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Syria: Refugees

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 6 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will pursue a dialogue with the governments of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq in order to ascertain the top priorities for those countries with regard to the present and future needs of refugees remaining in those countries who have fled the war in Syria.

My Lords, the situation in Syria is worsening. There are more than 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries, which is creating a growing regional crisis. The UK’s total funding for Syria and the region is now £500 million, the largest total sum the UK has ever committed to a single humanitarian crisis. This reflects the scale, despair and brutality of the situation. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary regularly raise the issue with their counterparts from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, the four countries where refugees are now mainly to be found, and they will continue to do so.

The Minister’s statement is extremely welcome. Does he accept that using aid in a country such as Jordan—for example, to improve water supplies and sanitation and to supplement the very hard-pressed health provision, education and other basic services—undoubtedly helps to reduce both tension and the increasing scope for friction between the refugees and the often vulnerable local communities who have so generously welcomed them?

My Lords, we do understand that. The sheer scale of the number of refugees now in Lebanon and Jordan in particular is such that it has the full potential to destabilise their societies and, therefore, their political systems. Of the £500 million that we have so far committed, £167 million is going to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq and, in addition to humanitarian aid, Britain is providing more than £15 million to support stability in Lebanon and Jordan, including support for their police and armed forces. The UK also recently announced an additional £12 million of support for Jordan, aimed at keeping essential public services running.

My Lords, in relation to Jordan and what the noble Lord has asked about, the Jordanian Government need particular help because a substantial number of refugees in Jordan are actually with host families rather than in refugee camps. This means that the Jordanian Government need more help because UNHCR aid is not as forthcoming as it would be in refugee camps. The Jordanian Government need more money in order that those refugees with host families are adequately looked after, particularly—here I repeat what the noble Lord who asked the Question said—with regard to drinking water and the price of it. What special help, beyond what the Minister has already stated, is to be given to Jordan itself because of the particular difficulties that that country has at the present time and because of what we owe to that country ourselves?

My Lords, I have already announced that the Government are giving specific aid to the Jordanians to support a number of activities. We are well aware that drinking water is a particular problem. As the noble Lord rightly points out, a number of refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, as well as in Jordan, are not in refugee camps but have been taken in by local families. That is a good thing in many ways but it does of course increase the strain on local communities.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of UNICEF UK and in that capacity I thank the Government for their generosity, not just to UNICEF but also to many other charities in helping with the terrible suffering of children, who of course suffer most in these circumstances. The last case of polio in Syria was 14 years ago, in 1999, but this terrible disease is now taking hold, especially among the children of the refugee population. In past conflicts it has been possible to arrange agreements for immunisation between the warring parties. I wonder whether the Government have pursued this matter with both the Syrian Government, who seem perfectly prepared to do this, and the rebels. Are the Government pursuing this opportunity?

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, alongside the United Nations Security Council resolution on chemical weapons there was a United Nations Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian access. That has not yet been fully accepted by the Syrian regime. There are many difficulties for humanitarian agencies and their staff in getting visas to enter the country and, as he rightly said, there are also difficulties in some of the rebel-held areas.

My Lords, as I prepare to go on Saturday to Jordan and the refugee camps, I ask the Minister, bearing in mind that there are in excess of 2.5 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan alone and thanking the Government for the money and resources they are putting in, whether there is anything further that we can do in terms of influencing the European Union and United Nations to improve the situation, particularly of refugees seeking to get out of Syria and into Jordan.

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly points out that some of the refugees in Jordan are Palestinians who were living in the huge refugee camp in Damascus, which I have visited myself, and who have now been forced, for the second time, to move out to Jordan. The United Kingdom has lobbied very hard for other countries to step up to the mark. We have currently provided more bilateral assistance than any other member state of the European Union. At the last G20, we put pressure on other members to produce more funds and a further £1 billion was pledged. The Russians have contributed only a very tiny amount of humanitarian aid. The amount they have contributed in arms to assist the regime is a great deal larger.

My Lords, the humanitarian challenge is formidable. Of course, it is not just a matter of relief; it is also a matter of long-term investment in children—their education and their health—because they are going to be displaced for a long time to come. What are the Government doing to face up to the immense regional political implications of what has happened in the sense that almost a third of the population in Jordan will soon be refugees? That is acutely destabilising, and it is the same story in Lebanon, with all kinds of dangers for the future in terms of extremism, political disruption and the rest. Can we promote international discussions about how to have a positive pre-emptive regional approach towards the long-term political issues?

My Lords, I think that it may be beyond the capabilities of the United Kingdom Government to resolve all the problems of the Middle East. We are, however, now involved in a range of multilateral discussions. Sadly, the Geneva II conference, which we hoped would take place in November, is unlikely to take place before towards the end of the year. As the noble Lord knows, tentative dialogues with the Iranians are under way, and the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians is, thank goodness, also again getting slowly under way. We are engaged on a large number of fronts but, as the noble Lord knows, the problems are extremely complex and long-standing.