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Sudan: Government Response

Volume 748: debated on Monday 22 April 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Deputy Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the crisis in Sudan.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question.

Britain is pursuing all diplomatic avenues to press the warring parties into a permanent ceasefire, allow unrestricted humanitarian access, protect civilians, and commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process. I visited eastern Chad last month, where I met with refugees who had lost everything and were fleeing conflict and hunger. I was greatly moved by what I saw, and reaffirmed Britain’s steadfast commitment to the people of Sudan. Some 88% of those crossing the border were women and children.

On Monday, to mark one year of brutal conflict in Sudan, Britain announced its third raft of sanctions, targeting two entities linked to the Rapid Support Forces and one entity linked to the Sudanese armed forces. On the same day, my noble Friend Lord Benyon represented the UK at the Paris humanitarian pledging conference for Sudan and its neighbours. On behalf of the UK, he pledged £89 million, a near-doubling of UK overseas development aid for Sudan from the previous year. He delivered a strong message with international partners, which—along with Britain’s sanctions—sends a clear signal to the warring parties that they must stop fighting and meaningfully engage in the peace process.

We continue to lead at the United Nations Security Council, where we hold the pen on Sudan. On 8 March, the UN Security Council adopted a UK-drafted Ramadan ceasefire resolution calling for immediate cessation of hostilities. On 20 March, we warned that obstruction of humanitarian access by the SAF and RSF is resulting in the starvation of the Sudanese people. Over the past year, Britain has provided £42.6 million in humanitarian aid to support people in Sudan, including £12.2 million to UNICEF for nutrition activities and approximately £23 million to the Sudan Humanitarian Fund for multi-sector response, including a high proportion of food security interventions.

Britain has also helped those fleeing to neighbouring countries: last year, we provided £7.75 million to support new and existing Sudanese refugees in South Sudan, and £15 million to Chad. We continue to advocate for a return to a civilian-led Government, and we urge all Sudanese stakeholders to engage in an inclusive dialogue that will deliver the peace and stability that the Sudanese people deserve.

I am grateful for that answer.

The sheer horror unleashed by the generals’ war in Sudan is appalling to recount. We are approaching 9 million people forcibly displaced, with evidence of systematic sexual violence and heinous mass atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere. Some 3.5 million Sudanese children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, and massive famine is now seen as almost inevitable. Some models project up to a million deaths. As the UN Secretary-General said, this is

“a war…on the Sudanese people”,

and it must end with an immediate ceasefire.

I strongly welcome the sanctions from last week and the additional humanitarian funding, but is there going to be a dedicated high-level Sudan envoy, and what conversations are Ministers having with those who continue to fund and enable this war, because greater co-ordination has to be the priority? All states must recognise the truly disastrous consequences if Sudan collapses not just for the Sudanese people, but for the entire region.

But there is hope, because through all the horror and the destruction, despite the blocks on humanitarian access, the Sudanese people are still standing together in their own communities. The resistance committees and the emergency rooms are sometimes the sole source of relief, as famine spreads and medical access runs out for the sick and injured, and they are the undaunted spirit and hope of a Sudan free from the generals and their catastrophic war. How can we correct the mistakes of the past and back Sudanese civilians directly?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for the eloquent way in which she has outlined the position in Sudan, and she is absolutely right. On the subject of the Sudan envoy, let me assure her that there is a very strong and very experienced envoy who covers the horn of Africa, and she focuses particularly on Sudan. The hon. Lady eloquently set out the wider effects of Sudan continuing on this path in the region, and I agree with her, and she also made clear the benefits that the emergency rooms, sometimes the only source of relief, are providing.

The hon. Lady asks about the mistakes that have been made in the past in respect of civilian rule. Britain has called—I think from across all parts of this House—for a ceasefire so that the generals take their troops back to barracks and the political space has a chance to advance. She will know that Abdalla Hamdok and Taqaddum, the civil society political grouping, have been working together, supported by Britain, in a conference in Addis Ababa and elsewhere. We are very committed to trying to work with them, so that there is one sensible but broad political offer for Sudan, as and when the chance of a ceasefire and the political track re-engaging takes place.

Do the Government have any evidence that they can share with this House of the involvement of major foreign powers in what is happening in this terrible conflict in Sudan?

My right hon. Friend will have seen the open-source reporting of various outlets. The point the British Government make on all occasions is that any arms supply into Sudan merely prolongs this conflict, and we urge anyone who is thinking of supplying either side or supplying either side to think very carefully and to desist.

Last week, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights released a detailed report on the genocide in Darfur. The report describes atrocity crimes—including massacres, sexual violence, the burning of villages and the destruction of key infrastructure—all targeting Darfurians in the region. The authors of the report say:

“Just twenty years after the first genocide…the same perpetrators are committing the same atrocities against the same innocent groups, all while evading accountability.”

Can I ask the Minister whether he has read the report, and is his Department planning to meet the Raoul Wallenberg Centre? What is the Government’s own assessment of the risk of genocide in Darfur, and how are they planning to implement their obligations under the genocide convention? Finally, has a joint analysis of conflict and stability been carried out on the situation in Sudan, and if not, why not? If it has, will he share those findings with the House?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on what is happening in Darfur. He will know that we have funded the Centre for Information Resilience, which investigates attacks on civilians, and is monitoring and keeping records wherever possible, so that—at some point, one day—there can be accountability and no impunity. He will also be aware that the position in Darfur—he asked me this question specifically—bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. I first visited Darfur in 2005, and again in 2006 with the Foreign Secretary. It has been a significant preoccupation of this House, and rightly so. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that we are doing everything we can to support the poor and long-suffering people of Darfur in every way we can, but he will equally understand the physical constraints on being able to do that in the way that we would wish.

This has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades, and the war that the world chooses to ignore. Last week, members of the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan heard from eyewitnesses and aid workers. We heard of 5 million people on the brink of famine, of aid convoys being held at gunpoint, of aid being looted, and of 50 aid workers murdered. The war, the misery, has gone on for a year, and it is getting worse. People want to know what the UK, as the penholder at the UN, is doing to try to shift the dial and bring peace. On behalf of the all-party group, I ask: what pressure are we putting on the United Arab Emirates and Iran to stop them supplying arms? What actions are being taken to enable the aid convoys to move? What is being done to end the culture of impunity? Why have those already indicted for genocide never been held to account, and why will the UK not appoint a dedicated envoy, so we can show that we put all our diplomatic weight behind efforts to find peace?

We always consider whether the issue of the envoy could be boosted, and as I said to my right hon. Friend, we think that the position at the moment is providing maximum effect, but we keep such matters under review. I pay particular tribute to her and the APPG for the work they do. She is entirely right in what she says: the UN issued a white note on 15 March, warning of the risk of conflict-induced famine. At least 21 humanitarian aid workers have been murdered, 8.6 million people are displaced, and nearly 18 million people are suffering acute levels of food insecurity. That is 40% of the population, and among them are 730,000 children who are facing the deadliest form of malnutrition.

As has been said, almost 25 million people in Sudan are in need of assistance, more than 8 million people have been left displaced, and the lives of 230,000 children and new mothers are at grave risk due to famine. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that $2.7 billion is needed to meet the huge humanitarian need in the country. I note from what the Minister said that the UK has doubled the humanitarian aid that it has committed, but does the Minister agree that that still falls far short of the threshold? Ultimately, it will achieve very little if there is not a ceasefire and an end to the fighting, to allow that aid to be distributed safely. What are the UK Government doing, along with our international partners, to ensure that we achieve that immediate and lasting ceasefire sooner rather than later?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a ceasefire is essential, with troops returning to barracks and the opening up of a political track, and that is the central thrust of the British Government’s policy. He acknowledges that we have managed nearly to double aid to £89 million this year. For South Sudan—this, of course, also addresses many of the problems of Sudan—the figure for this financial year is £111 million, which is more than double what it was. That includes multilateral and bilateral spend. The fact that Britain has doubled its contribution gives it a locus, which was well used by my noble friend Lord Benyon last week in Paris at the Sudan conference, to make the point about other countries also supporting, given the desperate plight in which so many in Sudan find themselves.

I welcome this urgent question and the Government’s response. We regularly talk about what is going on in Ukraine and the middle east, but we do not focus on the continent of Africa, or Sudan, which is turning into a failed state. There is every prospect of what is going on in Sudan spilling out into other parts of central Africa and the Sahel. Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary update the House on whether we have any presence in Port Sudan? He talks about peace talks. Egypt has also engaged in those, so can he update the House on the prospect of what is happening bringing the necessary parties together?

In respect of my right hon. Friend’s final point, we are hopeful that the third set of negotiations in Jeddah will take place. The Saudis committed on 15 April to that happening in early May, and we are extremely grateful to the Saudis for that and for inviting the UAE, Egypt, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to be part of the negotiations. The former Chairman of the Defence Committee is right about the danger of contagion across the region. We are doing everything we can to support Abdalla Hamdok and the Taqaddum, as I mentioned earlier. In terms of our support within Sudan, the ambassador is currently based in Addis Ababa and is working energetically with all the relevant parties to try to make progress.

The Sudanese community in Liverpool, Riverside, will be decidedly underwhelmed by the Minister’s response to this urgent question. He mentioned supporting people moving to neighbouring areas, but he did not mention the Sudanese who have lived, worked and contributed for years to the UK bringing over family members who are fleeing the conflict, or extending student visas or protections for Sudanese asylum seekers. What will it take for the UK to provide a visa programme for Sudanese asylum seekers, similar to the Ukrainian scheme?

The two situations are not analogous. If the Labour party wants to launch a campaign for extra visas and a special scheme matching the one in Ukraine, I look forward to hearing details of it.

My wife and I spent a wonderful holiday in Sudan a few years ago, and it was wonderful to see the amazing people there, as well as the rich cultural heritage that Sudan has to offer. There are many world heritage sites, such as the pyramids of Meroë—there are more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt—ancient cathedrals, and even Lord Kitchener’s boat. We hear that fighting has spread to some of the world heritage areas. UNESCO is protecting two world heritage areas, Meroë and Gebel Barkal, under the heritage emergency fund, to which the UK Government contribute, but what further work and money can the UK put in to protect this world heritage, bolster UNESCO and protect these ancient and important aspects of our civilisation?

My hon. Friend is right about the great heritage and deep links, including heritage links, between Britain and Sudan over many years. The truth is that we have to do everything we can, holding the pen on Sudan at the United Nations as we do, to achieve this ceasefire and the reopening of political space. If we can do that, we can focus directly on the points that he makes.

What discussions has the Minister had with other countries to apply pressure to stop the flow of arms into this conflict, and to try to bring it to an end as soon as possible?

These discussions are taking place in the margins of the United Nations, and at the conference that took place in Paris on Monday last week. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that we need to ensure that arms do not fuel the conflict, and that is why Britain urges everyone to ensure there is no further arming of either party. The arms embargo goes all the way over Darfur, and would be over the whole of Sudan, if the Chinese and Russians were willing to sign up with the rest of us to implementing it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You have caught me off balance; I was just about to take my diabetic tablets when you called me. I thank the Minister for his answers to the UQ. He will be aware that more than 9,000 people have been killed, and nearly 6 million displaced, and Christians are facing persecution. What support are the Government offering to non-governmental organisations on the ground, such as Church missionaries, who seek to help displaced Christians not only feed children, but provide them with a semblance of an education and, most importantly, hope of a future life?

The hon. Gentleman will understand the great difficulties in helping directly on the ground; I know the matter is of great interest, both to him and to the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). We must continue to find every possible way of supporting the important groups that he mentioned.

I draw the Minister’s attention to a report on the BBC website, in case he has not read it, by Zeinab Mohammed Salih, a Sudanese journalist. She recalls:

“People have told me of ethnically targeted killings and sexual violence. They remain traumatised, months afterwards.”

The Minister may be aware that months before the war broke out, sexual violence and gender-based violence was being used against women. In June 2023, it was estimated that there were more than 60,000 survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan, and we continue to see reports of sexual violence. What steps are the Government taking to address that really important issue, and to prevent further cases of violence, and of rape being used as a war weapon?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is entirely right. We have read these reports and many others with horror. That is one of the reasons why we are supporting the Centre for Information Resilience, so that we can do everything we can to deter there being any question of impunity, but it is extraordinarily difficult. As she rightly said, what is happening in Darfur bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

The attention paid to the conflict in Sudan does not reflect the enormity of the suffering there, with millions displaced and facing famine, violence and insecurity. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for securing the urgent question. The Minister spoke about the limited arms embargo, such as it is. Is he aware that it is being broken on a grand scale, and that there is a pervasive flow of arms into Sudan? What is he doing to monitor that, and to try to reduce that flow of arms, which is fuelling the conflict?

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I have set out the clear message from the British Government about the supply of arms,. On her first point, she is right that conflicts elsewhere in the world—particularly in Ukraine and Gaza—have to some extent taken attention away from Sudan, and indeed Ethiopia, on which, in Geneva last Tuesday, Britain was leading the effort to raise money to head off a famine. Part of the benefit of the urgent question is that we can make clear the threat, what is happening in Sudan, and what Britain is doing to try to assist.

Sudanese students at Heriot-Watt University in my constituency were desperately worried about their family members in Sudan when I met them last year at the request of the university chaplain. Many of their family members needed help fleeing to neighbouring countries, and others have sought family reunification with British citizens already living here. What are the Government doing to help British citizens to save the lives of their relatives in Sudan?

The hon. and learned Lady will know the steps that Britain took a year ago to help those who were seeking to leave, but since then the vast amount of migration has been across the border into Chad and South Sudan, and indeed into Ethiopia. Britain has contributed £15 million to help those whom I saw near Adré, on the border between Sudan and Chad, at the end of last month. In respect of South Sudan, where there is a significant and increased programme of humanitarian support, we have directly contributed nearly £8 million.

I recently met the community president and secretary general of the Sudanese Community Association of Greater Manchester. We discussed the horrific civil war in Sudan and the desperate need to bring about a peaceful and sustainable end to the conflict. The war may be taking place in Sudan, but it has huge implications for Sudanese communities in Britain, like the one in Manchester. What support is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office providing Sudanese communities in Britain, who are trying to support their loved ones who are fleeing from violence to reach a place of safety?

There is very little we can do until those people reach a place of safety. As I said, many have fled across the border into Chad and South Sudan. We are actively helping those people in the way that I described.

Sudan is experiencing the worst displacement crisis in the world. It is not so much a civil war but a war on civilians, who are losing their homes, livelihoods and lives on a scale that is hard to comprehend. The Sudanese people feel forgotten, so it is vital that both aid and political focus are forthcoming. Will the Minister work with his Home Office colleagues to support Sudanese people in the asylum system, who are beside themselves with worry about family members? Will he better facilitate reunion for those UK citizens who have family among the most affected and who are able to leave?

We will do everything we can to assist. The hon. Lady will understand the constraints we work within, but I will note what she said. If she has any specific cases that she wishes to raise, I hope she will do so.

Given the level of death, despair and starvation, we need an immediate ceasefire in Sudan. Cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid access is being blocked and impaired by both sides, even though they are, in effect, starving their own people to death. What steps are the Government taking to get the Adré crossing open, and to expose the impact of RSF extortion on humanitarian aid convoys?

I was in Adré when I visited the border between Chad and Sudan. I saw the weight of human misery crossing that border—88% of those crossing were women and children, which shows that the men had either been murdered or gone into hiding. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the importance of Adré. He is right about the two generals effectively waging war on their own people—starving their own people, as he said. That is why everyone is urging the two generals to desist, get their troops back to barracks and give a chance for a political track to reconvene and re-emerge.

What assurance can the Minister give the Sudanese community in Newport—who, as others have said, feel that the conflict and its catastrophic consequences have gone largely unseen—that the Government are doing all they can to get aid in through the Adré crossing, and are trying as hard as they can to build consensus among neighbouring and regional states that the war must end?

I hope that today’s urgent question will be of some comfort in respect of what the Government are seeking to do and the role we play at the United Nations—where we are the penholder—and in the Troika, with Norway and the United States, to try to bring this awful crisis to a conclusion.

The information that we have received via al-Jazeera and others about the situation in Sudan is truly horrendous: 8.2 million people have left their homes, 17.7 million are experiencing food shortages, and cholera, measles and other diseases are rife. Unless there is a rapid ceasefire, the planting season simply will not begin, and there will be even greater and deeper hunger, not just in Sudan but in neighbouring countries. Does the Minister have any realistic hope that the combination of the UN and the African Union—and anyone else who can intervene—will bring about a ceasefire to allow, at least, people to return to their homes and to be able to feed themselves?

The former Leader of the Opposition makes the case very clearly. The figures he sets out show the scale of the disaster that has engulfed Sudan. When I was on the border between Chad and Sudan near Adré, I saw for myself the work that was being done by organisations such as the World Food Programme, which Britain strongly supports, but also the International Rescue Committee and Médecins Sans Frontières. The work is going on wherever it can, but it is extremely difficult because of the circumstances he set out.

What assessment has been made of the potential levels of food insecurity and the level of response needed if the conflict goes on through the summer and disrupts the next planting season?

The hon. Lady is entirely right. The World Food Programme told me, when I was in Chad, that it effectively had supplies of food only until the end of May. That is one of the reasons why Britain has increased so substantially its bilateral aid, and why my noble Friend Lord Benyon went to the Paris meeting on Monday last week to make sure that others, too, put their money where their mouth is and supported the desperate situation she described.

This morning I had the pleasure to meet some brilliant organisations working on behalf of people in Sudan who are desperate to be reunited with family here in the UK. They want answers to two questions. First, given the circumstances people are having to live in, why is it taking over a year for many applications to be decided? Secondly, why do the Government demand that these people make dangerous and illegal cross-border journeys before they will even consider their applications, because they have to enrol biometric information? That seems completely counterintuitive. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the Home Office a polite kick up the backside and urge a change in approach?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to give me details of any specific cases, I will of course make sure they are looked into.

What steps are the Government able to take to stem the flow of resources—not only weapons, but fuel—to the RSF across the border from Libya? Are the Government monitoring the potential for onwards flow to Sudan as a result of continuing Russian supply of arms within Libya?

We urge all parties not to supply weapons to the belligerents in Sudan. It will merely extend and continue the appalling situation that exists there. That is why Britain is so clear that we should seek to starve this conflict of any additional weaponry.

The Opposition welcome the Government’s atrocity monitoring and prevention work in Sudan, even though it is belated. It is important to join up that work with our diplomatic efforts in support of talks in Jeddah next month that are inclusive and effective. Is there a strategy to use targeted pressure to help isolate those responsible for atrocities and bring them to justice, and to bring both warring parties to the table?

In respect of targeted pressure, the hon. Lady will have seen the recent announcements about sanctions against both the RSF and the SAF, and the earlier steps that were taken. She is right to focus on Jeddah 3, which looks to be the best bet at the moment for progress. Britain is giving very strong support to that process.

On Monday, the Government announced three sanctions against businesses supplying the SAF and the RSF. What assessment has the Deputy Foreign Secretary made of how effective they will be in the greater scheme of all the arms that are being supplied to those two warring factions?

The hon. Lady is right to focus on the sanctions. Although we do not talk about future plans on sanctions across the Floor of the House, the way these things work is that when we see that sanctions are not working as well as we had hoped, we will always seek to reinforce them. That is the nature of imposing sanctions, as we have seen in other areas. We will do everything we can, through the sanctions regime, to advance the objective that she and I share.

The Minister referred to the problem of food security. It does seem very likely that the planting season will be disrupted again this year. What are the implications for food security in Sudan and South Sudan this autumn and into next year? Has a target been set for the amount of international aid to be gathered to deal with that looming crisis?

The targets that are required are the subject of continuous discussion, particularly with the World Food Programme and at the United Nations, and they helped to inform the discussions that took place in Paris last week. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the dangers of the harvest failing. The lean season approaches in other parts of Africa too, including Ethiopia. This is the nature of climate change and sometimes factors like El Niño, and it is extremely worrying. The effects of the harvest failing and the onset of the lean season are very serious in terms of nutrition and food dependency.

I thank the Minister for his previous engagement regarding a number of my constituents whose family members have been stuck, and affected by the ongoing conflict in Sudan. May I ask what conversations he has had with his counterparts in Egypt, who, as far as I understand, are still suspending the issue of visas to Sudanese nationals who are holding UK travel documents, with the result that people are stuck in Egypt when they could well be here with their families right now if that were not being held up by the Egyptian authorities?

We have an extremely effective embassy team in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, with very close relations across the top of the Egyptian Government and in all parts of it. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise any specific cases with me again, I hope that she will do so, and I will certainly take them up for her.