Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I appreciate this opportunity to lead the discussion in this House on what has been termed,
“the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times”.
More than 850,000 Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, inflating the country’s population by almost a quarter, 575,000 refugees are in Jordan, 560,000 refugees have crossed the border to Turkey, and 130,000 have fled to Egypt and 210,000 to Iraq. Following news on Tuesday that Iraq is reopening a border into its Kurdish region, this last number is set to escalate.
The total number of Syrian refugees is now estimated to be 2.3 million, of whom only 0.5%, around 12,000, is spread across the whole continent of Europe. Bulgaria, whose people were so demonised in the lead-up to 1 January and which is the European Union’s poorest country, is bearing the brunt. An estimated 100 Syrians enter Bulgaria every day, many of them illegally. Those who arrived last year were five times the country’s annual asylum quota. This poor country simply cannot cope.
While the numbers are important, we must not let them mask the human sorrow, the tragedy, the catastrophe, that is the real substance of this crisis. The UN and its partners in the region face many pressures. They have to safeguard the health of millions, many of whom are now at risk of contagious diseases, such as polio. Their ability to deal with the extraordinary, such as survivors of torture and victims of chemical attacks who now have severe respiratory problems, is obviously limited.
These organisations are also fighting to ensure social stability, which is an uphill battle. In Lebanon, where the population has grown by an extra 25%, essential resources, space and labour are all causes of significant social tension. Near a village in east Lebanon, a makeshift refugee camp providing shelter for hundreds was burnt down last month, a sign of the increasing social tension in that area. The violence is spreading. The Lebanese town of Tripoli saw bloodshed mirroring the Syrian conflict in the past few months. Car bombs in Beirut are once again headline news. Lebanon’s recovery from its own civil war has been long, slow and difficult and is far from over.
The Syrian civil war is enough to spark renewed violence that can destabilise the whole region. The spread of violence will continue unless practical and immediate measures are taken to relieve the pressures on Syria’s own neighbours. They are generous, but can they cope? The international community has responded admirably to the United Nations high commission’s call for financial assistance for refugees. The UK has pledged £500 million in aid—4.1% of the 2013 aid budget. A further £16 million was pledged only a few days ago. However, refusing to provide further practical help can undermine the overwhelmingly generous response from the UK public to this crisis.
It is immediate, hands-on, practical help that is now needed. We have so far failed to allow any extra space for Syrian refugees, but I suggest that it is now absolutely imperative that we do so. I received a Written Answer on 28 November from the Minister, informing me that the Government refuse even to consider relaxing the financial requirements in the family immigration rules for the extraordinary cases of Syrian nationals resident in the UK. I consider this response reflects a deplorable lack of compassion on behalf of the Government, considering how we as a nation and a society could combat that international crisis. Simplified and expedited family reunions for Syrians here, on any kind of visa, should surely be considered further. What proactive efforts have been made to reunite refugees in the UK with their families? Will the Minister make a declaration on the status of Syrian students in the United Kingdom?
On Tuesday, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that we have accepted 1,500 Syrians seeking asylum in the UK. This number, however, needs to be taken in context to be properly understood. First, it represents only those who were able to reach the UK independently using the normal asylum process. That precludes so many—millions—of those who are most in need of our help. Secondly, I understand that 352 Syrians were refused asylum. Indeed, by the third quarter of 2013, there were still 446 Syrians awaiting a decision on their application made through the normal channels. The truth is that ignoring the problem and accepting Syrians seeking asylum only through normal routes can be hugely damaging. The UN has called for us to take Syrian refugees in addition to our current resettlement quota.
I am not at the moment calling for the creation of another EU body. Under the auspices of the UN, a working resettlement programme already exists. The UN aims to register all refugees, and in so doing document those in particular need. When other developed nations answered the United Nations’ call for resettlement, they responded to the cry for help from the UN on behalf of these most vulnerable human beings. Not all countries have used the same method but they have, in their own way, responded to the need. Norway, Finland and Sweden have each accepted 400 to 1,000 refugees on a permanent basis. The Government of Canada have accepted 200 refugees, but have also pledged a further 1,100 places through private sponsorship. Germany, taking the lead, has pledged 10,000 places, staggered across the next three years, on the basis of a pilot humanitarian assistance programme, limited to a two-year stay. On a similar basis, Austria and France have each offered 500 places. Even Moldova, with a GDP of just over $2,000 per person, is taking 50. We have said that we can take nobody.
Does the Minister agree that only a firm, global or continent-based resettlement programme will offer a durable solution to this crisis? Both in financial and in practical human terms, the current, unequal levels of response are totally unsustainable. The United Nations is already working closely with these countries to select and assist the most vulnerable, including women and girls in danger of sexual violence, survivors of torture, refugees with severe medical needs and disabilities, those in need of family reunification, and those who face persecution because of their political views, sexuality, ethnicity or religion. We hear so much about the persecution of Christians in that part of the world. We are saying that we are not going to accept these people. We are denying them a place and saying that they must make do with what other countries—Jordan, Turkey and others—are offering. The priority is not only to accept those who are in danger, but also those who will be invaluable in the rebuilding of Syria once this dreadful conflict has ended.
Amnesty calls on us to accept 10,000 of those in need. I fully support that call. Does the Minister? He will say, “Ah, but that is a big number”. With the Vietnamese boat people in 1979, we did accept 10,000. The fears of a public backlash in that case were totally unfounded. The British people proved their compassion and their hospitality. Of course, a decade earlier, in 1968, the east African Asians were another example. Forty-five years on, and in the light of the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times, we are called upon to do so again. When the Minister says that we cannot possibly have a resettlement programme, where does he get his knowledge from? Where is the difficulty? The UK has a proud history of providing support in this way, most recently in the Balkans. What has changed?
I suggest to the Government and to this House that we can no longer afford to sit back and wait. The social, financial and human cost of doing nothing is mounting by the minute. The cost will surely be felt by all. As a Government, we can move and assist so many people in a very practical way.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on having secured this debate. It could not be more timely, and I very much agree with what he has said. The background for this debate is of course a wider discussion on immigration in this country, a discussion which I regret; I do not regret discussion about immigration, but I regret the tone of the immigration debate which is taking place. However, this is not the occasion on which to debate that.
We are talking about a specific humanitarian issue: dealing with an absolute nightmare in Syria. The figures are terrifying: 2.3 million people have fled Syria; 4.25 million people have been internally displaced; and there are more fleeing that country every day. Against this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made a modest request that Europe should accept 30,000 vulnerable refugees who fled Syria—vulnerable people being pregnant women and children—and I would add those with strong family links and some member of their family already in the United Kingdom. Of course it is good that the United Kingdom has made a substantial cash contribution, but that should not be the end of our responsibilities. They should go much wider than that.
What about the current burden on countries like Jordan and Lebanon, to which reference has been made? Jordan has 500,000 Syrian refugees already. One in five of the population of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Prince Hassan of Jordan was asked whether his country was running out of patience with Syrian refugees. He said:
“We’re not running out of patience, we’re running out of water”.
The sheer burden on Jordan of coping with the numbers means that it is frankly at the point where it cannot cope anymore. The UNHCR is asking for a small gesture from a country as affluent as ours, because we are talking not just about Jordan and Lebanon but about Turkey and Egypt.
The question is whether our Government are running scared of public opinion. I expect, deep down, that that is what they are thinking. I believe that British public opinion is better than that. I believe that the British people are much more willing to accept what is a humanitarian responsibility. I am convinced that we should not be running away from the issue because we are afraid of what some of the newspapers might say.
Just before I came into this House, and indeed for a short period after that, I was chief executive of the Refugee Council. We dealt with a programme for Bosnians at the request of the British Government. At very short notice we were asked to make arrangements for 4,000 Bosnians who had been detained in those vile Serb concentration camps—people who were absolutely traumatised, as are the Syrians today. Those people came at short notice, and we arranged for reception facilities and that they should then be moved on. We arranged that they should not all come to London but that those people should be in regional clusters to make it more acceptable in other parts of the country—and it worked. There was virtually no public objection that I can remember, but enormous public support. The people of this country knew what the Bosnians had suffered—we saw it in our newspapers—as they know, day in, day out, what the Syrian people have suffered.
To make the wider community understand, we had a reception centre in Newcastle, for example. We arranged an event where we invited local councillors, doctors, social workers, churches and the wider community to come along to meet and to welcome the Bosnians, and it worked. They came there and they were happy to say, “We welcome you in this country as individuals”, and there was no terrible public outcry. Indeed, on the whole the Bosnian programme worked pretty well. Lessons had been learnt from the earlier Vietnamese programme about dispersing people in small units, because in the experience of the Refugee Council it was better that people should be together with other members of their community for mutual support, language, religion, culture, and so on. That is all manageable, and indeed, we have the experience of how the Bosnian programme was managed. It was not perfect, but we learnt a lot from that process.
The UNHCR has a very modest target of 30,000. As the noble Lord said in opening the debate, Germany has already agreed to take 10,000. Even Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has taken or pledged to take 50, and Norway, for example, 1,000. Surely as a country we can do better than to say, “Yes, we will be generous with the cost of running the camps, but no, we don’t want any of you”. As a country, we can do better than that. We should fully face up to our humanitarian responsibilities and say, “Yes, we will take a proportion of these people”. I am not saying that we should take more than Germany, but we should see if we can match the German numbers or at least make a significant effort to take a good proportion of the people that the UNHCR has asked us to take. We, as a country, can do no less.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on initiating his debate. I thank him for taking the rather unusual step of inviting noble Lords to take part through the correspondence columns of the Guardian two days ago.
Although I agree with the main purpose of the noble Lord’s proposal, which is to encourage the European Union and Her Majesty’s Government to do more to help the appalling plight of the Syrian refugees, I have to take issue with the implication of his Question, namely that our current emphasis should be on evacuation and resettlement. With the Geneva conference, under the chairmanship of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, only 13 days away, I hope that the Minister will accept that our main effort, and that of our European colleagues, should now be to work for a diplomatic outcome at that conference, and one which might at least promote a ceasefire between the warring parties and enable at least some of the Syrian refugees to return safely to their homes.
I know that the Minister usually replies to questions as a Minister from the Home Office. However, picking up a point made earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, Front-Bench Ministers speak for HMG and not for their departments. I hope therefore that the Minister will nevertheless be able to give us, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, a little more information about the Geneva conference than I have been able so far to garner from the media. Although it was reported that the Russians, the Americans and the United Nations had reached agreement in late December that the aim of the conference was,
“to bring two broadly representative and credible delegations of the Syrian Government and opposition to a negotiating table”,
I have seen no details since then of whether the Secretary-General has been able to get the deeply divided opposition, who seem to spend more effort fighting each other rather than opposing the Syrian Government, to put together anything approaching a credible delegation to represent them at Geneva. Nor have I seen any details of which other national delegations have been invited to take part, other than reports in late December which remarkably did not mention either any European participation or any from Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
There have been recent reports, which I profoundly hope are untrue, that the United States is blocking a proposal that Iran should be invited to take part, even though the Russian news agency TASS has recently quoted Mr Ban Ki-Moon as expressing the view that it would be useful for Iran to be invited. It is essential that Iran should be there if we are to have any hope of getting a diplomatic resolution to this crisis. Although there have been several questions in this House about the Government’s attitude towards Iranian participation, I have not yet heard a definitive response to those questions. I hope that the Minister may be in a position to enlighten us on this important point.
I suppose I should apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for having strayed some way from the precise proposal in his Question for Short Debate. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some assessment of where the Government believe the Geneva conference stands, and whether his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary agrees that all our efforts, and those of the European Union, should now be aimed at helping the Secretary-General and Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi ensure a diplomatic outcome to the Geneva process, which might enable at least some of the Syrian refugees to be resettled in their own homes.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on securing this debate, and on the eloquent passion with which he spoke.
I slightly take issue—and I rarely do—with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who said that we should just concentrate our efforts on diplomacy. When I was a Minister I thought that, as a Government, we were supposed to be able to multitask. It is not beyond the wit of a Government both to pursue a peace settlement through diplomacy and to do something to alleviate the appalling circumstances in which many Syrians live, both in other countries and within their own country.
I misunderstood the emphasis that the noble Lord was placing. His points are valid, but it is equally valid to say that we should do something about the crisis that is already there, not just in Syria but now in these other countries as well.
I speak as someone who has witnessed the position in Lebanon of the refugees from the Syrian conflict, and who has spoken to the leaders of that country, from the President downwards, who are having to handle this situation. Lebanon is a country that has enough problems of its own without taking in the equivalent of 20% to 25% of its own population. Just imagine what would happen if a European country was asked to take in numbers of that particular order.
I declare my interest as a member of the advisory board of the Council for European Palestinian Relations, and I have made many of my visits under its auspices. I do so slightly nervously, as the Israeli Defence Minister seems to have declared the council an illicit organisation. I interpreted his declaration to mean simply that we were doing too good a job in getting European parliamentarians to see the circumstances in which Palestinians were living.
There are now even more Syrian refugees in Lebanon than when I visited. Winter has come, and women with young children now live in the bitter cold, with nothing but cardboard and plastic sheeting for protection. Their shelter is damp, dark and unhygienic. They fled their country when the bombs started to fall not because they chose to, and women and children are living there in many cases without any male support in many of the family groupings. To some extent, we have facilitated the situation by refusing to make any real effort to take some of those people out of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Over 50% of the Syrian refugees are children. That means that more than 1 million children are living and being brought up in the most appalling conditions. The Government should reflect on how they think those young people—assuming they survive to adulthood, and some will not—are likely to feel about those affluent countries that have actually refused to take any of them. That is something that the Government would do well to reflect on—and if that was put and explained to the British people, they might give the Government a surprise, and be much more welcoming than the Government believe that they would be. I share the views of my noble friend Lord Dubs on that matter.
I do not want to go much further on the general issue, other than to say that, if it is true that Germany can accept 10,000 people and the other, poorer countries can accept people too, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, I find it shameful that we as a country are unable to make the kind of gesture that other countries have made. It is not sufficient just to give money to the humanitarian efforts of the United Nations. Could the Minister explain three things in that area? First, why cannot we emulate countries of a similar size to us in Europe in what they are doing? Secondly, why are the Government being so rigid about allowing Syrians to leave the terrible circumstances in which they are living and to come into this country to be hosted by members of their own family who are here? That seems to me reckless behaviour. Thirdly, how many of the 2,000-plus Syrians who have sought asylum here have had their asylum application accepted and/or been given leave to remain on a permanent basis? If he cannot give those figures now, perhaps he would write to me to save me the trouble of putting down a Parliamentary Question.
Lastly, I draw attention to a particular group of refugees—the Palestinians—who have been displaced already and have been living in Syria for many years. I want to draw particular attention to the 30,000 Palestinian refugees trapped in the Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus. It has been under tight siege for many months by the regime’s forces, and the regime is preventing humanitarian assistance being provided to the besieged people. Around 30 people have died already, but there are nearly 30,000 Palestinians living in those circumstances, which are probably worse than the circumstances of some of the people living in the Lebanon. What action have the UK Government taken to try to persuade the regime, if necessary through their Iranian colleagues, to help humanitarian aid to get into that camp in Yarmouk?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and bringing the plight of the people fleeing Syria to the attention of the House once more. As he says, it is a great exodus of people; it is estimated that, by the end of this year, 4 million people will have left Syria. At the moment, it is 2.3 million, but it is growing all the time. The conflict is continuing much longer than expected; initially, it was assumed that the UNHCR, with an appeal to the international community, would be able to cope. This has not proved to be the case, and the numbers of people fleeing are simply staggering. More than half of the 2.3 million are children, and 75% of those children are under the age of 12. Noble Lords can imagine the terror that they are living with
Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are hosting some of those people, and we know that they are not coping—and I shall not repeat what other noble Lords have said. Resettlement is desperately needed, if only in the short term, until Syria is stable again. I will repeat the figures. Excluding Germany, which has pledged 10,000 places, the EU in total has offered 2,340—not really very many—and we in the UK none, even though I believe that Nigel Farage of UKIP has suggested that we should take Syrian refugees, which is a very great recommendation. Up to now, 17 countries have offered places up to a grand total of 16,000 places for 2.3 million people. Even Australia, which, as I have been reading recently, is not known as a state that welcomes asylum seekers and refugees, has offered 500 places—but the UK none. The only solution, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said, will be a political one, but that seems far off, although we must hope. So the resettlement being asked for will not necessarily be permanent but could give people security and breathing space and, above all, care and education for the children, who always suffer disproportionately in these situations.
Those of us who have been to Syria know what a wonderful country it is. I was there three years ago with the Council for European Palestinian Relations, which has already been referred to, a fine organisation that hopes to introduce parliamentarians in Europe to all sides of the situation. We visited refugee camps for Palestinians, some of whom have been there since the creation of Israel—since the Nakba, in fact—when some 8,000 or 10,000 were killed or driven from their homes. The subsequent war between Israel and the Arab states added to that refugee crisis. Others were forced to flee neighbouring Iraq after the Shia Government took control following our ill judged war on the Iraqi people. Palestinians who fled the terror of the Nakba on the creation of the State of Israel and went to Iraq were, when I was there, fleeing into Syria because of the actions of the Iraqi Government, and are now fleeing Syria because of the civil war in that country; that means four displacements in 40 years for those people, and there is estimated to be up to 500,000 of them. It is worth noting, too, that President Assad’s Government gave the Palestinians a lot of help in the refugee camps; they had housing, right to work and healthcare and education. They did not want citizenship, only the right to go home to Palestine.
Those people who have now fled Syria cannot be officially helped by the UNHCR because they are not refugees unless they are fleeing their own country. So it falls back to UNRWA, created to help the Palestinians after the State of Israel was created, which in those days was catering for 750,000 people, to cater now for 5 million Palestinian refugees, still in camps all over the Middle East. As we face the problem of Syrian refugees, we must not forget the Palestinians among those refugees and the Palestinians all over the Middle East, who still have no home to go to.
I have a dream, my Lords. I have a dream of what a wonderful force for good Israel could have been, and I think still could be, if only it dropped its exclusivity of being a Jewish state and agreed to share with others land and resources—particularly water, in relation to Jordan, as was mentioned earlier. Israel could be part of the solution in the Middle East by joining the Arab League and western Governments in helping with the resettlement of this latest tremendous wave of refugees from Syria and by coming to some agreement on the right of return for Palestinians. Sadly, that is a dream, but in the mean time I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that we in this country will play our part by taking refugees from Syria.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, spoke with real passion and feeling. The more one reads and hears about the devastating impact on the population of the now long-running conflict in Syria—as opposed to the politics of the conflict—the more one can be forgiven for having feelings of despair and utter frustration. Hence comes the vital importance of the diplomatic efforts to resolve the current crisis, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, referred.
Of course, this is not a purely internal Syrian conflict; there are other countries and different factions and groupings heavily involved behind the scenes—sometimes hardly even behind the scenes—with most of, but by no means all, those countries being within the region.
We now have getting on for 2.5 million registered refugees, more than half of whom are children, and a further 4.25 million people who are displaced inside Syria. That means that nearly a third of the country’s population have had to leave their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation as,
“a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history”.
The figure for refugees is also only the number of those who have registered as such; hundreds of thousands are believed not to have registered with an asylum authority.
Five countries close to Syria, including Iraq, host 97% of the refugees. In two of those countries, Jordan and Lebanon, the effect has been to increase their populations by 9% and 19% respectively. One inevitable consequence has been to put considerable strain on the resources available in those countries.
Apparently, the United Nations humanitarian appeal for refugees from Syria and the region is only some two-thirds funded, following the response from the international community. We have pledged £500 million for the Syrian relief effort, which the Government have said is the United Kingdom’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.
The provision of resettlement and humanitarian admission places has not yet evoked a particularly positive response either. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set a goal of securing 30,000 places for Syrian refugees from 2013 to the end of 2014. So far, just over half those places have been pledged, of which just under 12,500 have been pledged by EU countries. Of that figure, 10,000 places were offered by Germany in the form of a humanitarian admission programme. Excluding Germany, the remaining 27 EU countries have pledged just under 2,500 places, with 18 EU member states, including the United Kingdom, not making any resettlement or humanitarian admission pledges. The Gulf Co-operation Council countries have not offered any resettlement or humanitarian admission places either to refugees from Syria.
With the ability of Syria’s neighbouring countries to host refugees becoming ever more strained and with conditions for refugee populations deteriorating, more are attempting to reach the EU by risking their lives, on journeys by sea or across land, to reach Europe. Hundreds, if not thousands, have drowned on journeys by boats that never reached their destinations.
The Government’s approach has been that it is better to help neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq to cope with the very considerable numbers of refugees from Syria, and we can be proud of the support that we have given and the amount that we have pledged for the Syrian relief effort. The more that can be done to enable those countries to cope and provide conditions that are acceptable, the better, since the likelihood is that those who have been forced to flee Syria will wish to return to their own country when it is safe to do so.
However, it is also our view that we should do our part, alongside other countries within the UN’s programme, to provide a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees fleeing this murderous conflict. We have referred to a figure of around 500 refugees. We do not believe that the Government should turn their back on those people. It is our moral duty to respond to the UN’s call for help by accepting some Syrian refugees, just as for hundreds of years our country has helped those fleeing persecution.
The specific issue for debate is what action the Government should take in conjunction with other European Union member states to establish a Europe-wide evacuation and resettlement programme for those fleeing conflict in Syria. It is of course for the Minister to answer that question when he responds, but he should certainly have something to tell us, since a Home Office Minister stated in a parliamentary Written Answer in October last year that the Government,
“continue to discuss the Syrian crisis with our European partners”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/13; col. 223W.]
Can the Minister indicate what exactly is being discussed and whether the establishment of a Europe-wide evacuation and resettlement programme for those fleeing the conflict in Syria is being discussed with European partners?
In the light of our £500 million pledge for the Syrian relief effort, we are in a good position to pursue with European countries the need to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people, in partnership with neighbouring countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, we are not in such a strong position to pursue with European countries the need to accept some Syrian refugees, because we have not been prepared to do so ourselves. Apparently, even Mr Farage thinks that we should do something in that direction; the Government, however, do not. Like my noble friend Lord Dubs, I suspect that the Government’s stance has had more to do with opinion poll judgments than any lack of compassion.
In the parliamentary Written Answer to which I referred, the Home Office Minister stated that,
“the Government has no current plans to resettle Syrian refugees”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/13; col. 222W.]
Hopefully, the Minister will be able to tell us that that is no longer the Government’s position, that plans now exist and that, as a result, we will also be in a better position to pursue with our European partners the issue of accommodating Syrian refugees.
My Lords, in concluding this debate, I should like to begin my contribution to it by thanking my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for tabling the Motion, which gives us the opportunity to talk about this very serious issue. He graphically described the catastrophe that has overtaken the people of Syria and the consequential problems for the people not only of that country but of neighbouring countries. The Government share many of the deep concerns expressed by noble Lords today; if there are disagreements between us, they will be about how we best handle the issue.
Conflicts of this magnitude, with such a severe impact on civilian populations, require a commensurate response from the international community. The Government are proud of the fact that the UK is playing its full part in that response. The UK has pledged £500 million for the Syrian relief effort, of which more than £470 million has already been allocated to partners both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. This represents the United Kingdom’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. It is also the second-largest bilateral contribution by any country behind that of the United States—until very recently, we had given more money than the rest of the European Union put together.
By providing aid in this way, we believe that we can help far more people than we could by resettling what could be only a token number. I think that all noble Lords will agree that the numbers that have been mentioned today are tokens compared with the massive figure of 2.3 million people who have already left that land.
We are proud of the UK’s record of offering protection to those genuinely in need. In the EU, the UK is the third-largest recipient of asylum seekers from Syria, behind Germany and Sweden. As the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier this week, in the year up to September 2013 the UK had received more than 1,500 asylum applications from Syrians. Over the same period, more than 1,100 were granted refugee status. We also operate an immigration concession for Syrian nationals who are already legally present in the UK, designed to make it easier for them to extend their stay or switch immigration category.
In response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in some cases reiterated by other noble Lords, 30,000-plus Syrians have sought refuge in the EU so far, not the 12,000 he quoted. We recognise that Bulgaria is under considerable pressure. We are supporting efforts by the European Asylum Support Office to build capability in Bulgaria. UK aid is providing immediate practical help to Syrians in the region. Family members of Syrian refugees in the UK are eligible for family reunion under Immigration Rules and 90% of Syrian asylum claims are granted. We recognise the scale of this process and we respect the views and values which want to resettle Syrians, but our own view is that aid in the region will help more. I think I have made that clear in my response so far.
The Government have discussed with EU partners on a number of occasions, both in Brussels and bilaterally, the best way to respond to those fleeing Syria. I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that these are active negotiations. We have also spoken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other partners in the UK. We are very aware that some, including the UNHCR, would like to see a more proactive programme of resettlement of refugees currently hosted by countries neighbouring Syria. We have considered these options very carefully and respect the views of those countries who favour a resettlement programme, but we maintain that our top priority and that of the EU should continue to be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people in the region, in partnership with neighbouring countries, UNHCR and other UN and non-governmental partners.
Beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, our priority must be to help neighbouring countries provide sustainable protection in the region. With more than 2 million people, as we know, now having been displaced from Syria, regional protection is the only realistic means by which the rights of the vast majority of displaced persons can be safeguarded. Accordingly this should be our focus, rather than resettlement or providing “humanitarian admission” to displaced Syrians, initiatives which provide only very limited relief to the neighbouring countries and can have only a token impact on the huge and increasing refugee numbers.
Turning to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I recognise his interest in this issue. We are not running scared of public opinion; we have considered all options very carefully and concluded that we can make the biggest difference through our generous humanitarian package, which is second only to that of the USA, as I have said. We considered the Bosnia-style approach, but there is no EU support for such an approach and there is a difference: Bosnia is on the border of the EU and was easier to access and to handle than the Syrian situation.
I say to my noble friend Lady Tonge, whose interest in these issues I respect, that we have considered resettlement arguments carefully and respect the right of other countries to offer resettlement programmes, but we believe we can make a bigger difference through generous aid efforts in the region. We have so far given UNRWA £23.5 million to help Palestinian refugees.
Would we not be able to consider some sort of help even just for the children? Noble Lords may remember the Kindertransport that went on, quite rightly and enthusiastically, during the Second World War. There are so many children involved here and so many are unaccompanied. Could we not have some sort of scheme to help them?
The noble Baroness makes a very interesting suggestion and I thank her very much for it.
While we recognise that others may wish to participate in these activities, it is important that this does not substitute or deflect our attention from longer-term regional solutions. That is why we firmly support the establishment of an EU Justice and Home Affairs-led regional development and protection programme, the RDPP, for those displaced by the Syrian crisis. Providing durable solutions for those displaced, while at the same time meeting the needs of the countries bearing the brunt of Syrian displacement, is rightly at the heart of this programme. I again reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we are very much engaged in this programme.
The Home Secretary announced in July last year that the UK will contribute €500,000 to the project, bringing its overall size to more than €13 million. This type of approach aims to promote refugees not only being protected and supported in the short term, but being well placed to integrate into the local community or return home if the possibility arises. It is also designed to support broader socioeconomic development in host countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, to help mitigate tensions between refugees and host communities. The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, is correct to draw attention to the fundamental need for a political solution.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but is he well informed on the circumstances in which people are living as refugees in Lebanon in particular? Lebanon has laws that prevent any of those refugees working: they have no means of sustaining themselves. Does that not make a little difference to the Government’s views about how these people can survive over a long period?
That is exactly why I am going on to say that the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, is right to say that a political solution to this problem is imperative and is strongly supported by this country. It was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and my noble friend Lady Tonge joined in recognising the importance of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, asked me if I could give more details about the Geneva conference on 22 January. I cannot give him any more information than that which he already possesses, but I will write to him and, if I may, place a copy of that letter in the Library and circulate it to all Members of the House who have spoken in the debate.
I have a couple of notes here for the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Options to help Syrian refugees, including some form of resettlement, have been discussed on a number of occasions. We expect to continue these discussions but there are no plans for an EU-wide evacuation or resettlement programme. Instead, we want to focus on developing a programme for protection in the region and a development programme. I think I have made that clear throughout the remarks I have made.
I understand that this is a highly emotive issue and one that continues to require real action through high levels of international co-operation, both in the region and more widely. The UK has a proud tradition of providing protection to those in need, and this Government are committed to continuing to play their full part in the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for giving us a chance to explain that.