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EU: Transfer of Iranian Refugees

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to a proposal from a European Parliament delegation to Iraq that the European Union Council of Ministers and European Commission seek international support for the voluntary transfer of Iranian refugees at Camp Ashraf to European Union member states, the United States and Canada.

My Lords, we are aware of the recent visit to Iraq by the European parliamentary delegation and its proposed solution to the complex challenges that Camp Ashraf presents. Resettlement may represent a way forward, although we do not assess that residents would qualify for resettlement in the UK. Responsibility for Camp Ashraf lies with the Government of Iraq, and we call on all sides to engage in constructive dialogue to reach a lasting solution. We deplore the recent loss of life and injury.

Will the Minister understand that attempts peacefully to resolve the position of Ashraf cannot begin until Iraqi and Iranian forces stop the brutal murder of residents of Ashraf, the wounding of literally hundreds of residents and the use of psychological torture through 280 loudspeakers around the camp perimeter, threatening the lives of those in the camp? Will he now ask the Prime Minister to urge the UN Security Council to take over responsibility for the protection of Ashraf residents, to secure the withdrawal of Iraqi and Iranian forces from the camp and to ensure that the wounded get the treatment and the medical supplies that they need to get better?

As the noble Lord knows very well—indeed, he must be saluted as the campaign leader in this very ugly situation—the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, UNAMI, has requested that another humanitarian monitoring mission be sent to Ashraf as soon as possible, and we fully support that. The problem, as the noble Lord appreciates, is that this is Iraqi sovereign territory and there are limits to what those of us outside can do. Despite making constant representations, our own visit on 16 March and our deploring of the confirmed killing on 8 April, we cannot intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq without the recognition and support of the Maliki Government, which we need. That is what we must work for all the time and what we back the UN in doing as well.

Did the Minister have the chance to see the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in the European Parliament on 10 May, where she reiterated the duty to protect which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, referred to a few moments ago? The noble Lord asked the Minister about the role of the United Nations and the declared doctrine of the duty to protect. Given that, in April, 35 people were killed and 350 were injured, is this merely an internal question for the sovereign Government of Iraq or is it not something that the international community has a duty to be involved in?

It is a matter that should and does concern us all. I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has now agreed to take the Ashraf issue on to the agenda at the next European Union Foreign Affairs Council on 23 May. We are moving in that direction.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not only are the wounded still not gaining medical supplies but that these people have not even been allowed to bury their dead in their own cemetery? Will he accept that, under the Geneva protocols, these are protected persons? At the risk of offending the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, again, can I add that international law requires other states to take positive action to protect innocent civilians in these circumstances? Will the international community come together to resettle these people voluntarily, either within Iraq or in other countries?

I referred earlier in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, to the problem about resettlement in different countries. Neither this country nor our neighbouring countries are in a position to resettle these people; they simply do not qualify. On the medical treatment issue, these points have been raised and the UN, again with our support, has stressed the importance of the Iraqi Government co-operating with the camp’s leadership to ensure that residents get the treatment they need. After the dreadful 8 April incident, a number of the injured were transferred to a US hospital and all those have now returned to the camp. The issue of serious medical deprivation and serious medical assistance is very much in our minds and in the minds of the United Nations, and we will continue to watch the situation very carefully. There appear to be some transfers of cases to hospitals in Baghdad and Erbil. The situation is not totally black, but it is very dark indeed.

Does my noble friend agree that this situation has now reached the point where a fresh approach is required if it is ever going to be resolved in a sensible and humanitarian way? Is it not clear that Iraq would like to have this issue settled one way or the other but that it is choosing a route that is resulting in grotesque crimes against the civilian population in Ashraf? Surely the moment has come when the United Nations and the European Union together should take the initiative to find a lasting solution that will satisfactorily rehouse the residents of Ashraf elsewhere out of Iraq?

I certainly hope that that moment will come. The present course of Iraq appears to be that, by means that are not at all acceptable, it can shrink the perimeters of this very large camp. This has led to the kind of horrors we saw on 8 April and so clearly that is the wrong route. I hope that at the meeting of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, which I have already mentioned, the prospects for redirecting the Government of Iraq into a wiser course and taking broader steps with the support of the European Union will crystallise. That is what I hope will happen.

My Lords, on the protected persons status under the Geneva Convention, is the Minister aware that his colleague, Alistair Burt, wrote to me on 9 May saying that my concerns about this protected persons status were not sustainable because there was no warlike “scenario”, as he described it, in Camp Ashraf? Does the Minister agree that the people who were attacked on 8 April, when the camp was invaded at four o’clock in the morning and resulted in at least 38 people being slaughtered, including eight women, could be forgiven for thinking that it is a warlike situation? Mr Maliki should be told that his freedom in Iraq is there only because of the sacrifice of British and American troops all those years ago.

I agree with the feeling behind the noble Lord’s statement. If the underlying thought of the question was whether these people could be protected by the fourth Geneva Convention, I am afraid the answer, again, is negative; it is not, in the sense recognised by the convention, a war situation. It remains, nevertheless, whatever the lawyers tell us, a very unpleasant situation, and we must all move to see whether we can advance towards a creative solution.