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Iraq: Refugees

Volume 698: debated on Monday 21 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they are taking to help refugees from the conflict in Iraq.

My Lords, we remain very concerned about the humanitarian situation of an estimated 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 2.2 million internally displaced people. We continue to work on improving security, which is the main cause of displacement and which also restricts access to assistance that could be provided by NGOs. In addition, we have targeted £15 million in 2007 and £132 million since 2003 directly to assist displaced Iraqis.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I return to a Question I first raised in this House in April 2007: how many Iraqis who have been employed by the British as interpreters have now been resettled here? The local guidance being issued warns that places are limited and that the process may take until the summer of 2009. Is that the right priority to give to Iraqis who may be in danger of reprisal for no other reason than that they have helped this country?

My Lords, on behalf of my department and all the others, I express our gratitude to locally employed staff, whose vital contribution has assisted us and the Government of Iraq. As noble Lords are aware, two schemes were announced in October last year by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and explained to this House by my noble friend Lady Ashton. The gateway refugee settlement scheme has already started. We have received 910 applications, of which 404 were rejected for showing no visible connection to British work. Ninety have been passed on to the Home Office, and 24 have been passed altogether. We estimate that the target cap of 600 is manageable, particularly because new forecasts show that there was a spike in December suggesting that the number will be adequate and manageable.

My Lords, there must be many Iraqi refugees in the UK who are here with exceptional leave to remain or other, more indeterminate, status. Is it the Government’s view that many will now return voluntarily? If not, how many have actually been forced to return? Is it the Government’s view that all parts of Iraq are now sufficiently secure for refugees to return, save in exceptional circumstances?

My Lords, we have a clear policy on asylum seekers. The numbers of applications from Iraq have remained relatively stable. We assess them on individual merit, according to the refugee convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. To give your Lordships a sense of the estimates of the people accepted and returned, for the first nine months of 2007 we had 1,105 applicants. One hundred and five were granted refugee status, 15 humanitarian protection and 70 discretionary leave. The rest have returned or will be returning. We make the assessments about return individually, to ensure that individuals are protected. Return is also based on our assessment, and on that of others, of areas that are safe, so that asylum seekers are returned only to such areas.

My Lords, in view of the fact that we are jointly responsible, with the United States, for the disastrous situation in which these 4.2 million people are displaced from their homes, does not the noble Baroness agree that we should cough up a larger proportion of the UNHCR’s appeal for 2008 than the measly 4 per cent we gave in 2007? Bearing in mind that only one in five of the 21,000 people whom the UNHCR put up for resettlement in 2007 was accommodated, and that another 20,000 are coming down the track this year, will the Government get together with our partners and make sure that the offers that we jointly make with them match the size of the need?

My Lords, I understand that the funds targeted appear disproportionately small, given the scale of the refugee situation, but I do not think that that takes into proper account the factors in Iraq. It is very difficult to identify Iraqi displaced people within the neighbouring countries and within Iraq because they get absorbed into the host community and are very hard to identify. Only 3 per cent of refugees and IDPs live in camps. As a result, we cannot provide assistance in the targeted way that the noble Lord is suggesting. The best way to provide assistance is to the whole community into which the IDPs and the refugees have been absorbed. We therefore think that the issue is about the reconstruction of the system in Iraq for basic services. Funding is therefore not a problem— there has been more than $30 billion of oil revenue in the past year, and less than a quarter of its capital budget was used. The issue is capacity. Of the £680 million that we have disbursed in reconstruction, our efforts go towards creating the capacity of the Iraq Government to provide services.

My Lords, following the sums of money mentioned by the Minister, what support or money is DfID offering to neighbouring states such as Syria and Jordan to assist with the Iraqi refugees?

My Lords, we provide our funding directly through UNHCR and ICRC because we believe that that is the best way to target refugees. However, we also provide assistance through the EC—for example, most recently, €30 million was provided for health systems in Syria.

My Lords, given the number of persecuted Christians who have left the country and are now in Syria, will the Minister confirm that the Government are making every effort to press on the Iraqi Government the necessity of preserving the right of Christians to worship and exist in Iraq?

My Lords, I agree that Christians and other minorities are a particular target of sectarian groups. They make up a disproportionately large number of refugees, and we continue to work with the Iraqi Government and neighbouring countries to ensure that they are allowed their rights.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the sum of £15 million for 2007 for 2 million refugees and 2.2 million internally displaced people. If my maths are correct, that works out at just under £4 a head. Can we look to a rather more generous settlement than £4 a head for refugees and internally displaced people in 2008?

My Lords, I believe that we can. However, I shall go back to my overlong answer, for which I apologise. The issue is to ensure that the host communities have access to services, not just the internally displaced people who have been absorbed into them. Therefore, our overall reconstruction funding of £680 million must be included.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the light of our shared responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and for others who feel themselves in danger all the time, there really has to be a more generous response? Does she accept that if I were currently living in Afghanistan and asked to support or work with the British forces there, I would give very careful thought even to considering that, given my feelings about how those in Iraq had been treated?

My Lords, we have announced a package of assistance for former and current employees, including a direct entry scheme for all current employees and a financial package of assistance. It is interesting to note that the latter appears to be more attractive than entry into the UK for current employees.

My Lords, one major concern about the treatment of refugees and displaced people seems to be the lack of a co-ordinated approach from the United Nations, the operation coming partly out of Baghdad and partly out of Jordan. Is the United Kingdom in any position to help improve co-ordination of the humanitarian effort and, if so, what can we do?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s observation that poor co-ordination and fragmentation have been a real problem. We have therefore successfully secured the post of a new UN humanitarian co-ordinator, at least partly based in Baghdad. We welcome the arrival of David Shearer, who has experience in the region, as well as in humanitarian issues. He will be launching his first consolidated UN appeal, involving NGOs, in mid-February. We have also managed to secure a pledge for increased UN staff in-country. Therefore, we hope that the centre of gravity is moving from Iraq to Amman.