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Syrian Refugees: Food Aid

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees and the pressure on their host countries, in the light of the suspension of the United Nations food voucher programme for want of funding.

My Lords, the UK has committed more than £700 million in response to this catastrophe, of which more than £150 million has gone to the World Food Programme, funding food for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and those in need inside Syria. We are in close contact with WFP, our other partners on the ground and other donors to assess what more should be done. The rest of the world needs to play its part both in terms of pledging money but also making good on its promises.

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the Government for the resources that they have put in. However, 1.7 million refugees from the dreadful events in Syria are now threatened with starvation as a result of lack of funding for the World Food Programme’s support. In addition to the terrible hardship those innocent people face, it is surely unreasonable to expect Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to assume total responsibility for them when they are already under immense pressure. Will Her Majesty’s Government press other nations in the region, notably the wealthy Gulf states, including Qatar, which is, after all, spending a fortune on preparing for the 2018 World Cup, to do much more to assist? Would it not also be in their own interests to do so rather than allowing ISIS and other extremists to exploit a possible tragedy for their own ends?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right about the fragility of the countries around Syria—not least, of course, Iraq and what is happening there. Just to reassure him slightly, the World Food Programme has fully suspended only in Lebanon, although that is enough of a challenge. As regards the other countries, in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan at the moment it is proposed that vouchers should be reduced, but the full suspension is happening only in Lebanon. The noble Lord is quite right that we need to engage internationally and I can assure him that we have been extremely active in that regard, not least in the Gulf. He will know that the United Kingdom helped to bring forward $1 billion at the various international gatherings that took place last year and this year brought forward $3.3 billion. We now need to make sure that the pledges that were made are delivered.

My Lords, the Government do not recognise the Government of Syria—that was perhaps premature. What discussions are we having with the Government of Syria to try to expedite delivery of relief?

We have to work with the Government of Syria, as my noble friend recognises, to get aid into Syria. There have been all sorts of access problems, which we are constantly working to resolve. He will know how challenging that is because of the variety of different groups in different places, which means that you cannot, for example, have safe corridors. However, that is an ongoing problem on which the United Nations is leading and working extremely hard.

My Lords, last week a group of major charities wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in the Independent. They welcomed the aid that the British Government are giving to Syria but said that aid is no substitute for accepting a reasonable number of refugees into this country. As I understand it, only 50 to 100 refugees have been resettled through the resettlement programme, which is far fewer than originally envisaged. At the pledging conference in Geneva, will the Government pledge to increase that number in response to that letter?

Clearly, the situation with refugees right across the region is extremely challenging. However, the United Kingdom’s emphasis is to try to make sure that the situation in Syria and around is alleviated. We are putting a huge amount of support, as the noble Baroness has recognised—I thank her for that—into those countries surrounding Syria. What is needed is to try to bring this incredibly challenging crisis to an end so that people are safe within their own country. We do not underestimate the challenge of that.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the only comprehensive and long-lasting resolution to this problem of refugees is to bring them back to Syria where they can live their lives in the communities they were in? What discussions have the Government had with the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura about his attempt at a new plan to bring about those ceasefires?

My Lords, the one thing that is clear is that this crisis will not come to an end in a short period. Does the Minister therefore accept that longer-term funding for host government authorities is necessary to ensure that their national infrastructures do not collapse under the weight of the refugees?

The noble Lord is right that a huge amount of support will need to go to these countries. That is what the United Kingdom is in fact doing, both as regards support within Syria itself but also for those countries around, some of which, as he well knows, were under a lot of pressure before this crisis occurred and are under further pressure. We have to ensure that the situation that developed in Iraq does not develop elsewhere.

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the question of the UK’s undertaking to accept a small number of refugees from the region, on which I received a Written Answer this morning. Can the Government not review the commitment to accept 500 refugees over the next five years? Is this not a very small commitment, bearing in mind the vastness of the problem?

It is reassuring to hear how seriously the Government are looking at the needs of surrounding countries and not only of the refugees themselves—that is a huge challenge—but does the noble Baroness not agree that this is an acute political issue as well? In Jordan, the number of refugees now is very much larger than the Jordanian population itself. The political implications of this in terms of future stability cannot be taken too seriously.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has not answered adequately the question raised by my noble friend Lady Lister and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. She has dealt with the question of humanitarian assistance and with the political situation in Syria, which, as my noble friend just said, will last for some time, but she has not dealt with the question of those seeking asylum. As my noble friend Lady Lister said, we have been asked to take substantially more refugees, but we are very reluctant to take them and we are taking far fewer than other European countries. The noble Baroness is answering on behalf of the Government. Will she go back to the Home Office and her other colleagues and say that this House wants more sympathetic consideration for those people from Syria seeking asylum?

As the noble Lord will know, asylum claims are judged across the board fairly and squarely. As I mentioned in my earlier answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the United Kingdom is contributing disproportionately in supporting those in the region—way above many of our colleagues in Europe and internationally. I said in my reply to my noble friend Lord Avebury that I would take the comments back to my colleagues.

Following the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is the Minister aware—I am sure she is—that there is an existing commitment to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettlement quota, which I understand is 500 people in the most vulnerable categories?

My Lords, my noble friend has explained the situation in terms of supporting the aid programme. However, I have just come back from a conference in Istanbul over the weekend and there was great resentment there about the number of refugees that they are looking after—some 1.5 million at a cost of £5 billion—and that is being compared to the contribution that some other European countries have made. Germany has taken 10,000 refugees and Sweden has taken more, while we have taken only a very few—hundreds. With the Syrian situation deteriorating, it is not getting any better soon. People are looking to some of the richer European countries such as ours to do a little more. I ask my noble friend whether there is any consideration about stepping up and taking more responsibility.

Again, I remind my noble friend of the huge financial commitment that the United Kingdom Government are making and that we are supporting all the surrounding countries, including Turkey. We have supplied mattresses and other non-food items and shelters for their distribution, as well as food aid within Turkey. I remind her of the huge contribution that the UK is making.