statement. I understand the complexities of the Kurdistan Regional Government region and its relationship with Baghdad, but what assistance is being given to the Kurdish people in Iraq, who have been so generous in hosting not simply people from Syria, but people fleeing from Daesh in other parts of Iraq?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was in the Kurdish region of Iraq about three or four weeks ago. I was able to speak to the KRG—to the then Prime Minister elect and others. Our support in the region has been to provide in the case of need, and it has been delivered to those on the ground. We have recognised what has been happening in Nineveh, Mosul and other KRG areas, and support has been given to those who operate through the KRG in order to protect those who have been there. Ultimately, those in Iraq must feel protected by Iraqi security forces, so that minorities feel that they are protected by those on whom they can rely instead of worrying about which militia has control of them at various times. The KRG and others have been very clear about trying to ensure that that support is given.

I very much welcome the statement by the Minister, for whom I have great respect and admiration. The Russian Government, supported by the Iranian militias, have been successful in propping up the Assad regime. However, they do not have the money to rebuild Syria—around £300 billion is needed for that. The Minister says that he will speak to other donors about giving more, but those regional donors will have real concern about giving money that will prop up the Assad regime, which they say is responsible for killing half a million Syrians. Linked to that, we must get the endgame right in Syria. Did the United States consult the UK, as an international partner in the coalition against Daesh, when they considered withdrawing their troops? Withdrawing their troops from Syria will lead to anarchy and chaos if it is not done in the right, constructive way.

My hon. Friend asks several good questions. Let me repeat what I said about reconstruction. The UK and the EU are very clear that there should be no reconstruction of Syria and that therefore the significant aid that we have seen, for example, in relation to Iraq, should not go to Syria until there is a political settlement that guarantees safety and security there. Other donors and states may have different views.

Of course, we must also recognise that there will be competition for influence in Syria. Some states want to provide support because they believe that it will give them greater influence. I can understand that, but our position must be clear. As my hon. Friend said, the money that is needed can come only from the international community as a whole. Neither Russia nor Iran is likely to be able to find the resources to do that. We therefore have leverage to try to get the right sort of political settlement. My hon. Friend is right about that, but other states, particularly those closest to Syria, may have different ideas. However, we will stick firmly to what we believe is right.

The US decision about withdrawing troops has become slightly clearer following the President’s original decision, which has been ameliorated and discussed by the State Department and others. The UK remains clear that the maintenance of some US influence in Syria is beneficial to the future outcome, and we hope that that will happen, but the numbers are a sovereign matter for the US.

I thank the Minister for his thorough report and his usual regard and concern for the region.

Is the Minister aware that, last year, more than 10,000 women from over 50 countries travelled in convoy from Istanbul to the Turkey-Syria border to launch a global appeal on behalf of the women unlawfully held as prisoners by the Syrian regime since 2011, often simply because of their links or family friendships with members of the Syrian opposition? Amnesty International estimates that more than 13,500 women have been jailed, with more than 7,000 remaining in detention, reportedly subjected to the most appalling treatment, including torture, rape and sexual violence. What immediate action is the Department taking with our allies to encourage the Syrian regime to cease the torture of prisoners and to secure the release of those detained women?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I commend those who took part in the march and others. From the beginning of the conflict, we were clear about what had sparked it: the conduct of the regime and the way in which a desire for reform in Syria—not the removal of the President—was met with violence, and we remember the killings of children. That turned peaceful protest into something rather different. I am sure that several Members have seen the evidence collected by those who escaped from Syria with photographs of what had happened under regime control. Most recently, the regime itself has started to produce the death notices of those who had simply disappeared to provide some evidence of what happened.

There are therefore two issues. One is, as the hon. Lady said, to draw attention to the horror of the regime’s treatment of women—her comments on that are accurate and well documented. Secondly, as well as drawing attention to that and making the case that a regime that conducts itself in such a way cannot expect anything from its people, we need accountability. Although the physical conflict in Syria may come to an end, we must continue to press for justice for those who have been so ill treated. The UK has contributed £9 million since 2012 to various accountability mechanisms and NGOs that gather evidence and assist victims. We also support the independent UN commission of inquiry’s investigations into human rights violations and abuses in Syria. We will continue to do that. A line cannot simply be drawn under what has happened to the Syrian people. The abuse of women should not be forgotten.

I thank the Minister for his hard work and commitment, which many in the House and further afield deeply appreciate. He knows that and I want to put it on record.

One and a half million Christians have fled Syria to Lebanon and Jordan during the war. Three things need to be done for those Christians to return home. They need new safe homes; they require employment opportunities, and they desire freedom of worship in their churches, which need to be rebuilt and restored. What has been done to deliver those three absolutes so that refugees can have the confidence to return?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As we have discussed in the House previously, the requirements of the Christian community in Syria for safety and protection are shared by any other community there. We have been at pains to impress upon the region that no minority community feels safe unless there is a sense that the state will protect them so that they do not have to rely on individual militias. That is a long, slow process, but we are working steadily at it and we continue to contribute to everything that will provide for greater state controls, particularly in Iraq. In Syria, the process will be longer. Elements of the Syrian community were not disturbed by the regime’s control, while others were. Our general support for the fair and just implementation of the rule of law is clear.

I also commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s review, led by the Bishop of Truro, on Christian persecution. It is another opportunity for contributions to the subject and new ideas. Ultimately, the protection of all protects any community, and the UK is right to insist on that.

I share others’ appreciation of the Minister’s commitment to the issue and his full answers to our questions.

I too have met refugees in nearby countries who are supported by the UK’s commitment to refugees in the region. It is a humbling experience. Syrian refugees have suffered a great deal and I know that the UK’s support is much appreciated by them.

I am glad that the Minister will be at the conference in Brussels this week—fingers crossed. I want to follow up on the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) asked about detainees and access to justice. The Minister said that since 2012, we have committed £9 million to that cause. Yet in his statement, he said that we would spend £400 million on the whole crisis. It seems to me that now might be the time to increase the commitment to justice. We cannot give up on justice. Syrian people around the world feel forgotten. Our commitment to justice is a demonstration from the House that they will not be forgotten and that we will stand by them. Will the Minister commit to increasing that spend?

The people of Syria will not be forgotten as long as the hon. Lady is in the House. She has been a consistent friend to those in Syria, right from the beginning. She and a number of others in the House have made their presence felt, and I very much acknowledge what she has done.

The announcement this week is that this year’s commitment to Syria will be £400 million, which is an extra £100 million. It is flexible. It is not yet individually parcelled, but we will spend a total of up to £400 million. I am keen to look at the justice and accountability mechanisms. I have met those in the UN who are involved with that. I am very happy to give the hon. Lady a commitment that if there is a need to increase that and support it in terms of programmes, we will look to do so. I cannot commit the money now, but my advice is that our support is flexible if there is a need to provide it in different areas. That may well be one. It is very important, as the conflict physically comes to an end, that we do not forget those who suffered during it, particularly from detention and the rule of the regime.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), what scope is there for UN agencies to collect important evidence that may be helpful should President Assad or any of his henchmen face justice at the International Criminal Court in The Hague?

UK funding for the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability contributed to the arrest of three former Syrian officials in Germany and France last month on suspicion of crimes against humanity. The commission’s documentary and evidence-gathering work also contributed to the recent US District Court judgment that found the Assad regime responsible for the murder of the journalist Marie Colvin. One of the earliest things that William Hague did as Foreign Secretary, when this all began, was to look at what could be done to provide help and assistance to those gathering evidence—it is not an easy thing to do—that would end up at an international court. A bit like the extraordinary work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which did so much in relation to Srebrenica and the crisis in the Balkans, making sure that the evidence is well kept and well preserved will be essential. My noble Friend made sure right from the very earliest stage of our engagement with those in Syria that that sort of work was available. Clearly, that work has been done on a wider scale. We support that work, and where, technically, the United Kingdom supports that work we will continue to do so.