Skip to main content

Syria: Refugees

Volume 757: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2014

Statement

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the answer given by my honourable friend James Brokenshire to an Urgent Question earlier this morning in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House shares the Government’s deep concern about the situation in Syria, the suffering and hardship it is causing for millions of refugees and the enormous strain it is placing on the region. With 3.2 million people displaced into Syria’s neighbouring countries and millions more in need within Syria itself, this Government believe it is right to focus efforts on substantial aid to help large numbers of people who remain. This is a crisis of international proportions. Alleviating the suffering and seeking an end to the conflict are the best ways to ensure that the UK’s help has the greatest impact for the majority of Syrian refugees and their host countries. Ending the war, defeating extremism and ending the humanitarian crisis require both military pressure and a political settlement which replaces the Assad regime with a Government which can represent all Syrians.

The UK has committed £700 million in response to the humanitarian crisis. This significant contribution makes us the second largest bilateral donor after the USA. The UK’s support is helping hundreds of thousands of refugees across the region access vital food, water, medical care and essential supplies that are so desperately needed. UK aid has provided water for up to 1.5 million people per month and supported over 600,000 medical consultations. Last year, we funded 5.2 million monthly food rations.

Compared with aid, resettlement can only ever help a minority. We do, however, recognise that there are some particularly vulnerable people who cannot be supported effectively in the region. That is why, earlier this year, we launched the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to provide sanctuary for those displaced Syrians who are most at risk. The VPR scheme is the first resettlement programme run by the UK to target support for refugees specifically on the basis of their vulnerability. It is prioritising women and children at risk, people in need of medical care and survivors of torture and violence.

It is right that our resettlement efforts focus on the most vulnerable refugees, rather than operating a crude quota system. Arrivals under the scheme so far have included a number of children and adults with very severe medical needs who could not access the treatment they needed in the region. This Government have committed to helping several hundred people over three years, and that is exactly what we are doing. Between March and September, 90 people were granted humanitarian protection in the UK under the scheme. We continue to work closely with UNHCR to identify the most vulnerable cases displaced by the conflict in Syria and to relocate them to the UK. This is, of course, in addition to the many other Syrian asylum claims we consider under normal rules. Since the crisis began in 2011, we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to more than 3,400 Syrian nationals.

Resettlement can make a real difference to the lives of the refugees who can be supported effectively only outside the region. I am delighted to see those arriving under the scheme settling into their new homes and receiving the care they need, but we must not lose sight of the millions of Syrians who remain in the region. Our primary focus was, and still is, the provision of humanitarian assistance and aid to displaced people both within Syria and its neighbouring countries. Continuing our efforts to help them through aid must remain our highest priority”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place.

The British Government have rightly committed £700 million to help those affected by the conflict in Syria. It is the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis and reflects the values of the British people. We, on these Benches, applaud the Government’s efforts in that regard.

At a conference in Geneva yesterday, the UN asked for countries across the globe to increase the places they could provide for a limited programme to help the most vulnerable refugees who struggle to survive or cope in the region. As I understand it, the Government have still to respond. This is now the worst refugee crisis since World War II. It is not about helping every refugee but about doing our bit alongside other countries. Will the Government accept that their parallel programme is not working sufficiently well and sign up to the UN programme instead? Will the Government immediately take vulnerable refugees affected by the conflict in Syria out of the net migration target? Finally, will the Government now agree to do more to help?

My Lords, I do not accept that the current vulnerable persons relocation scheme is not working. The first vulnerable victims arrived eight weeks after it was set up. So far, 90 people have been accepted into it. However, the programme is on track to deal with several hundred victims over three years, as promised. This is in addition to the other areas I mentioned that help the people most affected in that region, including the biggest aid package we have ever produced for any humanitarian crisis, and the political efforts to end the crisis in Syria. It is also in addition to the 3,400 people we have taken under the normal asylum rules.

The net migration figures are based on the UN definition of migration. The number of people we are going to accept under the vulnerable persons scheme and even the asylum rules is a tiny proportion of the figures. We account for those figures in the way that all countries do internationally.

My Lords, the Minister told us that there are 3.2 million refugees in the region. The generosity of countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey contrasts with the lack of generosity of many other countries. Although Her Majesty’s Government have been generous with humanitarian aid, the number of vulnerable refugees—90—that the Minister mentioned to the House today is in stark contrast to that figure of 3.2 million. Only yesterday in Geneva, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned, the UN specifically asked that 130,000 should be accepted by developed countries. Will the noble Lord tell us what we are going to do to try to reach that target? We are now in the depths of winter, and groups such as the Yazidis and the other minorities that we have all followed over these past months are in freezing conditions. What are we doing to ensure that they are given additional humanitarian relief?

The noble Lord is right to highlight these issues. We take this very seriously and approach it in the way that we think is the best way of approaching it; that is, that humanitarian aid in the region is the best way of doing it. We accept that for very vulnerable people in special circumstances we can provide help in this country, but we think that providing £700 million to the region is the most effective way of providing our humanitarian aid, which will help people in that area. It provides basic things such as water and food, which can help the largest numbers of people, and it complements the UN’s programme because we take the people into this country that it suggests to us and we provide money in the area to deal with the people directly on the ground.

My Lords, is not this crisis continuing to destabilise the whole region? Is not the only long-term answer a proper political solution in Syria? Does that not mean that we have to talk sensibly and intelligently with the Assad regime, much as we might like to hold our noses while doing so? What has got to be smashed is the power of ISIS, and that cannot be done unless there has been an intelligent dialogue with the present Syrian regime.

I agree with my noble friend that ending the war and defeating extremism will be the way to end the humanitarian crisis in the long term. That requires military pressure and a political settlement. However, we feel that that requires replacing the Assad regime with a Government who can represent all Syrians, in order to prevent further conflict. We are looking carefully at the UN envoy’s plan for local ceasefires to freeze the conflict. We support his work and we think that plan, together with direct help from aid on the ground, is the best way of achieving this.

My Lords, of course the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is absolutely right that the only solution in the long term is a political solution, but it is a longer-term solution. I hope the Minister listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. It is winter; this is an emergency. There are enormous difficulties for those countries which have been so generous in the region, particularly Jordan and Lebanon. Their systems are at breaking point. They have three rotas of children in their schools every day; they cannot vaccinate children fast enough. This is a generous-hearted country. The £700 million is fantastic and I applaud the Government, but we need to offer more. We need to offer what the United Nations is asking us to do, which is to take more of these displaced people who are in real difficulty. If this country gave a lead on this, others would follow in Europe and there would be a far greater response to what the UN has asked us to do.

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that this is an extremely difficult situation and I take her point about winter coming. The fact is that we regard aid on the ground as the most important way of helping those neighbouring countries which have all the problems she suggests. £700 million is not a small amount. It is the largest single aid figure we have ever given. I completely agree that it has to take place in the context of a political settlement. Taking vulnerable people and asylum seekers is important but, in terms of actual direct effect, in the short term aid on the ground is the best way of helping the neighbouring countries.

My Lords—order, order—we have not heard from the Liberal Democrat Benches so it is the turn of my noble friend Lady Falkner.

My Lords, we are coming to the fourth anniversary of this conflict. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the Minister said that the Government do not believe in keeping the Assad regime in place—

My Lords, I obviously cannot go on with my question if the Cross-Benchers continue.

The Minister said that the Assad regime cannot be kept in place. Did he mean that President Assad cannot be kept in place and does he rule out in any future peace settlement any conversations that might allow some elements of the regime to take over in a transitional government? That is a change in position as far as I understand it.

I certainly did not make that clear. I am not prepared today to give details of Foreign Office policy, but I will consult with my colleagues and write to the noble Baroness about that issue.

Further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, can the Minister tell the House who it is that Her Majesty’s Government recognise as the legitimate Government of Syria at the moment and whether that recognition is de facto or de jure, according to the principles of public international law?

My Lords, I hope that you will not object if I say that I will write to the noble Lord on this. I was here to talk about Syrian refugees, not Foreign Office policy.