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Iraq: Refugees

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 9 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What estimate they have made of the number of refugees caused by the conflict in Iraq.

My Lords, the United Nations estimates that there are now 4.8 million displaced Iraqis. This includes 2.8 million internally displaced people within Iraq and a further 2 million refugees in surrounding countries, the majority of whom are in Syria and Jordan.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may ask about one small group of that vast total—the interpreters who have helped the British in Iraq. Did he hear, or have reported to him, the BBC programme on Monday on one of the interpreters, forced out to Syria, who had worked for a British newspaper for four years and who, because of that, received death threats and his brother-in-law was kidnapped and murdered? I raised this case behind my Question in April of last year. Is it not shaming that the British refused him entry to this country and that it was left to the Americans to resettle him? Is it not, sadly, typical of the restrictive way we have treated the interpreters who have worked for us and helped us so much?

My Lords, I must apologise for not being familiar with that individual case. I am familiar with the overall scene, however, and I believe that the United Kingdom’s record in this matter is very good. The Foreign Secretary announced a scheme in October 2007 particularly to address these individuals. More than 20,000 people have worked for the United Kingdom in Iraq, but only 700 have worked in a close and sustained way and hence are qualified for consideration. One thousand one hundred have applied for handling under the scheme; 500 were eligible, 72 are now in the UK, 103 will come in the next few months, 144 are in the final stages, and more will follow. Fifty per cent of the eligible people chose to take a financial option and stay in Iraq, and that must be good for Iraq.

My Lords, what response did European Union Foreign Ministers give at their meeting on 25 September to the appeal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Guterres, not to return people to central and southern Iraq where, he said, the necessary conditions of stability and security have not yet been achieved? If people are to continue being repatriated voluntarily, does the Minister agree with the Iraqi Parliament Committee, which recommended a budget of $4 billion to be spent by Iraq on resettlement and rehabilitation in place of the paltry $50 per head that has been allocated?

My Lords, the only part of that question I am briefed on relates to the internally displaced refugees. We do not believe that tackling the issue of internally displaced refugees is substantially a matter of money. The Government of Iraq can help with these things and have the resources to do so. We welcome the fact that they are spending $213 million on this scheme, and we welcome the improvements in security. However, at the end of the day, the issue is about progressing such returns when the security situation improves for the long run. We believe that co-ordination and co-operation with humanitarian agencies and the United Nations is the answer, and we think that United Nations Resolution 1830, to assist the most vulnerable Iraqis, is the way forward. We will work with the Government of Iraq and the United Nations on this issue.

My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that, when he leaves the Chamber, he will go to his computer, get on the BBC iPlayer and listen to “The Choice”, the programme to which my noble friend referred? When he has done that, will he then have a discussion with his officials as to whether it was right to put in his answer that our record on the handling of these interpreters is a good one?

My Lords, I will certainly arrange to listen to the programme but I am convinced from the briefings I have had that our record on people whom the UK has employed is good and honourable, and is in line with that of the Americans on this matter.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that there remains a very wide gap between the briefing to which he has twice referred and the illustrative case cited by my noble friend Lord Fowler?

My Lords, a report by the ODI in March this year stated that the international humanitarian action in Iraq since 2003 has,

“been piecemeal … hindered by insecurity, lacked coordinated funding, had limited operational capacity and patchy information”.

Will the noble Lord take some responsibility for the Government’s part in this failure?

My Lords, the whole international community must recognise the features of the response that has been set out. The Government are pressing for, and have achieved, a unified approach through the United Nations. The United Nations is drawing those strands together, which will allow better delivery, and we accept that that is the way forward. Iraq is not a poor country; the crucial thing is to help the Iraqis, through technical help and training, develop the capacity to look after their own people and also help their neighbours, who are looking after the refugees.

My Lords, does the Minister accept the very considerable burden which millions of refugees are putting on the economies of Syria and Jordan? What are our Government and/or the international community doing to ease that burden?

My Lords, we are grateful to Syria and Jordan for their hosting role. There is some modest help in the form of £3 million to the UNHCR, which is working in those countries. The issue is getting sight of where these people are and getting them registered. At the moment, the United Nations and the host countries are coping; they are providing primary healthcare, particularly in Jordan and Syria. The key step forward is, once again, for the Government of Iraq to start to shoulder their responsibility. They have already given $15 million to Syria and $8 million to Jordan. The European community is also helping—it gave nearly €49 million in 2007.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the case raised by my noble friend suggests that the wrong judgment was made? If officials cannot make the right judgment—and they cannot always do so—will he at least ensure that where there is a case which is clearly very sensitive they refer it to Ministers for decision rather than taking a decision themselves?

My Lords, we will certainly look into that. I believe that that will be the correct process in a case. If it is not, I will write to the noble Lord.