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Syria: Humanitarian Assistance

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they propose to take with fellow European Union member states to establish evacuation, reconnection and resettlement programmes, in the light of the humanitarian situation in Syria.

My Lords, the UK is leading international efforts to alleviate human suffering in Syria. Our total for humanitarian funding for Syria is now £0.5 billion—the largest total sum that the UK has ever committed to a single crisis. We have no plans to resettle or provide temporary protections to Syrians within the UK; however, we support the EU plan to establish a regional development and protection programme that ensures that support is given to the neighbouring countries that need additional help.

I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in welcoming the support given to those who have suffered so much—2.1 million of them refugees, including 1 million children—in Syria. What is happening with those held up at Calais who until now have been refused admission to the United Kingdom? As this problem cannot be dealt with on an individual national basis, will the Minister make sure that we have the utmost co-operation with others in the European Union in tackling these sorts of crises, possibly even a continuous element in preparation for crises that will occur, so that the European nations can act together as one?

My noble friend is right; the Syrian people have suffered terribly in the current crisis and millions have been displaced, both internally and externally. It is for that reason that the United Kingdom takes its convention obligations to refugees and asylum seekers incredibly seriously. But my noble friend will be aware that France is also obliged under the same convention obligations. France is a safe country and we would expect asylum seekers to make their applications there.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House what aid is being given directly to Jordan, which is a country with little energy, scarce water and few natural resources, but which has extended extraordinary humanitarian aid to those fleeing from the violence in Syria? Jordan has been a good friend to this country in many ways and many of us would hope that Her Majesty’s Government are supporting the efforts of the Jordanian Government to give the support that is so needed.

We take our obligations to all the regional countries incredibly seriously and, indeed, as far as Jordan is concerned, the latest figure is that we have provided £87 million in aid. Jordan has about 500,000 refugees at the moment—about 25% of the people who have been externally displaced. That support is in the form of humanitarian assistance and support, but also support to the Jordanians to cope with the wider infrastructure challenges that are being posed by such a large influx of people arriving.

My Lords, I endorse the question just asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons; will the Government give particular attention to the plight of Jordan? It has already absorbed 550,000 refugees and is preparing for a future influx. While our Government have been particularly generous towards Jordan, will they spend some time stirring up some of our European colleagues, such as France, who have been much, much less generous?

I completely take the point that my noble friend makes but we understand that the biggest percentage of refugees are currently in Lebanon. It was for that reason that at the UN General Assembly meeting, the P5 Foreign Ministers created a new international support group for Lebanon. It may be that we will continue to monitor the refugee situation and to respond accordingly. However, I assure noble Lords that we are incredibly aware and responsive to the pressures that have been placed on the region because of this crisis.

On UNHCR figures, there is an alarming underfunding crisis. For example, 53% of the US$1 billion in the 2013 regional response plan for Syrian refugees remains unfunded and 72% of the US$249 million in the 2013 IDP response budget remains underfunded. Clearly, the British Government have responded well. Other countries have not. What are we doing to urge the laggards to respond adequately to the situation, including naming and shaming?

The noble Lord makes an incredibly important point. For that reason, not only have we given ourselves but we have encouraged other countries to give and to pledge, and then to make good their pledges. That is why during the G20 at St Petersburg, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister started this campaign. It was led across the world by our embassies. At the UN General Assembly in New York, a further US$1 billion was pledged. However, the appeal is still short. It is an ever increasing appeal because the situation continues to get worse. I assure noble Lords that we are doing our fair share in giving and that we are punching above our weight in asking others to give.

My Lords, perhaps I may say how grateful many of us are to the generosity of the Government and their far-sightedness on the Syrian issue. I have a much more immediate question. As the discussion and the investigation of chemical weapons continues in Syria, the inspectors are moving into more and more dangerous territory, which is controlled by the opposition in its many forms. Will the Minister tell us whether there is any discussion between Her Majesty’s Government and this country’s allies about ways to provide protection, which means essentially using highly experienced military people, for the inspectors as they proceed with their work? We cannot ask them to lay down their lives because of what we are asking them to do.

The inspectors are working in incredibly dangerous circumstances. My noble friend raises an important point. The United Nations Security Council resolution has required Syria to co-operate. Of course, there are situations where opposition forces hold that territory and, therefore, inspectors potentially could be working in areas which are not controlled by the regime. This is a long process which will take possibly until the middle of next year to complete. It has started and we will keep it under review. The fact that all parties to the negotiations are saying that they will co-operate with this sets a good first standard.