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Libya Floods

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the floods in Libya.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue, which I know is a source of concern across the House. It is important that we discuss it today.

The situation is very concerning, and I send sincere condolences on behalf of the Government to the people of Libya. I am sure that is true for everyone in the House. On Wednesday, eastern Administration officials reported that the death toll had risen to at least 5,300, and newspaper reports this morning suggest the number could reach 20,000.

Storm Daniel hit Libya on Sunday 10 September after causing floods and chaos in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, and then, early on Monday morning, two dams burst, which we know caused major flooding that submerged parts of the city and wiped out entire neighbourhoods. The attempt to recover the situation has been made worse by a lack of road access and by communication channels being down. We stand ready to help as best we can.

The UK has committed to supporting Libya following these devastating floods, and yesterday the Foreign Secretary announced an initial package worth up to £1 million to provide life-saving assistance to meet the immediate needs of those most affected by the floods. The UN central emergency response fund, to which the UK is the third largest donor, has announced that it will deliver $10 million of support to Libya. We are also working with trusted partners on the ground to identify the most urgent basic needs, including shelter, healthcare and sanitation. We stand ready to provide further support.

The UK remains in close contact with authorities across Libya to help respond to this tragic crisis, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the middle east and north Africa, has reiterated the UK’s commitment to Libya in a call with the chair of Libya’s Presidential Council. UN officials have said that the western and eastern Governments are working together and communicating on this, which will be important, and we stand ready to help the people of Libya in these very challenging times.

The horror of the catastrophic floods in Libya is hard to imagine: loved ones swept away within arm’s reach, drowning in mud and crushed under rubble. The city of Derna has been utterly devastated and, as the Minister said, estimates now range above 20,000 lives lost. The grief and worry of those with no knowledge of their loved ones’ fate must be simply unbearable. Our thoughts are with them and with all the people of Libya.

As the Minister said, assistance has struggled to reach the city, and the scale of urgency of need is immense. Many areas have reportedly received no help, and there is no hope of rescue for anyone left alive trapped under mud and rubble. There is obviously a terrible threat from disease, with authorities lacking enough body bags to cope with the scale of death.

In the Minister’s estimation, how many people are now lacking shelter, clean water and medical care? I know the Government are supporting the United Nations central emergency response fund, but is the Minister confident that that will support co-ordinated efforts and reach those who are truly in dire need?

Surely the scale of this disaster is linked to Libya’s many years of conflict and chaos, political paralysis, diplomatic failure and neglect. We know that climate heating is making extreme weather, such as Storm Daniel, more intense. We must help to prevent these horrors where we can, build resilience to a changing climate and support Libya on the path to stability and peace. That will take strategic action on diplomacy, security and development, and we must make sure the humanitarian response, which is desperately needed right now, is delivered.

As usual, the hon. Lady has made important points, with her characteristic compassion and passion. I reiterate that we share those sentiments and we are working hard to address the situation. Let me update the House by saying that the UN is currently finalising its needs assessment and we hope to see that this afternoon. The Foreign Secretary has already set out that we are ready to provide support, and we have put some initial support on the table. I reiterate to the hon. Lady and the House that we will continue to keep in close contact with the UN and we are reiterating our support to it. We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground and we stand ready to offer further assistance. The point she makes is crucial: this support needs to reach the people affected. Too often, in various countries, there have been blockages in getting support to the frontline. I understand that the two groups in Libya are working together or at least talking, which is encouraging. That is going to be crucial in making sure that there is a flow of funds and, more importantly, that support is provided on the ground. She also talks about future support. Clearly, we need to focus on the humanitarian issues right now, but, given the challenges of climate change, there will be urgent needs associated with infrastructure to address. However, that is for another day and I am sure we will continue that conversation.

This is an awful situation, and both Front Benchers have got it absolutely right. One issue is that Libya is a country that has such an appalling history. When we give money, as a nation and as Government, we will have to be careful that the corrupting influences in that country do not siphon it off, as it is meant for the people who have suffered so badly. Will the Minister please assure the House that every effort will be made by his Department and the Government to ensure that that money goes to the people who need it now and that we help to alleviate their suffering?

My hon. Friend make important points, which I hope are listened to by those involved in the situation in Libya. The support absolutely needs to get to the frontline. If nothing else, we hope that this moment of severe crisis in that country will bring sometimes warring factions and groups who have different opinions together in common cause—that is vital. There comes a point where human interest and humanitarian concern is the most important factor, as is the case right now.

Of course, we join both Front Benchers in sending our deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones in these devastating floods. The scale of the destruction is utterly unimaginable, and Libya needs international solidarity as it moves from the search and rescue phase to the recovery phase. As climate change bites harder and we see more fierce natural disasters, it will so often be the case that those least able to cope with the effects of climate change are impacted to the greatest extent. So will the UK Government invest much more in international loss and damage funding, as the Scottish Government have championed worldwide? Of course, we will support the Government in any support they offer Libya. However, given the drastic cut of 30% in the international aid budget and the catastrophic impact it has had on our ability to be a global player and react to the needs of countries hit by climate change disasters such as we see in Libya right now, what more support can the Libyans expect from the Government?

I thank the hon. Member for his support. The action that is being taken in the short term is the top priority right now. He makes important points about how we are working to affect those who are climate-vulnerable. We will continue to do that, but I reassure him that in this moment in time we have found support, we will continue to monitor the situation and we will provide whatever other support we need to provide. Our funding through the UN is pivotal at this time.

I thank my hon. Friend for the update. Clearly, the most important thing right now is humanitarian aid, but there will be a requirement for long-term rebuilding of the structures that have been destroyed. The British people will want to be generous but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) mentioned, there is a risk that funds will be diverted to improper uses. When a fund is set up to which the British people can contribute, will my hon. Friend make sure that the British people know how to contribute to it and that it goes to the people who need it?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which has been reiterated by other Members: the money needs to get to the frontline. We will do everything we can, certainly with those funds provided by the UK Government and through the UN; that will be a key focus. The fact that so many colleagues are raising the issue helps us to make that point with conviction.

On his wider point, the primary focus right now is humanitarian need, but going forward, Libya needs to move down a pathway to free and fair elections. That will help the country in the longer term, but humanitarian aid and support is our key focus right now.

I join colleagues in offering my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in the devastation in Libya. In my constituency and in many other parts of the country there are strong Libyan diaspora communities watching on in despair, unsure about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Will the Minister confirm what support is available to Libyan communities and others in the UK to gain information about friends and family in Libya?

Our embassy staff are working closely with people on the ground, keeping in touch with what is going on, and our consular support team is keeping in touch with dual nationals in Libya, providing the support they need. They will continue to do that. Our condolences go not only to the people of Libya but to the wider diaspora as well. We will continue to do everything we can, as hon. Members on all sides of the House have urged—that message has been well received today.

I fully support the fact that the UK Government have provided international assistance to the people of Libya, but what are we doing specifically to ensure humanitarian assistance is urgently getting to people on the ground today?

As I say, we have made our initial offer of support. We continue to have an active dialogue with the Libyan authorities and the UN. As I said to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), the key thing today is that we are waiting for the UN needs assessment, so we can then give our best assessment of what sort of support we need to help to provide.

The tragic scenes we are witnessing in Libya are utterly horrifying; my thoughts and prayers are with all those affected. During the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, my noble Friend Lord Purvis asked

“why the Government’s humanitarian crisis reserve, which recently stood at £500 million, has now been depleted to only £30 million, which means that the UK’s response to any other emergencies or disasters will be greatly reduced.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2023; Vol. 828, c. 642.]

Has that significant reduction in a crisis reserve for humanitarian assistance affected our ability to help those in Libya?

I think hon. Members will agree that we responded fast to the situation in Morocco. It is very sad that this tragedy follows so quickly afterwards, and we want to respond to it quickly too. Part of the challenge has been understanding the situation on the ground. We know the macro picture, but the exact detail that the Government and hon. Members want to see is difficult to ascertain because of problems with communication links and transportation, but we will get a better assessment this afternoon.

What has happened in Libya is an absolute catastrophe and it is awful for all those people who have been killed or affected. As well as lives lost, infrastructure has been damaged as well as heritage and culture. That part of Libya is home to a wealth of heritage and history, including the UNESCO site of Cyrene. Satellite images show that roads to Cyrene have been badly damaged and washed away. What assessment have the Government made and what conversations have they had with UNESCO about those world heritage sites, and what are the Government doing to protect and restore the world heritage sites that have been damaged?

I know that my hon. Friend has a real interest in the history and heritage of north Africa. Clearly, any damage to a UNESCO world heritage site would be a cause of great concern. Right now, as Members on both sides of the House have said, our focus has to be on what we can do to help preserve life and also to protect British nationals. None the less, we will work with partners through UNESCO on the matters that he has raised.

This is a devastating tragedy, and it has unquestionably been exacerbated by Libya’s poor warning and evacuation systems, and by its substandard planning and design standards. I welcome the financial support that the Minister has outlined, but can he assure me that we will also look to provide whatever technical expertise is necessary to bring about improvements in these areas for the rebuilding of Libya both now and into the future?

The hon. Member makes a really important point about the medium term, and we will certainly examine what technical support we can provide. That will be important given the infrastructure issues. I also gently urge all parties in Libya to recognise that this is about prioritisation. If they can move away from conflict and think about how they can work in the interests of their own populations, that would also help the situation. We stand ready to help, but once we get through this immediate humanitarian crisis, other parties will need to work out how they can help move the country forward.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying: the humanitarian response to what have been described as apocalyptic scenes has to be the priority. I went to Kashmir in my first term as an MP, following the devastating earthquake there, and saw how the way that school buildings had been constructed lent itself to roofs collapsing on children and other horrific scenes. We talked about how the UK could lend its expertise in that area to make sure that, following the reconstruction effort, Kashmir would be more resilient to future shocks. Are we still involved in such programmes? Can we use that expertise to ensure that, when it comes to rebuilding Libya and other affected countries, they are far more resilient?

I recognise the hon. Member’s interest and expertise in this area from her previous visits and through her work in Parliament. She makes an important point, similar to that made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western). We do need to look at what technical expertise we can provide. I will take that away and work on it with Lord Ahmad. It is a good point.

The scenes coming out of Libya are just horrific. My thoughts and prayers are added to those from across the House to all the families affected. The Minister, in response to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, said that communications had been taken out and that that is hampering efforts to get humanitarian aid to where it is needed. What can the UK Government do to help get those communications back up and running?

That is a really important point. Hopefully, our expertise can help there. We need to see what the UN wants us to do in a co-ordinated way. We will play our part, and the calls from Members in this House will spur us on and help us in our negotiations to get urgent access to do what we can to help. I wish to thank all Members for their contributions today. It has been an important conversation and call to action.

I thank the Minister for his deep and sincere interest and for his commitment, which is what all of us in this House wish to see. Our Government and our Ministers have never been found wanting when it comes to helping, and we appreciate that. He has outlined the devastation and loss of life from Storm Daniel. Like others, my thoughts and prayers are with those families who have lost loved ones. Charities such as Christian Aid, alongside church groups in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, are already setting up a page. It is clear that there is a desire to help. How can the Minister and the Government work alongside the charities and the churches to get aid to the right place as soon as humanly possible?

The response from UK charities, including those that the hon. Member has mentioned, is always greatly valued, as is their expertise and capability to deliver. We need to get the impact assessment from the UN today. Let us then co-ordinate our efforts with partners, not just across Governments but with non-governmental organisations, to get the best possible outcome. The call to action is clear and we need to move fast.