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Sudan: Emergency Situation

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

The long-term viability of Sudan relies of course on a permanent end to the conflict. In addition to undertaking the longest, largest evacuation mission of any western nation—bringing more than 2,300 people out of Sudan—we continue to push for a permanent end to the conflict and a resumption of civilian rule, and we will continue to work with the countries in the region and beyond to pursue that. The Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), will make a fuller statement to the House later today.

Earlier today, I spoke to someone from the Sudanese community in Scotland, who are all desperately worried. She was one of the organisers of an event at the weekend raising money for the Sudan Doctors Union in the UK. They will use that money to funnel much-needed medical supplies directly to the doctors union in Sudan, where, amid the violence, an alarming 75% of hospitals are currently closed. She wanted me to ask this: what will the Government do, and when, to get food, water and medicine to Sudan, and how can we ensure that it actually gets to people given that supply chains from Khartoum have all but broken down?

I commend, through the hon. Lady, the actions of her constituent. She makes an important point about the difficulties in getting humanitarian aid to people in the midst of conflict. That is why we have called—both directly with military leaders in Sudan and via organisations and neighbouring countries in the region—for a permanent cessation of violence. We will, of course, add to the humanitarian support that we already give Sudan, and we will do so in close co-ordination with organisations such as the United Nations World Food Programme and with other donations from around the world.

Several constituents, mainly with military backgrounds, and I were concerned to hear of British citizens being beaten and robbed on the way to the airport to get out of Sudan. Being an ex-soldier, I would have thought that our military forces, who are superb, would be sent out to escort those citizens to the airport. Did that happen, or were British citizens told to get to the airport with no escort at all?

The military practicalities of providing what would, to all intents and purposes, be an armed escort from multiple points around Khartoum and the surrounding areas to a single point of exit, proved insurmountable. That was true for our international partners as well as ourselves—no country in the world was able to provide that level of security arrangement. We kept under review the safety of the various routes from within Khartoum to Wadi Saeedna, and we advised on that accordingly. I have a huge amount of admiration for the military personnel who sustained the longest airhead of any western nation at Wadi Saeedna and are currently supporting British nationals and others in their evacuation through Port Sudan.

I welcome the BBC’s pop-up service for Sudan, acknowledging the huge importance of factually reporting and explaining events, but BBC Arabic radio, which already had millions of listeners in Sudan, was closed in January, so this announcement rows back on a bad mistake. BBC Persian radio was closed five weeks ago, even though 1.6 million Iranians relied on it for news of the women-led uprising, and now 382 journalists’ jobs are being cut in the BBC’s language services. Will the Foreign Secretary commission a rapid impact assessment of these cuts, which appear more capitulation to tyrants than providing a lifeline to the people who need it most?

The BBC, including the World Service, despite being a recipient of direct Government funding, is autonomous. It makes its own decisions, and those closure decisions were made by the leadership of the BBC. I was uncomfortable with those. I negotiated a package whereby we were able to give the BBC World Service a degree of financial predictability, and in return, it was able to give me assurances that there will be no further closures for the life of this Parliament of any of those language services. We value what they do incredibly highly, and I am very pleased that the BBC’s Sudan service has been able to relocate and continue broadcasting to that war-torn country.

In congratulating the Foreign Secretary on the evacuation, could I ask him to look at the state of the airport? My understanding is that so many heavy vehicles were evacuated that there has been damage to the airport runway, which means it will not be suitable for the World Food Programme and others bringing in humanitarian aid. Could he see what the excellent British military could do to resolve that problem, if indeed those rumours on the ground are true?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the state of the runway. I do not pretend to be a military logistics expert, but my understanding is that the British military were doing repairs while they were using the runway to keep it serviceable. He is right that what is basically a military runway has taken an exceptionally high level of air traffic. My understanding—and I am willing to be corrected on this once we have an update later today—is that we have been able to hand back that airfield to the Sudanese armed forces in a usable state, having done repairs as the airfield has been used.

I am hugely grateful to our armed forces and civil servants involved in the evacuation of Sudan. With the operation now ended, it is right to examine whether all the correct decisions were made. We know that the evacuation effort was initially stood down once diplomats were out, while other countries continued, and that national health service doctors resident in the UK were initially turned away. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that every national health service doctor who asked to be evacuated was evacuated, regardless of whether they were British citizens or residents?

The right hon. Gentleman, who I have a huge amount of respect for, is factually wrong in the points he made in his question. After the initial evacuation of our diplomatic staff—which is not only our moral duty but our legal duty, because they are our employees—we continued the planning for a wider evacuation operation for British nationals, their dependants and others. We planned for a whole range of eventualities, including if there was a ceasefire or if there was not a ceasefire, both through air and by land.

When the opportunity arose, we took full advantage of that opportunity to conduct the largest and longest airlift of evacuees, both British nationals and their dependants and other nations, of any western country. I am incredibly grateful to our civil servants across Government and the military for facilitating that. We maintain a presence at Port Sudan to facilitate the onward passage; we maintain a presence at the border regions, both in Ethiopia and in Egypt, to do so; and of course, we will continue to find opportunities to evacuate people where we can.

The Foreign Secretary did not answer my question, so let me try again. Last week, “Newsnight” reported that there were at least 24 National Health Service doctors who were British residents, but who were not yet on evacuation flights. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that all 24, and any other NHS doctors who would be evacuated—the Africa Minister is helping the Foreign Secretary—were taken safely back to the UK, so that they can do their jobs in the creaking National Health Service that we now have?

My right hon. Friend the Africa Minister has given me the most up-to-date figures on this. My understanding is that 22 of the 24 who were identified have been directly evacuated by us. It should be remembered that just as British nationals and others may well have made their own routes out of Sudan, they may well have done so. We keep in close co-ordination, both through the NHS and through direct conversation with us, to ensure that we provide as full a service as possible for those seeking evacuation.