With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make this further statement to the House about the situation in Sudan on behalf of the Government and the Foreign Secretary, who is attending the funeral of a close family member.
Ten days ago, fierce fighting broke out in Khartoum. It has since spread to Omdurman, Darfur and other Sudanese cities. As Members of the House will know, a violent power struggle is ongoing between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
The situation in Sudan is extremely grave. More than 427 people have been killed, including five aid workers, and over 3,700 people have been injured. Before this violence began, the humanitarian situation in Sudan was already deteriorating. We now estimate that approximately 16 million people—a third of the Sudanese population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. These numbers, I regret to inform the House, are likely to rise significantly.
Although the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces announced a 72-hour ceasefire from 0500 hours London time on 21 April to the mark the holy festival of Eid, it did not hold. Given the rapidly deteriorating security situation, the Government took the difficult decision to evacuate all British embassy staff and their dependants to fulfil our duty as their employer to protect our staff. This highly complex operation was completed yesterday. The operation involved more than 1,200 personnel from 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. I know the House will join me in commending the brilliant work of our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, as well as the bravery of our servicemen and women for completing the operation successfully, in extremely dangerous circumstances.
I also pay tribute to our international partners for their ongoing co-operation in aligning our rescue responses, and I express my admiration for the work of the crisis centre in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, where more than 200 officials are working 24/7 and seamlessly across Government to co-ordinate the UK response.
The safety and security of British nationals continues to be our utmost priority. Our ability to support British nationals has not been impacted by the relocation of British embassy staff. The evacuated team will continue to operate from a neighbouring country, alongside the Foreign Office in London, which is working throughout the day and night to support British nationals and push for a ceasefire in Sudan.
We are asking all British nationals in Sudan to register their presence with us. The roughly 2,000 British nationals registered with us already are being sent, sometimes with great difficulty, at least daily updates by text and email. This step helps enable us to remain in contact with them while we find a safe passage from Sudan. Movement around the capital remains extremely dangerous and no evacuation option comes without grave risk to life. Khartoum airport is out of action. Energy supplies are disrupted. Food and water are becoming increasingly scarce. Internet and telephone networks are becoming difficult to access. We continue to advise all British nationals in Sudan to stay indoors wherever possible. We recognise that circumstances will vary in different locations across Sudan, so we are now asking British nationals to exercise their own judgment about their circumstances, including whether to relocate, but they do so at their own risk.
Ending the violence is the single most important action we can take to guarantee the safety of British nationals and everyone in Sudan. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and I have been in continuous contact with allies and key regional partners since the outbreak of violence to agree a joint approach to both evacuation and de-escalation of violence. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister spoke to his counterparts, including Egyptian President Sisi and the President of Djibouti. The Foreign Secretary was in contact with the Kenyan President, the US Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Sweden, Turkey, Cyprus and the European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. The Defence Secretary engaged with counterparts in Djibouti, the United States, France and Egypt. I have spoken to the African Union and the Prime Minister in exile of Sudan, upon whom so many hopes rested. Further escalation of this conflict, particularly if it spills over into neighbouring countries, would be disastrous. As we continue to make clear, there must be a genuine and lasting ceasefire.
We undertake to keep the House informed as the situation develops. Today, all MPs will receive a second “Dear colleague” letter from the Foreign Secretary and me. This will hopefully help to answer a number of frequently asked questions to assist right hon. and hon. Members in supporting their constituents.
I will continue to be in close contact with the House and provide updates where possible in the coming days. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and for keeping me informed over the weekend. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), is returning from Kenya this evening; he continues to discuss developments with African leaders there.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces involved in the operation to evacuate British diplomats and their families from Sudan. On behalf of the Labour party, I thank the 1,200 UK personnel involved in that very difficult mission, including those from 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Royal Marines and the RAF.
Our relief at the success of the mission does not alleviate our concern for the several thousand British nationals who are still trapped in Sudan amid growing violence. Many will be frightened and desperate to leave, but uncertain of their next move and of the assistance that the Government will be able to offer. What they need to hear is a clear plan for how and when the Government will support those who are still in danger and communicate with them.
While we maintain the unified international pressure for a permanent ceasefire, we are clear that the Government should be evacuating as many British nationals as possible, as quickly as possible. None of us is any doubt as to the complexity of the task or the difficulty of the situation on the ground, yet we know that our partner countries have evacuated significant numbers of their nationals already: 700 have been evacuated by France and Germany, 500 by Indonesia, 350 by Jordan, 150 each by Italy and Saudi Arabia, and 100 by Spain. African partners, including Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, are also planning action, and France included UK nationals in its airlift. We thank it for that, but it raises some serious questions.
Can the Minister address why partner countries have been able to evacuate sizeable numbers of their nationals so far, as well as diplomats and their dependants, but the UK has not? Can he confirm whether the Government have evacuated any UK nationals who were not employees of the embassy or their dependants? Can he confirm how many UK nationals have been evacuated by our international partners? Were the embassy staff able to complete a full and proper shutdown, including dealing with any sensitive material? Given the communication difficulties, how can we effectively co-ordinate a second phase of the evacuation?
Naturally, questions will be asked about whether the Government have learned the lessons of the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal. We need to understand why the international community and the UK Government as Security Council penholder were seemingly wrong-footed by a conflict that we know was a clear and recognised risk. Can the Government give us a current assessment of Wagner’s role in supporting the RSF?
The immediate priority, however, must be to give our nationals a way to escape violence that is not of their making. We should remember that this conflict is not of the Sudanese people’s making, either; the responsibility for it lies squarely with a few generals who are putting personal interests and ambition above the lives of fellow citizens. The resistance committees are organising mutual aid despite terrible risks. People fleeing Khartoum by road are being sheltered and supported in the villages they pass. People who only want peace, justice and democracy are showing again their solidarity and extraordinary resilience.
Will the Minister detail the steps that the UK will be taking with partners to address the looming humanitarian crisis that this conflict is driving? The international community, including all our partners, needs to send a clear and united message. The generals cannot secure any future that they would want through violence. The fighting needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her comments, particularly about the work of the armed forces. She is entirely right about the bravery with which they executed this operation so well, and about its incredible difficulty.
The hon. Lady asked about the British nationals who are trapped in Khartoum and in Sudan more widely, and I can tell her that we are looking at every single possible option for extracting them. She acknowledged that this had been a complex area, and I can only say to her that it certainly was.
The hon. Lady referred to our partner countries. As we know, when the French were seeking to evacuate their diplomats and some people from the wider French Government platform, to whom she referred, they were shot at as they came out through the embassy gateway, and I understand that a member of their special forces is gravely ill.
The hon. Lady asked why the UK diplomats were evacuated. That was because we believed they were in extreme danger. Fighting was taking place on both sides of the embassy, which was why the Government decided that it was essential to bring them out. We have a duty to all British citizens, of course, but we have a particular duty of care to our own staff and diplomats.
The hon. Lady asked about the destruction of material, and I can tell her that there was time for all the normal procedures to be adopted in that respect. She asked about our role as the penholder at the United Nations. As she will know, we have already called a meeting and will call further meetings as appropriate, and we are discharging our duties as penholder in every possible way.
The hon. Lady mentioned the comparison with Afghanistan, and asked whether we had learned lessons. We most certainly have learned lessons from Afghanistan, but the position in Sudan is completely different. First, in Afghanistan there were British troops on the ground; there are no British troops on the ground in Khartoum, or in Sudan as a whole. Secondly, in Afghanistan the airport was open and working, whereas the airport in Khartoum is entirely out of action. Thirdly, there was a permissive environment in Afghanistan. We had the permission of the Taliban to take people out. There is no such permissive environment in Sudan and its capital city.
Finally, the hon. Lady asked about the humanitarian crisis. She is right: humanitarian workers have been shot at, five of them have been killed, and, prudently, those involved in the humanitarian effort are withdrawing their people. This is a total and absolute nightmare of a crisis, in which 60 million people are already short of food and support, and—as the hon. Lady implied—it will only get worse unless there is a ceasefire and the generals lay down their arms and ensure that their troops go back to barracks.
I echo the thanks that have been expressed to the staff from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence who evacuated our diplomats and their families.
The central tenet of the contract between British nationals and their Government, or indeed the nation state, is trust, and at this point trust is being stretched: trust that we will evacuate those people and convey them to a place of safety when they are in need. I recognise the complexity and risk, I recognise that we have thousands of nationals in Sudan while others have just hundreds, and I recognise there is reportedly a military reconnaissance team on the ground—perhaps the Minister can confirm that—but I urge my right hon. Friend, who is very honourable, to get our people home, because that is what the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence train our people to do.
If, however, we are following the United States policy of non-evacuation or limited evacuation, we must have the moral courage to tell our British nationals that that is the case, because they are running out of food, water, electricity and internet signal, and some are killing their pets because they know that they can no longer feed them. We have a duty to empower them with the information that they need in order to make the right decisions for themselves and their families, but I urge the Minister to accept that time is running out and we need to do the evacuation now.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her comments, and I am grateful to her for thanking the crisis centre, which is working night and day. I can assure her that while the United States made it clear that it was taking its diplomats out in the early operation that both it and we conducted, it has also made it clear that, as things stand, it is not planning to take any of its citizens out. We have not made that clear. Indeed, we made it clear that we are working at all levels to try to ensure that we can do so. We are looking at every single conceivable option, and we will—as my hon. Friend has suggested—do everything we possibly can to help in every way we can.
It is very welcome to have our civil servants evacuated, and all credit goes to the men and women in uniform who delivered that operation, but the political decision to evacuate an embassy in these circumstances should be neither complex nor lengthy, so the Government might wish to cease congratulating themselves on that, especially as, in terms of deploying our military professionals to support ordinary citizens trapped in Sudan, the UK is trailing as usual, just as it did at the start of the covid crisis. When other nations stepped up to repatriate their people, as is expected in such circumstances, the UK dithered and mithered.
Can the Minister explain to the House the root cause of this unfathomable inertia? Is there a tension between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence? If so, is the Foreign Office saying go and the MOD saying no, or is it the other way around? The official UK Government advice is that a ceasefire is the answer to this crisis, but what comfort is that to the thousands of UK nationals still on the ground? We might as well tell them to hold their breath while they wait for the food and water to run out.
Meanwhile, this weekend France evacuated 388 citizens, including Dutch citizens; Germany airlifted 101 citizens to Jordan; Italy and Spain have evacuated their citizens and those of Argentina, Colombia, Portugal, Poland, Mexico, Venezuela and Sudan; Turkey has evacuated 640, including people from Azerbaijan, Japan, China, Mexico and Yemen; and Ireland, without a tactical airlifter to its name, has evacuated Irish nationals and is evacuating 140 more today. What it is to have friends in the world. On Radio 4 this morning, the Minister said that UK nationals in Sudan would be frustrated. They are terrified, not frustrated. He also said no fewer than three times that if UK nationals chose to flee independently, they would do so at their own risk, which rather exposes Foreign Office priorities in this crisis. The risk assessment taken by Ministers advises UK nationals to stay put. Did they factor in any assessment of access to food and water, of failing sanitation or of escalating violence making future evacuations even harder?
I do not agree with the early part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. This was done because diplomats were specifically being targeted. He will have seen that the European Union representative was held up at gunpoint, and I have already mentioned that the British embassy was caught between the two sides in this. This was extremely dangerous, and I have already mentioned what happened to the French. It was the decision that our diplomats were in extreme jeopardy that led to the operation I have described.
As I said earlier, we of course have a duty of care to all our citizens. That is why we are doing everything possible, within the art of the possible, to bring them home, but we have a specific duty of care to our staff and our diplomats. Because of the extreme danger they were in, the Prime Minister took the decision to launch the operation that was fortunately so successful.
I too welcome the statement and pay tribute to our military for executing this evacuation of our embassy personnel, but as has been said, that duty of care must now extend to British passport holders who are still caught up in Sudan, including my constituent Rita Abdel-Raman, who went to visit her father and is now caught up in what is going on. I am grateful for the communication with the Minister over the weekend but I hope he recognises that while the capital, Khartoum, is very dangerous, the rest of that vast country is desolate. If we add together the elite forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, that formidable elite force could mimic what the United Nations is doing in using and protecting a land corridor to get thousands of expats and internationals from the capital to Port Sudan and to safety. When the Minister considers the options, will he consider that as a possibility?
My right hon. Friend is a distinguished former soldier and he understands the difficulties that we face on the ground. I can tell him that there is no reason to regard any of Sudan as safe. He will have seen what is happening, for example, in Darfur, where the RSF is a successor body to the Janjaweed who wrought such havoc in what President George Bush described at the time as a genocide. My right hon. Friend will therefore understand that, when speaking about safety, that is not an easy concept, but the option he mentioned—indeed, every option—is being carefully considered and we will resolve those options and move on them just as soon as we possibly can.
I, too, congratulate our armed forces, which have done an amazing job so far, and commend the work of our diplomats. The Minister has said that there are 2,000 British citizens in Sudan, but does he think the number is more like 4,000, as has been cited elsewhere? What is the best figure he can put to the number of British citizens in Sudan?
My memory of the Afghanistan situation is that MPs’ communication with Ministers was a complete and utter shambles. Some of us, particularly on the Opposition side of the House, felt that we had a very difficult time trying to get proper advice for our constituents. Will the Minister make sure that the second letter, which is meant to be coming to all of us, has a clearly identifiable number that we can ring and an email address to which we can send things? Having to communicate with lots of Departments ends up being a complete and utter mess for everybody.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The number of people who have replied to the Foreign Office’s request for information and registered themselves is of the order of 2,000. There is public speculation that there are about 4,000 British nationals and dual nationals—a person with a British passport is effectively in the same category.
I know the hon. Gentleman will expect me to say that lessons have, indeed, been learned from what happened in Afghanistan. The second “Dear colleague” letter, which I hope is in his inbox—if it is not, it will be shortly—sets out exactly how to get hold of the Foreign Office. We hope the word “shambles” will not be applied to our seamless work across Government to make sure we achieve the aims that are common on both sides of the House.
I thank everyone in the FCDO, the MOD and our armed forces. I have visited Khartoum and absolutely understand how difficult and dangerous any evacuation is and could be. The violent fighting was started by General Hemedti’s RSF, which is really worrying, especially considering its historical links with Wagner. I have met General Hemedti, and I will never forget the overwhelming sense of evil. The longer the violence continues, the more that people will face acute shortages of food and water, which could precipitate even more violence. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether any food is getting into Khartoum?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. She knows Sudan extremely well, and the whole House will have heard what she says about General Hemedti. She is right to fasten on the fact that humanitarian relief is enormously needed but, because humanitarian workers have been attacked and five have been murdered, the whole issue of supply is extremely difficult and, as of now, very little food is getting into Khartoum. We are acutely aware of this, and it is yet another reason why we are pressing with our international and regional friends and partners, through the United Nations and its agencies, for an urgent ceasefire that holds—none of the ceasefires has yet held—so that the humanitarian issues, and all the other issues, can be addressed.
My constituent Jennifer McLellan and her four young children, aged between two and 15, are currently hiding in Khartoum. Yesterday Jennifer reported a significant lull in the fighting just as other foreign nationals were being airlifted out of the city by their Governments. She wants to know whether that lull was coincidental or whether the UK has missed a critical window in which to get its nationals out. She has been back in touch in the last couple of hours, having heard rumours that the Royal Navy could be heading to Port Sudan. She wants to know whether those rumours are true. In the absence of consular staff, how will she and her family, and others, be evacuated from Khartoum to Port Sudan?
I cannot comment on rumours about the Royal Navy and Port Sudan. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and her family should make sure that they are registered with the Foreign Office. We will keep in touch and everyone should be receiving at least one communication per day. I am advised that today the internet has been only 2% available and so there are real issues with that, but we will do everything we can. He talks about a lull in the fighting yesterday. The Turks had a convoy with three muster points and when they were seeking to congregate their people there, two of those muster points were shot up. So the situation is extremely dangerous and it would not be possible to say that at any point yesterday, or on any of the days since this awful event took place, Khartoum was in any way safe.
It is always a tricky decision whether to evacuate staff. I have always felt that the Foreign Office has been a little too keen to evacuate staff rather than protect British citizens, but the EU embassy was shot at and it is directly opposite the UK compound, which shows a clear and present danger to our embassy. My question follows on from the one from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant). Will the Minister be more specific about numbers, including on the 2,000 figure? How many dual nationals and how many mono nationals are we talking about? Although we will treat the dual nationals equally, will the Sudanese Government treat them similarly? How many of those people actually want to stay? In previous situations, dual nationals have often been safer and have wanted to stay hunkered down with their families and second communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I assure him, having spent quite a lot of time with the men and women who are manning the crisis centre at the Foreign Office, that it would be wrong to suggest that their concern was for evacuating staff and not the wider public. The absolute commitment from the Foreign Office is to do everything we can for all those caught in this way, although, as I have mentioned, we have a special duty in respect of our own staff. He asked me to be more specific about numbers. I think I have been quite specific, but let me say that the published figures are about 400 for mono nationals and about 4,000 for dual citizens. He will appreciate that if someone has a British passport, they would expect to be treated in the same way whichever group they belong to. As for how many people want to leave Sudan, as I said, the Foreign Office has received registered communications from 2,000.
May I associate myself with the comments made by the Minister and the shadow Minister about the professionalism and bravery of those members of our armed forces who have been involved with this operation? I know from my own time at PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—that non-combatant evacuation operations can be particularly complex, so well done to everybody who has been involved. As we have heard from the Minister, the situation on the ground is that 2,000 British nationals are registered with the FCDO, potentially out of a total of 4,000. Given that Sudanese telecommunications are collapsing, can the Minister set out a bit more about what his Department is doing to explore contact with those British nationals who do not have access to either a reliable phone signal or the internet?
First, I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his comments, which come from very considerable experience. When I say that the published figure for dual nationals is 4,000, we may be talking about more or less than that—I am only giving him the published figure. On how we communicate with people in very difficult circumstances, we are indeed extremely resourceful, but he himself set out the limitations for what is possible. We work within those, but I hope we do so creatively.
I, too, congratulate our armed forces on their success thus far. At a more strategic level, given that the removal of Bashir was key to stemming the threat of Islamist extremism in the region, what conversations has my right hon. Friend had with colleagues in like-minded countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to ensure that whatever the political outcome is in Sudan, it does not rekindle the threat of Islamist extremism, which would have an impact on regional security and, potentially, our own?
My right hon. Friend, the former Defence Secretary, is absolutely right in what he says. There is a real danger of the cross-border spread of terrorism that he describes. He asked me specifically about conversations with the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I can assure him that those conversations go on at all levels of Government, and, indeed, went on over the weekend.
When the Minister came to the House last week, I asked him what reassurance he could give to those Sudanese nationals who are already here in the UK. This morning, I got an email from my constituent, Mohamed, who applied for asylum 16 months ago because he was being persecuted in Sudan. He is still waiting for some kind of decision from the Home Office, so can the Minister speak to his colleagues to offer some reassurance to those who have sought sanctuary here that they will not be returned to a country in conflict?
May I add my thanks to all those involved in this crisis?
Last week, I thought that the Minister rather swerved my question when I asked how much the overseas development assistance budget had been reduced in Sudan, so I looked online and saw that, starting at the beginning of the 2021-22 financial year, it had virtually disappeared. Does the Minister, who was in the same Lobby as me when we voted on 0.7%, continue to believe that spending in these fragile and conflict-afflicted countries is a really powerful way of preventing conflict across the region?
I would never purposefully try to swerve my hon. Friend’s questions. She and I were indeed in the same Lobby, and I just point out to her that collective responsibility, as I have mentioned to the House previously, is not retrospective. In respect of the funding in Sudan, she will know that the one area of the budget where there is a degree of flexibility, even in these straitened times, is in the humanitarian area. Clearly, what is happening in Sudan now will inform the decisions that we make in that respect.
May I, on behalf of the Democratic Unionists, commend our armed forces for their significant efforts in what is a most challenging and complex situation? I invite the Minister to recognise that it may be a stretch to suggest that having no diplomatic or military footprint in Sudan has no effect on our ability to rescue and evacuate British citizens. Having listened to a Northern Ireland resident last Wednesday who was doing an interview ensconced in his basement with his family in Sudan, highlighting that he was having to siphon water from a tap in his neighbour’s home and had little recourse to food at that point, how do we assure him that he has not just been left alone?
I thank the hon. Member for his comments about the armed forces. As I mentioned in the statement, we do not think that our diplomatic reach is diminished in these circumstances by diplomats being withdrawn. That is because, when they were holed up in great jeopardy in Khartoum, they were not able to operate, and most of the work was being done from the crisis centre in London, and that is the position today. I can tell him that our teams in surrounding states are moving to the point where they can help anyone who comes in across the border, and the diplomatic mission that was resident in Khartoum will be relocating shortly to a neighbouring country.
According to the Ministry of Defence, the Sudanese armed forces have been reasonably helpful on evacuation issues, but surely the best possible protection for any future evacuation would be under the auspices of the United Nations where blue berets still count for a lot. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are in the closest contact with the UN to see whether that extra degree of protection can be obtained for any future extraction operation?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that not only is the role of the UN under constant examination, to be progressed in any way we possibly can, but that, as Britain holds the pen—in the jargon of these things—at the UN on Sudan, we are leading the efforts to ensure that all possible opportunities through the United Nations are pursued.
With a large Sudanese community in Westminster, it is no surprise that I have a number of constituents currently trapped, terrified, in Khartoum. I must tell the Minister that at least one of them says that he has registered but has yet to hear anything from the Foreign Office. I appreciate the difficulties with the internet and I recognise that the Minister might not want to be too specific about what the future communications might be as the hours and days unfold. However, can he tell us whether he will be able to advise MPs such as me, and my constituents, that they will receive guidance on how any future evacuation plans will be communicated to them, so they are not left in this interim period worried that the minute the internet goes down, they are totally abandoned?
The hon. Lady is entirely right about the importance of communication. I hope my second “Dear Colleague” letter will be of assistance to her and her office in handling those extremely difficult cases. On the communications difficulties she cited, which I mentioned in response to other hon. Members, we are looking at all possible ways of delivering guidance. I hope we are extremely creative in working out ways of doing so, but she may rest assured that the full intellect and abilities of the Foreign Office are engaged in exactly that.
There was already a significant humanitarian issue in east Africa, which I know the Government have been working to help to address, but this situation will significantly increase the humanitarian pressures on the region as well as being potentially disastrous for the people of Sudan. Can the Minister set out what resources we already have in east Africa dealing with humanitarian issues, and what ability we have to scale them up to meet the inevitable challenge that will follow this dreadful conflict?
My right hon. Friend is right about the scale of issues that we face in east Africa, with something like 72 million people already in need of substantial help because of them. What is happening in Sudan will make that infinitely worse, not least because there are 16 million people who, before this awful crisis struck, were profoundly food insecure and in need of assistance. We will scale up when there is a ceasefire and we are able to do so, as he will understand. The United Nations agencies, which are extremely good at moving quickly to do that when the opportunity arises, will certainly come into play, with organisations such as the World Food Programme and many others, but he will realise that the indubitable requirement is that there should be a ceasefire so that they can operate on the ground. As I have said, five humanitarian workers have been murdered during the last week.
I add my congratulations to those involved in this NEO, or non-combatant evacuation operation, and I would like to pursue the question from the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) a little further. The British Government have supported many Governments in developing countries over the years with education in the civil oversight of defence, which includes educating senior military personnel in developing countries as part of our programme of defence diplomacy. Last year, a Liberal Democrat question served to find that no training has been provided by the MOD to counterparts in Sudan since 2020 because it would be regarded as military aid. Does the Minister think that education of the civil oversight of defence is worth categorising separately from military aid in those cases where a partner Government might be considering receiving it?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. Of course, through the pooled funding arrangements that we have, often that sort of work with the military can take place. I can tell him why he got that answer about Sudan last year: because all our efforts were bent towards trying to support the peace process and the negotiations that were going on to achieve a return to civilian rule. Sadly, all that is now very much on the back foot. But the aim, if we can get a ceasefire, is that those political negotiations should start so that there can be a civilian Government in Sudan.
The Government advise nationals in difficulties to stay indoors, but what if they run out of food, what if there is no power, water or other utilities, or what if there is fire in the local area? What is the advice and message of hope for them then?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The only advice that we can give through the Foreign Office—the only advice—is to stay indoors, because of all the reasons that I have given during the statement about the jeopardy on the streets outside. We have changed the advice today to say that although we think that people should undoubtedly remain indoors if they can, if they do not, it is at their own risk. But they must make their decisions on the ground. Of course, there are those who know the situation around where they live extremely well and may well be able to exercise their judgment, but they do so at their own risk.
I also pay tribute to the hard-working staff at the crisis centre. Last night, a constituent’s father, who had been shot at by armed militia in Khartoum, was evacuated thanks to the generosity of the French armed forces. My office spoke to his family this morning, and they are overwhelmed with grief. They said:
“While Dad has managed to get out of the country down to sheer luck, one of our friends remains in his apartment, just three buildings down from where Dad was. The information trickling down from the UK government remains minimal, and the announcement of European countries evacuating citizens makes this even tougher.”
Given reports that more than 4,000 British nationals could be in Sudan facing great danger, will the Minister update us on how many FCDO staff are currently responding to the current crisis, and why does the UK appear to have been slower in helping our citizens who are caught up in this grave danger?
The hon. Lady will know that we were, along with the Americans, the first to intervene in terms of any extraction whatever. She asks how many civil servants are engaged. The crisis centre has 200 staff working there. They are working on shift, but they have been working throughout the night and day, every day, more or less since this started a week ago.
May I ask a particular question that might have a more general application? My young constituent, aged 24, has taken refuge in a central official building in Khartoum, along with a great many others, but her passport has been locked up in the building of her non-governmental organisation, which is now locked and sealed. Will the Minister therefore ensure that when any evacuation eventually occurs, some kind of official travel documents are available for those who do not have theirs with them?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, it is essential that his constituent does their best to contact the Foreign Office team so that we are able to make a note of what he says. I thank him very much for informing us about that specific problem.
The proposition that war and conflict do not happen during high days and holy days is a ridiculous one. Therefore, because of woefully inadequate intelligence on the ground it seems—maybe the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the British ambassador to Sudan decided to go on holiday. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true, and if so, who was in charge on the ground?
The ambassador is entitled to return to the UK either on diplomatic business or, indeed, on leave if that is appropriate. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the second most senior person in the embassy in Khartoum—the development director—was in post when the disaster struck.
Given that there can be no guarantee of de-escalation, can my right hon. Friend confirm that Cobra is meeting regularly and urgently to consider all evacuation options and will be prepared to take risks in evacuating, using the strength of the UK armed forces if needed?
May I extend my thanks to the armed forces and everyone involved in trying to resolve this crisis? I am still a little unclear, from what the Minister has said, about what the plan is. I appreciate that he cannot provide operational details that might put people at risk, but will he at least give a step-by-step outline of, for example, what the plan is for international relations on a ceasefire or an evacuation that should be being planned?
I thank the hon. Member very much for her comments about the armed forces. She asked me what the plan is; my answer is very clear. There is a wide range of options—I hope fully comprehensive—that are being pursued with vigour, for every possible opportunity and circumstance. As soon as we are able to say more than that, we will of course tell the House.
May I join other hon. and right hon. Members in congratulating our armed forces on their very successful operation over the weekend? A significant number of NHS doctors come from Sudan, and I understand from a consultant at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in my constituency that around 50 of those doctors from various locations in the country are currently trapped in or near Khartoum. I thank my right hon. Friend for the advice that his staff at the FCDO, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), provided at the weekend, at the earlier stage of this process, to me and my constituent who works there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent upon those fighting in Sudan to do all that is necessary to enable those who wish to leave to do so? It is incumbent upon them to call a ceasefire and then to provide safe passage.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, particularly about the doctors he mentioned. The position in respect of humanitarian law is extremely clear, and it is clear that humanitarian law is being breached on all occasions in Sudan, so he is right to make that point. I also thank him for what he said about the armed forces. Just because the operation was an outstanding success, we should not forget the brave men and women who put their lives on the line and put themselves in harm’s way to protect the British cohort in Khartoum.
I have constituents who are trapped in Khartoum. They are NHS doctors, their colleagues are gravely worried for them, and they are stuck with two very small children. I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said today. He said that there is a grave risk to life, that food and water are scarce, that the internet is sparse, and that people may wish to relocate at their own risk, but that that is very risky and that they have to exercise their own judgment. None of those statements is of any practical help to my constituents, who need concrete support to get them and their children out of this perilously dangerous situation. What more can he tell us about the practical efforts being made to ensure food and water supplies on the ground? What more can he tell us, that our constituents can take some comfort from, about the efforts being made to get people back? Nothing that I have heard today has given me any comfort that my constituents should hope to be back home where they belong any time soon.
I completely understand the frustration that the hon. Lady and particularly her constituents will feel at these events. I have to be absolutely frank with the House and ensure that no one is misled: the position is extremely difficult. As I have outlined in both my statement and my answers to questions, we operate within the art of the possible, but she may rest assured that we will do everything we can, and are doing everything we can—and have been doing so since the start of this crisis—to ensure that her constituents get home safely.
Just as it was with the repatriation of British nationals during the covid pandemic, so it seems that once again we are well behind the curve compared with other countries. The thousands of British nationals still stranded in Sudan will now be facing food and water shortages, along with other dangers to their lives, but according to media reports, it is apparent that both the ambassador and the deputy ambassador were out of Sudan as early as 14 April. Can the Minister confirm if that is correct, and if so, why was there no senior leadership present to help the British nationals in Sudan when they most needed them?
I do not think there is a particular comparison with the covid pandemic. This is a very different situation; indeed, it is very different from the situation in Afghanistan, as I explained to the House a little earlier.
The hon. Gentleman outlines what he will understand is an exceedingly complex and difficult situation. On the issue of staffing, the ambassador was indeed out of the country, and the deputy head of mission was not the second most senior person in the embassy; that was the development director, as I explained in answer to an earlier question.
To echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), I have been contacted by a constituent of mine who is gravely concerned for her family members who are stuck in Khartoum, including her great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is approaching three years of age. As the Minister said in his statement, food and water are becoming increasingly scarce. I get the complexity of the situation, but what are we doing specifically to get food and water to those people who are doing as they were requested to do and staying in their houses?
Once again, I hope that the “Dear colleague” letter will be of assistance in informing the hon. Gentleman’s constituents on these matters. On food and water, the position is deteriorating even more because the humanitarian workers are not able to carry out their normal activities, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that we are operating within the art of the possible. Therefore, what we have to do is to make sure that all options are explored as rapidly as possible, so that we can bring help to those people who are caught up in the dreadful jeopardy that he has so eloquently described.
The Minister has very kindly set out the arrangements in the crisis centre run by the FCDO. It is clear from listening to colleagues across the House that the FCDO and Members of Parliament are going to be inundated with requests for help, so will the Minister consider stepping up and adding further support to the crisis centre? It clearly seems to be needed.
The hon. Lady is right to identify the considerable amount of work that is being done through, and by, the crisis centre. As I mentioned earlier, there are 200 people engaged in that work, working night and day. I assure her unequivocally that if any more people are required, we will provide them.