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Middle East: Refugees

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will work for a comprehensive agreement covering all refugees arising from the Middle East since 1948.

My Lords, there is a range of refugee problems in the Middle East, including those of the Kurds and the Iranians, mostly in Iraq. The two major refugee issues are of course the Palestinian refugees from Israel in a number of countries, and the 4 million Iraqis displaced both within Iraq and as refugees in surrounding countries. A comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue will have to include a settlement for refugees as part of the final agreement. The Iraqi problem depends on restoring stability in Iraq.

I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that the Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations number some 4.8 million, and that Syria, Jordan and Lebanon contain about 1.7 million Iraqi refugees? This amounts to a population larger than that of many small states. Therefore, will the Government work not only for the comprehensive agreement that he mentioned, but more specifically for the resettlement of these people who have suffered so much for so long?

My Lords, the Government are working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN relief and rehabilitation organisations to assist these refugees. Most of the Iraqis wish to go back to Iraq when they can. We will have a Question tomorrow about continuing violence in Baghdad and elsewhere, which is part of the problem. For the Palestinian refugees, this is of course a much longer-term and much more complex issue that has to be part of the negotiations for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Does the Minister agree that it would be unwise to encourage expectations of a mass Palestinian return to Israel, as both sides now accept that only a limited number will be allowed to resettle in the event of an agreement? Does he also agree that Arab states should be urged to do more financially to help Palestinian refugees settle and have a decent standard of living, either where they are or in the territories?

My Lords, I think that it is recognised on all sides that not all Palestinian refugees will return home. That is part of the necessary compromise that will have to be in a comprehensive settlement. We all understand also that reaching a compromise will be very difficult, and that we will need to address the issues of compensation and of a moral acknowledgement by Israel of the suffering endured by Palestinian refugees.

My Lords, in attempting to deal with the problem of refugees, comprehensively or otherwise, might it not be helpful if action were encouraged to prevent the creation of new refugees? I have in mind particularly the persecution of Christians in Iraq and in Iran.

My Lords, we have a Question on that tomorrow, and it is probably more sensible to leave discussion until then.

Will the noble Lord agree that Jewish refugees have also been threatened and menaced throughout the Middle East and have gone to Israel? Does he agree that it is imperative that there should be discussions between Israel and Abbas immediately to ensure that the Palestinians can create a viable second state?

My Lords, the Government agree entirely. We very much hope that the current negotiations will continue to make progress and we would be deeply disturbed if they were to break down.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that organisations such as the World Zionist Organisation have had campaigns to encourage British Jews to move to Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine? What discussions are the British Government having with the Israeli Government, because many of these people risk contravening international law—the International Criminal Court Act 2001 and other protocols—by settling in the Occupied Territories?

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have made it perfectly clear that we are in favour of a two-state solution and that this two-state solution rests on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. That means that a number of the settlements currently taking place on occupied territory will have to be removed.

My Lords, I think we are all aware that Palestinian refugees currently in Jordan are one of the most difficult and probably one of the most intractable of all the refugee problems in trying to settle the Middle East peace process. Can the Minister tell us what level of aid we are giving to the UN to sustain the Palestinian camps in Jordan? I am sure he will be very familiar with the camps and it would be interesting to know how much we are putting into them at the moment. Can he also tell us what direct discussions the Government are having with the countries of the Arab League, some of which are very rich indeed, about what aid they are prepared to make available both in budgetary and programme terms for resettlement in the future?

My Lords, I do not have the figures and will have to write to the noble Baroness with them. It is not only a question of the refugee camps in Jordan; as she will know, in many ways, the problems of the refugee camps in Lebanon and—worst of all—of those settled in Gaza are much more acute. I have seen Palestinian refugee camps in Damascus which I have to say were relatively well integrated into Syrian society. That seems to me very much the way forward. I agree with her that we should be asking members of the Arab League to provide more assistance.

Can the Minister give an assurance that he will in the mean time encourage that human rights prevail in the treatment of refugees in the Middle East? I am thinking in particular of the lack of rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who are apparently unable to own property and who are excluded from healthcare. There is no reason why those rights should not be extended to them in the mean time.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are strongly committed to human rights throughout the Middle East, including in the Occupied Territories.

My Lords, we all support a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Will the UK Government, in supporting that comprehensive peace settlement, indicate quite clearly that they recognise the acknowledged security interests of Israel? Will they also take the opportunity to impress on the Israeli Government that there is no security in ruling all land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean?

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary is in the Middle East at the moment and is talking to members of both the Israeli and the Palestinian Administrations.