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Syria: Refugees

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the European Union and the Government of the United States about the long-term humanitarian implications of the increasing number of refugees escaping from Syria into neighbouring countries.

My Lords, this month marks the second anniversary of the crisis in Syria. Recognising the significant challenges that this protracted humanitarian crisis presents, the UK remains in contact with the United States, the European Union and other international partners regarding how best to support Syrian refugees in the short and longer term.

Does my noble friend accept that while Britain, the United States and Germany have given generously to aid agencies to help alleviate the plight of more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring nations, according to the United Nations a very large part of the more than $1 billion pledged by 32 countries has not yet been delivered? Does she agree that it is time for those who have promised funding to act and that, as the Secretary of State for International Development has so wisely said, warm words are not enough?

My noble friend is right. States made very generous pledges in Kuwait earlier this year to the UN appeals for Syria and the region. However, not all pledges have yet been translated into actual contributions. Given the scale of the challenge— 4 million people are in need, of whom 2 million have been forced to leave their homes—that is extremely worrying. We call on donors to expedite the transfer of funds without delay and are actively encouraging that.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that providing lethal weapons, as the Government appear to want, to the deeply divided Syrian opposition can only exacerbate the civil war in Syria and lead to a further deterioration of the appalling humanitarian crisis which is affecting both Syria and her neighbours?

The noble Lord speaks with great wisdom. He will know that there are already huge dangers of instability in the region and that any action, or inaction, can promote further instability. We have no current plans to send arms to any groups in Syria, but, as again he will know well, others are arming groups in Syria. As the noble Lord will also know, nothing is off the table, but we are doing our very best to try to bring about a diplomatic resolution to that, which I am sure everybody would welcome. In the mean time, DfID’s key aim is to assist in relieving the humanitarian disaster that has come into existence there.

My Lords, not only is the issue one of current spending but the situation is deteriorating speedily. Funding so far has been allocated up to 30 June. Obviously aid agencies need to plan for the future as well. It is important that the Government not only deal with current need but look at future need. Another issue is that the clear majority of refugees in Jordan are women, children and the elderly. In representations to the European Union and the United States, will the Minister highlight the plight of female refugees and the support they will be given to cover basic living costs?

The noble Lord is right on both counts. The $1.5 billion that was pledged in Kuwait will last only until June and only about 20% of that so far has been forthcoming. There is a major challenge there. We welcome the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal that was launched in the United Kingdom on 20 March. The United Kingdom is third at the moment in its contribution in this regard and we are keenly aware of the situation with women and girls. We are supporting them in particular in the countries around Syria. We are well aware that they are very vulnerable in this situation and have targeted support at them.

My Lords, on a previous occasion I asked the Government for an assurance that our humanitarian response to the situation on Syria’s borders would ensure that adequate provision was still given to the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. In being given that assurance, I was also assured that more would be done to document these abuses so that the perpetrators might be brought to justice in due course. Can the Minister say what is being done to carry that commitment forward?

The right reverend Prelate is right. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has promoted the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative, which supports women particularly in Syria but also in Jordan. Local health professionals are being trained in how to respond to reports of sexual violence with the objective of improving the prospect for future investigation and potential prosecution, which the right reverend Prelate rightly identifies as very important.

My Lords, on previous occasions I have sought assurances from Her Majesty’s Government that we would concentrate our attention on humanitarian aid, particularly to Turkey and Jordan, which have huge burdens of Syrian refugees, and also to Lebanon and Iraq. Given the recent remarks of our Prime Minister and President Hollande of France, can I press my noble friend to assure us that whatever others do we will not be engaged in military support, other than giving proper support to our front-line ally Turkey, but that we will concentrate on humanitarian aid?

Following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, I reiterate to my noble friend the risks of action and inaction. We take very seriously the points that he makes. I would point out that the United Kingdom has already pledged almost £140 million in humanitarian relief. It has committed £22 million in terms of non-lethal equipment and practical support for the Syrian opposition and civil society. That is separate from our humanitarian support, but the noble Lord will note the difference in the sizes of those figures.

My Lords, should we not be looking to some of the oil-rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to do much more to help in this tragic situation?

At the conference in Kuwait, a number of the Gulf States made very generous pledges. For example, the UAE pledged $300 million, as did Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia $78 million. We are concerned that they now deliver on those pledges. We were encouraged that they made them and now hope to see them implemented.