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Iraq: Humanitarian Assistance

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to bring humanitarian assistance to Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes or forced to flee to other countries.

My Lords, we are very concerned about the increasing number of displaced Iraqis. We are doing two things. First, we are supporting the Iraqi Government to improve security. Secondly, we are supporting the delivery of urgent assistance to those in need. Since January 2007, we have contributed £10 million to assist displaced and vulnerable people in Iraq and across the region. This brings our total humanitarian contribution to more than £125 million since 2003.

My Lords, clearly we are in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises in the Middle East since 1948. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness one specific question. What steps are being taken to protect those brave Iraqis who have been working with the British as, for example, translators and administrators at very serious risk of reprisal both to themselves and to their families? Will she give an assurance that the Government will do everything they can to help such people, including giving them the opportunity of resettlement?

My Lords, I am well aware of these concerns and the noble Lord may know that a letter was recently sent to the Prime Minister about them. The noble Lord will be aware that we consider applications by asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis and that we have a resettlement scheme which considers some 500 people per year. Those applying under the scheme come in the main from the African continent, but we are looking at whether some of the individuals mentioned by the noble Lord could be accommodated within it.

My Lords, given that 1.9 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq, 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced in Syria and three-quarters of a million have been displaced in Jordan, does my noble friend think that £10 million will go very far? Could we not divert money from elsewhere within British public expenditure to support more of those living in these very difficult conditions?

My Lords, my figures do not quite match those given by my noble friend. The UNHCR estimates that some 1.9 million Iraqis are internally displaced, with 2 million Iraqis living in neighbouring countries, of whom 1 million are in Syria and around 700,000 in Jordan. The issue here is to work with the neighbouring countries so that displaced Iraqis can access services such as health and education. Only around 3 per cent are living in camps, so many slip under the radar. That is why we support organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UNHCR and other agencies which work with those in the region and also with those who are internally displaced.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that her reply to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, about the particular vulnerability of those who have worked as interpreters and drivers for British forces did seem rather weak? People who have risked their lives by working with British forces do represent a real obligation for this country, given that we bear responsibility for getting them into these particular difficulties in Iraq. Can the Government not set a higher priority on looking after those who have risked their lives to assist British troops in Iraq?

My Lords, I hope that I made it absolutely clear in my reply that we consider these issues on a case-by-case basis. What I sought to indicate to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was that until now the overall resettlement scheme has provided for people in third countries. The situation is different for those who apply to come to the UK as refugees from Iraq. We are looking at extending the resettlement scheme to Iraqi people who are in countries other than Iraq, some of whom might have worked for the UK Government in Iraq, who then went to another country and are now looking at the possibility of resettling in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, will the Government acknowledge that particular difficulties have also arisen for the Christian community in Iraq, caught as it is between increased Islamic awareness in the native population and associations with the occupying powers? Will they give some form of undertaking that particular attention will be paid to the needs of Christian refugees from Iraq?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is quite right. We are aware of recent reports that Assyrian Christians in the Baghdad suburb of Dura have received threatening letters. Not only are we looking at this issue in terms of their refugee status, we are also working with the Iraqi Government on these matters.

My Lords, we have heard estimates from the UNHCR that nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, but Kuwait has refused to accept any Iraqi refugees since the invasion of the country in 2003, and Saudi Arabia has spent $1.8 billion on border security since 2004 and is now building a 550-mile fence along its northern border to seal Iraq off completely. Will the noble Baroness ask her right honourable friend to urge the Saudi and Kuwaiti Governments to do more to help the international effort to assist the displaced Iraqis?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that, of the many countries in the Middle East, very few are signatories to the 1951 convention; in fact I think only Egypt is a signatory. It is important for us to work with those countries that have accepted refugees, but also with those which, as the noble Baroness said, have refused to accept refugees from Iraq. There was a recent meeting of neighbouring countries, and I hope that this item will be on the agenda of future meetings.

My Lords, I am not aware of that number. We get about 1,000 refugees per year, but I am not aware of the percentage of those who have worked for us.