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Syria: Refugees

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the short and long-term implications of the large influx of refugees from Syria into neighbouring countries for those countries; and what steps they are taking to work with the international community to provide improved humanitarian aid.

My Lords, I put down this Question for Short Debate in a context where the prospects of an end to the civil war and peace in Syria seem ever more remote. In these very sad circumstances the flight from Syria to neighbouring countries of people seeking a safe haven from the shelling, bombing and destruction of their communities seems likely to continue indefinitely. In the past six months there has been a rapid increase in the numbers fleeing, which shows absolutely no signs of flattening off. There are now close to 1.5 million refugees in neighbouring countries, nearly half of whom are children under 18. The United Nations predicts that the figure will rise to 3 million by the end of the year. Inside Syria there are currently another 2 million displaced people, and the UN estimates that more than 4.25 million are in need of urgent assistance.

The number of refugees who have fled the country has almost doubled, then, since the beginning of February, when the Secretary of State for International Development made a Statement in another place. In that Statement she said that pledges at the special conference in Kuwait in January to discuss the humanitarian crisis amounted to £1.5 billion from 60 countries, which exceeded the UN’s target. Can the Minister indicate how far these pledges have turned into tangible commitments? The estimates I have seen make very depressing reading: only just over half the pledges appear to have been committed. It would be helpful if she could also give the most up-to-date figures on how the funds are being distributed across the region.

I am pleased, as I am sure other speakers will be, that at that time the UK’s total commitment to humanitarian support had reached £139.5 million. However, given the huge increase in the numbers of people displaced since then, I ask what plans the Government now have to increase aid, given the terrible suffering of those fleeing, which I have seen at first hand, as well as the intolerable pressures on neighbouring countries that are being overwhelmed by the escalation in the number of refugees.

Early in February, along with my noble friends Lady Jay and Lord Warner, who are also speaking in this debate, I visited the Lebanon under the auspices of the Council for European Palestinian Relations and witnessed what is happening to one particular group of refugees, Palestinians, who constitute 10% of all refugees from Syria. Their situation is even more dire than that of the Syrians. When they come across the border into neighbouring countries such as the Lebanon they are not eligible for UNHCR support but instead are looked after by UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for supporting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in neighbouring countries. Many of them arrive with little money and not much more than the clothes they are wearing. They are traumatised, having been bombed out of their homes, and in some cases have lost members of their families, too. They are poor people, made poorer by the war that has enveloped them.

When they arrive in Lebanon they are looked after by the existing Palestinian population who live in semi-segregated communities in refugee camps, many of which have existed since 1948. These so-called camps are already overcrowded and without the space and facilities needed to take in the new influx of refugees. As a consequence, families with children of all ages have to fall back on renting appalling accommodation at exorbitant rents with money that they brought with them from Syria, or sharing makeshift rooms that have been provided with the help of NGOs or the Palestinian political organisations. In some cases, Hamas and Fatah have made over their offices to house these families; in other cases, the refugees are accommodated in totally unsuitable vacant school buildings; in yet more cases, they are put up in new temporary buildings with tiny rooms divided by plywood partitions. Sometimes two or even three families have to share whatever accommodation they have managed to find in a room furnished only with thin mattresses. The washing and cooking facilities are primitive and shared by many people. Some rented rooms have water coming through the ceiling, and exposed wiring.

The influx of refugees has already pushed up the population in Lebanon by over 10%, compared with around 6% in Jordan. As the conflict in Syria continues, the numbers of refugees in Lebanon, and indeed elsewhere, will go on growing, exacerbating the problem of accommodating them. So far, the Lebanese Government have agreed to keep the border with Syria open, but, in a context where their survival is by no means certain, political pressure could push them into closing it.

Meanwhile many of those crossing the border arrive with unresolved health problems and injuries sustained from bomb blasts and shrapnel. They cannot afford to pay for the treatment they need after they arrive; even modest amounts of medication to relieve suffering among children and the elderly are often unavailable. Providing schooling for their children has been jeopardised by differences in the curriculum between Syria and the Lebanon, and many school-age children are receiving little or no education.

UNRWA is struggling to deal with the crisis and has insufficient funding. It is focusing its efforts on providing small cash grants to families and trying to rectify the lack of schooling. It seems unable to tackle the fundamental problem of providing adequate accommodation. The Lebanese understandably consider that it is a matter for the international community, and there is little or no political will to shoulder the burden. This means that the burden falls on the existing Palestinian community, which has never been able to throw off its refugee status in Lebanon.

While there has been some lifting of the prohibition on Palestinians obtaining jobs, the reality is that there are few employment opportunities for them. Hamas and Fatah are trying to raise money from their own sources and are co-operating with the UN. Sadly, the EU makes no contact with Hamas in Lebanon, even on humanitarian issues, and I would welcome a view on this from the Minister. Do the Government consider that contact on these issues would help?

My noble friend Lady Jay will focus on the effects of the influx of refugees from Syria on the surrounding countries, so I shall be brief. We owe our thanks not only to Lebanon and Jordan but to Turkey, Iraq and Egypt for their generosity in supporting thousands of traumatised and penniless people. However, it is imperative that the international community does more to help these countries, several of which have fragile regimes with their own problems of maintaining stable rule and political, ethnic and religious harmony. These countries also face increased economic pressures, with steeply rising rents caused by the increased demand for housing as well as rising food prices.

Most aid is going to refugee camps, even though about 70% of Syrian refugees live outside the camps, whether in urban or rural areas. Above all, the urban infrastructure needs to be strengthened. Cash assistance is also needed to help refugees feed their families. There is evidence that women are going without food to provide what little they have for their children. For the host countries the refugees are straining water, sanitation, housing, health and education systems. Obviously, as this continues there will be growing tension between the host and refugee communities in the already depressed areas where they settle. The political ramifications are obvious and could push some countries into closing their borders, trapping refugees inside Syria.

What progress have the Minister and her right honourable friends made in securing greater earmarked commitments, especially to Lebanon and Jordan, from other donor countries? Is further consideration being given to whether the UK’s earmarked contribution of £8.5 million for programmes in Lebanon might be increased? Could she also comment on how the vital co-ordination of humanitarian agencies’ work with UNHCR, which is needed to produce a more effective response to the complex challenges that they face, might also be applied to UNWRA? What is being done to facilitate co-ordination between the Gulf donors and the United Nations?

I end with the emotional plea of one elderly Palestinian woman I met outside the Wevel refugee camp not far from the Syrian-Lebanese border: “We are human beings but we are being forced to live like animals. Please help us”. She will of course be helped when a ceasefire takes place and a political solution is found that leads to peace, but we cannot leave her and the many others like to suffer so terribly until that happens. We have to prepare for a protracted humanitarian emergency with longer-term funding, allowing NGOs to plan for the future. We should also be aware that an end to the conflict and a post-Assad regime will not necessarily lead to an end to sectarian violence. I hope that the UK Government will act urgently to do all that they can in the international community to avoid a much larger-scale humanitarian disaster than the one that we already face today.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for initiating this debate.

The appalling humanitarian crisis in Syria is heaping significant pressure on neighbouring countries that are wilfully accepting refugees fleeing in search of a safer environment. I maintain very close links with the kingdom of Jordan and, as such, want to place a particular focus on the situation there. Since early 2011 some 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, an increase of two-thirds on the number that were already settled there beforehand. Of even greater concern is the extent to which the intensity of the crisis is increasing. Of those 500,000, 46% arrived just in the first quarter of this year. By these numbers, Jordan projects that an extra 1 million Syrians will enter the country in 2013.

Jordan has already established four refugee camps, run for the most part by the United Nations. However, it remains the case that only 40% of Syrian refugees actually reside in these camps, with the rest settling into numerous communities across the country. There are now monumental challenges to be overcome, just in terms of fulfilling basic human needs. Greater power generation is urgently needed, which will require greater imports of oil. This will have a negative impact on the economy and Jordan’s balance of trade. Jordan is already short of water supplies, and a sudden increase in population would serve only to put further pressure on an already strained system.

The Jordanian Government are also very concerned about the overcrowding in schools and the inevitable effect that this will have on the quality of education. Jordan has spent considerable money reforming its education system in recent times, and this overwhelming pressure undermines that progress. There are similar concerns in healthcare. Jordan has been providing thousands of vaccinations to Syrian children against a number of diseases and other forms of medical care to Syrians in general. Again, it is now in desperate need of extra resources and hospital expansions.

This has all come at a time of a slowdown in economic growth and employment rates in Jordan, as well as the country’s budget deficit reaching an all-time high. Last year, Jordan spent more than $251 million providing basic services to Syrians in its cities and communities. These costs are projected to skyrocket and my worry is that a potential emerging market such as Jordan is having its economy broken through its own goodwill to others.

Such a large and sudden influx of refugees is naturally going to present extreme political challenges, too. Some of the camps have witnessed riots and some Jordanian police have already been injured in clashes. While the security services are doing their best, it is impossible to ensure the completely smooth running of such a complex and ever-changing situation. The Government of Jordan have formulated their own response plan for the country to host an increasing number of Syrian refugees. I call on our Government to both increase their support to Jordan and use our position within the international community to call on others to do the same. We must all help to alleviate the pressure on Jordan’s fragile economy.

Diplomats at the Jordanian embassy in London told me that they see it as their moral and humanitarian duty to help anybody in the region seeking refuge and a better life. Given the level of tension and unpredictability in the region, I find such principles extremely heartening.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for asking this Question. I found our visit to Lebanon, short as it was, very disturbing but in a few days I learnt a great deal, particularly about the special problems of the Palestinian refugees from Syria. Of course, these people are refugees twice over. In Syria, they had fled originally from their homeland and now have fled again from the conflict in Syria. Interestingly, before the violence erupted there surveys suggested that many of the Palestinian population found Syria the best country of their exile. They had educational and work opportunities denied in other places, and living conditions which were reasonably pleasant. All that has of course now changed and my noble friend has vividly described the terrible poverty and despair of the displaced families we met.

I also felt among them a great sense of frustration. Many people, as I said, came from settled lives in Syria and many had professional careers. We talked, for example, to several teachers who are now unable to work in Lebanon because of the restrictions imposed on them by the host Government. These restrictions seem in some ways to illustrate the tensions which there are between the refugee population and the Government of Lebanon. It seems to create an obvious double difficulty, as the teachers cannot help the many children who are now kicking their heels in refugee camps. Neither can they earn their own living, so that any support they have comes from the specialist Palestinian agency UNWRA—the United Nations Relief Works Agency.

This situation is of course not only one for teachers but for many other professional people who have come from a Palestinian background from Syria. I was somewhat surprised that the UNWRA officials we talked to seemed to accept this situation as given. As far as we could tell, they were not pressurising the Lebanese and telling them that they should be lifting the work restrictions in the face of the influx of new people. I must say that we were not entirely convinced that UNWRA has been sufficiently flexible in its approach to the newcomers from Syria.

In the high-level government meetings that I attended in Beirut, our delegation raised the question of giving Palestinians the right to work. We were told that new laws had been passed in 2010 to ease the employment restrictions and improve general civil rights, but those laws have never been implemented. The Libyan president, who we saw, was quite adamant: his Government must give first priority to protecting Lebanese jobs for Lebanese workers. The country’s political and economic situation is too fragile to do anything else. The threat of internal instability was ever present in our discussions. Indeed, the EU ambassador told us that she was surprised that the Government had not yet collapsed under the new demands.

Memories of civil war as well as hostilities with Israel still dominate the politics of Lebanon. Indeed, both Jordan and Lebanon—the small neighbours of Syria—have internal and strategic reasons to be unstable. If their Governments cannot cope with the current refugee crisis, particularly the Palestinians, this will create an international danger way beyond the humanitarian crisis. The domino effect that could occur would reverberate throughout the Middle East and beyond.

The UK Government have been commendably active and generous in trying to alleviate the practical hardships facing the thousands of displaced people, but the time has come for us also to give a lead in supporting the governance of Syria’s neighbours, which are dealing with unprecedented pressures on an already fragile economic and governmental situation.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for giving us this opportunity to debate Syria in this short period of time. It is sobering to speak yet again on the situation of the people of Syria in the context of humanitarian assistance. It speaks to our impotence that more than two years into the civil war, which is bordering on genocide, all these rich and powerful countries are simply squabbling between themselves about not violating national sovereignty.

We are in 2013, eight years since the General Assembly of the United Nations passed overwhelmingly a resolution defining the international community’s responsibility to protect, yet all we can do is offer sticking plasters and bandages to the 22 million people who have had the misfortune to be born of Syrian nationality, who are now killed or driven from their homes, or take up arms on one side or another.

It is right that we have a generous programme of assistance to those unfortunate enough to be displaced, either formally as refugees or informally, relying on their friends and families or simply co-religionists in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, about the fragile situation in those countries. Our attempts to stabilise them are to be commended but to restrict this debate to the humanitarian situation, while pragmatic in the best British tradition, is to miss the point.

If the civil war continues for the next few years, there will potentially be no Syria left. What we might find when everyone is exhausted of fighting and everything is destroyed is a series of provinces run by warlords or rebel armies, ethnically cleansed, existing in a sullen peace if peace is there at all—a larger Yemen, in the grip of al-Qaeda or other Salafi groups, controlling their own territories with different degrees of terror, in the name of Islam.

So what is to be done by the West or at least by the United Kingdom and France? For a start, we should let the EU arms embargo expire so that arms can flow to the Free Syrian Army. Syria is flush with arms. They are mainly going to our opponents in the terrorist groups or to our opponents in the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, we should seriously contemplate enforcing a no-fly zone, at least over the part of the country that we might declare a humanitarian enclave, and then press the Syrian national coalition to work with the elements of the FSA that are representative of all communities to run that enclave peacefully. To do so would require us to equip the Free Syrian Army more adequately.

Noble Lords will have seen the interview in the Financial Times with General Salim Idriss, the chief of staff of the various groupings in the rebel forces, which are described as the “supreme military command”. He says:

“What’s the point of medicines to save one wounded soldier if the regime’s air force is striking and killing 40 people at the same time?”.

The only argument used against supplying lethal weapons to the Free Syrian Army is that the weapons we might give them will slip away into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, which declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda only last week. In Istanbul General Idriss gave a commitment to the West that his people would track every single advanced weapon provided and return it when the conflict was over. If one did not believe his assurance, the question remains: how do we expect the conflict to end when Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other neighbours are arming some factions, while Russia and Iran are arming the regime? Our Government must ask themselves how they expect to bring the conflict to an end. Is it the surest way to stop humanitarian disaster just to continue if everyone bar us puts arms into the equation or provides military support? How do we somehow obtain a peaceful Syria? What are we to do if chemical weapons are used or if genocide is committed but we do not live up to our legal obligations under the genocide conventions? Noble Lords will know that the ICJ ruled only a few years ago that every state has a duty to prevent genocide. That was the ICJ’s case in Bosnia-Herzegovina v Serbia.

Therefore, for those who fear a repeat of Afghanistan, their inaction may well bring about an analogous situation nearer our borders and lie heavier on our consciences than they have seen before.

My Lords, I have just three points to make. The first concerns the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. The figures are horrendous. I shall not repeat what the noble Baroness has already said but simply note an acceleration in the number of refugees fleeing. There have been more than 40,000 a week since January, and in four host countries—Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon—the number of Syrian refugees has to date already exceeded the UNHCR estimate for January to June this year in total.

We have already had our attention directed to Lebanon. It alone has received an influx equivalent to 10% of the host population, placing a huge strain on the country: communally, as most of the refugees are Sunni Muslim, which threatens Lebanon’s delicate communal balance; economically, as there are now food and power shortages; and socially, with a big increase in the crime rate. This inflow, bringing 32,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria into a country which already has around 450,000 Palestinian refugees, brings the potential for further destabilisation in a country where volatility is already great.

There are similar problems in Iraq, which not so long ago saw an exodus of its own refugees, particularly Christians, into Syria. It is now in receipt of at least 130,000 refugees, mainly in the Kurdistan region, with all its own uncertainty. Then there are other large concentrations of refugees inside Jordan with over 430,000, Turkey with nearly 300,000, and, increasingly, Egypt—a country which has also had to host a large Sudanese refugee population in the recent past.

Secondly, I turn to the geopolitical dimension. This very large movement of population not only is disruptive and damaging to individual lives, and a cause of deep concern for the receiving countries, with all the social, economic, demographic and political consequences that it brings, but is further undermining the stability of the region as a whole, as well as the sustainability of many of the existing states and political entities within it.

Just last week, António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who had led the UNHCR through the worst of the refugee crises in Afghanistan and Iraq, said that in his view the Syrian civil war was more brutal than both and was already the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Cold War. With regard to refugees, he said:

“The system is at breaking point. There is limited capacity to take many more. Where are the people going to flee? Into the sea?”.

However, he then went on to speak about the potentially even more serious geopolitical implications, with the political geography of the post-Ottoman Middle East, which has been in place since the end of the First World War, perhaps for the first time beginning to be put into serious question. Should the substantial possibility of partition in Syria be realised, this would inevitably have grave ramifications in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and beyond.

In that context, I come to my third concern—the religious dimension—and especially the future of Christians across this part of the Middle East. For centuries, Christianity flourished in Syria, as it did in Iraq, and, it has to be said, since the Baathist coup in 1970 it has been a particularly safe haven for Christians fleeing from conflicts elsewhere. Indeed, one reason that Russia has refused to abandon President Assad is its sense of responsibility for Syria’s Orthodox Christian community, which is now under a sense of threat. Already, the Christian element of the Syrian population has fallen dramatically to around 10%, and Christians are continuing to haemorrhage from the area under the perceived threat of militant Islam. The spread of jihadist groups within the Syrian opposition and the growth of the mantra that “Islam is the solution” are only exacerbating this flight. Therefore, Christian refugees are fleeing into northern Lebanon as fast as Iraq’s 3 million refugees are beginning to pour back whence they came.

One estimate suggests that of the Christian community of Homs, until recently 150,000 strong, some 90% have now gone to Jordan, leaving only a tiny minority hanging on. Where Christians do remain, once cohesive communities marked by peaceful co-existence and co-operation are beginning to fragment, as those of different religious traditions increasingly draw apart. The disintegration, including the religious fragmentation, that has marked post-intervention Iraq, with all the desperate fallout and its consequences which that country continues to suffer, now looks to be replicated in Syria, and the exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries could exacerbate such a trend in this place as well.

On humanitarian assistance the UK has already done a great deal, but with so many western economies facing huge budget difficulties, what work have Her Majesty’s Government undertaken to meet their £50 million commitment at the Kuwait donor conference, and how will this money be spent? What diplomatic steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking, particularly with the Security Council, to seek ways of addressing the wider geopolitical concerns to which UNHCR has referred? What message, if any, does the Minister have for those Christians fleeing the area, and contemplating a Middle East in which they may no longer be secure or welcome?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness most warmly on raising this extremely distressing but challenging subject. I have every sympathy with the points which the right reverend Prelate has just made. It was the Duke of Wellington who told the House of Lords on 2 April 1829 of his abhorrence of the nature and consequences of civil war. He said that,

“if I could avoid, by any sacrifice whatever, even one month of civil war in the country to which I am attached, I would sacrifice my life in order to do it. I say that there is nothing which destroys property and prosperity, and demoralizes character, to the degree that civil war does: by it the hand of man is raised against his neighbour, against his brother, and against his father; the servant betrays his master, and the whole scene ends in confusion and devastation.”

The iron Duke’s words still serve as an apt enough description of the terrible circumstances of the violent confrontation that has now raged for two years in Syria, and from which more than 1.38 million people have fled to neighbouring countries.

In the face of the huge and growing number of refugees, it is important that we do not forget that each one is an individual whose way of life has been shattered and impoverished. Frightened children, desperate women and the very elderly as well as the lame, the halt, and often the grievously disabled, daily make the long march to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Research by the children’s charity World Vision in the Lebanon reports how many of the youngest refugees speak of the violence and death they witnessed before leaving Syria. For example, it tells us of one eight year-old girl called Layla who recounted,

“I saw my cousin dying in front of me, so I always see this scene in front of my eyes.”

Other children describe images of their homes and schools burning, or of people getting shot and tanks roaming the streets of their neighbourhoods.

Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that the World Food Programme was running out of funds to help feed the Syrian refugees, as large amounts of money pledged for aid have not been forthcoming. Apparently, the provision of food aid in Lebanon is under threat as early as next month unless urgent new funding is received. World Food Programme officials have stressed that they cannot simply rely on donations from countries such as the United Kingdom and the US. They have particularly singled out Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Emirates and Kuwait, whose promised large donations have not arrived through UN channels but instead, the World Food Programme claims, are often being donated directly to opposition groups. In total, around $400 million out of the $1.5 billion pledged by international donors in January have actually been committed.

There are three terms for describing humanitarian aid. The first is contribution, which means that funds to a recipient organisation have been delivered. The second is commitment, which comes with contractual obligations. The third is the pledge, which is not binding and is only an announcement of intention. However, with rapidly rising numbers, it is vital that the humanitarian aid reaches those for whom it is intended. Therefore, I hope that the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government will focus on the need for international co-operation in delivering contributions and commitments. I hope that assurances can be given that the Government will use their good offices to try to ensure that desperately needed aid gets through and that our Ministers continue to show moral courage in vigorously and publicly urging all nations to fulfil their financial promises.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Blackstone for giving us the opportunity to consider this dreadful situation. First, I make a plea that we take this opportunity to express our solidarity with the front-line humanitarian workers who are doing so much on behalf of the international community. They are often very courageous people who deserve our full-hearted support.

I underline what has been said. If one is looking for an example of collective international cynicism, one has to look no further than at what has happened with the promises of assistance in this grim situation. To have had offered what amounted to some $1.5 billion of assistance at the recent conference in Kuwait and to now find the UNHCR telling us that only $200 million has been made available is a dreadful comment on us all. We need clear reassurance from the Government about what they are doing to make people live up to their reputations. It is little wonder that the cause of cynicism—if it is a cause—spreads so widely in the international community.

Dealing with refugees on this scale is, of course, highly complex. Specific elements arise within the general problem such as the acute needs of the elderly and those with physical and mental disabilities. Specialist support is crucial for people in those categories. There is also the whole issue of psychological trauma, particularly of children. I frequently think that in refugee situations around the world we give far too little attention to the assistance and support that can be provided for the psychiatric and psychological dimensions of the problem.

My noble friend rightly referred to the difference between the refugees in camps outside the country and those in more difficult, sometimes very distressing, situations who are not in camps. We have to ensure that whatever is being done in mobilising assistance is reaching and supporting both communities. In the middle of all this, we also have to remember that we must not engender a culture of dependency. We want to ensure that we are preparing people to return home. However, that is a big issue because how long will it take for any realistic expectations of return to be fulfilled? This issue is particularly acute in the spheres of education for the young and health. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have played an immensely important part in keeping their borders open. However, they may well be tempted to close them at some point. We all have to think what that would mean. That, again, puts a responsibility on us all to make sure that we give them every possible support.

Perhaps the last point to be made in the time available is that all this is putting a burden on the people of those countries which do not have social provision of the highest order. Are we considering the weight that is falling on them? How can we support the programmes of the Governments in those countries to meet the needs of their own people in the context of this situation? That is important not only in humanitarian terms but to the long-term prospects of having a settled solution in the area, as antagonisms could very quickly become aggravated and escalate unless we look to the needs of the local populations.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Blackstone on securing this debate and I support everything that she said. I declare my interest as an adviser to the Council for European and Palestinian Relations, under whose auspices our parliamentary delegation recently went to Lebanon. The Syrian conflict is a huge humanitarian disaster with well over 4 million people, and growing, still within Syria’s borders needing humanitarian assistance, in addition to the at least 1.5 million people who have fled to neighbouring countries. The scale of the population displacement caused by this conflict must start to call into question the sustainability of some of the smaller neighbouring states involved, unless there is significant international help over a long period of time.

I want to focus briefly on Lebanon, which has received over 450,000 Syrian refugees across its lengthy border with Syria. That is more than 10% of its population. Let us imagine how we would feel if 6 million people suddenly appeared in the UK, considering the fuss that we have made about a relatively small number of eastern Europeans coming into this country. Around 10% of the people coming across the Lebanon border at the rate of about 7,000 people a day are Palestinian refugees. They are fleeing from their camps in Syria, which have been bombed by Bashar al-Assad’s military. It is very difficult to explain to them why a no-fly zone was appropriate in Libya but is not appropriate in Syria.

The plight of these refugees, especially that of children, is heartbreaking. Most of them are fleeing across the border with little more than the clothes that they are standing up in. Lebanon, which has considerable political and economic problems of its own, as has already been mentioned, is paying a huge political and economic price for keeping its borders open—and, one must say, pretty much welcoming these people into their country in many ways. It is asking its own population for the most part to host these people. They call them guests, not refugees, and there are relatively few refugee camps into which these people are moving and living.

What we saw in Beirut when we visited the city were families of 20 to 30 people living in two or three rooms in bombed buildings that are open to the elements, with little access to water or toilet facilities. They sleep in shifts because there is not enough space for them to sleep at night. They are struggling with exorbitant rents, sometimes $500 a month, which is an enormous sum for these people. It is charged by what I can only describe as racketeering landlords, and there is a lack of food, clean water and medicines. Some have untreated wounds and illnesses. Many are groups of vulnerable women and children with few, if any, accompanying working-age men. Where there are men, they are forbidden by local labour laws from working. Even in the well run volunteer organisation camp that we visited, where the accommodation and facilities are less primitive, dangerous electricity systems and inadequate sanitation present their own hazards on top. The meetings that we had with UNRWA on our visit were less than encouraging. Many of the countries that pledged money at the January Kuwait summit have simply not followed through with the cash.

I do not have time to go further, so I should like to close by posing a couple of questions for the Minister. Are the Government satisfied that all the pledges made at the Kuwait summit are being delivered in terms of hard cash for UN relief agencies to use for Syrian refugees? If not, what action will they take with their international colleagues—with a particular focus, I have to say, on the Gulf states, which do not seem to have delivered on the promises that they made? Do the Government accept that the population displacement caused by the Syrian conflict is likely to prove permanent in many individual cases? What discussions do they contemplate having with international partners on this issue, particularly with regard to Palestinian refugees, many of whom have been subject to multiple displacements? We need to engage with these serious issues in a more strategic manner than we have been doing so far.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for tabling today’s Question. As we have heard in this debate, there is an escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria. The situation is spiralling out of control, leaving relief agencies overstretched and struggling to cope. I thank all my noble friends for their first-hand accounts of the situation in Syria and neighbouring countries.

The two most strategic issues are, first, the need for longer-term funding to enable an effective humanitarian response and, secondly, as my noble friends have pointed out, the need for increased support for national authorities in neighbouring countries. DfID has recently announced additional UK humanitarian funding for the response in recent weeks, which front-line agencies estimate will last approximately through to the summer. That is welcome, but it has become increasingly clear that this is not a short-term crisis. Longer-term funding for the host government authorities is necessary to ensure that their national infrastructure does not collapse under the refugee burden. As we have heard from the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Warner, the refugee influx into Jordan now constitutes 6% of Jordan’s population. Some estimates suggest that up to 1 million may have arrived by the end of this year.

Support for the host government capacity in Lebanon has been mooted as an element of the next UN appeal, to be announced on 28 May for the period June to December this year. I understand that DfID has also seconded one staff person to a government ministry in Lebanon to assist in liaising with the UN system on the humanitarian response. It is possible that other steps are being taken that I am not aware of, but support for the host Government has not featured in a serious way in the UN-led humanitarian strategy for Jordan, and that needs to change.

I have a number of specific points and questions to put to the Minister in respect of these key elements of the strategy. What steps will DfID take to provide longer-term funding to enable a more effective humanitarian response to what is proving to be a long-term crisis? Can DfID ensure that its future funding pledges will allow for multi-year programming by agencies, and use its influence to encourage the UN system and other donors to shift beyond the current short-term six-month timeframes?

What steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to increase support to host government authorities in neighbouring countries to cope with the refugee influx? Will there be a particular focus on supporting health services, water sanitation and education, on addressing the needs of the host communities and, as we have hard from my noble friends, on addressing the rising tensions between host communities and refugees?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for securing this debate. The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region has reached catastrophic proportions. We already have a protracted humanitarian emergency. While the suffering of ordinary people increases, humanitarian operations on the ground are becoming ever more constricted, as we have heard from noble Lords.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, briefed the UN Security Council last Thursday, she said:

“We are approaching a point of no return”.

The international political agenda must now refocus itself on the humanitarian response. Without this, the human suffering will only worsen and the threat to the stability of the region will be ever more severe, as noble Lords have so clearly flagged up. My noble friend Lady Falkner and other noble Lords portray a very chilling and bleak picture.

More than 70,000 people have died. Some 10 million people—half of Syria’s population—could be in need of assistance by the end of the year. The commission of inquiry has found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Children have been murdered, tortured and subjected to sexual violence. The long-term implications of such horrors are huge.

The right reverend Prelate has noted the effect on the Christian population. Minorities often suffer disproportionately in these situations, as we are well aware.

The humanitarian situation is now desperate, but it could rapidly worsen should chemical or biological weapons be deployed on a large scale. The implications of the usage of such weapons, accidental or otherwise, are extremely serious. Such weapons usage could lead to large numbers of critically ill persons as well as causing major population movements across the region, as noble Lords have flagged up. All parties to the conflict must recognise the seriousness of the threat posed by these weapons. We are increasingly concerned that there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and we press the UN to investigate further.

The crisis is having a devastating impact on the region. More than 1.3 million refugees have now fled Syria for other countries in the region, and the UN predicts 4 million refugees in the region by the end of the year. This is putting unprecedented strain on the Governments and communities so generously hosting refugees. We are well aware of the effects on those countries. That is why aid is targeted to them, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Aid is often given in a way that supports not only the refugees but their hosts as well.

The right reverend Prelate was right to say that the system is near breaking point. Prior to the refugee influx, Jordan was facing its own internal domestic challenges. There are now almost 500,000 Syrians in Jordan, with approximately 2,000 more arriving each day. While media images often show refugees living in camps, such as Zaatari, the majority of refugees live, as noble Lords have emphasised, in Jordanian communities, which were already resource-constrained. Tensions are already beginning to rise. Last weekend saw the most serious violent incident to date in the Zaatari refugee camp.

Lebanon is hosting 428,000 refugees. The projected refugee caseload by the end of the year is 1 million. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, flagged up, that means that one in four people in Lebanon will be a Syrian refugee. The cost to the Lebanese economy is no less worrying. The response for July to December 2013 is expected to be $600 million. The refugee influx is also putting pressure on Lebanon’s delicate political balance. North Lebanon has already seen increasing levels of violence spilling over from the conflict in Syria.

Turkey and Iraq are hosting 291,000 and 133,000 refugees respectively. Egypt is now hosting more than 50,000 refugees. As the right reverend Prelate noted, Egypt has also hosted Sudanese refugees. As numbers increase, so too does the need for the international community to respond.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Jay, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, were right to flag up the position of the Palestinians. The impact on Palestinian refugees is acute. Of a pre-crisis population of 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, 400,000 are now in need of urgent assistance. A further 40,000 have fled to Lebanon and 5,000 to Jordan. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, highlighted, before the crisis Lebanon was already hosting close to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, and Jordan was hosting 2 million, in very difficult circumstances.

Countries hosting refugees must not be left to shoulder the responsibility alone. The UK has been and is at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts. We have provided more than £141 million in humanitarian funding to provide vital food, water and medical care to hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and across the region. We are very close to the top of the table in terms of our national input. We are assessing the level of support needed for the next two years, looking to the longer term.

I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom is fully committed to the pledge that we made in Kuwait. Aid will go to the United Nations World Food Programme, the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisation to provide lifesaving assistance. We are also working tirelessly to encourage others to move from the pledges that my noble friend Lord Selkirk mentioned, through commitment to contribution. At a time of global financial constraint, the longer-term need to do so is self-evident.

Some £56.8 million of UK funding is going to support the refugee response in neighbouring countries. We are seeking to assist those host countries because we are well aware of the pressure on them. We are targeting some of the most vulnerable refugees. Our aid includes psychosocial help for people who have experienced trauma, including sexual violence, as well as £5 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to support Palestinian refugees affected by the crisis.

We are supporting vulnerable host communities. For example, in Lebanon we are funding the delivery of clean water, undertaking upgrades to sanitation infrastructure and providing schooling in the Lebanese host communities. That addresses the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I reiterate to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we realise the importance of supporting children who have been traumatised.

Humanitarian aid to the region is only one part of the story. In Jordan and Lebanon the UK is also providing support through the Arab Partnership to support political and economic reform, as well as funds through the Conflict Pool to tackle the drivers of conflict and provide support, where appropriate, for security-sector reform. However, the levels of humanitarian funding remain woefully inadequate. We continue to lobby donors to deliver on the pledges made at Kuwait. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that the UN has still received only 52% of the funding that was pledged. We are working very closely with other countries. Last week Kuwait fully translated its $300 million pledge from the Kuwait conference. That is an update since I answered the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, recently. We continue to use all channels to lobby those who have not yet committed their pledges.

In order to meet needs in the long term, the international community must radically increase the levels, timeframe and predictability of funding for its response, including by further engaging development actors such as the World Bank, the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked how the funds were being distributed across the region. I can supply a lot of detail if needed, but will outline a few points now. For the UN appeal for Syria in the region there is a $1.5 billion contribution, with $0.5 billion going to Syria, $0.5 billion to Jordan, and $0.5 billion divided between Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The UK and the UAE met with UN representatives in the Gulf recently to discuss closer co-operation over Syria. We constantly discuss with the Gulf states the importance of working together and with the UN in this area, something that noble Lords flagged up.

Access for humanitarian agencies operating inside Syria is indeed increasingly constrained, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, emphasised. They are facing considerable bureaucratic hurdles as well as enormous insecurity. The noble Lord is right to commend the enormous bravery of those working on the front line in Syria. The UK is calling on the Government of Syria to remove the bureaucratic barriers as a matter of urgency, and are calling on all parties in Syria to take immediate steps to ensure that humanitarian agencies have safe, full and unimpeded access to deliver lifesaving aid to those in need by the most effective routes.

I understand the frustration expressed by my noble friend Lady Falkner, who urges that we should consider no-fly zones and selectively arming. This is an extremely challenging situation. We believe that political transition has to be the best way to end bloodshed in Syria. However, in the absence of a political solution, it is right that we do not rule out any options. The use of chemical weapons would force us to revisit our approach but these are not straightforward or easy decisions, as my noble friend knows. I also point out to her that humanitarian enclaves in other contexts have not always operated to protect people; she will be acutely aware of that. At a minimum, we urge all parties to the conflict to respect international and humanitarian law and point out the consequences that we see through the International Criminal Court for those who do not do so.

We fully recognise the importance of this terrible conflict and the enormous challenges in tackling it. Noble Lords have rightly highlighted the particular destruction and devastation of civil war. We seek a negotiated end to the conflict and continue to work with UN Security Council members in pursuit of this. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to monitor closely the situation in Syria and the region. We will remain, as we have been thus far, at the forefront of the international humanitarian response.

Committee adjourned at 7.13 pm.