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Syrian Refugees

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 26 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they and the host states are planning to prevent Syrian refugees becoming permanent residents in those states.

My Lords. The UK continues to call for a negotiated political transition in Syria as the only way to end the conflict and allow refugees to return home in safety. We have pledged £800 million in response to the crisis and we are working closely with host countries to support refugees in the region.

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. The whole House will know very well that many Palestinians are still stuck in the camps to which they moved in the late 1940s. Given the low capacity for absorbing Syrians into the neighbouring states, do the Government agree that maximum family reunion for Syrians, both in Europe and elsewhere, together with permanent resettlement in those countries that are open for immigration, is the best way forward?

Where an individual is accepted under the vulnerable persons scheme in the United Kingdom and is part of a family, we are already bringing the family with them as a unit to the United Kingdom. Those granted asylum status are also eligible for family reunion. Clearly, decisions by other countries depend on their own rules. The noble Lord is absolutely right to point to the huge problem in the region. That is why we have committed £800 million to help support the refugees in the region and, in particular, those countries that are hosts to them.

My Lords, while acknowledging the amount of money that we have put into tackling the difficulties facing, in particular, Lebanon and Jordan as a result of the vast number of refugees that they have taken from Syria, could the Minister remind us how many Syrian refugees we have taken into this country?

We have taken in 143 under the humanitarian protection scheme—people who, for example, have very severe medical needs—and we have taken in almost 4,000 Syrians under the asylum claims system. The noble Lord will recognise that this is a major problem and the numbers in the region are such that it is extremely important that we support the many refugees who are looking to return home.

My Lords, UNICEF estimates that the number of Syrian refugee children will reach 2.2 million in 2015. Does my noble friend agree that its help is key to the future of Syria? Will the Government therefore, in collaboration with UNICEF, do everything possible to ensure that these children are vaccinated, not only against polio and MMR but against pneumococcal disease and rotavirus?

My noble friend is right. That is why we put a great deal of emphasis on both health and education—so that there is not a lost generation. Syrian refugee children are vaccinated against polio and measles when they arrive in neighbouring countries as part of the registration process. Vaccination in those camps takes place on a routine basis; it is run by local ministries but supported by the UN and NGOs. There is constant review of which diseases need to be targeted, and at the moment we are especially concerned about the resurgence of cases of polio.

My Lords, given that, as the Minister will be aware, peace agreements in this area have been done to the people, from Sykes-Picot nearly 100 years ago onwards, what contacts are the Government making with those who are in the camps and need to have a voice in the peace settlement, and in particular with women’s groups?

The most reverend Primate is right to highlight this. There is constant contact with those in the camps, to try to engage them in moving things forward. With regard to support for women and girls, we are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are, and we have a number of programmes to help support them. As he will probably know, we are very concerned about early marriage and so on, and those who are particularly vulnerable to that. We are trying to ensure that we link up to support those girls so that that does not happen, and seeking out leaders to help protect girls and women more widely.

Does the Minister agree that it is in Britain’s interest to give maximum aid to Italy to help it police Europe’s somewhat porous maritime border? Regrettably, not all refugees want to return home. Some of them are ISIS implants. By coincidence, I was in contact with friends in Sicily only this morning, who say that they are becoming increasingly worried by the threats of ISIS atrocities in Sicily. What are the Government going to do to help?

It is extremely concerning to hear what the noble Lord says about Sicily; I had not heard that. It is certainly the case that the UK is working extremely closely with all our European allies on the situation of those who are seeking to come across the Mediterranean, often in incredibly dangerous and dire circumstances.

My Lords, in her first reply, my noble friend referred to the desirability of a transfer of power in Syria. Does she recognise that the most likely recipient of any transfer of power at present would be ISIS? That would be a great deal worse than the status quo, because at least the present regime in Syria, for all its faults and misbehaviour, does not slaughter Christians because they are Christians, which ISIS does. In fact, the present regime has always had a reputation for considerable religious tolerance.

In my first Answer I did not mention a transfer; I talked about a negotiated political transition in Syria. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, we are engaged with moderate groups within and around Syria, helping to ensure that they work effectively together—because it is extremely important for the future of Syria that that happens.