Skip to main content

Syria: Aid

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of reports about the impact of winter weather on rapid increases in food prices in the region, what steps they are taking to ensure that aid reaches the refugee camps in Syria.

My Lords, according to the World Food Programme, food prices fluctuate. There has been a steady increase in prices since October, but there is no evidence that this is due to the onset of winter. We are providing £500 million of humanitarian support for the Syrian crisis—£276 million for those in Syria and £224 million to support refugees and host communities in the region, including £60 million to help with the onset of winter.

I appreciate the Minister’s reply, but are the Government aware that the International Rescue Committee, led by David Miliband, has found severe shortages of food and basic medical items in eight regions of Syria, and a complete lack of blankets and warm clothing for refugees as winter sets in? Is the Minister aware that the Miliband report says:

“Syria is truly on the road to hell”,

and the world’s leaders must,

“pull out the stops and do something about it”,

at least to staunch the dying by ensuring greater access to life-saving assistance? If the Paris conference next month fails to restore peace, will the Government press their partners on the UN Security Council to stiffen their declared support for humanitarian access to the war zones by passing a resolution that ensures the needs of humanity are a priority instead of pleading there is no easy option as a reason for inaction?

We agree with the position that the noble Baroness has just outlined. It is an absolutely dire situation. There is a catastrophe in Syria and also, in terms of the effects, outside. As the noble Baroness knows, getting access is extremely difficult. We have been pressing extremely hard on this issue as well as making a financial contribution. She will be aware that the UNSC made a presidential statement on access on 2 October. If implemented, that would deliver a huge amount, but putting it into effect is the difficulty that she rightly identifies. We will continue to work extremely hard to try to achieve that.

My Lords, as we are to have a debate in January, I stress the point that now is the time for all sides fully to implement the presidential statement on humanitarian access. We cannot wait. Can the Minister update the House on the funding of the Save the Children and Oxfam aid programmes for Syria?

I cannot give the noble Lord specific answers on Save the Children and Oxfam, but he will know that both of those organisations are major recipients of aid. In answering a previous Question I was asked about Hand in Hand. It is receiving aid from DfID via Save the Children. I can provide detailed answers on that in due course. We are working with a number of international organisations to try to get aid into every part of Syria. As I emphasised before, access is exceptionally difficult.

My Lords, the Minister is, I am sure, aware that I asked a Question on 2 December calling for resumed contact with the Government of Syria. I received a rather guarded reply from her colleague. Can the Minister update us on where we stand on direct consular and diplomatic contact in Damascus?

I am aware that the noble Lord thinks that this is extremely important. It is important to engage with everybody in this conflict, both within Syria and in the countries around, and those countries which appear to have an interest in its continuing instability. It is extremely important that the United Kingdom is involved in widespread engagement.

My Lords, given the wise decision not to intervene militarily in Syria, will the Minister accept that there is therefore an even stronger obligation on us to attend to the desperate needs of these refugees? If we are not dealing directly with Assad or the Syrian regime, and in view of the importance of Iran in the region and the tentative but significant steps that have been taken on engagement with Iran on other issues, can the Minister tell the House to what extent we have engaged with the Iranian regime as regards what should be, objectively and neutrally, the priority for all of us, which is dealing with the humanitarian refugee crisis?

It is in nobody’s interest to have instability increasing in this region, which is exactly what is happening at the moment. That is why it was incredibly good news when relations were improved with Iran. As I did before, I pay tribute to our colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for the work she did on that. Iran is indeed an interested party in the area.

My Lords, on behalf of the United Nations, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, made an appeal for direct access for humanitarian need. The Foreign Minister of Syria publically stated a few days ago that the Government of Syria would now facilitate this. Can my noble friend indicate whether the statement by the Foreign Minister of Syria is evidenced in actual fact or is this yet again a statement from the Syrian Government that has no real strength and basis in fact?

DfID is managing to get into all 14 governorates of Syria. However, there are 2.5 million people in hard-to-reach areas and 250,000 in besieged areas, which bears out the point that my noble friend makes. We call on the Syrian Government—we have not had an adequate response as yet—to remove some of the bureaucratic constraints that they have put in place which hinder humanitarian relief operations.

My Lords, the Miliband report very specifically pinpointed the issue of the shortage of vaccinations. Can the noble Baroness tell us a little more about what is being done, as the lack of vaccinations endangers public health in general and is particularly dangerous, of course, to young children?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. That is a major concern of ours, but it hinges so much on access. She will be well aware, for example, of the cases of polio in an area where it had been eliminated. As we try to seek the elimination of polio worldwide, to see it going backwards in this region is extremely concerning. It is a problem of access. We are working to try to ensure that all medical supplies, including for the vaccination of children, get through.

My Lords, I presume that the most difficult people to reach are those who are being targeted by the various forces active in Syria. Can my noble friend tell us in particular whether aid is able to reach and support the Christian communities in Syria, which are under very great pressure?

They are indeed under great pressure and a number of them are in hard-to-reach areas. Those who are blocking humanitarian access come from all sides in this conflict and we urge all parties to the conflict to remove those barriers to humanitarian operations.

My Lords, we have all seen thousands of refugees crossing the Lebanese border. What are this Government doing to assist the Lebanese Government in bringing their shelters for refugees up to international standards? Have we considered sending British troops, who are very well versed—as we knew in Macedonia—in meeting these appalling conditions and building structures that will be durable?

We are contributing £89 million to Lebanon, and that will contribute shelter, food, medical consultations, water and sanitation. Lebanon has recently come out of a long, protracted civil war and we are very concerned about its stability. In terms of troops, the noble Lord will be well aware from his work with Christian Aid and other organisations how essential it is to make sure that any apparent military intervention is separated from humanitarian intervention, and I think there would be risks in what he proposes.