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Turkey-Greece Border: Refugees

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on what representations the UK Government have made to EU counterparts regarding the situation at the Turkish-Greek border and the refugee crisis in Greece.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer the urgent question, because the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is currently travelling back from the middle east.

The Government are very concerned by the situation on the Greek-Turkish border, but we should not allow the crisis to detract from the reality that has created it. Continued brutal violence, particularly in Idlib, by the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters, has driven millions of refugees into Turkey and beyond.

On 3 March, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed the situation with their Turkish counterparts, and we have also discussed it with the Greek Foreign Minister. Dialogue is key, so we welcomed yesterday’s talks between President Erdoğan and European Council President Michel on the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal. We will continue to support the implementation of that deal, as it is crucial to the effective management of the migratory flows and to preventing people from risking their lives by attempting to cross the Aegean. At the same time, we recognise Turkey’s generosity, and the burden of supporting millions of refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria.

Both Greece and Turkey face additional challenges as a result of increased migrant flows, and we are providing support for their response. As well as providing humanitarian assistance in Syria, the UK is providing interpreters in the Greek island hotspots and search and rescue operations in the Aegean, and we are taking part in a range of capacity-building projects with Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management. We are also working across Government to explore where the UK can provide further support to improve the conditions for migrants, especially the most vulnerable.

As I have said, the principal cause of the migration situation is the reckless and brutal nature of the Syrian regime and the Russian offensive in Idlib. The Syria conflict has been one of the most destructive in recent human history, and we want the war to end as quickly as possible. We very much welcome the recent ceasefire between Turkey and Russia, but it cannot stop there. We also continue to support efforts to renew political dialogue to bring a lasting end to the Syrian conflict. We support the constitutional committee in Geneva as a first step towards obtaining the peace that the Syrian people so desperately need, and we regret that those talks have broken down. The regime and its backers must now demonstrate commitment to resolving this conflict by engaging in good faith with the constitutional committee and with the UN’s efforts. Preventing a further worsening of the humanitarian crisis is imperative, and the UK will do all we can to support those in need, while pressing for an end to the Syrian conflict that has impacted so many around the world.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Last Friday, I met my constituent Sally Wainwright to hear about her experiences as a volunteer helping refugees and migrants on the Greek islands. As tensions have risen, mobs have attacked press and aid workers, refugee facilities have been set on fire and non-governmental organisations have had to pull out.

It is clear that the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey is breaking down. Last week, Turkey decided to open its borders with Greece, and it even bussed migrants close to the north-western border. We have seen the troubling pictures of hundreds of refugees or migrants attempting to land small boats on the Greek islands. Tens of thousands of people have headed for the land border and become trapped between Turkey and Greece. Greece has halted all asylum claims for a month and sent riot police and border guards to turn people back, to deter them from entering the country. Aggressive measures have been employed, and we have seen migrants stripped naked and beaten before being sent back across the border. We have had reports of a refugee being shot dead by live ammunition and of a child dying at sea.

Yesterday, as the Minister said, President Erdoğan visited Brussels for talks, and there have been reports that the EU is considering taking up to 1,500 child refugees from the Greek islands to ease the pressure on the overwhelmed camps. My constituent tells me that hundreds of those child refugees are unaccompanied. In the Prime Minister’s Greenwich speech on 3 February, he said that

“the UK is not a European power by treaty or by law but by irrevocable facts of history and geography and language and culture and instinct and sentiment.”

British citizens such as my constituent Sally have lived up to that sentiment and done what they can. I want to know what the UK Government are going to do on the ground to ease this humanitarian disaster.

The Government have also spoken about protecting vulnerable children and said that that will remain a priority after Brexit, so may I ask the Minister three specific questions? First, can he tell us what the UK is going to do to ease the plight of child refugees, particularly the unaccompanied ones, on the Greek islands? Secondly, what representations have the UK Government made to Greece and Turkey to end the human rights abuses that have been reported and to ensure that Greece follows the rule of law in relation to asylum applications? Thirdly, how will the UK Government assist the British non-governmental organisations that have been forced to suspend their operations amid concerns about the safety of their staff and their volunteers?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for bringing this question to the House this morning. Clearly, we are extremely concerned about the pressure that the changes at the border have caused. This has put the Greeks in particular under great pressure. We are encouraged by the words of President Erdoğan yesterday, and we hope that the EU-Turkey migration plan can be put back on track. She is absolutely right to say that that has been brought under pressure. We remain absolutely committed to supporting Greece’s efforts to manage the migration effectively, but it is imperative that we urge all sides to avoid any actions that may endanger human life. We fully support the rights of states to control their borders, but we expect them to fulfil their international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention. It is also imperative that the human rights of migrants are protected and promoted.

On resettlement, as the hon. and learned Lady will know, we work closely alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Our resettlement programmes resettle more refugees than those of any other EU member state. In 2018, almost one quarter of all resettlement to the EU was to the UK. We also aim to resettle in the region of 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees in the first year of our new UK resettlement scheme.

First, may I place on record the thanks I think we should all give the Turkish Government for their work in hosting so many refugees out of Syria? May I also pay huge tribute to the Department for International Development, which I believe is still the largest contributor of aid to the region, contributing more than the whole of the rest of the European Union combined?

What are the Government doing to help the Greek Government not just to guard one of Europe’s borders—the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) put it with perhaps a bit more force than some might feel necessary—but to empty the camps, manage the flow of people and offer a proper asylum process?

We continue to work across government to come up with a plan to explore what further assistance the UK can provide to improve the conditions for migrants. The EU has pledged all the support necessary, including €700 million, half of it immediately. We continue to have dialogue. We are talking not just with our Greek friends, but with the Turkish. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have raised this issue in the past week.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I also thank the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for securing it. As she has rightly said, the behaviour of both Greece and Turkey towards the refugees stuck on their mutual border is utterly shameful—Turkey for wilfully putting them in that impossible position in the first place, knowing that there is nowhere for them to go; and Greece for its unacceptable, heavy-handed response, including the use of tear gas and water cannon, even against people in flimsy dinghies in treacherous conditions.

Much as the self-interested sympathies of Germany and other neighbouring EU countries may lie with the Greek Government, there is no right or wrong in this crisis. Turkey is using the threat of a refugee crisis as leverage to scare up EU and NATO support for its disastrous intervention in Idlib, and Greece is ignoring its obligations under the refugee and human rights conventions by responding with such brutality. Both are equally in the wrong and should stand equally condemned, both legally and morally. The question is: where do we go from here? While there are no easy answers, there are, as ever, two starting points.

First, is the welfare of unaccompanied children and adolescents at severe risk of exploitation, neglect and abuse? Can the Minister give us his estimate of how many children and adolescents are affected? He has been asked this question several times by several Members, so I will ask again: will the UK be joining Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal in offering these children help?

Secondly—again, as always—we must address this crisis at source and stem the increasing outflow of refugees from Idlib. We therefore urgently need an internationally agreed political solution to end the war in Syria, with the safe and peaceful resettlement of refugees at its heart. May I therefore ask the Minister, in closing, what action is currently being taken towards that end?

The right hon. Lady is right to raise those points. We are absolutely focused on supporting the response of the Governments in that region. We continue to provide support to Greece in the migrant camps, with half a million pounds of funding for humanitarian supplies for those hotspot islands that have been affected, as well as crucial search and rescue operations in the Aegean sea. Key to this is the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, which has reduced the pull factors and led to a significant reduction in the number of people attempting that dangerous crossing. We are very keen, and will support all efforts, to ensure that those talks land in a satisfactory conclusion.

The whole House will be grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for raising this matter and to the Minister for his measured statement and for pointing out that Britain has been by far the largest contributor of humanitarian relief. Will he bear in mind two specific points? The first is that Turkey has been fantastically generous in its support for refugees and migrants. Indeed, there are many who have faced the dreadful misery of all this who owe their lives to the Turkish support. Secondly, Europe—and that must inevitably mean the European Union above all—has failed to come up with the right solutions and, in particular, to forge a comprehensive approach to tackling the migratory crisis and misery.

There is not a lot to disagree with in what my right hon. Friend says. The European Union has very much pledged all the support that is needed, and that includes the rapid border intervention team. We are committed to providing at the root source of the problem, and let us not forget what the root cause of the problem is: the Syrian regime and the Russian forces, in particular their actions in Idlib. Last week, we announced a new package—a further £89 million in humanitarian aid—to help save lives and protect those Syrians who are at an increasing risk of violence in Idlib.

I commend the Minister for his statement as far as it went. It is right that we were focusing on the talks in Brussels with President Erdoğan and the EU Ministers. It is a matter of great sadness to me that the UK was not in that room and was not in those talks. Can the Minister assure us that the UK will continue to act in concert with the international community? I likewise pay tribute to the Turkish Government for the major humanitarian efforts they have undertaken to date. The UK is in a position to influence the Turkish Government on this. As a NATO ally and as a major donor, we are in a position to make a difference.

To pick up on the point we have heard already about unaccompanied minors, the organisation Safe Passage estimates that there are 1,800 unaccompanied children right now on the Greek islands, and the international community has pledged, as we have heard, to look after them. But the UK is in a position to act right now. Can the Minister again give us some information about how many children the UK will take in?

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we are pushing for a more co-ordinated global management of migration that promotes greater responsibility at source. As I mentioned in one of my earlier responses, in the new UK resettlement scheme, we are aiming to settle in the region of 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Previously, we have helped more than 22,800 refugees: our initial target was 20,000. The vast majority, as he will know, were Syrian refugees, and clearly, if they are the most vulnerable, that is likely to include high numbers of children.

A lasting political settlement in Syria is key to addressing this tragic issue, but meanwhile there are so many people who are stranded and struggling in Greece and on Greek islands. I welcome the Government’s commitment to look at more ways to help those migrants in the situation they find themselves in. Meanwhile, there are a lot of aid agencies and local agencies that are working—in my constituency, Hope and Aid Direct volunteers are going to the Greek islands to help people there. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the wishes of so many people to help out during this time of need?

Absolutely. NGOs, volunteers and support organisations are crucial in helping those who are in difficulty in the camps. We continue to be focused on supporting the Government’s responses in the region, and I join my hon. Friend in commending all those organisations that are putting the work in.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) have already asked about child refugees, who are vulnerable by any definition. Can the Minister please confirm that the Government are joining the coalition of the willing led by the German Government to relocate 1,500 child refugees to try to help with some of the pressures in this crisis?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will be aware that this matter has to be discussed with Home Office representatives, but I repeat the fact that our resettlement programmes have resettled more refugees than any other EU member state. Under our new scheme, at the risk of repeating myself, we aim to resettle in the region of 5,000 of the most vulnerable refugees in the first year.

I spent a few months volunteering on the island of Lesbos at the height of the crisis in 2016. We worked to pull refugees out of the ocean, and we worked with unaccompanied minors who were deeply traumatised. Will my hon. Friend please confirm that we will always be on the side of humanitarian workers who simply want to save lives? Will he raise with his Greek and EU counterparts the abuses by Greek forces and Frontex, the EU force, against refugees, which I personally saw at first hand?

Indeed. I commend my hon. Friend for her work on Lesbos, which is one of the islands that is very much under pressure. As she will know, we are one of the largest donors to the crisis in the region. We will continue to provide assistance in the affected area, as well as in Syria, and it is not just the Foreign Office. The Department for International Development, in particular, has been a significant donor and is committed to pushing projects inside Syria, as well as in the affected area.

In many ways, the EU-Turkey deal of 2016 has allowed the EU to bury its head in the sand on this situation. We know refugees will flee wherever they can through whatever method they can, so a lot of refugees are not in established or recognised refugee camps but on the islands, not because they have chosen those places but because they were the first place of safety. What are the UK Government doing to rehouse, move and take responsibility for these refugees, not just those in recognised camps?

The United Kingdom is doing a significant amount. We are supporting Turkey to implement the EU-Turkey statement, and the United Kingdom has made €483 million of bilateral and EU budget contributions towards the €6 billion facility for these refugees.

Have the Government formed a view on what Turkey is doing on the ground inside Syria, other than suppressing our allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and supporting Islamist fighting groups?

We keep such matters under constant review, and the Foreign Secretary is due to meet Foreign Ministers from the region shortly. I am sure there will come a point when an update to the House will follow.

The Minister has mentioned resettlement, and I am glad to hear the commitment to 5,000 places under the resettlement scheme, but I have two questions. What are his Government currently doing to improve access to the resettlement scheme on the ground? I have heard from refugee NGOs that it can be very difficult to get on to the scheme. Also, has the Home Secretary continued negotiations with the EU on the unaccompanied children about whom we have heard so much? We have heard about a letter, but what else has happened?

Progress is being made with participating states. We are working very closely with the UNHCR on the referral and transfer of more eligible children, and those transfers continue.

I join others in commending Britain’s work. The aid package we have provided is incredible, but that effort is undermined by the fact we have been unable to find a long-term political solution to Syria. Britain, Europe and the international community—the west—must take some blame for that. Turkey has raised NATO article 4, and the UN Security Council is paralysed because of the Russian veto. Brexit is now done, and we are not distracted by that. May I urge the Government to play a more influential role on the international stage in standing up to state-sponsored aggression?

Absolutely, and I am sure all of us in this House condemn the actions we have seen in the region, particularly by the Syrian regime. Let us not forget why we are in this position and why these people are in this position: it is because of the behaviour of the Syrian regime, supported by the Russians. We continue to support efforts to renew political dialogue, and we want a political end to this conflict. Syria, above anybody, needs a negotiated political settlement to end the conflict and to ensure the rights of all Syrians. We support the constitutional committee in Geneva as a first step towards obtaining that peace.

No matter how much money we put into the efforts of Greece and Turkey in the region, all we are ultimately doing is sustaining a situation that creates an environment in which the people traffickers and others involved in organised crime can flourish. If we are serious about treating refugees with the respect and compassion they deserve, we need to work with our European neighbours to devise safe and legal routes to sanctuary. What are the Government doing to achieve that?

Supporting the EU-Turkey managed migration process is key. There is huge pressure on Turkey, and we must thank it for its efforts thus far. It is a matter of regret that the borders were opened in this way 10 days ago, and we want to see this resolved. We are encouraged by yesterday’s talks, in which President Erdoğan was involved. We will continue the dialogue with Turkey and hope the process moves on.

Does the Minister agree that those who are so quick to lay into Turkey would be well advised to visit the Syria-Turkey border, as I did recently, to see the work Turkey has been doing on the part of refugees? Is it the Government’s intention to continue with the facility for refugees in Turkey, the EU programme, or will they be funding refugees through another vehicle, perhaps the German housing initiative, which plans to provide temporary housing for Syrian refugees who want to return and whose return can be guaranteed to be safe and dignified?

I am not as familiar with that particular programme as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, but I am sure we will be able to find a full response to that question.

What specific assessment have this Government made of the situation and the number of children caught up in this crisis? The Minister has just said that the UK will do all we can to support those in need, and we have heard repeatedly about hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees, so what specific additional measures will the UK Government put in place to protect those most vulnerable children?

As the hon. Lady will have heard, we are putting significant amounts of humanitarian aid into those border areas, and we are committed. Over 22,800 refugees have already been resettled under UK schemes, and we aim to resettle a further 5,000. Of course, immediate humanitarian aid is required, and we are providing that support—£89 million was committed last week—so I can assure her that the UK has stepped up to the plate in this regard.

As a nation, we can be incredibly proud of the support and generosity we have shown towards Syrian refugees and others in the region. I am somewhat concerned about the role of the EU in these recent challenges on its border. Can the Minister say a little about the strategic involvement of NATO in these geopolitical matters?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Standing NATO maritime group 2 is deployed in the Aegean sea to support all international efforts to cut the lines of human trafficking and illegal migration. Everyone knows that has been happening and that people are being exploited. Additionally, NATO ships are providing real-time information to the coastguards and the relevant national authorities of Greece and Turkey, as well as to Frontex, which will help them in their efforts to tackle the crisis.

My constituent Joanna Hudak is working on the Aegean islands with Action for Education, and she points out that 42,000 asylum seekers currently reside there, whereas there is capacity for only 6,000. So further support for these reception centres is welcome, but that is not the comprehensive response needed. Surely the comprehensive response must include the relocation of some of these asylum seekers around Europe, and the UK should be part of that process as well.

The hon. Gentleman is spot on, and I could not disagree with him. However, we have to ensure that this process is done in a managed way, which is why we are supporting Turkey, bilaterally, in particular. We have been very proactive in providing significant levels of bilateral support to Turkey and Greece, because it is very important that we manage these migration challenges in a much wider and much more managed way.

I, too, have visited refugee camps in Turkey, on the Syrian border, and it is incredible the amount of aid that Turkey has been giving to refugees, as has the UK. We have provided more humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees than the whole of the European Union put together. Is it not clear that a large share of responsibility for the misery and chaos that has been caused falls to the European Union, which needs to step up to the plate, not only on humanitarian aid, but in sorting out the chaotic asylum in Greece and in securing the external EU border?

My hon. Friend raises a good point, but we should not allow that to detract from the reality that has created this situation, which is the continued brutal violence, particularly in Idlib, of the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters, which has driven millions of refugees into Turkey and beyond. He is right to say that the UK as a whole should be proud of the part we have played thus far.

Some 5.5 million people have been forced to flee brutal war in Syria, with more than 3.5 million fleeing to Turkey. The European countries have refused to do their fair share and instead have built a fortress to keep out people in need of safety. That is what we are witnessing at the Greek border. In the light of that, will the Government finally do what is right and significantly step up efforts, including by opening up safe and legal routes?

I am sure the hon. Lady will agree with my earlier point that we should absolutely condemn the offensives in Idlib. We must also welcome the ceasefire. We have repeatedly called for an immediate end to this, but preventing the further worsening of the humanitarian crisis is a key priority for us. Much more must be done to bring forward a lasting political settlement.

I am not sure that the Minister responded to the question put by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary about whether the UK will be joining countries such as France and Finland in the commitment they have made to these vulnerable children.

I have made the commitment that under our new resettlement scheme we aim to resettle 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. On the agreement that the hon. Lady refers to, I am more than happy to get her a detailed response.

The Minister will be as worried as everybody else about the reports of the refugee camp being burned and of the vigilante groups on the ground. What support are the Government giving, particularly to NGOs, to help to de-escalate the situation out there?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the incidents that have been reported. It is fair to point out that the Greeks are under considerable pressure. We remain committed to supporting their efforts to manage migration effectively, but we would say to Greece and to all sides that they must avoid any actions that may endanger life. We continue to support the humanitarian work in the area. I mentioned the half a million-pound funding for humanitarian supplies for islands that are particularly affected—the hotspots—by the current crisis.

The situation on the border in Turkey is appalling, and a meaningful ceasefire and lasting peace are badly needed. When will the UK Government finally step up to the plate and use their influence to end this abhorrent conflict?

The hon. Gentleman brings, at the end of this session, the most sensible question about the root cause. We want a lasting ceasefire. We welcome the announcement that Turkey and Russia have agreed a ceasefire in Idlib. We have consistently called for such a lasting ceasefire. Preventing a further worsening of the humanitarian crisis, however, is our priority. On 3 March, the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan to express condolences for the deaths of the Turkish soldiers in Idlib and support Turkish efforts to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary conveyed those messages to the Turkish Foreign Minister and President during his visit to Ankara on 3 and 4 March.