Skip to main content

Refugees

Volume 712: debated on Monday 13 July 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the number of refugees resulting from conflicts and climate change.

My Lords, according to United Nations figures there are more than 10 million refugees, more than 14 million internally displaced people and 6.5 million so-called stateless people. The Government provide substantial funding to help prevent and respond to forced population movements caused by conflicts and climate change. We also press other Governments to respect and promote the welfare, protection and right to return of refugees and displaced persons.

My Lords, will the Minister remind us how many Palestinians have become refugees since 1948 and how many still want a right of return to their homes? In view of the latest World Bank report on Israel’s consumption and control of water in the Middle East, what can this Government do to ensure clean water supplies for the refugees and displaced people in the West Bank and, in particular, in Gaza, where they are now suffering from water-borne disease?

My Lords, from memory, the refugee figure in 1948 was approximately 750,000, and I think that the refugee population in Israel and the countries around it is currently 4.7 million. On the water issue, the noble Baroness referred to the World Bank report. The issue of water management in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a continuing concern to us. As the World Bank assessment rightly points out, there are a number of obstacles to improving water sector management and development in the Occupied Territories. We continue to press the Government of Israel to ease restrictions on movement and access and seek to make progress on this at the earliest possible time.

My Lords, as we are discussing refugees, does the Minister believe that the effect of climate change has played a major role in the conflict in Darfur?

My Lords, that is a $64,000 question. The conflict in Darfur has many sources though I am sure that climate change is aggravating a situation which is fairly intolerable in the first place. I doubt that climate change is the major cause of the conflict but I am not an expert in that field. However, I do know that the Government are putting considerable funding into assisting internally displaced persons— £19 million core funding to UNHCR, £22 million to Pakistan, £12.5 million to Sri Lanka, £29 million to Gaza and £16 million to Iraq.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the wonderful support that Her Majesty’s forces gave to Sri Lanka and the Maldives at the time of the tsunami? As the biggest problem facing the 300,000 refugees today is the clearing of the mines laid by the Tamil Tigers, and as India has sent forces there, could not Her Majesty’s Government at least release a couple of teams to help with the de-mining and thereby assist the earlier re-housing of the refugees?

My Lords, I do not have the answer to that question. However, I shall take it on board, make it known to the quarters that are responsible for the area and respond to the noble Lord.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that with sea levels rising twice as fast as was predicted by the IPCC only three years ago and with Britain already planning for a rise in sea levels of one metre in its coastal defence planning, we could be looking at as many as 650 million people displaced from coastal areas and small island states by the end of the century? What are we doing at Copenhagen to steer the discussion in the direction of measures that will reduce energy consumption and population growth so as to confine atmospheric CO2 within the limit of 550 parts per million equivalent, the minimum that will allow us to survive as a world without enormous disasters?

My Lords, there are many forecasts of displaced persons and other climatic tragedies arising from climate change which underline the importance of getting an agreement at Copenhagen to stabilise CO2 and reduce emissions. However, forecasting seems to me to be less important than taking action now, as we are doing in this country. We are also providing additional funding. There is a £40 million input from the disaster reduction programme at DfID. We are putting money into the international Environmental Transformation Fund, the climate development fund in Africa and the southern African regional climate change fund. There is a whole host of such funds. As I know that your Lordships like short answers, I am happy to supply a list to the noble Lord. I am sure that I would bore the House if I were to read them all out now.

My Lords, have the Government made a further analysis of the figures that the Minister has given? Surely many of these refugees are in fact economic migrants.

My Lords, my understanding of an economic migrant is someone who moves from one country to another to improve his or her lot as the other country offers opportunities of employment and income that can sustain the family better than the country that they were born into. We are not talking about that. We are talking about people who will lose their lives as rising tides take away islands. We are talking about Bangladesh possibly half-disappearing and at the glaciers of the Himalayas possibly melting by 2035, creating refugees. These people are not economic migrants; they are refugees.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to raise awareness among the public of the plight of the refugees whom the noble Lord was just describing and the issues of, for example, child soldiers and the treatment of women?

My Lords, the Government do seek to publicise these issues; they seek to make people aware and to use the media to do so. I have to say that parts of our media are fixated on migration but not on the human tragedy behind it, just on the selfish political argument of making a case against all migrants. Migration has been very helpful to this country. In the view of the Government and, I am sure, of every Member of this House, migrants have a right to be treated fairly and not to be maligned as they are in some of our national newspapers, day in and day out.

My Lords, as we have time slightly on our side, can the Minister suggest any work or works which the silent majority could consult in order to realise the full scale of the contribution made by refugees to this country?

My Lords, I think your Lordships have a part to play. Everyone I have met in this House has far more expertise than me in almost every subject, and they are also people of influence in their communities. If we all did a lot more, whether writing to newspapers or speaking in our local communities, to ensure that there is a more balanced view of the important role of migrants, we would be doing a great service. We all have a part to play when it comes to the silent majority out there or the not-so-silent majority in here.