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House of Commons Hansard
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Syria: Civilians in Idlib
18 June 2019
Volume 662

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To ask the Minister for the Middle East what assessment he has made of attacks on health facilities and the fate of civilians in the Idlib area of Syria, and if he will make a statement.

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The Government are extremely concerned by the current escalation of violence in north-west Syria, and are appalled by the disgraceful and wholly unwarranted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. The UN has confirmed that since the end of April at least 25 health facilities—including at least two major hospitals—and 37 schools have been damaged by airstrikes and shelling in north-west Syria. These attacks are a clear breach of international law, and we call on the regime and Russia in the strongest possible terms to cease them and end the suffering of those in the Idlib governorate.

The deteriorating situation is causing immense suffering to a civilian population who, as the hon. Lady will know, are already highly vulnerable. Even before the current escalation of violence, nearly 2 million people in the region had already been forced to leave their homes at least once, and nearly 3 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Let me take this opportunity to highlight, briefly, the assistance that we are providing for those who are in such dire need across north-west Syria. Last year alone, the UK provided over £80 million in humanitarian assistance in the region, which included supporting the provision of food, shelter and other essential items for those caught up in the conflict. We are continuing to support that effort this year as well. In response to the recent situation, the partners of the Department for International Development are scaling up their humanitarian response to meet the growing needs on the ground by, for instance, supporting health facilities.

A further escalation of violence, triggering waves of displacement, would be likely to overwhelm an already stretched humanitarian response. Once again, I call on all parties to cease violence in Idlib, to respect previously agreed ceasefires, and to bring an end to the needless and deplorable attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools in the region.

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The first thing that has to be said, Mr Speaker, is that, as you and I both know, it should not be me who is standing here. It should be Jo Cox, and, three years after her brutal killing, we miss her every single day.

The second thing that I must do is thank you, Mr Speaker, for welcoming the surgeon David Nott to Speaker’s House to discuss his book and his work, which has included helping the Syrian people. It was kind of you to host him.

As the Minister has said, the conflict in Syria has escalated once again and despite talks of so-called reconstruction it is far from over. Just in recent months reports say that nearly 500 civilians have been killed due to airstrikes.

This is a complex conflict but I want to focus on simple facts today and, as the Minister has described, we have seen yet again the bombing of hospitals. Reports from the region tell of scores of hospitals being attacked, and millions of people in the Idlib area are in desperate need of healthcare.

A bad situation is being made much worse by our failure to enforce the basic rules of conflict. What representations has the Minister made to UN agencies about fixing this system, because people there are saying the UN system is simply not working—the co-ordinates of those hospitals are not safe with the UN, and the protection that should be in place for medical systems in Syria, even at this late stage in the conflict, has now failed? What meetings has the Minister had to discuss this with UN agencies, what action is he proposing to take, and what work is he doing with our colleagues in the international community to fix this broken system?

Secondly, I would like to ask some questions about UK aid. The Minister mentioned food and basic supplies, but what about medical supplies, and what assessment have the Government made of the current risks given the political situation we are now facing in relation to Syria and the effectiveness of UK aid? It is a simple thing, surely, to get basic medical supplies that are needed over the border to the doctors who require them. Also, what action has the Minister taken to prioritise civilian access to medical supplies?

Finally, it is Refugee Week this week, and I do not always thank the Government but on this occasion I would like to thank them, and specifically the Minister for Immigration, who is not in her place at the moment, for her decision to extend the VPRS—Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme—that brings vulnerable refugees to our country. But we need to go so much further than that. We have failed to deliver against the values of this country when it comes to the victims of this conflict. What conversations is the Minister having with his colleagues in Government about getting more vulnerable Syrians to the UK for safety and shelter, and will he meet me and a delegation of Members of Parliament to discuss that point? We have failed Syria but we need not continue to fail Syrians; will the Minister help us get more Syrians to safety?

This weekend many people will gather in towns and cities across our country for “Great Get Togethers”: they will remember our colleague Jo, and they will think about what we have in common, not what divides us. So I simply finish by asking the Minister to work with all of us across this House for the people of Syria.

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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, and of course I join with her in her heartfelt tributes to our colleague Jo Cox.

The hon. Lady will know that we committed £400 million in the Brussels conference in March to Syria. That puts us in the premier division of donors to this. [Interruption.] She shakes her head, but that is a huge amount of money.

The hon. Lady asked what we are doing about refugees and she will know full well that in general refugees are best helped close to their homes so they can return to their homes, but she will also be aware of the refugees we have taken from this region to the UK, and I hope she will salute the local authorities who are warmly accommodating those refugees, including my own local authority.

The hon. Lady asked what we are doing with our partners. She might be aware that on 10 May and 14 May the UN met in emergency session to discuss the deteriorating situation and she might also be aware that later on today it will be meeting in emergency session to discuss this deteriorating situation, and the UK will play a full part in that discussion. The important thing is to get back to UN Security Council resolution 2254; it is the cornerstone and basis of any long-term settlement in Syria.

The hon. Lady asked about other partners to this, and I am sure she will share my concern that the Sochi agreement of last year between two of the principal players in this has unfortunately not been carried out in the way we would wish and that the deteriorating situation is in significant part due to Russia’s attitude towards what appeared at the time to be a very promising new beginning. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to work with others to attempt to bring some sense to the warring parties in this, but I emphasise that the UK is simply one player in this, and it is of course a multi-dimensional jigsaw.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank too the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), my co-chair of the all-party group on Syria.

The much respected and senior British military officer Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon has just returned from Idlib where he is an adviser to the Idlib health directorate and he says this today:

“Nearly 700 civilians have been killed this year in Idlib and there are 500,000”

internally displaced people crammed into Idlib

“many without homes living in the open and off scraps”.

He adds that there is

“evidence of another chemical attack. There have been 29 attacks on hospitals by Russian and Syrian aircraft with many now out of commission. A handful of hospitals and doctors are now trying to care for 3 million civilians.”

The Minister will know that the Foreign Office is collecting evidence of those involved in atrocities and breaches of international humanitarian law. Can he confirm that the Foreign Office is seeking to identify, name and shame not only the aircraft attacking these hospitals, which are mainly marked with red crosses, but the pilots and people operating those planes? This is clearly a breach of international humanitarian law; it is arguably a war crime and we must ensure, wherever we can, that there is no impunity for such grotesque actions.

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I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend: either the regime and its supporters’ statements are wildly inaccurate or its targeting is wildly inaccurate. He will know that the UN provides co-ordinates of sensitive sites including schools and hospitals. He will share my despair at the number of those institutions, including two major hospitals, that have been damaged in this, and I am sure he will also share my enthusiasm that those who responsible for this are, sooner or later, brought to book.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for asking this urgent question. I feel she spoke for the whole House when she spoke of Jo Cox at the beginning of her speech, and I thank the Minister for his response.

Once again we find ourselves here in this place shocked and appalled at the threat to hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria. We had Aleppo, we had Raqqa, we had Ghouta, and now today it is Idlib: homes and livelihoods destroyed; civilians and children fleeing and dying; and, yet again, hospitals bombed and deliberately targeted.

Three years on from UN Security Council resolution 2286, medical facilities are still being hit in Syria—an unthinkable 29 hospitals in the past six weeks according to some reports. Amnesty International says these attacks targeting hospitals constitute “crimes against humanity”. The International Rescue Committee says that these attacks continue to happen with “absolute impunity”. This is shocking and reprehensible; even wars are supposed to have rules.

What steps is the Minister taking with our international partners to ensure that these appalling attacks on health facilities do not go by with impunity and, as he says, that these people are brought to book? Can the Minister tell us more about the UK’s promised protection of civilians strategy—exactly when it will be delivered and whether it will be accompanied by a clear framework for accountability and implementation?

It is absolutely necessary that we urgently get all sides around a table to find a peaceful, political resolution to this horrific conflict. That is the only thing that will bring the carnage in Idlib to an end. That is the only thing that will protect the lives of those health workers still operating in Idlib and the civilians they are working to save. So what is the Minister doing to realise this? That peace must be achieved, and let me end by echoing the words of the president of Médecins Sans Frontières who put it so simply when she called on all warring parties to:

“Stop bombing hospitals. Stop bombing health workers. Stop bombing patients.”

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and questions. It is important that we work with international partners to apply pressure to those who are responsible. He will be well aware of the difficulty of working with the regime in Damascus and its supporters, but the Sochi agreement at the end of last year held out such promise. Those were baby steps, perhaps, but it was the start of a process that might have brought some sense to this troubled region. I very much regret that Russia has decided to take the steps that it has and I prevail on it, even now, to think about its responsibilities that it signed up to with Turkey at Sochi.

It is important that the UN continues to meet in emergency session. I look forward to its deliberations this afternoon and we will take a full part in them. Ultimately, UN Security Council resolution 2254 has to be applied. That is the only way that we can restore peace and equanimity to this very troubled part of the world.

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It is definitely a war crime to attack either a school or a hospital—there is no doubt about that. Do we have good evidence that Russian aeroplanes have attacked such targets and if so, are we raising the matter in the Security Council, which is in emergency session, as the Minister stated?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Russia is clearly a party to the current situation. It is supporting the regime and is responsible for a lot of the trauma that is now afflicting the Idlib governorate, and it must be held to account. It must be answerable for the consequences of its actions. As my hon. Friend said, the deliberate targeting of schools and hospitals is a crime. It is caused by criminals and, as with criminals everywhere, they must ultimately be called to account.

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We also pay tribute to Jo Cox’s memory in the House today and to David Nott and his incredible work as a surgeon in Idlib; he recently won the Robert Burns humanitarian award for what he has done.

We in the Scottish National party are shocked and horrified by the reports that, since Syrian regime forces and their Russian allies began their offensive in Idlib in April, more than 24 medical facilities have been attacked. Tragically, the targeting of healthcare facilities is not new in Syria’s civil war. The US-based Physicians for Human Rights documented more than 500 attacks on medical facilities between 2011 and 2018.

The deliberate and strategic bombing of hospitals carrying out their medical functions is a war crime. These latest attacks have eliminated vital lifelines for civilians in desperate need of medical care and medical centres are no longer sharing their co-ordinates with the UN for fear of being a target of Syria and their allies. However, the prevention of and protection from mass atrocities remain almost wholly absent from the UK’s national framework of civilian protection. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to cover this glaring omission? Furthermore, will he ensure that the upcoming review of the Government’s protection of civilians in conflict strategy reflects the changing nature of modern conflict, which blurs the lines between combatants and non-combatants?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He must know that what we are able to do depends very much on access and safety and whether or not we can get to those who are most in need. At the moment, that is extremely problematic. We would prevail upon all parties to this to allow humanitarian access and to allow those of us who wish to protect civilians to be able to access those civilians wherever they are, so that the necessary protection can be afforded. However, he has to understand the difficulty of assuring the safety and security of those now delivering aid, and I pay tribute to those who provide aid under extremely difficult circumstances. He will be aware that a number of those individuals in our troubled world today have paid with their lives for that. It is absolutely a duty that we in Government and our agencies have to ensure that they are not put at risk more than is absolutely necessary in trying to do their vital work.

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I very much support what the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said about taking on more refugees from the area, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration for her decision. What does the Minister think can be done to help to make the good Russian people aware of what is being done in their name by their Government? Surely they would be as horrified as the rest of us by the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools and other humanitarian facilities.

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My hon. Friend is right to say that the Russian people would indeed think that, if they knew the full extent of the actions being taken in their name by President Putin’s Administration. This is a terrible calumny. It is a devastating thing for which Russia must ultimately assume responsibility. We have to hope that members of the Russian Administration are ultimately called to account for these atrocities. Knowing the Russian people as I do—I suspect that my hon. Friend knows them rather better than I do—I know they are good people and often misunderstood, since they are often seen through the prism of Moscow and the terrible acts, I am afraid, that President Putin and his people are too often associated with in our world today.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) not only on securing this urgent question, but on the very moving way in which she introduced it, and I absolutely share and endorse her tribute to Jo Cox.

It is heartbreaking to read the testimony coming out of Idlib, and it is horrific that there have been 257 attacks on hospitals and medical workers in the last year alone. I say to the people who are carrying out these attacks that it is beyond grotesque. The fact that doctors feel that they can no longer share co-ordinates with the United Nations is also a damning indictment of the international community’s failure to protect some of the most vulnerable. I am reassured that the Minister wants to see people brought to book, but what further support could the UK provide to the United Nations or others to gather evidence, so that when the time comes and justice can be done, the information will be there?

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The hon. Lady knows that this is an ongoing piece of work, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) rightly referred to. It does not relate simply to this current offensive; it goes back a long, long way. In particular, we have been at the forefront of condemnation of the regime with respect to chemical weapons, which are an abomination. All those who have been involved in the use of these illegal weapons must be called to account. Clearly, our imperative at the moment is humanitarian assistance—of course it is—but a slower piece of work is gathering evidence that ultimately will be used to ensure that those criminals who have been involved in perpetrating these atrocities are brought to book.

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This shocking new bombing campaign will lead remorselessly to more innocent loss of life, and up to 2 million people could be displaced into Turkey. I recently met a constituent who works very closely with charities that operate there and in the area, one of which is Syria Relief. What engagement has the Department had with charities on the ground, such as Syria Relief, which can do this work and have the local knowledge? Is work ongoing in that respect?

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The truth is that we engage on an ongoing basis with charitable organisations, but I will not comment specifically on those organisations, really for their security. Much of our effort is channelled through the UN and its agencies, but I salute those across the charitable sector who engage in this extremely difficult and traumatic work. I will continue to engage with them as much as I can, the better to understand the challenges they face and their experiences on the ground.

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The Minister and everyone who has spoken has rightly pointed out that this is a complex political situation, and that it is complex for us to do anything about it. However, there is one piece of the jigsaw that we are entirely responsible for, and that is the number of refugees that we allow into this country. I speak as someone who has refugees from Iran and Kosovo in my own family who grew up in a place that has always provided a safe home for every wave of desperate refugees, and I ask the Minister, in the light of what we know is going on in Idlib: can we not do more to bring more people here?

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The first thing to say about the recent onslaught in the governorate of Idlib specifically is that virtually all those involved are internally displaced people within that governorate. They are therefore not accessible, and it would simply not be practical remove them to a place of safety in this country. The hon. Lady knows very well that we have been generous in relocating people who have been triaged by the United Nations, with the most vulnerable and needy being relocated to this country. We have all taken people from right across the demographic, but the UK has been particularly impressive in relocating vulnerable people, including women, children, elderly people and disabled people. That is the mark of a truly humanitarian nation, and I am immensely proud of that.

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Can I just be clear about the Government’s position on civilians in Idlib? Is it the Government’s view that the Russians and the Syrians are being reckless and careless in the delivery of their ordnance, or is it their view that they are deliberately targeting medical facilities?

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Our investigation into this is ongoing, and I am not going to pre-empty the outcome of our investigation into attribution or, indeed, intent. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that it seems to us that a very large number of schools and hospitals, including two major hospitals, have been hit, and that a regime and a country that were intent on protecting civilians, particularly the most vulnerable, would do their utmost in any conflict to avoid those targets. I see no evidence of that having been done, and the consequences are as we have seen. It is vital, if those institutions have indeed been deliberately targeted, that the criminals responsible should be held to account.

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What is the Government’s latest assessment of the assertions about a chlorine chemical weapons attack in the Idlib area on 19 May? We have heard the Minister’s responses—“Let’s bring people to justice. Let’s find who they are. We really implore the Russians not to do this”—but this is happening every day. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and we are supposed to eyeball those who are committing these atrocities and deliberately targeting hospitals, but what are we doing, other than saying, “Oh, well, let’s take them to court at some point in the future”? That is not remotely good enough. The UK and our allies need to show some backbone in this and show that there are consequences for these grotesque war crimes, because every day that Russia gets away with this makes the world a less safe place. It is not being governed by the rules that we are supposed to have set up so that we can all live under international law.

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First, I have an apology for the hon. Gentleman. Yesterday in the urgent question, I think I associated him with the Opposition Front Bench. I am afraid that this was a facet of my general excitement on that occasion, and it was of course entirely wrong. My apologies to the hon. Gentleman. I share his frustration—I really do—and I hope that that has come across, at least in the tone of some of the things I have been saying, but I have to ask him what on earth he thinks we could be doing, other than the things that we are doing with our partners and through the United Nations. Ultimately, this has to be dealt with not by escalating the situation but by dialling it down and ensuring that we restore the focus on UN Security Council resolutions. Although I am all ears, I doubt very much that the hon. Gentleman has many suggestions beyond that.

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I thank the Minister for his response. In my constituency, we have six Syrian Christian families who have been relocated under the Government scheme. The community and church groups are helping those families with accommodation, education for their children, pastoral care, language instruction and furniture and clothes. Other members of those families are threatened in and around the Idlib area, and I spoke to the Immigration Minister about this the other week. Will the Minister work with her to reunite those families in the United Kingdom, and particularly in my constituency of Strangford?

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As I indicated in my remarks, my local authority has also been active in this area. It is important that the process should be conducted properly, and that relocations to places of safety in the United Kingdom should be done on the basis of assessed need. We all know of heart-rending cases, particularly involving families and children, where the best option is indeed relocation to this country, and I am proud of what this country has been doing in that regard. Ultimately, however, I do not think that this situation will be resolved simply by removing people from their homes. The sense we get is that most of them ultimately wish to return home, and I am proud of the fact that this country is in the premier division of providing financial assistance to ensure that proper humanitarian aid and support is given to those in the region itself.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South for securing this urgent question and for reminding us of the legacy of our dear departed colleague. I would like to ask the Minister to think again and to talk to his colleague, the Minister for Immigration. Her announcement yesterday about the resettlement schemes was welcome, and he is right to say that this country gives an enormous amount in aid, but my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) is also right to say that we could do so much more. There are 12 million people who have been displaced by this conflict in Syria, of whom 6 million are internally displaced and at least 6 million are in the border countries or not far off. The Minister is right to say that we want people to stay close to their country of origin, but we could be resettling so many more people and giving them a home, safety and sanctuary. I think that that is what the people of the United Kingdom expect from us in living out our values, so will he think again and talk to his colleague, the Immigration Minister, about increasing those numbers?

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I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes yesterday’s statement, which indicated that these matters are always kept under review. The Government will have heard the views being expressed across the House on this matter, but I come back to the central point that we have relocated people. They tend to be the most vulnerable, and that is important. One of the things that characterises this country—I hope she will endorse this—is that we have looked after, first and foremost, the most vulnerable: women, children, the disabled, the elderly and the sick. That is a tribute to the people of this country and their generosity, and I do not think it is right simply to dismiss some of the other aid and assistance that we have been giving in this terrible situation.

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My constituent Sarah Ainsley, who is a sixth-former at Woodbridge High School, came to see me recently to express her concern about the Syrian refugee situation closer to home in Calais, where conditions for refugees—particularly young people coming of age—are not what we would expect for any of our children, and we should not expect them for children and young people in those circumstances. What assurances can I give her that the Government are taking that issue seriously in their bilateral conversations with the Government of France? Further to the points made by my colleagues on these Benches, does the Minister accept that there is more that the UK Government could be doing in the region, notwithstanding what is already being done?

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The hon. Gentleman will have heard yesterday’s statement and will hopefully have been reassured, at least in part. The situation in Calais clearly goes well beyond Syria and is part of a much bigger piece. I hope that he will agree that the way to resolve that situation is to ensure that we prevent people from making perilous journeys in the first place. That is the view taken by both the French and UK Governments. Although it is a big piece of work and will take a long time, the imperative has to be to deal with the things that drive people to make that journey and end up in the unsatisfactory situation in France that he describes.

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The signatories 70 years ago to the fourth Geneva convention, which is international humanitarian law, would not have been surprised that the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has had to request this urgent question.

As a constituency MP with more than 40 Syrian families seeking refuge in my home town of Clydebank in West Dunbartonshire, it is my duty to represent them here. I have two specific points to raise with the Minister. First, in engaging with the United Nations, and maybe reforming international humanitarian law, we need to recognise that NATO leads on what is now called the importance of civilians in operational planning to ensure the protection of civilians. Secondly, with any increase in refugee numbers, will he assure existing refugees across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that the necessary investment to ensure their safety, wellbeing and health will not only continue but increase?

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I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman’s local authority area has been helpful in accommodating refugees. My experience in my constituency is that they have been warmly welcomed, and I have been pleased with how they have been accommodated in my small part of the south-west of England. Refugees clearly need to be provided with the necessary resources to sustain themselves and to look forward to a potential long-term future, meaning all the things that those of us who are fortunate to have been born and brought up in a pacific part of the world take for granted. I am sure that that applies in his constituency, as it does in mine.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to underscore the importance of the protection of civilians. As I said earlier, the difficulty in Syria, as in many conflicted parts of our world today, is with providing access to civilians. Our first duty must be to ensure that those who are undertaking that work are safe, and we will continue to ensure, so far as we possibly can, that that is the case.

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It is right and proper to think about why refugees are refugees and to think about ultimately getting them to return to their homes. However, as other Members have pointed out, right now, today, tomorrow, and the next day, people are being killed. This place is a hell-hole on earth. We have two big bases in Cyprus, which is close by, with 3,500 service personnel and helicopters. Why can we not go in now and get these people out in good numbers and take them to Cyprus? It is not far away, but it is safe enough for them.

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In relation to the current escalation, as I said before, these are internally displaced people. They are within the Idlib governorate, so it is not simply a question of airlifting them to Cyprus, even if Cyprus were to agree to such a thing. However, we hope that the displaced people who are outside Syria will feel able to return home when it is safe to do so. It is not the United Nations’ assessment at the moment that it is safe for them to do so, but that assessment must ultimately change. It will change, and at that point we will do our utmost to assist them to return to their homes, which I would maintain is the wish of the vast majority of refugees and those who currently find themselves displaced.