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Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members are all attending physically, and I remind you to please clean your spaces before you use them and, importantly, before you leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and to have the opportunity to highlight the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. I want to try to put a human face on some of what I will speak about, and I will start by referring briefly to a constituent of mine, whom I will call Mr N. I will speak about him and his family.

The case of Mr N and his family represents so much that is brilliant about how the UK and the international community support Syrian refugees, but also so much that is awful about the gaps that there still are. Mr N, his wife and his younger children have found safety and a home here in the UK in my constituency, which is of course the brilliant bit. However, the family has suffered too much and many people, including me, would say that we can do more. Not all of what I would term as Mr N’s immediate family have made it here. His adult daughter, son-in-law and one grandson remain in Lebanon.

As I will come to, the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is not good, and that has impacted on the family in the most heart-breaking way. There were previously two grandsons. One lost his life after illness at the age of three. Mr N explains that his grandson was initially refused admission to hospital in Lebanon. Even when he was finally admitted, he was left for seven hours without receiving treatment, which the family attribute to his status as a Syrian refugee. That accords perfectly with the evidence from the country, which I will come to.

Of course, the loss of the child has hit the family hard, with Mr N’s daughter and wife particularly badly hit. Mr N’s daughter had already been vulnerable to mental ill health after her husband had been detained and suffered ill treatment in Syria. They are currently residing in a garage on a farm in Lebanon, where they are working in exchange for accommodation. The family rely on the family here to transfer them money for food and basic essentials. A family reunion application for Mr N’s daughter, son-in-law and grandson has been refused, but given his circumstances, I hope that decision can be revisited and reversed. Although I appreciate that the decision is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, I would be incredibly grateful if he could persuade one of his Home Office colleagues to meet me to discuss the case.

The family’s grim existence in Jordan is far from unique. Millions of other Syrians across both Jordan and Lebanon are also suffering. That is a collective failure by the international community, because it cannot be left to those two relatively small countries to take an unbelievably disproportionate share of responsibility for those who fled conflict and persecution in Syria. The countries are trying hard. There is no doubt that we can ask more of them, but we should ask more of ourselves first.

I will briefly set out a bit more about the situation for Syrian refugees in those two countries and ask what the UK response is, in terms of both aid and taking refugees from the area. Of course, there has been good work in both of those areas, but the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I am deeply concerned about what cuts to international aid mean for the work that is going on there. I am also concerned about the end of the Syrian resettlement scheme, the gaps in the family reunion rules along the lines of those that have hit my constituent’s family, and the so-called new plan for immigration. My concern is that it is driving desperate people straight into the hands of people smugglers. I am concerned about what the cuts to aid and all the reforms to immigration will mean when they are added together.

Despite talks of crisis here in the UK or in Europe more generally, it is not our wealthy club of countries that is required to take responsibility for hosting those who had to flee Syria. As ever, that responsibility has fallen on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Since 2011, over 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria and sought safety abroad, not only in Lebanon and Jordan but in Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that refugee poverty and vulnerability is increasing and that the impact on host communities is growing. Funding for the humanitarian response is not keeping up with need.

UNICEF reports that among those 5.6 million Syrian refugees, 2.5 million children live in those same countries in camps, informal settlements and urban settings among host communities. The situation for those children is sometimes dire. UNICEF says:

“Major challenges remain in realizing the rights of refugee children. Due to the protracted situation and the covid-19 crisis, refugees are vulnerable to several protection risks, including psychosocial distress, child labour and domestic and sexual violence. Economic hardship has led some women and girls to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as child and forced marriage. The socio-economic impacts of covid-19 have also disrupted and reduced access to health care, vaccinations and learning, and increased food insecurity and child poverty, resulting in an overall decline in children's well-being.” 

As we have heard, Mr N’s grandson obviously struggled to gain access to healthcare, with devastating consequences.

Jordan has provided refuge for over 1.3 million Syrians, which is the third highest number of Syrian refugees that any country has taken in. Around half of them are registered refugees and around 126,000 of those live in refugee camps, while the greatest number have settled in urban and rural areas, mainly in northern governorates and Amman.

The Assessment Capacities Project’s humanitarian analysis programme reports that in Jordan

“almost 6 in 10 Syrian refugees of working age are unemployed. Amid aid cuts and the covid-19 pandemic, most Syrian families are relying on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Before the pandemic, Syrian refugees living outside of camps spent more than two-thirds of their monthly household budget on shelter, leaving few resources for food, health or education. They often resorted to negative coping mechanisms such as cutting meals, child labour, or early marriage. This is a rising concern as more urban refugees and host communities have difficulty accessing basic services and earning an income due to the covid-19 containment measures.” 

The UN calculates that 86% of Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan live below the poverty line and that most of them rely on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs. Although Jordan is not a signatory to the refugee convention, the Jordanian Government work closely with UNHCR. However, even before the pandemic Jordan was facing record unemployment and slow growth, and things are much worse now.

Before I move on from Jordan, I should also mention in particular the situation just over the border in Syria at the Rukban camp, where humanitarian workers are prevented from accessing 12,000 refugees who are stranded there. I understand that those restrictions have been contributed to by the Jordanian Government, as well as by the Assad regime and Russia. The presence of coalition forces in the area around the camp and border crossing means that they could be well-placed—they may even be required—to ensure that aid is delivered, and it would be useful to hear the Minister’s response on that.

Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than any country in the world, including around 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon was already facing deep economic and financial crises before covid. Not only has the pandemic made things significantly worse, but so too did the explosions at Beirut’s port on 4 August last year. The UNHCR reports:

“The protracted nature of the refugee situation with limited self-reliance possibilities, coupled with the impact of these recent crises, have led to an exponential rise in extreme poverty among refugees. According to the 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR), 89% of the Syrian refugee families are now living below the extreme poverty line, up from 55% in 2019. The situation is creating hunger, increased debt and mental and physical health problems, as well as increasing risks of evictions, exploitation, child labour and gender-based violence. At the same time, the percentage of Syrian refugees holding valid legal residency has further decreased, as the number of refugees able to pay for residency renewal has reduced and fewer fall within the criteria of the 2017 fee waiver. A lack of legal residency exposes refugees to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers their access to basic services like education, health care and social services, as well as to obtaining civil status documents such as marriage and birth registration. Non-Syrian refugees without legal residency are particularly vulnerable and at high risk of deportation to their country of origin”.

The scale of the problem with residency rights is huge. Human Rights Watch has suggested that only 22% of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live there, meaning that

“the majority are living under the radar, subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment and summary deportation to Syria”.

Refugees and other vulnerable groups are also being left behind in the covid response, with Syrian refugees dying from the virus at a rate that is more than four times the national average.

I turn now to the UK response. As I say, I acknowledge that some excellent aid work has been funded. The Syrian vulnerable persons scheme has been, on the whole, an absolute triumph. But the question is this: what happens now? Neither Jordan nor Lebanon are on the list of 34 countries that will receive bilateral overseas development aid from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in 2021-22. However, I fully appreciate that other Departments may spend money in those countries, that the UK may contribute to multilateral assistance, and that the list of countries might grow beyond 34. Nevertheless, we really need some information here and now.

The Minister provided a written answer at the end of April in which he talked about the need for aid to be

“more strategic and remain a force for good”.

However, he did not explain what the implications of that were for Jordan and Lebanon. The International Rescue Committee says its funding for protection work for vulnerable Syrians in Lebanon has been removed. Another programme in the same country, aimed at providing protection services to 107,000 people was cancelled before it could even begin. The Mines Advisory Group has confirmed that all UK funding to support its work there in removing and destroying land mines has been cancelled. That is probably the tip of the iceberg and as much as I could find in the time available. Surely now is the time to increase spending in Jordan and Lebanon, rather than cut it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme has been closed, having achieved its 20,000 target over five years. A new global resettlement scheme has been announced and is underway, but we know little about its ambitions in terms of numbers or how many it will take from Jordan and Lebanon, the focus of the earlier scheme. If there is no target, how do we budget? How do partners such as local authorities plan?

In the grand scheme of things, the global community is not even beginning to scratch the surface of what needs to be done. As the UNHCR’s Ambassador in the UK has said:

“UNHCR estimates that 1.44 million refugees globally are in need of resettlement, but only 22,770 were resettled through UNHCR last year, with 829 arriving in the UK. These are the lowest numbers we have seen in almost two decades—just when refugees needs are extremely acute and rising”.

Turning to key asks, regarding the family I mentioned, if there is any way the Minister can encourage a Home Office Minister to meet me to discuss that specific case, I would be hugely grateful. Will he also comment on the issues relating to the Rukban camp and humanitarian access? More generally, what is the FCDO’s response to the deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan? How can now be the right time to cut aid? What impact will that have on people who are forced to seek better conditions elsewhere? What work will he do with UNHCR to achieve its goals in supporting refugees there, including access to protection, to a legal status, to protection from arrest and forced return to Syria, and access to health care, work and support? Will he work with the Home Office to broaden family reunion rules, so that families such as the one I have highlighted can be reunited here? What are the targets for the new resettlement scheme? How many will come from this region? Does not this combination of cuts to aid and a flimsy regime of safe legal routes simply mean that all the more people will feel compelled to use people smugglers—something that none of us wants to see?

In conclusion, these countries may seem far away, but I think we all agree that every country, particularly wealthy countries such as ours, have a responsibility to play our role in supporting the victims of the war in Syria. That also, of course, has an impact here. Syrians continue to flee here, including on dinghies in the Channel. Most importantly, there is an impact on families, such as my constituents, who are already here and settled and who have seen their loved ones suffering in such a terrible way. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put these points and the family’s case today.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair today, Mrs Cummins. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to the work he has done in support of Syrian refugees and the moving points he made about his constituent Mr N. and his extended family.

Let us first recall why we are having this debate. Over the last 10 years, Assad’s unrepentant and unreformed regime has inflicted untold suffering on the Syrian people and has consistently and deliberately undermined efforts to pursue peace. Over half of Syria’s population has been displaced by the violence; more than 6.4 million people have fled their homes and sheltered in other parts of Syria; and over 5.5 million have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. As the hon. Gentleman said, the number that have fled to Lebanon is estimated to be 1.5 million and they make up the largest concentration of refugees per capita in the world.

The UK has a long and proud history of supporting refugees in need of protection and the Syria crisis is no exception. To date, we have committed over £3.7 billion in response to the crisis in the region—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. Since 2012, across Syria and the region we have provided over 28 million food rations, over 21 million medical consultations, 6 million cash grants or vouchers, 10 million relief packages and over 14 million vaccinations. Our aid provides life support to millions of Syrians, in support of refugees to remain in countries in the region, and it enables host communities to provide for and manage a protracted refugee presence.

Jordan and Lebanon have shown tremendous generosity in hosting 670,000 and 880,000 registered refugees respectively. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not the full number of refugees that those countries have had to host. The UK Government recognise that generosity, which is why we have contributed over £720 million in bilateral development assistance to Jordan since 2012, and over £780 million in humanitarian and development funding to Lebanon since the start of the Syria crisis.

In Jordan, our support has provided access to quality education and social protection. It has enabled partners to deliver primary and reproductive healthcare, and specialised care for refugees with disabilities. Over the past three years alone, UK humanitarian funding has helped 65,000 refugees and vulnerable people access mental health services, legal aid and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. Our cash programme has supported around 100,000 refugees with regular cash assistance.

With our support, the Jordanian Government have enrolled 83% of all Syrian children in education, the highest proportion in the region. In Lebanon, since 2011, we have provided 1.1 million people with sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. We have helped provide access to education and psychosocial support to 300,000 children. We have improved infrastructure and services in over 220 municipalities, and we have helped to create 1,300 new jobs for both Lebanese and Syrian communities and supported nearly 400 small and medium-sized enterprises.

Despite the grave economic challenges facing the UK this year, we have continued to provide humanitarian support for the Syrian crisis, as part of our commitment to the region and its overall stability. At the Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, in March this year, the UK pledged at least £205 million to the Syrian crisis for 2021. That support will continue to deliver essential, lifesaving and life-sustaining assistance in Syria, and provide vital support in neighbouring countries that host refugees.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned our aid. The UK Government are completely transparent about our aid programme. We publish detailed information every year, and this year is no exception. Final audited spending for the 2020-21 financial year will be published in the annual reports and accounts. Final 2020 spending will be published in statistics on international development in the autumn, and will contain detailed breakdowns. I hope that document will allow him to answer some of the questions that he posed at the end of his speech.

Ahead of the publication of those figures, I can explain what our development assistance will achieve in Jordan and Lebanon this year. In Jordan, we will continue to support the most vulnerable refugees with cash transfers for food and basic needs. We will support refugees and vulnerable Jordanians to access services such as legal counselling, child protection services and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. In Lebanon, we will continue to provide those most in need with assistance and protection services to cover essentials, and hopefully reduce gender-based violence, which he alluded to in his speech. We will ensure that Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese people have access to quality formal and non-formal education.

Through our CSSF—the conflict, stability and security fund—we will support vulnerable Syrian refugees to access services and will support initiatives to improve livelihoods, community peace building and reconciliation. Our support for peace-building initiatives is particularly important as the economic crisis in Lebanon puts additional strain on all communities, both Syrian and Lebanese, but we are very concerned about the increase in the critical rhetoric around refugees that we hear in Lebanon, particularly the reports of forced returns.

Although we hope Syrian refugees will ultimately be able to return home, conditions in Syria do not currently allow that to take place, and it is essential that international law is respected and that any refugee returns are voluntary and safe, and done with dignity. We continue to work with the UN on a political process to deliver a lasting peace in Syria. We do not believe the Assad regime, which has committed so many atrocities against the Syrian people, is capable of delivering that peace. If the regime and its backers want to avoid another 10 years of conflict, they must seriously engage with the political process as outlined in UN Security Council resolution 2254.

When I visited Lebanon in December last year, I stressed to my counterparts, including the then Foreign Minister, that conditions in Syria did not allow for safe, voluntary and dignified returns. I made clear the need to uphold their commitment to the principles of no forced returns. I also stressed to my counterparts the need to grip the economic crisis, which has devastating effects on the already vulnerable Syrian refugee population. The UK is united in agreement with the rest of the International Support Group for Lebanon on the issue. Only the formation of a new Lebanese Government and the implementation of economic reforms can unlock the international financial support required to stabilise the economy.

Finally, I will outline the support for refugees at home. The UK has a long history of supporting refugees in need of protection. Our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start a new life here in the UK. Overall, since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees through safe and legal routes direct from the regions of conflict and instability, around half of whom were children. On 25 February, we fulfilled our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and we continue to welcome refugees through the UK global protection scheme, as well as through the community sponsorship and mandate resettlement schemes.

Our focus will remain on helping people directly from the region of conflict or instability, thus reducing the drivers for people to put themselves in the hands of evil people-trafficking criminals. That commitment, alongside a fair and firm asylum system, will ensure that we continue to offer safe and legal routes to the UK for vulnerable refugees in need of protection.

For more than a decade the Assad regime has inflicted untold suffering on the Syrian people. It is a source of pride that the UK, as a force for good in the world, is supporting Syrian refugees in countries around the region and at home. We will continue to do so with determination, and with persistence we can, I hope, secure a brighter future for Syria and its people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.