[Relevant document: e-petition 632772, Create a Turkish Family Scheme visa for people homeless due to the earthquake.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for Türkiye and Syria after the recent earthquake.
Many of us in this place know that the UK has a strong Turkish diaspora, based primarily, though not exclusively, in London. The UK has also welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees into our country through the resettlement programme. In introducing the debate, I am conscious that there is not just great interest but real concern in our Parliament. That is evident from the number of colleagues present in Westminster Hall late on a Thursday afternoon. I thank everybody for being here.
The purpose of the debate is to highlight the situation following the recent terrible earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. In the early hours of Monday 6 February 2023, a major earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey and north-western Syria. The epicentre of the initial earthquake was near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, and it measured a staggering 7.8 on the Richter scale. It is reported to be the biggest earthquake to hit Turkey since the Marmara earthquake in 1999. Ten provinces in the south and south-east of Turkey were heavily impacted, as was northern Syria.
A second earthquake struck the same region nine hours later, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, and many aftershocks were also recorded. The impact of the earthquakes was felt hundreds of miles away, with shaking felt in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, and tremors in Cyprus, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Just this week, a further earthquake measuring 6.4 hit the region. Although the scale and extent of the damage is still being assessed, it is clear that Turkey and Syria have been left reeling from the worst earthquake in 80 years.
Current reports estimate over 46,000 deaths and over 100,000 people injured. There has been extensive structural damage in Turkey, with reports of more than 40,000 buildings collapsing, including three major hospitals in Hatay. Not only have buildings collapsed, but infrastructure has been severely damaged. It is estimated that 300,000 people across the region have been left homeless. As we have seen in recent weeks, many have been trapped under building rubble.
I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She is right to say that so many people have turned out on a Thursday because this is important to us.
My constituent, Kholoud, came to the UK as a refugee after campaigning against the president of Syria, and her family was granted temporary protection in Turkey. Her family is one of the many that have been displaced. To make matters worse, they have been refused the help they need and treated with hostility by the Turkish authorities. My constituent is very worried. She says that anti-Syrian racism has been widespread in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, and there are rumours that the rescue teams are prioritising the rescue of Turkish nationals. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Minister to provide some reassurance to my constituent that the UK is open to supporting everyone who has been affected by the tragic earthquakes, including Syrians?
The hon. Lady makes a really important point. A natural disaster recognises no boundaries and no borders; it just affects people—citizens. I am sure the Minister will respond to that point.
Few people would not be moved by the images we have seen and the stories we have heard—images of immense bravery, not just of the survivors and their families but of the rescuers who have gone in in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Of course, on top of that there is the added challenge of the weather and the freezing temperatures.
Before I talk about the UK’s aid and the international response, it is important to reflect on the fact that Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees displaced abroad due to the country’s civil war. In some of the affected areas, 50% of the population are refugees. I recall visiting some of those camps and communities back in 2014 as part of a Conservative social action project before I entered this place, and even at that point the numbers were high and it seemed that it would potentially be a long-term situation.
There are 47,000 dead—my constituency has 44,000 people in it. That gives a sense of what we are facing in human terms. On the subject of refugees, many of those who have been displaced will of course want to stay and rebuild, but they may want to send some of their family to join family here. Would this not be a great opportunity to give a lead in the world and set up a scheme for those who have connections here in the same way that we did for those fleeing war in Ukraine?
The right hon. Gentleman puts the numbers into context. It is one thing to talk about a number, but to relate it to the size of a constituency or a community absolutely resonates. I am sure the Minister will say a little more about the refugee situation.
When I was in Turkey, I visited Gaziantep—a beautiful part of the country—and the region close to the border, and I recall just how struck I was by the size of the refugee crisis. For Syria, this is yet another devastating crisis after 12 years of conflict. Syria is divided into hostile areas, with the Assad regime controlling most of the country. The northern regions are controlled by a variety of armed opposition groups. There is now the impact of devastating earthquakes to deal with, too.
In Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia and Hama governorates, there are reports of collapsed buildings. Major infrastructure damage has been reported too, and also in Damascus. The British Red Cross estimates that 4.1 million people in the north-west of Syria already rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. The scale and severity of the humanitarian situation is complex and severe.
In Turkey, the Government declared a state of emergency and requested international assistance. The country has an impressive disaster relief operation known as AFAD—the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency—which I was fortunate to visit in my time as Minister for the European Neighbourhood, but even that has been severely tested by the scale of the disaster.
The week of the earthquakes, I visited the Nurture Society in Cambuslang in my constituency to lend my support to the phenomenal amount of work it quickly undertook to support the Turkish community locally and across the central belt, and to get vital supplies sent to those on the ground. Does the right hon. Lady share my gratitude to local community groups that mobilised so swiftly? Does she agree that they are the pride of our constituencies?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I will touch on the tremendous support from local communities shortly. I am really pleased that in the immediate aftermath the UK Government—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and many others—took swift action and stepped up to deliver aid and humanitarian support. I want to take a moment to mention some of this work.
A Disasters Emergency Committee—DEC—appeal was launched and raised almost £53 million in its first two days. I was pleased to see the FCDO, which I know is a long-standing member, pledge to match the first £5 million raised. As at 20 February, which is when I last checked, the appeal had raised more than £93 million for both Turkey and Syria. Fifteen charities are involved in that vital fundraising and response effort.
UK ISAR, the UK international search and rescue team, funded by the FCDO, sent a 77-strong team of specialists—I was really pleased to note that that included eight West Midlands Fire Service personnel—along with four specialist search and rescue dogs, to assist with search and rescue. Many of us saw the scenes on our TVs of people being rescued from the rubble days after the earthquake had struck. I pay tribute, as I am sure all Members would, to all the search and rescue personnel and, of course, to the amazing rescue dogs, who have a vital part to play.
The UK has sent out thousands of lifesaving items, including tents and blankets, and announced an aid package. I welcome the UK’s sending out a joint Ministry of Defence and FCDO field hospital, which includes an emergency department and a 24/7 operating theatre to provide emergency treatment to the critically injured. The Government have committed additional funding to the White Helmets to support earthquake search and rescue efforts in north-west Syria, where the situation is extremely complex. And of course there are organisations and charities such as the British Red Cross, ActionAid and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name just a few of the many that do incredible work in these challenging and often dangerous humanitarian situations.
Before I move on to talk a little more about some of the challenges and to seek some reassurances from my hon. Friend the Minister, I want to recognise also the contribution of businesses, our local communities and individuals in the UK, who are playing their part in this effort. I want to mention in particular, from my own constituency, my fellow Rotarians in Aldridge, who held a collection in the village—I think it was in Morrisons —last weekend. Their response was very warmly received by the local community. Also, Tynings Lane Church in Aldridge recently collected blankets and warm clothes to send over with a family who were travelling to the region.
I am sure that the Minister will want to update us on the latest situation regarding the UK response to the Turkey-Syria situation and I look forward to that, especially because, following the visit to the region earlier in the week by the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), he will have more up-to-date information. I would also like to gently ask him how he balances this latest humanitarian situation among all the many other, equally important pressures on his budget. I can remember from my time in the FCDO that that is always quite a challenge, so I just wanted to raise it with him.
Let me turn briefly to the situation in Syria. Even before the earthquake struck, there was only one remaining UN-mandated border crossing, at Bab al-Hawa. When I visited in 2021, I saw at first hand the huge volume of trucks and aid that was passing through, and even then it simply was not enough to match the needs of north-west Syria. I am pleased that the UK is working very closely with the UN, international partners and non-governmental- organisation partners to look at mobilising support. I welcome the UN-brokered agreement of 13 February to open additional crossings, but I believe that they are only temporary—for three months—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me and others that he will do all he can to keep those crossing points open.
Of course, the difficulty of humanitarian access to north-west Syria is not new; it is the result of the ongoing conflict and the Assad regime’s use of aid as a political weapon. The Turkey-Syria earthquake has acted to highlight the challenge once again. What more can the UK and the international community can do, working with the UN and NGOs, to help humanitarian assistance to reach those who need it?
US trade sanctions in Syria have led to accusations that they have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching victims of the disaster, which could reasonably be an unintentional consequence, despite exemptions on aid goods. Does the right hon. Member share my concerns about the Syrian Government’s attempt to use the situation to have sanctions lifted?
In any situation, I would always be concerned about the possibility of any regime using humanitarian aid as a weapon of conflict, so I urge those involved in the effort to do all they can to keep the crossing points open and the flow of aid going through to the people who need that help the most.
Finally, I want to return briefly to reconstruction. I am aware that there has been criticism of construction methods used in Turkey and the fact that many buildings may have failed to meet the correct standards. What can the international community do to keep the pressure on and ensure that reconstruction projects are built to the best standards possible, certainly where UK aid and UK companies are involved? That becomes ever more pressing as we move from the rescue to the recovery phase of the disaster.
In common with other Members, I have visited Turkey on a number of occasions, including both Gaziantep and Hatay. I have seen the beautiful mosaics in the museums. I have spoken with many people. I have visited refugee camps on the banks of the Euphrates and I have stood right on the border between Turkey and Syria, watching the aid trucks cross. Turkey has shown great solidarity by opening its country and its homes to many thousands of displaced people. I hope that today’s debate reinforces not just the UK’s role in international development but our solidarity with all those affected by the devastating earthquakes.
Order. Many Members want to participate in the debate. In order to try to get everybody in, I propose an informal time limit of five minutes on Back-Bench contributions. If Members do not keep to that informal limit, I will have no choice but to impose a shorter, formal one in due course.
I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this very important debate on support for the people of Türkiye and Syria following the devasting earthquakes. I join her in sending condolences to all those who have lost loved ones and in paying tribute to all the organisations and individuals who are working so hard to deliver aid and medical assistance on the ground. We will need a long-term commitment to the region.
The tragic events in Türkiye and Syria have been keenly felt in Newport East, where we have well-established Turkish and Kurdish-Turkish communities. The Kurdish-Turkish community in Newport has grown considerably in recent years, as a result of political discord and divisions in Türkiye, a divide that has again been brought into focus over recent weeks. In Newport, the majority of families in that community originate from provinces that have been among the most severely impacted by the earthquake, including Hatay, where some 21,000 deaths have been recorded, and the surrounding areas of Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep and Adıyaman, which are each districts with recorded death tolls of over 3,500.
We know that the official Government death toll across southern and central Türkiye and northern Syria is a staggering 49,000, and is likely to rise, not least as there are still scores of destroyed buildings where search and rescue missions have not yet taken place. That is particularly true for the towns and villages in mountainous regions that rescue crews have been unable to access following the devastation of road and airport infrastructure. It would be good to hear from the Minister today what steps the international community is taking to ensure that emergency support reaches survivors in those less accessible areas; my constituents have asked me to raise that question, as the scale is huge.
We are keenly aware that the world does not yet have a full picture of the devastation wrought in Syria. Residents in Newport who have family members stranded in Idlib, an area that is still recovering from the barbarism wrought by Daesh and cluster bombs from Russian and Assad-backed Government forces, are particularly concerned that the region should not be forgotten. Even before the earthquake, an estimated 4.1 million people in north-west Syria relied on aid to meet their basic needs, and we think that 5.3 million survivors in Syria are now dependent on humanitarian assistance.
I understand that there are now three aid routes open in Syria, and 143 convoys have been able to cross the border, but Save the Children highlights that those routes will be open only during a three-month window, and that most of the aid packages crossing the border have only a 12-week lifespan. A long-term strategy for aid and support is much needed, and any update on that would be much appreciated.
Since the earthquake struck on 6 February, I have been in touch with 250 constituents who have lost family or loved ones, and I have taken part in two community meetings in Newport over the last fortnight, which included heartbreaking and really harrowing accounts from those directly and indirectly affected. Last week, I spoke with two survivors who told me that they had just managed to escape their home before the building collapsed, but they were unable to save their neighbours. They could hear their cries from under the rubble. The cruel feeling they described of survivor guilt will never leave them, nor will the horrific memories of what they heard and felt that day.
I met another constituent who lost 10 loved ones in a single building collapse, and another gentleman who had lost 20 relatives. There are many people worrying for their vulnerable young orphans and frail and elderly relatives who are now living under those crude tarpaulin tents. As one constituent put it to me:
“If they don't die of the disaster, they will die of the cold. The water is dirty. They’re hungry.”
“More people will die of infection and the cold than the earthquake - we just don't have time.”
Sky News followed one of my constituents, Ahmet, who travelled to some of the most challenging areas in the region to try to find his only surviving relative, a 15-year-old niece. He is now stranded, and cannot return home to Wales as there is no one alive to care for her.
A big ask from the community in Newport is for a temporary visa system to be put in place, akin to the support offered by other European countries, such as Germany and the Swiss and Dutch Governments, to allow those most vulnerable individuals who have been left stranded to reunite with family members here in the UK. I understand that might not be the Government’s position at the moment, but I would be really grateful to hear details from the Minister about what options might be available and what discussions he has had with the Home Office on the handling of new visa applications and speeding up existing visa applications. We are aware that many people, particularly the 15-year-old I mentioned, will have lost all documentation, so that is important too. What is the strategy for orphaned children without passports or documentation?
I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills about rebuilding in a safer way for the future. I reiterate the asks made by Save the Children—namely, for the UK Government to play their part in a sustained campaign of international support to prevent further loss of life, including in the secondary crisis of hunger and disease, and to ensure that the protection of children is at the centre of our action.
I will finish on a more optimistic note. I thank the 16 schools in Newport East that have joined forces to donate to an appeal organised by Maindee Primary School, a school with a massively big heart. The supplies were sent away last week, so a big thank you to all those who donated, including Birchwood Housing CIC. I know there have been many appeals in Newport at the rugby and in our local churches for people to donate to the DEC appeal. In dark times, we tend to see the spirit of human kindness shine through brightly, and I know that is true for both my constituents and people across the country. I know Wales and the UK stand with the people of Türkiye and Syria.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate. Few events can have the capacity to shake us to our core more than an earthquake. We are all moved by individual stories of victims of these natural disasters. In the news last week, I heard of a man whose home was one of the thousands of buildings in north-west Syria that were completely destroyed by the 6 February earthquakes. At least a hundred people in the building died. He recalled the shaking and the smell of dust, as his children fled from the second floor. Another building crumbled down in front of their eyes as they stepped outside.
Two weeks after the earthquakes, he now lives in a tent with his wife and seven children in the garden of a non-governmental organisation. He used to work in an olive refinery, but he is now unemployed, and since the earthquakes his family gets by with food support provided by charities.
With the rise of natural disasters often triggered by the impact of climate change, the challenges our world faces are becoming more complex. At the same time, ever-growing regions are subject to political unrest and instability. In this context, the solidarity shown in response to Syria and Turkey’s emergency has been inspiring.
I take this opportunity to thank every Government organisation and individual who has offered immediate assistance in the form of much-needed critical resources, such as winter clothing, health and nutrition supplies, electric heaters and hygiene kits, as well as the specialist rescue units that are helping extract people from under the rubble. I am proud that as a country we have been able to pledge more than £30 million in assistance, including the deployment of search and rescue teams and an additional £3.8 million in funding for the Syrian White Helmets.
I am aware of the critical humanitarian situation in north Syria over many years. This natural disaster has exacerbated the high level of humanitarian need, with many Syrian refugees concentrated in the 10 affected provinces of southern Turkey, and Syria suffering from more than a decade of civil war.
Before the earthquakes, the region had a high level of humanitarian need and displacement, and the UN said that its funding for the area was already overstretched. While the earthquake was felt as far away as Lebanon, closer to home, northern Syria’s Aleppo and surrounding areas also reportedly saw thousands of buildings collapse, including two hospitals. The UN estimates that in north-west Syria, 120 schools have been destroyed and 57 hospitals have been partially damaged or forced to suspend their services.
Getting assistance to some 4.6 million Syrians living in the north-west has been slower than in the Government-controlled areas. It took nearly five days for the first UN aid to arrive, due to the restricted access. I am glad that the UK has been able to take steps to make it easier for the aid agencies to operate without breaching any sanctions that target the Assad regime.
Political unrest and instability clearly create challenges to countries wanting to offer aid. While aid agencies are working to help millions, there is concern that needs arising from other crises such as the war in Ukraine and Syria’s protracted civil war could affect that assistance over time. I would also like to highlight the fact that, as snow and rain have hampered the work of rescue teams, we also need to consider the safety and security of people offering the aid.
To deal with the aftermath of this crisis, we have years of work ahead. What support are we offering to ensure the rebuilding of housing so that populations are not displaced? As the situation on the ground moves to a new phase, from rescue to recovery, it is important that the UK considers the focus of our international aid budget in offering support that will last, by rebuilding people’s homes. This is a shared responsibility across the international community, but Britain will take a lead. I know that if we fail in this task we will pick up the cost of displacement in other ways.
It is important that the UK takes a role of leadership in international humanitarian support. We have a long and proud history of being at the heart of responses to disaster and conflict. The war in Ukraine has shown our allies how Britain can take the lead. In his recent speech, given next door in Westminster Hall, President Zelensky said:
“London has stood with Kyiv since day one, from the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war. Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.”
We need to continue to work with the United Nations and other partner organisations in Turkey and northern Syria to co-ordinate the emergency response, with a particular focus on areas where access is difficult.
I am surprised that you have called me so early, Sir Graham, but thank you very much for doing so. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for leading the debate and for setting the scene so well for us. We will add our contributions, some of which will probably involve talking about people from our constituencies who have gone out to Turkey and Syria.
This very important debate takes place during a sad period for the people of Turkey and Syria. We in the UK are a generous society. We have proven that over a number of decades and especially in the recent invasion of Ukraine. We do our bit on the global stage to provide help to those in need, and providing basic support is the least we can do for those suffering from natural disasters. I think it is right that we do that, and I thank the Minister and our Government for all the work they have done to ensure that help goes out to the people who need it. We encourage our Government to do as much as they can, and in these debates we ask them to do more, but we recognise what has happened.
Millions of people across Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus felt the effects of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and thousands have been coping with the physical and mental aftershocks ever since. People do not know where their loved ones are, they have lost their homes and livelihoods, and there has been economic devastation. Some 47,000 people have been killed—unfortunately, we expect that figure to rise—and hundreds of thousands more injured. Many of those people are now forced to live in decrepit conditions, with no healthcare because hospitals are overflowing. Desperate recovery efforts will be ongoing in the coming months and perhaps even beyond.
I have had many constituents contact my office in relation to donations, and I am sure every Member present would say the same. Many are wanting to send clothes, blankets, shoes and other necessities. Some of them have very little, but they want to help. We still have the mindset that we had following the invasion of Ukraine. The amazing thing about this nation is that our first instinct is always to say, “What can we do?” I never fail to be moved by the generosity of the people of my constituency, and I know it is replicated across the country.
The people of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are generous and we dig deep. I am aware that some places are encouraging monetary donations to help with the devastation, but many charities and organisations seem to be encouraging other types of donation instead. I know that monetary contributions will be put towards dedicated emergency relief and rebuilding efforts for families in all impacted areas, and that might be a better way, but sometimes people want to give practical things to be sent right away, which is also a very important part of the aid effort.
The charities that have been instrumental in providing life-saving assistance include DEC, UNICEF, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save The Children, and there are dozens more. I know churches that are active as well, and several of my constituents have travelled over to help with the dog search and rescue, and to work as paramedics. It has been heartening to see just how much we want to help.
The Red Cross has revealed that some 3,000 people are currently in temporary accommodation, with a further 380,000 in school facilities, and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to the 44,000 people who have died. To give an idea of the numbers affected, 380,000 people are a quarter of Northern Ireland’s population.
In addition to five mobile kitchens, 71 catering trucks have been deployed to provide food for people in the coming days. The Turkish Red Crescent is aiming to deliver some 50,00 blankets, 10,000 electric heaters and 25,000 sleeping bags. It is important that we do all we can to support the victims of the devastation, whether by donating online or by encouraging schools and other groups to raise money. The UK Government have sent a 77-strong search and rescue group that is helping to put families back together and find loved ones, at a total cost of £8 million.
Family links have proven to be instrumental in driving us to give all the assistance we can. We are here today to represent our constituents, including those from Turkey who now live in our constituencies, and those who are going over to help. Children do not know where their parents are, and family pets are wandering around looking for their homes. The impacts have been devastating. The Samaritan’s Purse charity is once again stepping up and helping. All these charities should be noted and thanked.
I hope that the aid we provide and will continue to provide can make a difference in trying to fix what has been broken in Turkey, Syria and surrounding areas. I know that my constituents are generous, compassionate and wanting to help, and they continue to donate where possible. That will be replicated across all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We say to all those who have assisted thus far, despite their own financial pressures, that their efforts are valued. We thank them most sincerely. They enable us to hold our heads high through their kindness and generosity, as we continue praying for all those affected by this dreadful tragedy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on her thorough introduction to this debate in which she highlighted the real challenges with some feeling. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who described so well, but so sadly, the reality of life for someone who has been through these devastating circumstances. I will pick up in particular her point about family reunion.
I am very proud to represent a borough in Hackney where just over 3% of the population—about 7,000 people —have Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds. I and my north-east London colleagues, whom I am glad to see here, represent what we might describe as a little Turkey. We have a huge engagement with our Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking communities, who contribute an awful lot to our society.
I will talk a bit about family reunion. I appreciate that the Minister has to defer to the Home Office on these issues, but the point must be made very firmly that we have examples in very recent times of reunion schemes to bring people from areas of devastation into the UK. The Public Accounts Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, looked at the Syria scheme, which was actually well worked out. Obviously that mostly involved people without family here, but 20,000 of them were settled, so there is a precedent. There is also a precedent in the Afghan scheme, although that was not about family reunion, of course, but resettlement routes for people to whom the UK owes a duty of care.
In addition, there is the example of Ukraine. There were rocky moments, but the family reunion and Homes for Ukraine schemes are worked-up schemes that are there to pick up anew. There was also Hong Kong, and back in 1996, when I was a young councillor, we welcomed people from Montserrat. Although that was from an overseas territory, we nevertheless had the capability, the capacity and the mechanisms to ensure that we could get people into this country.
I represent, as I say, around 7,000 Turkish and Kurdish people—well, I do not represent them all; I share that with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). There are many thousands of others across north-east London, and, as we have heard, in Newport and across the country. There are families here who have jobs and housing, who could quickly scoop up family members caught up in the devastation.
Many years ago, when I was the Minister responsible for dealing with issues such as resettlement, we would take a number of people from United Nations camps, but we now know that there are aid agencies there who can identify families or individuals who are very vulnerable, such as lone children, and who could be quickly routed through the existing compassionate route that we operate and support as the United Kingdom. The communities here—not just the individuals, with their housing, jobs and money that could support those people, but the communities in Hackney and around north-east London—could do a great deal to support people. We have groups such as the Alevis and very many Turkish community groups and organisations that would be very welcoming. My own mosque, Suleymaniye mosque, is a Turkish foundation mosque as well.
We know it takes time to get these schemes right, so there is no time for delay. It is important that we have child protection and other protection routes in place, so that we are not just accepting people for wrong reasons. Those such as the 15-year-old orphan girl my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East described need to come somewhere safe, and there is no safe place for them in the region at the moment because of the challenges.
I urge the Minister to give us an answer today on the Government thinking on this. I have already written to the Home Secretary, and I will continue to work with colleagues to press this issue. We are not necessarily talking about great numbers of people—sadly, with so many deaths, there will be very few people in this position —but at the very least we must reach out to those vulnerable lone children and other vulnerable people. I look forward hopefully to the creation of a wider scheme to support people, but could we please get moving on supporting vulnerable lone children and vulnerable family members of those currently in the UK as a starting point?
I will now impose a four-minute time limit on speeches.
As we have heard, the series of earthquakes that began in the early hours of Monday 6 February have been devastating. The scale of loss has been immense. Some 46,000 people have been confirmed dead, and the Turkish Government officials have said that that is likely to rise fourfold or fivefold once they have cleared the rubble of collapsed buildings. An estimated 23 million people have been affected, including 7 million children. As a mother, watching a newborn whose whole family had died being pulled out of the rubble, and a father sitting holding the hand of his teenage daughter who lay dead under the ruins of their home, broke my heart.
This week when, we thought disaster relief could continue, disaster struck again, with two further powerful earthquakes in the area. Like many members of our country’s large British Turkish-Kurdish communities, my family woke up that Monday and started trying to contact loved ones and relatives. We were incredibly lucky to find out that the majority of our family were safe, but thousands of families have not been so lucky. I spent the whole day following the earthquake at the local British Alevi community centre. Families were talking to loved ones and watching via WhatsApp video calls while family members tried desperately to dig through the rubble. It was heartrending.
Desperation grew as time passed and people waited longer and longer for help to reach them. Feeling totally helpless, I, like so many in my community, could do little more than take to Twitter to raise the alarm and call for help for the relatives of my brother-in-law, who were trapped under their collapsed building. Sadly they died, having waited three days for help which did not reach their neighbourhood.
When such devastation occurs, one of the few aspects we can take solace in is the response and acts of others. The international response to the disaster has been immense. I am grateful to the Government for immediately sending over search and rescue teams and a UK emergency medical assessment team, and for £25 million of aid that has been committed to the region. A fund launched by the UK Disasters Emergency Committee raised more than £30 million in its first day. We also know that the UN, EU and the US have launched aid appeals for both Turkey and Syria.
As the Minister will know, Turkey has a very large Syrian refugee community, with over 3 million refugees in the area. A large number of them live in the region hit by the earthquake. I am receiving reports from community centres in the region and from members of the community here with loved ones in that region that the treatment of Syrian refugees is heartbreaking. Families are fearful; not speaking Arabic, they fear that they might not receive the help that they so desperately need. Search and rescue support never got to their area, and now they are not receiving the aid that they need to survive in the bitter cold. Can the Minister confirm that the UK will raise the concerns and plight of Syrian refugees and the other religious and ethnic minorities in the region who are affected by the earthquake to ensure that the aid that is sent is delivered equitably in the region?
Local community centres have spent day and night organising aid to be sent to Turkey via trucks. They have been holding fundraising events.
I want to put on the record our thanks for my hon. Friend’s language skills. It has been extremely stressful for her and her team, who have been inundated with requests for support. On behalf of all Members in this House, I want to put on the record our heartfelt thanks for the endless amount of time that she and her team have spent absorbing the trauma, stress and grief of others.
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words and for her support to the Turkish-speaking community in Hornsey and Wood Green.
As I was saying, local community centres across north London and the UK have spent day and night collecting funds and aid to send to Turkey. Local faith groups in Enfield, including Jewish, Sikh, Christian and Muslim groups, came to the centre to show their support and make donations. It has been hugely heart-warming for the Turkish and Kurdish community in this time of crisis.
Sadly, the aid that was sent to Alevi faith centres for distribution in Turkey to purchase much-needed tents and goods has been confiscated. The Government have appointed commissioners to these centres and they are unable to distribute the funding, which is really heartbreaking for my community. My community has some serious questions for the Government, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer.
Those who remain in the disaster zone have lost their homes, possessions and family members. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 5.3 million people have been displaced by the earthquake in Syria alone. The winter weather is making life extremely difficult for survivors.
Order. Would the hon. Member resume her seat? The time limit has passed.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate. My thoughts and prayers are with the people in Turkey and Syria who are in desperate need following the recent earthquake, which has caused such tragic loss of life. Millions of Syrians caught up in the disaster will already have been displaced to camps and makeshift settlements. This earthquake is, therefore, yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable and already struggling populations. That will compound the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
Our practical solidarity is needed now. Trade unions are calling for contributions from their branches to go to the ITUC-Asia Pacific natural disaster fund to help with the relief efforts. Islamic Relief UK has an emergency appeal, along with many organisations in my constituency, including as faith and non-faith groups and local businesses, which I am proud to see donating money to these emergency appeals.
None the less, we must hold the Government to account, be realistic about long-term needs and learn from our responses to past disasters. The UK must step up further and play a role in co-ordinating and scaling up the response. Initial pledges are one thing, but history has taught us of the importance of having a well-funded crisis reserve that can provide ongoing crucial emergency aid, yet the UK aid budget continues to be slashed, with bigger cuts expected in the future. I urge the Government to reverse that trend as a matter of urgency and set out a long-term funding strategy for the region. Rather than cutting aid, we should be cancelling the deeply damaging levels of debt of low-income countries. A United Nations report published in October 2022 set out the unfolding global debt crisis using data on credit ratings, debt sustainability and sovereign bonds. The report stated that data was missing for several countries, including Syria. Can the Minister say more about the debt situation in relation to Syria?
We know that Syria has long been enduring an economic crisis, which is likely to hinder any earthquake response. I therefore highlight the United States’ decision to announce an exemption to its sanctions on Syria for all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts, and ask the Minister for the latest information on the possibility of lifting sanctions on Syria to speed up aid deliveries, given their widely noted significant economic and social impact?
The added difficulty is that it is Turkey which, like no other country, opened up to the world’s largest refugee population amid Syria’s continuing instability, as well as providing vital aid. Can the Minister update us on whether the UK is doing its fair share by providing asylum and ensuring safe routes for victims of the earthquake? We have a shared responsibility to help those who are least well off, both in this country and around the world. With the effects of covid-19, climate change, conflict, humanitarian crisis, inflation, economic instability and now this earthquake disaster, internationalism and global solidarity have never been more crucial.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this timely and important debate.
The tragedy unfolding in Turkey and Syria is heart- breaking. I join other hon. Members in sending my condolences and sympathy to everyone affected by the disaster. The impact of the earthquakes is unfathomable. More than 47,000 people have been confirmed dead, thousands are missing and many millions more have been displaced. Millions require urgent assistance across Turkey and Syria; there is desperate need for blankets, emergency shelter, food and clean water.
Like many places across the UK, my constituency of Enfield, Southgate is home to thriving Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian communities. Tragically, some have lost loved ones, and many more have been desperately trying to contact friends and family in the region who now face an acute humanitarian crisis. On a recent visit to the British Alevi Federation in north London, I saw at first hand its incredible work to co-ordinate collections of clothes and money for those impacted by the earthquakes. Many of those affected by the disaster are Alevi. It was heartbreaking to hear about the community’s experience. I also heard about the challenges that the federation faces in ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those who are desperately in need in their communities and in difficult-to-reach areas. The group raised concerns about the speed of the Turkish Government’s response; I urge the Minister to use our relationship with Turkey to ensure that all areas impacted by earthquakes are receiving humanitarian support.
From members of the diaspora coming together in solidarity to communities spending day and night organising aid deliveries, and local schools raising money through fundraisers, the generosity of our local communities has been amazing and should make us all incredibly proud. The international response has also been immense. I thank and pay tribute to everyone involved in the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal and all those who have donated. DEC charities and their local partners are providing urgent help to people in need right now.
In Syria, humanitarian support is needed more than ever. The situation in north-west Syria has rightly been described as a crisis upon a crisis. One of the world’s most vulnerable populations, which has endured 12 years of brutal conflict, now faces further desperation and trauma. Prior to the earthquakes, 4.1 million people in north-west Syria were already dependent on humanitarian assistance. Millions of Syrians have been displaced after more than a decade of conflict and are living in incredibly difficult conditions with minimal support. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the International Rescue Committee is warning of a secondary public health crisis.
I welcome the Government’s action so far in co-ordinating humanitarian support amid the incredibly challenging situation in Syria. I note, for example, their support for the White Helmets and their life-saving search and rescue and emergency relief operations in north-west Syria. They have also made wider efforts to support the international community’s response, which includes the UN and other agencies such as Action for Humanity, the parent company of Syria Relief, that are operating on the ground in Syria.
I also welcome the opening of the two crossings at Bab al-Salam and al-Rai, with the expansion of the UN cross-border operation, to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, the delay in opening the crossings demonstrates the challenges that we face in facilitating aid in a country ravaged by war, as well as the malign influence of the Assad regime and Russia in this humanitarian crisis.
In conclusion, given the strength of feeling in this debate and the response to the petition, will the Minister make sure that the Government show how they will ensure that emergency aid reaches those who need it most in Syria, and how help will be co-ordinated with our international partners and local partners on the ground?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to follow so many of my colleagues, not just from north London but from Wales, and other colleagues across the House who have spoken with such passion about this devastating disaster.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who has led on the issue in my local area, working very closely with the leadership of Enfield Council and of Haringey Council to pull together the enormous amount of good will. As we often find in these tragic moments, that good will needs to be supported and shaped, and the leadership role played by the two local authorities, which are both led by Turkish-speaking women, has been really something to see.
I put on record my thanks to the Mayor of London for coming with me and colleagues to the London Alevi Cultural Centre and Cemevi last week. There was a candle for every single one of the cities about which the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) spoke so powerfully, including Maraş and the Syrian cities that have been affected. Each city was represented by a candle, which was lit. We looked at them and spent time with the community, talking to people about what the needs were at that point, when people were still being pulled out alive. I was proud that our own firefighters, emergency rescue teams, doctors and nurses were there to provide the sort of support that is so vital in these terrible moments.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) was able to visit the Enfield Alevi Cultural Centre to provide reassurance that he would use his parliamentary role as shadow Foreign Secretary and be a shoulder to cry on, because at this point we are still very much in shock. Perhaps our requests need to be monitored on an ongoing basis so that we can get as much assistance as possible in the medium and long term. I put on record my particular thanks to the Komkar community centre in Hornsey, the Cemevi in Wood Green and all the smaller centres in my constituency, which all play their role.
I hope that the UK Government will be able to assist the Turkish Government so that we can have best practice on construction in areas where there are fault-lines and earthquakes such as this terrible one. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about the possibility of any support for construction that might be on offer. I also reiterate the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) for family reunion where appropriate. It needs to be quick.
On the medical question, there will be specialisms that we can offer in our London hospitals to those who are desperate and who need medical assistance as soon as possible. Will the Minister outline what programme the FCDO, in conjunction with the Home Office, can work up to meet those needs?
Finally, in relation to the aid and the gifts that are coming through, I ask that the UK Government take responsibility for people who wish to donate from the UK, but who may not be used to donating and may accidentally donate to a questionable charity. I have heard, as I am sure colleagues across the House have, that people have been seeing very sad stories on Facebook and giving people £100. That is not best practice. Will the Minister outline what he believes should be done in that regard?
Those are my questions for the Home Office, for the Foreign Office and for any other arms of the Government that can assist communities abroad in these terrible times.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this incredibly important debate.
May I begin by thanking and paying tribute to the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who spoke emotively? On behalf of the Scottish National party, I thank her for all the work she has been doing. We pass on all our love and support to her and her community.
The earthquakes have caused untold levels of damage. Sadly, the most recent estimates suggest that 49,000 people have lost their lives, and that figure is only likely to grow. I express my party’s deepest condolences to all those impacted by the disaster and our support for those in Scotland and across the four nations who have family and friends in the region.
With temperatures approaching zero, as many as one million people are currently living in tents, and such conditions are susceptible to outbreaks of disease. With healthcare infrastructure already stretched, that adds additional pressures. It will likely be months until families are put up in even temporary accommodation, so this is a humanitarian crisis that will last for years, not simply days or months.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) has highlighted, the earthquake has exacerbated an already desperate humanitarian situation in north-west Syria: 84% of the population in the region were already dependent on humanitarian support after years of conflict. An estimated 5.3 million people in Syria have been displaced from their homes because of the earthquake, but it is only the most recent compounding factor in a region that has faced so much devastation. From cholera to snowstorms and the impact of civil wars, there is already so much suffering. As the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) stated, we must do all we can to help a population that is already dependent on humanitarian aid. I would be grateful if the Minister detailed the discussions that the UK Government are engaging with at a UN level on opening additional crossing points for humanitarian assistance.
When natural disasters strike, it is too often women and girls who are disproportionately affected. For example, the immediate relief given will often not include sanitary products, so women have no option but to share those products, which can cause infection and increase rates of disease. Research evidence also suggests that triggers for violence against women and girls increase in the aftermath of natural disasters. There are 25,000 people due to give birth in the coming months; an earthquake of this scale hampers healthcare infrastructure, which will have both an immediate and a long-term effect on babies born into the crisis. As the crisis continues to unfold, it is paramount that the Government’s response be intersectional and that it consider the structural issues that are so often overlooked.
Over the past few weeks, some devastating videos and pictures have been shared on social media. One that particularly struck me was of a young boy who was taken out of the rubble. He had clearly been sleeping and did not really know what was happening. He said, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” The brave rescuers just said, “Nothing’s happening. Good morning,” just to give that little bit of reassurance to that poor kid impacted by this devastating earthquake.
Many children affected by the earthquake are likely to require medical attention to treat the injuries that they have sustained. However, many healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed, which is having a compounding impact, particularly in Syria, where very few healthcare facilities were functioning and supplies were already critically low. Will the Minister tell us the UK Government’s level of engagement with other Governments and with charities on provision for young children?
I echo the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in thanking civil society organisations for their tremendous work in responding to the crisis. Communities in Scotland have rallied together to respond. So far, the Scottish people have given £5.5 million to relief efforts. Local groups and organisations have played a critical role in responding to the crisis. I commend the work of groups such as the Association of Turkish Alumni and Students in Scotland, which arranged a plane to transport food, clothing and blankets to Turkey. Scotland has again displayed its commitment to being a compassionate member of the global community. The Scottish Government have also committed £500,000 to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
Aid and humanitarian assistance are key, but the UK Government could do more. Many victims of the earthquake will want to stay in their home country and help to rebuild, but will the UK Government commit to an asylum seeker scheme whereby victims of the earthquakes who have family links to the UK could seek refuge here? In asking that, I am echoing other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), so there is clearly support on the Opposition Benches for such a scheme. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point.
Charities have also provided invaluable support. For example, Islamic Relief is playing a pivotal role in north-west Syria, where it has worked for many years responding to the devastation caused by civil war. However, it has raised concerns about the ability for foreign aid to reach impacted areas in Syria. Humanitarian agencies run into issues when transferring money to organisations on the ground in Syria. Although it is welcome news that the UK Government have adapted the sanctions regime to allow for the greater flow of humanitarian aid at the same time that they are maintaining pressure on Assad’s regime, organisations such as Islamic Relief have asked for clarity about the changes so that they can create a long-term plan to respond to the earthquake. I would be keen to hear from the Minister about that.
Following this grave humanitarian disaster, the SNP welcome the UK Government’s decision to send a team of 76 research and rescue specialists to Turkey with equipment and rescue dogs. We also commend the FCDO for co-ordinating with the UN on support for those in Syria through the White Helmets.
The European Commission has announced that it will be organising a donors conference for Syria and Turkey in March to mobilise funding. I understand that the UK is eligible to attend that conference. Can the Minister confirm that he or another UK Minister will attend?
The World Food Programme has stated that it requires £46 million over the next three to four months to address the immediate needs of the region. I hope the UK Government will consider how they can co-ordinate their efforts with international partners.
The coming months will be challenging for those impacted by the earthquake and the aftershocks, and Ramadan is due to begin in only a matter of weeks. As the news cycle moves on, we must ensure that the support we give to those impacted in Turkey and Syria does not waver. We must continue to do all we can to help those impacted by the crisis.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing today’s debate, to which all colleagues have made considered and moving contributions.
I am afraid that when I saw the news breaking about the earthquake, I had a feeling of dread about what was to come. I worked on the Haiti earthquake response back in 2010 when I was an adviser at the Department for International Development, and I was previously in NGOs, including during the Boxing day earthquake and tsunami. When we see a report about an earthquake of this size, it can only lead to an unimaginable loss of human life and to devastation.
Hon. Members have made some incredibly powerful speeches. The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills gave a powerful summary and drew on her own experiences. We used to serve together on the International Development Committee, and of course she spent time as a Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) related powerful stories and spoke about the links in her constituency and the families affected—not only those affected by the earthquake, but those in Syria who had already been affected by the brutality of Assad’s and Russia’s attacks. She rightly asked an important question, which I hope the Minister will answer, about visas for those who have lost family members and who want to reunite with family in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) raised the same issue, rightly mentioning our track record of supporting those who have fled disasters and of providing support for disaster responses in the region.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) has played an absolutely crucial role in responding, not only in her own community but here in Parliament. We spoke just hours after the news broke. She gave very powerful testimony, not just about her constituents but about the impact on her own family and friends. She rightly raised an important and worrying concern about reports of the potential confiscation of aid. Will the Minister comment on those claims?
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) spoke about the cuts to the aid budget, which I will come on to. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) spoke about the personal losses in his constituency and talked about a visit to the British Alevi Federation. He said that we need to ensure that aid gets to those who need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) rightly praised the firefighters, nurses and others who assisted, and she mentioned the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to the Enfield Alevi Cultural Centre.
There were many other important contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) raised a very important point about the disproportionate impact of disasters on women and girls. I would certainly be interested to hear the Minister’s response.
The earthquake has resulted in more than 46,000 deaths —a number that will undoubtedly rise—and 100,000 people injured. We must remember those who have been critically injured by this disaster, and of course a disaster of this scale has mental health impacts, particularly for young people and children. As has been pointed out, a significant proportion of those who have died or been affected are from the Alevi Kurdish population. That community has a strong presence here in the UK; many constituents of hon. Members who have spoken today have been left in a state of unimaginable grief.
In recent days, we have seen aftershocks, and further people have been killed and wounded. Will the Minister clarify whether any other British nationals have been affected? On behalf of the official Opposition, I send my deepest condolences, thoughts and sympathies to all those who have been affected by this tragedy. I personally conveyed our condolences to the ambassador of Türkiye, and I know many colleagues have done so directly through communities in their own constituencies.
Türkiye is of course a close NATO ally and partner of the United Kingdom, and there are many close ties of family and friendship between us, as with the people of Syria, many of whom have fled from the crisis there to be in the UK. We are therefore duty-bound as a nation to respond to the challenges posed by this disaster, not just in the short term but in the long term, too.
As we know, the people of Syria have experienced 12 years of conflict, with 4.1 million people already relying on life-saving humanitarian assistance. Some 3.7 million Syrians have ended up in the area affected by the earthquake in Türkiye. It is a huge crisis upon crisis upon crisis. There have been cholera outbreaks in Syria. We even saw Assad barrel bombing areas affected—absolutely despicable behaviour from a regime that has already done so much damage. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on the complex situation in Syria, with different areas of control, different challenges and, of course, the influence of Russia, the Assad regime and other extremist organisations in regions that have been affected by the earthquake, which is making it even more complex.
I join others in praising the work of the British people in responding to the crisis. It has just been announced that the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal—I declare an interest as a past chair of DEC in Wales—has raised more than £100 million. That shows the strength of response of the UK people. On top of that, we have heard repeatedly about the community fundraising and relief efforts throughout the country, particularly among communities affected, but also in others who have raised money out of a sense of compassion and a desire to assist. The Boss & Brew Academy in my Cardiff South and Penarth constituency has organised a fundraiser. Many others are doing so, particularly among the faith communities, across the UK.
I welcome the match funding that the UK Government provided, and the fact that the Minister for international development and humanitarian response, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), has been out to the region. Of course, the question is where we go from here. I am concerned. There were discussions about cutting the aid budget to Syria as part of the overall Government aid budget cuts. I hope the Minister can confirm that that is being reconsidered. It seems absurd to consider that at this time.
I hope the Minister will provide some more detail on the £25 million aid package announced last week. How is that going to be split between the countries and communities? What will it actually include? Over what timeframe are we talking, and where is that funding being drawn from? I hope the Minister can also comment on some of the other allegations that have been made about aid—particularly aid raised here in the UK—not getting through to certain areas.
There has been some suggestion that some who lived in the disaster zones and have had to leave them could be prevented from returning. What discussions has the Minister had with authorities, where that is possible—I recognise the complex situation in Syria—to ensure that individuals can return, hopefully when reconstruction and redevelopment has happened?
The border crossing situation has been mentioned. It is good to see that the three border crossings are now open. What steps are we taking to ensure that they stay open, that we look at other potential crossings and that they are secure and are not frustrated? Will the Minister say what the Government’s position is on Russia’s game playing at the Security Council and their constant activities to frustrate and make this situation even worse?
When a disaster like this strikes, there is rightly the immediate outpouring of condolence, and there is the immediate support and relief effort. I praise in particular the international search and rescue effort that the UK sent out. I have personally met many of those brave search and rescue teams before and know what incredible work they do. But as the cameras leave, as the media leave, and as attention turns to other crises, the people will still be suffering the crushed buildings, the lives destroyed, the mental health impacts, and the long-term food, infrastructure, water, health and sanitation impacts.
We have to be in these things for the long haul. I hope the Minister will set out what we will do to galvanise the international community to be in there for the long haul, particularly in those communities that are hard to reach and those communities in Syria that, in some cases, receive no assistance at all. We must be in this for the long haul, which will require money and diplomatic engagement with other countries to ensure that we are playing our crucial role in responding to the crisis. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair once again, Sir Graham. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this important debate. I think we are all speaking from pretty much the same hymn sheet, in terms of the terrible devastation caused as a result of this natural tragedy and made worse by other issues and related factors.
I recognise the distinguished service of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills in the FCDO. I remember with great affection and gratitude the support she provided to me personally, and I am sure to many other Members present, during the pandemic, when she was trying to help us to get constituents back from all parts of the world. That will always stay close to my heart, so I thank my right hon. Friend for her work. Today, she has once again demonstrated her compassion and experience from the work she has done.
This has been an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and support across the House for those affected by these devastating earthquakes. As always, I respect the experience brought to the debate by the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I also highlight the important contributions made by other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who gave a very moving testimony that I am sure her constituents will be proud of. It must have been very difficult to do.
The Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), is travelling on ministerial duties; otherwise, he would be speaking on behalf of the Government in this debate. Of course, as has been highlighted, he made an important visit to the affected region on Sunday, for which we are grateful, and there was an aftershock at that particular time. His experience will help us in Government to respond not only to the questions raised today but to the other issues being raised directly on the ground.
I join in offering my condolences on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to those affected by the disaster. As the Foreign Secretary said in his statement to the House on the morning after the disaster unfolded:
“Earthquakes of this severity have not been seen in that region for 80 years.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2023; Vol. 727, c. 771.]
The devastating effects of the earthquake have sadly become clearer over recent days. There were harrowing accounts from the constituents of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and others, which highlight the tragedy that has played out in this much-affected part of the world.
Today, sadly, the death toll stands at more than 48,000 people, and at least 118,000 people have been injured. We know that, tragically, those numbers will continue to rise. About 25 million people—a staggering figure—have been affected overall, with homes, businesses and key infrastructure destroyed. The UK Government have stepped up to deliver aid as quickly as possible, working closely with Turkey, the UN, international partners and non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile, our consular team is supporting British nationals who have requested assistance. That number is relatively small at this stage, but we will continue to be there to support those who have needs.
The UK Government deployed an international search and rescue team to Turkey in the first days after the earthquake. Since 9 February, we have sent emergency aid—including 3,315 shelters and nearly 40,000 blankets— to Turkey and Syria. The search and rescue team has now returned to the UK, but it saved multiple people who were trapped in the rubble including, as I am sure others will be aware from reports, rescuing a two-year-old girl and a 90-year-old woman. The team has played an invaluable role and should be commended for its valiant efforts.
Will the Minister give particular regard to the needs of children at this time—particularly those missing education—and their need for special psychological support and anything around play, books and all those basics that we take for granted in our own families?
That is an important point. I will come on to the support that we are providing for women and young children.
As has been discussed, we have also provided additional funding to the White Helmets, supporting life-saving search and rescue and emergency relief operations in north-west Syria, which has been one of the most difficult areas to provide support to. The UK Government have set up an emergency medical facility in Türkoğlu in Turkey, providing life-saving treatment to more than 3,000 people to date. Medics from the UK’s emergency medical team and more than 80 personnel from 16 Medical Regiment and the Royal Air Force tactical medical wing are working side by side with Turkish medical staff. Royal Air Force aircraft are helping to deliver NATO’s package of emergency support to Turkey and the UK will continue to contribute to the alliance’s response to the earthquakes.
UK-funded NGOs have also provided medical care in the region, and the UN distributed food and other essential supplies, which the UK contributed to. We are grateful for their important work, as always. I hope that highlights to Members—I think we are all pretty aware—that there is a proper exercise in international engagement with all the different agencies to make the best possible impact.
As has been highlighted, the UK Government match funded the first £5 million of public donations to the DEC earthquake appeal. It has been highlighted that the appeal has now reached a staggering £800 million. I have to say that, coming into this debate, I thought it was £93 million. It shows that there is broad traction here. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) raised concerns about which charity people should support. We have published guidance on that, which has a section on how to make donations safely, but I would say that that appeal in particular is a great way to make a donation. It is an effort we should all be proud of. Others have highlighted the amazing work that has gone on—whether it is Rotarians in Aldridge or local schools and rugby clubs in Newport East, it is incredible to see how the community has come together, particularly where there is diaspora in those areas.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth asked me to comment on the £25 million package of additional funding that that Government announced on 15 February. It will fund additional emergency relief for Turkey and Syria, such as tents and blankets for families made homeless in what are now freezing conditions. The new humanitarian package will also support the work of the UN and aid agencies in Syria, as well as the ongoing relief efforts in Turkey led by the Government. There is a particular focus on protecting women and girls, which is an issue that has been highlighted, including support with childbirth and efforts to reduce the risk of gender-based violence.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) made an important point about sanitary products. I just wanted to make her aware that the UK is funding the United Nations Population Fund to support immediate need around childbirth, midwifery and reducing the risk of violence against women and girls. That includes providing dignity kits, hygiene kits and other life-saving items.
I thank the Minister for that additional detail—particularly the last point. I wanted to ask him about the reports of a planned cut to the budget for Syria. Obviously, Syria was in crisis before this disaster. Surely it is the wrong time to cut the longer-term support package to Syria, even though this additional money is welcome.
I was going to come back to that. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We had an interesting debate in this Chamber for an hour or so yesterday about the ODA budget, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will recall. Big and difficult decisions will need to be made in that respect, given the global situation and the economic impact, but his point is important and I am sure that the Minister for Development and the Foreign Secretary will hear it and the other points that have been made. The allocations have not been made yet, so I am not able to report back on exact figures.
In Syria, needs are particularly acute. There is extensive and severe damage to housing, infrastructure, schools, roads and hospitals.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I would like to make some progress because I am trying to answer everyone’s questions.
It is looking like the Minister may be running out of time to talk about family reunion, which I appreciate is another Minister’s portfolio. Will he undertake to ensure that the Home Office writes to all Members present in detail about what considerations are ongoing on that issue?
I was definitely going to come to that issue. Do not worry, it has been raised enough. I recognise its importance. The things is that we want to ensure we provide support to relatives impacted by the disaster, and when family members do not have British visas they will be able to apply by one of our standard visa routes, which remain available. The application centre closest to the affected region, in Adana, Turkey, has now reopened following temporary closure after the earthquake, which will support people looking for a UK visa and enable those who have already applied to submit their biometrics.
Those who have been affected by the earthquake are able to relocate safely within Turkey, and we have reports that some of those affected by the earthquakes in Syria have crossed the border as well. Our primary focus is on providing support. We will keep in close contact with the Home Office on the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier). It is a vital issue.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way one last time—I am trying to respond to everyone’s questions.
Will the Minister also commit to looking into the 90-day temporary visa that Germany has put in place for Syrian and Turkish people? Will he let us know what the Government plan to do about that?
I will certainly follow up with the Home Office on that particular point. Questions have been raised about where the responsibility sits, and they have been noted. I will follow up on that.
Let me turn to the other issues that have been raised. There was lots of talk about the border crossings. We want to ensure that the openings that have been put in place are verified and remain open. An important point has been made about how we secure a long-term improvement to the humanitarian conditions, hopefully by keeping those access points secured over a longer term. Russia obviously plays an important role and has not been co-operative in the past.
Comments were also made about what we can do on the longer-term recovery effort. I think everyone understands that the primary focus right now is on what we can do to provide urgent life-saving support and life-sustaining assistance, but we will continue to look at what more we can do to support the recovery effort. It is much more complicated in Syria, given the actions of the Assad regime, but we will continue to focus on that.
In the remaining time I have, I would like to highlight one other vital point—I know the hon. Member for Strangford feels strongly about this—which is about ensuring that we monitor events in Turkey and work closely to co-ordinate with the Turkish authorities, with the United Nations and NGO partners, and indeed with the opposition groups in Syria, to ensure that aid makes it to all those in need. That has come out loud and clear today. Please be assured that that is vital for us. We need to ensure that aid gets to the most vulnerable and the minority communities in Turkey and Syria. If Members hear of reports of that not happening, we would be very grateful for that intelligence. We need to push back to ensure that aid is absolutely made available.
In conclusion, these are truly tragic circumstances. However, we can be proud that we have responded quickly—as a nation, but as a Government as well—and are working alongside our international partners. In the difficult days and weeks to come, colleagues can be assured that we will continue to stand with the people of Turkey and Syria in their hour of need.
To speak very briefly, I call Wendy Morton.
Thank you, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for responding to this debate. Equally importantly, I thank each and every Member from across the House who has contributed. We have had a really good debate. We have been able to highlight the tragedy of the situation in Turkey and Syria and the many organisations that have stepped up to the plate in many ways, including our own constituents, to help with this.
We have highlighted and raised a number of issues with the Minister that I hope he will take back to the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), on his return from his travels. I am particularly reassured by the point about fairness and equity of access to aid, as well as the really important recognition that women and girls are often most affected.
In conclusion, here in Westminster Hall this afternoon, we have shown that we stand united in our solidarity with those in Turkey and Syria and their families beyond. Again, I thank everyone who has contributed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for Türkiye and Syria after the recent earthquake.