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Syrian Refugees

Volume 751: debated on Monday 20 January 2014


My Lords, in response to an Urgent Notice Question in the House of Commons earlier today, my honourable friend Mr Mark Harper, the Minister, responded as follows:

“More than half the Syrian population of 9.3 million is in need of humanitarian assistance, and 2.3 million have been displaced from Syria into neighbouring countries. This is a crisis of international proportions and needs a commensurate response from the international community. The Government are proud to be playing their full part in that response and share the view of the UN Secretary-General that the priorities must be to, “assist the Syrian parties in ending the violence and achieving a comprehensive agreement for a political settlement”, and ending the suffering of the Syrian people.

No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead, but we are determined to strive for a peaceful settlement through the Geneva II process which starts later this week and is working towards the establishment of a Transitional Governing Body for Syria. We continue to believe that the best way to address the suffering of the Syrian people should be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people in partnership with neighbouring countries and UNHCR. Prior to last week the Government had provided £500 million for the Syrian relief effort already, of which £480 million has been allocated to partners in Syria and the region. It has already helped over 1 million people, for example almost 320,000 people are being provided with food assistance each month in Syria and neighbouring countries and over 244,000 people in Syria have been offered medical consultations. The Government are continually pressing for better access and protection for humanitarian convoys inside Syria so that aid can get to the millions in need inside the country. This represents the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.

We are leading the way in helping Syrians suffering from the humanitarian crisis. We contribute in several ways: as the second largest donor helping refugees in the region behind the United States of America and through consideration of Syrian asylum claims under our normal rules. In the year to September we recognised over 1,100 Syrian nationals as refugees. 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 the options carefully and respect the views of those countries that favour a resettlement programme, but we maintain the view that our top priority 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. Most of those displaced want to return home as soon as it is safe to do so and protection in the region helps to afford them that hope.

Beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, our priority must be to help neighbouring countries provide sustainable protection in the region. 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 only have a token impact on the huge and increasing volume of refugee numbers.

The UK can be proud of its contribution so far but there is still much to do. Last week the Secretary of State for International Development pledged a further £100 million in aid.

I recognise 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”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. As he said, more than 2 million Syrian refugees, many of them children, have fled to neighbouring countries. Their situation is catastrophic and totally desperate.

We can take pride in the response of the British people, and the UK has rightly led the way in providing aid. However, we have now been asked by the United Nations to join its programme, together with 16 other countries so far, to help the most vulnerable refugees—those who struggle to survive in the camps. I am talking about abandoned children who have no other protection or support; torture victims; those in need of medical help; mothers and young children; and those who have been abused in the camps. We know that many women and young girls are at risk of sexual abuse and rape. So this is not about immigration policy or border control; it is about playing our part to provide sanctuary to the weakest and most vulnerable.

Charities such as Save the Children and Oxfam are calling on us to act alongside the 16 other countries that have offered places to the weakest refugees. So far the Government have refused to join, calling the programme “tokenistic”. Will the Government now urgently reconsider that decision? How many of the refugees at the greatest risk, who are fleeing murderous conflict and are in fear of their lives, will be offered a safe haven in the UK?

My Lords, I have made clear by repeating the Answer from my colleague Mark Harper that the Government’s policy is focused on providing aid where the problem exists—that is, within the camps and with displaced persons in the region. We are providing financial support and our aid programme is designed to help the most vulnerable, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries. For example, we are supporting the UNICEF programme providing psycho-social support, services and protection for some 15,000 of the most vulnerable children.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the only way to resolve this humanitarian catastrophe is to wish the political process that we are about to embark on success? Unless we conclude with that, it will be just a drop in the ocean.

As to asylum and the 1,100 people that the Minister mentioned—who were also mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister a few days ago—will he tell the House whether Syrian students who might be resident at universities in the United Kingdom will be granted asylum, should they so apply, and whether family reunion policies would apply to them if they were successful?

My Lords, we have already in existence an immigration concession policy which we introduced in October 2012 for Syrian nationals who are already legally present in the UK. The concession was due to expire on 15 March 2013 but, given the continued instability in Syria, it was extended for a further year and is now due to expire on 28 February 2014. We are currently considering options to extend this concession further. We have not sent anyone who is in this country back to Syria.

On the question of reuniting refugees in the UK with their families, in line with our international obligations, family members of those granted refugee humanitarian protection status in the UK, including those from Syria, may apply for family reunion from outside the UK. However, we have no plans to allow Syrian nationals to enter the UK beyond the normal immigration channels at present.

My Lords, the current regime, with its undoubted failings, at least has protected religious freedom in Syria. Those who seek to replace it seem to have no qualms about persecuting Christians and other religious minorities. What steps does Her Majesty’s Government propose to take in order to protect those who will never be able to return to Syria while those who persecute them exercise authority in that country? How does Her Majesty’s Government propose to ensure that religious freedom is seen as something that is of the utmost priority in the coming talks in Geneva?

The noble Lord rightly points to the need for a political solution because that is the long-term solution to all these difficulties. The catastrophic turn of events in Syria points to the need for finding a solution in which freedoms are established and people can enjoy freedom of expression and freedom of worship in ways that we would consider acceptable in this country. It can be achieved only through success at the conference, which I believe is on Wednesday. Let us wish the conference well.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that 1,100 people have been granted refugee status, but I think it would be useful to have further clarification. How many of those people were already in this country when they applied for asylum, and how many have very dangerously made their way to our shores and claimed asylum? It seems that with the latter situation we are enabling some of the most able who can travel to come to our shores to get refugee status and not some of the most vulnerable, who have been processed by the United Nations and who are desperately in need of refugee status, to gain that status. Can the Minister reassure us that, post Geneva II, there will be a reconsideration of the Government’s policy, particularly in relation to our taking orphans from these camps who have no basis to go back to Syria, whatever the political settlement may look like?

I make no commitments on the latter point, and I cannot give a breakdown of the location of the asylum seekers—the 1,100 Syrian nationals—who have been successful in their applications. I know that 1,566 Syrians applied for asylum in the year ending September 2013, the latest data we have. The UK is the largest recipient of asylum seekers from Syria behind Germany and Sweden.

My Lords, I welcome what the Government are doing, but I do not see that it is an either/or situation. I have not heard a clear reason why the Minister is resisting the plea made by a number of voluntary organisations in an open letter to the Prime Minister and the point made by my noble friend. Surely we could be doing something to open our doors to some very vulnerable people.

My Lords, we are not doing nothing. We are trying to work as best we can with other agencies. For example, the Home Office operates two resettlement programmes in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The main resettlement programme is Gateway. In agreement with UNHCR, refugees are resettled from a small number of targeted locations. Since the first arrivals in 2004, the UK has resettled more than 5,500 refugees under this programme. The programme for each year is agreed in advance with ministers.

My Lords, the Syrian crisis is probably the most serious crisis that has confronted us for a very long time. Our allies around Syria—Turkey, Lebanon and other countries—are battling under the strain and beginning to break down under it. There is no doubt that the Government’s policy has been excellent in terms of financial aid and I give full credit to it, but I agree with the noble Baroness who has just spoken that the gesture of having some Syrian children and families here would be an example to the rest of the members of the United Nations. That example would come all the more from a country that has given moral leadership in terms of financial help. The Government need to take one more human step to show that they are willing to have a limited number of Syrian families in this country as an example to the rest of the European Union and the rest of the United Nations.

I have got the sentiment of a number of the questions asked here this evening and I know that a number of noble Lords wish that the Government would go further. However, the Government have considered this matter very carefully and respect the views of those who favour a co-ordinated response. We maintain the view that our top priority should continue to be to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people in the region, in partnership with the neighbouring countries, the UNHRC and other UN and non-governmental partners. That is the focus of our policy commitment. As I have said, £500 million has already been committed and another £100 million was announced only the other day. That is £600 million in total invested in that programme. That is something that this country should be proud of.