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Turkey and Syria Earthquakes

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in Turkey and Syria. I know that the House will join me in offering sincere condolences to all those affected by the recent earthquakes.

Last week when I visited Turkey, I witnessed at first hand the terrible scale of human suffering. I also had the opportunity to speak to Syrian partners and the United Nations about their work on the immediate response. I pay tribute to the hundreds of British personnel engaged in specialist health, humanitarian and rescue work in Syria and Turkey. I saw for myself the outstanding work that Britain is doing on the ground to save lives and support those who are suffering. Throughout these events and our responses, there has been excellent co-ordination across the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care.

Today, the death toll across Turkey and Syria stands at more than 48,000, and at least 118,000 people have been injured. Approximately 25 million people have been affected, with homes, businesses and key infrastructure destroyed. The further earthquakes on 20 and 27 February, which have tragically led to additional deaths, show that the danger has not passed. In Syria, this disaster adds to years of turmoil inflicted by conflict, striking hardest in the very place that has borne the brunt of Assad’s war machine.

I turn to the initial response. Turkey requested international support immediately after the earthquakes. The UK Government delivered aid as swiftly as possible, working closely with Turkey, the United Nations, international partners, non-governmental organisations and charities. That included deploying a 77-strong search and rescue team in Turkey, along with state-of-the-art heavy equipment. We also quickly announced £4.3 million in new support to Syria Civil Defence—the White Helmets—who have carried out search and rescue operations in 60 villages, helping thousands of civilians. The British Government rapidly engaged with the Turkish Government at the highest level, and the Foreign Secretary, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad and I immediately spoke to the senior UN humanitarian officials to ensure a rapid and co-ordinated response in Syria.

As part of the immediate response, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office set up a field hospital in Türkoğlu, including an emergency department and a 24/7 operating theatre. I saw for myself 150 UK-Med and Ministry of Defence personnel working side by side with Turkish medics to save lives. I was deeply impressed and moved during my visit by the lifesaving work that those teams are doing. Together, they have treated more than 5,000 patients so far.

Meanwhile, the UK has delivered 465 tonnes of relief items to Turkey and Syria through civilian and Royal Air Force flights. That includes tents and thermal blankets for families made homeless in freezing conditions, as well as solar lanterns, water purification tablets and hygiene kits. On 15 February, we announced a further £25 million in funding to bolster our humanitarian response. That is supporting the work of the UN and aid agencies on the ground in Syria, helping communities ravaged by war, as well as by this natural disaster. It also continues to support the recovery effort in Turkey, led by its Government.

Beyond our support to the White Helmets, UK-funded charities and NGOs in northern Syria have cared for the injured through mobile medical teams and health centres. The UN has distributed food and other essential items, to which the UK has contributed. Further assistance will be delivered in the coming days as part of the UN’s Syria cross-border humanitarian fund, to which the UK is one of the most significant donors. The fund has already allocated $50 million to scale up the response. There is a particular focus on displaced families, the elderly, women, children and people with disabilities.

The UK has also supported and bolstered the response through our existing support to key multilateral organisations that are helping in Turkey and Syria. The UN’s global fund, Education Cannot Wait, announced a $7 million grant for Syrian children affected by the earthquake, and the Global Partnership for Education will provide $3.75 million to support the emergency education response. The UK is one of the most significant donors to both funds.

We are also a long-standing partner and donor to the World Bank, which announced $1.7 billion to assist Turkey, and the United Nations central emergency response fund, which has released $50 million for the crisis. Most significantly, our constituents—the British public—have demonstrated extraordinary generosity through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, raising more than £100 million. That figure includes £5 million from the UK taxpayer in matched seed funding.

His Majesty the King visited Turkish diaspora groups and members of the British Syrian community at Syria House, a donation point in Trafalgar Square, on 14 February. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Syria House on 16 February.

It is clearly vital to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it as efficiently as possible in Syria. I will continue to engage with the United Nations to ensure maximum access for as long as is required. We welcome the accelerated pace of United Nations deliveries and are monitoring the situation closely in the Security Council in New York.

The House will understand that the scale of this tragedy is immense. The UK will continue to stand in solidarity with Turkey and with the people of Syria during these most testing of times. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement.

We have all been deeply shocked by the scenes from Turkey and north-west Syria. The damage done and the loss of life inflicted by these earthquakes and aftershocks is incomprehensible. The death toll in the two countries has surpassed 48,000 people. About 25 million people have been affected—a staggering figure—and homes, businesses and key infrastructure have been destroyed. We are looking at a damage area of more than 50,000 sq km.

The Labour party and, I am sure, each hon. Member present send our deepest condolences, thoughts and sympathies to all those whose lives have been devastated by this appalling tragedy. The many heartfelt contributions that Members across the House made to last Thursday’s Westminster Hall debate demonstrate the strength of support for the people of Syria and Turkey at this time.

Turkey is, of course, a close NATO ally and partner of the United Kingdom. There are many close ties of family and friendship between us, as there are with the people of Syria, many of whom have fled from the crisis there to be in the United Kingdom. We are duty-bound as a nation to respond to the challenges posed by this disaster in the long term as well as the short term, even as the cameras and headlines move on. While we have seen countless images of despair and devastation, I am sure that all of us have heard the stories of bravery, resilience and hope. I hope that this disaster can show that the spirit of humanitarianism still prevails across much of the world.

The response of the British public has been incredible. More than £30 million was donated on the first day of the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, which has now raised more than £100 million. That shows the British public at their best: generous, outward-looking and deeply concerned for the welfare of others around the globe.

I take this opportunity to express my thanks to the search and rescue teams that sprang to action within hours of the tragedy to assist in saving people trapped under the rubble of buildings that had collapsed. Speed was absolutely critical in those first 72 hours, and I was very proud to see how quickly British forces mobilised on a flight out to Gaziantep. In particular, I thank the volunteers from West Midlands Fire Service: Shyam, Shaun, Mark, Aghia, James, Mark, Joe and Paul, who flew out to Turkey, and Rob and Hannah, who supported from the United Kingdom.

The UK Government were right to respond quickly in those first 72 hours. Our support to the White Helmets was vital while humanitarian access to north-west Syria was impeded, and the delivery of medical assistance, rescue equipment and sniffer dogs to the disaster area has been important to help people in the immediate aftermath. However, we are now in a new phase of our response, and our support must not stop there. People are in need of emergency accommodation, food, healthcare, water and sanitary health, and the largest single need is for emergency shelter in both countries.

The earthquake has not only resulted in additional displacement, but diminished the prospects for the safe return of internally displaced persons from earthquake-affected areas. Even before the earthquake, an estimated 4.1 million people in north-west Syria relied on aid to meet their basic needs. 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 following the earthquakes. That is absolutely devastating. For those who survive, hunger, dirty water and the bitter winter cold still pose a significant threat. It is in Britain’s interests to support Turkey and Syria. Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees displaced abroad due to the country’s civil war, and in some of the affected areas 50% of the population in Turkey are refugees.

Through multilateralism and common purpose, we can stand together in the face of tragedy and do more than we can alone. The work that the UK has supported through our multilateral partners is significant, and it is a reminder of the many important partnerships that the UK has led in and often helped found over the years. The UN appeals for Turkey and Syria have now been announced, with a combined $1.4 billion requested for both countries over the next three months. As yet, the UK has not announced any further direct support since the launch of the two appeals. What is the Minister doing to co-ordinate and scale up the humanitarian response with our international partners in the United Nations?

On the £30 million announced so far, can the Minister say over what timeframe it will be disbursed and how it will be distributed between the two countries? Crucially, will he confirm where that support has been drawn from, and that it will not be taken from other planned in-country work or other humanitarian crises, such as those in east Africa and Yemen? According to reports, in December the Syria country team was asked to find cuts of between £6 million and £8 million. That would be utterly unconscionable in the light of the disaster that has befallen people who have already suffered so much. Can the Minister today confirm whether those cuts will still go ahead? Ministers have been asked about that twice and have not answered either time, so I would be grateful for some answers today.

Humanitarian access in Syria remains an ongoing challenge. The obstruction of Bab al-Hawa, the only border crossing into Syria, in the first week following the earthquake meant lifesaving support could not reach people who needed it. It has been disgraceful to see the damage that Russia’s political game playing on the UN Security Council has done to people there by restricting humanitarian access. It is important and welcome, therefore, that the UN has brokered an agreement to reopen two further crossings for three months. However, this agreement must be extended. Most of the aid packages crossing the border have only a 12-week lifespan. Moreover, UN convoys are severely lagging compared with before the earthquake. On average, roughly 650 to 700 trucks per month were passing through before the earthquake, but now, with two more crossing points available, only 493 have accessed north-west Syria.

A long-term strategy for aid and support is needed. What diplomatic efforts are the UK making to extend this agreement beyond three months and to hold authorities to their word on humanitarian access? Will the Minister set out a long-term strategy for the UK’s support to the region, and does he recognise the interplay between the earthquake and the conflict in Syria?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for the tone in which she delivered them; the House is completely united on such occasions, and particularly on this one. She underlined the British commitment and that of our constituents. I agree about the extraordinary international response across so many different countries that she mentioned. She mentioned the search and rescue team, which of course left from Birmingham airport, close to her constituency and mine. She also mentioned the strong British support to the White Helmets, whose leaders I met on my recent visit.

The hon. Lady asked about tents and blankets. I can tell her that Britain has delivered something like 3,350 tents to both Syria and Turkey, as well as 24,000 thermal blankets to Turkey and 17,000 to Syria, making a total of 41,000. She also mentioned the damage that has been done to schools, and I mentioned in my statement that Education Cannot Wait has allocated $7 million as a result of this crisis. However, I was in Geneva a couple of weeks ago for the replenishment for Education Cannot Wait, and Britain was able to find an additional £80 million to support the very important work that Education Cannot Wait is conducting.

The hon. Lady asked me about cuts in Syria. I can tell her that in 2021 we pledged £205 million for Syria, but we actually delivered £232 million. This year the figure has been reduced, but we are confident that, by the end of this month, £158 million will have been delivered. I would just emphasise to her that, to the support for refugees from Syria, Britain has contributed very substantially over the years since this crisis first started in Syria. In fact, we have contributed more than the whole of the European Union added together, with a figure of something like £3.8 billion.

Finally, on the crossings, the hon. Lady is right that there have been considerable difficulties. In the early stage, the one crossing that was open was damaged by the earthquake, but the most recent information indicates that, while 358 trucks have got across from Bab al-Hawa, 82 trucks have now got through at Bab al-Salam and 16 at al-Rai. That is something in the order of 456 trucks, so the food and supplies are moving.

Two weeks ago I was in Syria, and I saw for myself the refusal to open the borders with Turkey, and the reticence of the Syrian Government to allow humanitarian aid to enter the north-east autonomous region was causing additional suffering. Does the Minister share my revulsion that the drone missile attacks have continued, with the killing of a Syrian Democratic Forces soldier as recently as 12 February in Kobane, while I was there?

My hon. Friend has seen at first hand the impact of the Syrian regime on those poor people who have suffered not only from Assad and the Russian war machine, but now from this dreadful earthquake. The access that my hon. Friend rightly says is desperately needed was the result of the negotiations by the head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, who deserves considerable credit for the speed and efficacy of the way he got them opened.

Let me also thank the Minister for early sight of his statement. Let me also join the House in expressing condolences and sympathy, on behalf of those on the SNP Benches, to the peoples of Turkey and Syria, who have suffered the most powerful earthquakes in the region for over 80 years, releasing the catastrophes we see now compounding the suffering of the peoples of the region.

With an estimated 500,000 people of Turkish origin living across the UK and an estimated 28,000 Syrian nationals, I think we can all agree on how personal much of this loss is to many of our constituents. Let me welcome the Department’s decision to send further support to Turkey, and I commend the Department for co-ordinating with the UN on support for those in Syria. That said, it is always important that the international community continues to listen to those on the ground, including the UN, the Red Crescent and, of course, the White Helmets in the coming days and weeks, so that we can deliver the best relief and assistance possible. I am sure that the Minister and the Department are doing just that.

Let me ask three specific questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), in a written parliamentary question, has already asked the International Development Minister whether the Department plans to provide additional funding to the World Food Programme to help tackle immediate humanitarian needs in both Turkey and Syria. The Minister responded:

“The UK currently has no plans to provide additional funding to the World Food Programme.”

That question was asked because the World Food Programme says it requires $46 million over the next three to four months to address the immediate needs. Will the Minister reconsider the decision not to pledge to the World Food Programme and make a substantial donation?

In addition, the European Commission has announced that it will organise a donor conference for Syria and Turkey to mobilise funding, to be held in March. Will the Minister provide clarity on the Government’s attendance, as they are eligible to attend? Will his Government pledge generously and early to that campaign? Finally, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the north-east have pledged to facilitate the delivery of aid. It has been reported that the United States will fly aid to Qamishli, a city controlled by the SDF, where it will be transported by land to the affected region. Will the Minister outline whether UK aid will be flown in through that route as well?

I thank the Scottish National party spokesman for his comments about the work of British service and search and rescue personnel, and of others in my Department, given their hard work throughout many nights and days when this terrible event took place. He asked three questions. We are very significant funders of the World Food Programme. On whether we decide to use that route to provide additional help in Syria and Turkey, we will have to wait and see, but for the moment we have responded and made sure that UK aid gets through to those who need it at this point in the crisis.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether funding will be considered for the Turkey-Syria fundraising conference. We will look at that at the time, but I assure him and the House that we have been right up there in the lead on making sure that critical needs are met. On the third and final question he asked, we will make sure, in every way we can, that aid gets through to people in north-east Syria. We will use whatever means are available to us. As I hope he has seen from what has happened already, Britain has not been shy in pressing these points to make sure that the aid gets through.

Will the Minister join me in thanking my constituents at Royal Air Force Brize Norton for the significant help that they have given to the people of Turkey? I am thinking in particular of the tactical medical wing, which has been deployed and is giving the medical assistance that he spoke of, and the wider air mobility force that, on top of significant other tasking requirements, has moved the aid so swiftly. Simply put, without them British aid would not be going anywhere. They ought to have our thanks.

I very much agree. My hon. Friend is right that the support of the Royal Air Force has been quite exceptional during this crisis. Across Whitehall—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Department of Health and Social Care—there has been a quite unusual degree of cohesion and excellent co-operation.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his personal interest in this topic. It has been fantastic to see the international community come together to support this region. But as we move from the rescue to the recovery phase of the earthquake response, could he give more detail about the UK Government’s long-term commitment to NGOs and UN partners, particularly in Syria, which is already suffering hugely? Could he focus on the help that communities will get to rebuild their lives?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for what she has said. The international community has done extraordinarily well in rallying together to meet the needs that the Turkish Government have set out, and to estimate and try to meet the needs in northern Syria. The co-operation between Greece and Turkey, for example, has been enormously heartening. She will appreciate that the £100 million raised from across our country will go to 15 British and international charities that are household names. We have allocated £43.3 million across the piece, which has paid for search and rescue, medical work in Turkey, and UK and aid agencies working inside Syria. The White Helmets funding of £4.3 million goes to help the 3,000 White Helmets who are operating in northern Syria, in 60 different areas.

The House should also look at the multilateral pound—the money going in, which I mentioned, through the Central Emergency Response Fund, which was invented by Britain and to which we have contributed $1.7 billion since its inception. That will be deployed in both countries. I have mentioned Education Cannot Wait, but the Global Partnership for Education programme has allocated £3.75 million. The effect of all that will be a very substantial British input. I can assure the hon. Lady that we will watch carefully what is going on. If further British leadership and money are required, we will certainly consider deploying it.

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have been heartbreaking to watch. I welcome the support that His Majesty’s Government are providing, and I pay tribute to the British rescue teams. As always, our community in Bexley has come together with care and compassion following the disaster, with many local businesses and residents donating what they could. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the local residents of Bexley, especially Councillor Andy Dourmoush, the Turkish School at Blackfen School, Sidcup Partners, St John’s Church Sidcup, Barry and the Welling town centre businesses, and the Lighthouse charity for all their efforts collecting donations and vital aid?

I thank my hon. Friend for telling us what is happening in Bexley. All across the country, our constituents have responded magnificently to the appalling situation in Turkey and Syria. It is on such occasions that we see Britain at its best—going first and with effect to people in desperate jeopardy.

The scenes in Turkey and northern Syria are without doubt a tragedy. My heart goes out to all those who have lost their lives or who find themselves without shelter or sanitation. This has been a difficult time for the diaspora here at home. It is vital that the Government show global leadership not just in aid but in helping people to get out if they need to. Will the Government consider a new expedited temporary visa scheme, as has been introduced in Germany, for those with relatives here in the UK so that they can come and stay with their families and get the support that they desperately need?

We have no plans to introduce a scheme of the type that the hon. Lady describes, but the visa centre in Adana is now open again. The consular services that we are able to offer, particularly in Turkey, were back up and running very quickly after the crisis struck. I hope that she will feel that, although we cannot make any commitment to such a scheme, we are doing everything we can to ensure that the normal consular and visa services are available.

Clearly, this is a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale. I commend my right hon. Friend for his work, as I would expect, given his long experience in this field. The British people have been incredibly generous, as he said, with £100 million donated. Given that all our condolences and thoughts are with the families of those affected by the earthquake, what advice can he give to those who want to give money to ensure that it gets to the frontline? How do they give it, where do they give it, and can we ensure that organisations that might not be acting in the best interests of the people affected do not get the money?

My hon. Friend asks an extremely important question. People are still seeking to give donations because they can see the full scale of what has happened. The answer is that the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal is a highly effective way of getting money through to 15 immensely respected organisations that really can deliver on the ground. The details are available online. Money delivered to the Disasters Emergency Committee will get through to where it is really needed.

I was pleased to hear about the Minister’s trip to Turkey and the continued aid support to Turkey and Syria. He will know that thousands of my constituents have been personally impacted by the earthquake, having lost loved ones and friends. Hundreds have written to me and to Government Ministers because they want to provide temporary relief for family members who have lost everything. Will the Minister tell me why the Government will not support their calls for an expedited temporary visa scheme?

We do not believe that that is the right way to handle the situation in Turkey that the hon. Lady describes. I know that in her constituency she has many families who are suffering and to whom the whole House will want to send their condolences. What I can say is that I saw for myself, on my visit on 19 February to Türkoğlu, the quite extraordinary work by 150 British medical and military personnel on the ground, working with their Turkish counterparts not only in the field hospital set up by the MOD and the FCDO but in the two British emergency medical clinics. I can tell her that in terms of the need on the ground, Britain has been doing everything it can to help. I have seen for myself both the shattered towns and cities in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the brilliant work being done by Britain, together with our Turkish counterparts, to try to make things better.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comprehensive and reassuring statement, which demonstrates that the UK is more than playing its part in delivering vital humanitarian aid needed in Syria and Turkey. To that end, will the additional commitment he made to the Education Cannot Wait UK global fund mean that the amount of funding already announced is likely to grow in future as we hopefully move to a rebuild and recovery part of this disaster, because education will be key for many children who have lost their schools?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to make the point about the need to restore schools. Otherwise, on top of everything else, children will miss out on education, one of the key ladders for opportunity in their later lives. Education Cannot Wait, a charity Britain has been enormously supportive of, is a key area that can make an immediate effect. That is why we were so pleased to see it respond with $7 million of support in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

Many people in the Wirral have been fundraising as well; it is so good to see Britain coming together. I know that because of that, the Minister will have given the thanks of everyone in this House to our brilliant civil servants who have been helping and to all those he has met who are engaged in the response. On what he said about the United Nations, does he think we can now get better collaboration and support in pursuit of safety and care for civilians in Syria?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She knows a lot about these difficulties and she rightly says that the United Nations is the key to restoring basic services and the ability of people caught up in this terrible earthquake in northern Syria to survive. I believe that Martin Griffiths and his colleagues across the six agencies actively taking aid into northern Syria have wrestled at speed, and with effect, with the early problems, some of which were as a result of the earthquake damaging the infrastructure of crossings. I think she can now have confidence, as I have confidence, that the UN is delivering on the ground.

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber and giving us the statement. Natural disasters show the importance of having a well-funded crisis reserve that can provide timely emergency aid. Previously, that reserve totalled £500 million, yet today it is now only £30 million. Can the Minister explain how it has been allocated this year and whether he will use it to support relief efforts until the end of this financial year?

The hon. Lady makes a good point about the importance of a crisis reserve. That is the reason why Britain set up the CERF, the fund I mentioned earlier which is now deploying $50 million, so she is entirely right about that. That is the multilateral spend. In terms of the bilateral spend, the humanitarian budget has a degree of flex within it. It is not as tightly restricted as the core international development budgets, so on the humanitarian side we are able to exercise our judgment on how to deploy limited funds to best possible effect.

The earthquakes in Syria and Turkey have shocked and appalled us all. For the Turkish and Syrian communities in Newcastle, that horror is particularly close. They want to know why so many died, why it was so deadly and what they can do to help. Can the Minister give us his understanding of why so many relatively new buildings collapsed? Will he also look at the issue of cross-border remittances, so that the proceeds of the extensive fundraising that diaspora communities are undertaking can be transferred as effectively, easily and quickly as possible?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for her comments, in particular about the support her constituents in Newcastle have been giving. She asks me specifically what people can do to help. I think I have made clear that the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal is the right way for our constituents to assist. She asks me why so many have died and why so many buildings collapsed. That is primarily a matter for the Turkish authorities to address. It is clear from what the press in Turkey are saying that that is a point people in Turkey are themselves pursuing vigorously. On cross-border remittances, I will have a look at that and write to her. She is quite right that ease of remittance is extremely important. It is something we try to facilitate in many parts of the world and I will look to see whether we can do any more in that respect.

All our thoughts are with those impacted by the horrendous earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. I commend all the brilliant community groups across the UK who are doing incredible fundraising work. I am due to attend one this weekend in Treforest in my constituency. It is currently estimated that 24,000 women are due to give birth in Turkey in the areas affected by the earthquake. There is very little specialised maternal and gynaecological support to help those women give birth safely. What more can the UK Government do to support those women with specific healthcare needs to help them give birth in a safe environment?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and I hope she will pass on my thanks to the community groups she is seeing this weekend. On the 24,000 women in jeopardy in the way she describes, we have seen vividly on our television screens exactly how that can impact people who are caught under the rubble in awful circumstances. Our great intent has been to ensure that not only tents and thermal blankets get through, but hygiene kits, water and sanitation so that basic healthcare is restored. All those things will play a part in helping to address the problem she rightly brings before the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement. As tragically demonstrated, earthquakes are hugely unpredictable. What preparation and contingency planning are the United Kingdom Government making for future earthquakes in that region?

The Government consider all these matters in terms of humanitarian need and resilience not just in this region and with earthquakes but in many regions of the world facing many other challenges, most of which, but not all, result substantially from climate change. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that in all these matters of preparation, we are considering them every day and every week.