Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the world is facing humanitarian emergencies in unprecedented numbers, scale and complexity, from the Ebola epidemic that hit Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea last year to the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April, and from the current crisis in Yemen to the conflict that has raged in Syria for more than four years now. We have all been struck by the tragic images of desperate refugees putting their lives in the hands of criminal gangs and people smugglers, risking and sometimes losing their lives. Some of them are fleeing conflict and persecution and others are seeking economic opportunity.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions and is contributing significantly to the increased flows of people we are seeing across the Mediterranean and into Europe. More than 220,000 lives have been lost and 11 million people forced from their homes in Syria, often moving multiple times. Some 4 million people have fled from Syria to countries in the region, and 7.6 million are internally displaced.
The lack of effective law and law enforcement in Libya has facilitated the growth of smugglers and smuggling networks. The year 2013 saw just under 43,000 migrants making the sea crossing from Libya to Italy; this rapidly increased to 170,100 in 2014. Many of the people crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing conflict and insecurity, and it is estimated that at least 5% of migrants making the crossing die on the way. The UK’s priority is to stop the senseless deaths of people making these perilous journeys. Our assets in the Mediterranean such as HMS “Bulwark”, HMS “Enterprise” and our two Border Force cutters have played their part in the European response, helping to rescue more than 6,700 people this year.
Britain has also been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria from the beginning. To date, we have pledged more than £1 billion to help Syrian refugees in the region, making us the second biggest bilateral donor after the United States. This is the largest sum we have ever committed to a single crisis. As the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, the UK has scaled up its support. We are helping to provide vital services so that both those seeking refuge and the communities hosting them are better able to cope. Our aid has so far provided 18 million food rations, 2.4 million medical consultations and clean water for more than 1.6 million people. In addition, DfID has allocated £9.5 million from the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support local capacity and build longer-term stability. This support is reaching millions of people and has saved lives in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
The UK’s life-saving work in the region, however, goes beyond this critical and immediate humanitarian assistance. More than half of all registered refugees from Syria are children. We are now looking at how we can provide education for this generation. In 2013, alongside UNICEF and other international leaders, the UK launched a No Lost Generation initiative to give children who had lost everything a chance of a better future. In support of this, we have allocated £111 million to provide protection, support and an education for children affected by the crisis in Syria and the region.
As noble Lords will be aware, in addition to this, the Prime Minister announced earlier this week an additional £10 million per year to support education in Lebanon for the next three years. This will support 59,000 more free school places for Syrian refugees and vulnerable children. It will also provide education to 30,000 out-of-school refugees and poor Lebanese children. This amount doubles Britain’s planned investment in education in Lebanon over the next three years. Investing in education supports the aspirations of Syrian refugee families, helping them make the academic progress that will enable them to make a contribution to the region and ultimately return to rebuild Syria.
In Syria 4.6 million people live in areas where humanitarian access is extremely restricted. In response the UK co-sponsored and lobbied hard for the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2165 and 2191 which enable the UN to deliver aid across the border without the consent of the Assad regime. Between the adoption of the resolutions and the end of August this year the UN and its partners have delivered 175 convoys across the border. These convoys of aid are helping to provide food, blankets, water kits and vital medical supplies to thousands of people in Syria.
Without the humanitarian support led and often shaped by the UK, many more refugees could risk their lives in the journey to Europe, so we are also taking action to provide support to those refugees closer to home. We have already provided sanctuary to more than 5,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began. On Monday last week the Prime Minister announced that over the lifetime of this Parliament we will expand the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to resettle up to 20,000 additional Syrians in need of protection, the costs for this scheme being funded through overseas development assistance for the first 12 months after arrival.
The Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme has prioritised those who cannot be supported effectively in their region of origin—women and children at risk, people in severe need of medical care and survivors of torture and violence. The scheme is in addition to those we resettle under other programmes which offer protection in the UK under normal asylum procedures. These other programmes focus on a wider set of nationalities—people from Iraq, Somalia and other countries. Over the coming months we will work with local authorities, the UNHCR and others to ensure we deliver on the expansion of the Prime Minister’s announcement.
While we are doing all we can to support people fleeing the region, we must not lose sight of the need to help the overwhelming majority of Syrians still in the region. Indeed, around 3% of the 11 million Syrians displaced by the conflict are claiming asylum in Europe. Most have sought refuge inside Syria itself or in neighbouring countries. We have already given more aid than any European country and more to the UN appeals than Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Hungary, Austria and Poland combined. Our commitment will continue, but we need other countries to step up.
The UK continues to play a leading role in the international community by encouraging our international partners to pledge more generously in response to the crisis. The UK has led a sustained lobbying effort, pressing other countries to follow our lead and increase their funding. Our efforts have helped to raise more than $6.9 billion for the Syria response over the past two years, including $1 billion raised at a ministerial consultation co-hosted by the Secretary of State for International Development at the UN General Assembly last September.
At the G8 summit at Lough Erne in June 2014, G8 leaders agreed almost $1.5 billion in additional contributions to meet humanitarian needs in Syria and its neighbours. In addition, the UK has lobbied hard to mobilise funding from other donors ahead of the third Kuwait Pledging Conference in March, which raised a further $3.6 billion for the UN appeal for Syria. Despite all these efforts, the UN Syria appeals for this year are still only 37% funded, and the 2015 UN appeal for Iraq is only 46% funded. That means limitations on food, water and urgent medical care, all of which puts pressure on people to leave the region. The immediate refugee crisis can be tackled only by effective, co-ordinated EU and international action supported by much-needed resources.
At the same time, dealing with the humanitarian crisis and ensuring aid reaches those who need it is not enough. We also need to take a long-term look at solutions to tackling the drivers of the crisis at source. Eighty per cent of refugee crises last for 10 years or more, and two in every five last for 20 years or more. This means children born in refugee camps today are likely to grow up in exile, away from home. It also means we need a step change in the way international communities support refugees, recognising that the current international model works for short-term support but not protracted displacement. DfID’s work is targeted to deliver, over time, more stable, secure and increasingly prosperous countries. In this work we are especially concerned by the particular needs of women and girls, who are affected disproportionately by poverty and crisis.
We should be proud that the UK has delivered on its legal commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development assistance, becoming the first G7 country to meet this long-standing commitment. In Africa DfID is spending £2 billion in bilateral aid in 2015-16, of which £540 million is targeted at economic development and £360 million at humanitarian support. An additional £2 billion is being spent in Africa through our share of multilateral aid.
The World Bank predicts that an extra 600 million jobs will be needed globally over the next decade to keep up with the number of young people in developing countries entering the job market. At the Department for International Development, we have already refocused our priorities to be more jobs-focused and livelihood-focused than ever before.
In the long term, development assistance addresses the root causes of instability and insecurity by promoting the golden thread of democracy, strengthening the rule of law, establishing property rights and creating accountable institutions. This helps reduce inequality and provides economic opportunities for all. This in turn helps to build more effective states and reduces some of the pressures to migrate.
If people can find stability, prosperity and opportunity in their home country, it means a more stable and prosperous world for us all. The UK will continue to demonstrate the leadership we have shown throughout our response to the Syrian crisis to mobilise the international community.
I look forward to all noble Lords’ contributions this evening—particularly to my noble friend Lord Brooke’s contribution as he makes his valedictory speech. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Minister is right to put the issue of migration in the global and longer-term context, but there are immediate issues to face. Part of our problem is finding the right balance between the heart and the head. The scale of global migration is so immense that it is increasingly difficult to manage. People living in poverty and insecurity see the good life outside their borders, hear from relatives and friends who have reached the promised land and, understandably, long to improve the conditions of themselves and their families. We in Europe, drawing on our Christian and Enlightenment traditions, are clearly a magnet, the envy of less happy lands.
The Motion is careful to avoid words such as “economic migration” or “refugees”. Some claim that it is difficult to differentiate between the two. From my experience, as both a barrister and a constituency MP, I beg to differ. Who, then, are the economic migrants? I recall, in the late 1960s, speaking to the then Immigration Minister, who had just visited Bangladesh. He had asked a large assembly of villagers how many would like to settle in the UK. A high proportion raised their hands. He, although of a very liberal and open disposition, was forced to reflect on his position.
The blunt truth is that we are a small island that is highly attractive to those around the world who have disadvantaged lives. We are overcrowded compared even with France. We in the UK and Europe cannot reasonably be expected to accept all those who suffer the effects of civil war. We could not, for example, accept the whole Tamil population of Sri Lanka after the troubles there. The number of Nigerians affected by the atrocities of Boko Haram can reasonably be expected to move elsewhere in Nigeria.
Clearly we cannot expect to have an open-door policy. If Germany and Sweden have until recently appeared to have had such, it can clearly affect us through secondary migration. It is claimed, for example, that many Somalis from the relatively peaceful Somaliland see Sweden as a staging post en route to the UK, where, understandably, they wish to join well-established communities. Do the Government have any concern about the ultimate intention of migrants who migrate to Sweden and Germany? Clearly, co-ordination at European level is vital. We should not pursue a narrow, unilateralist policy, which would only harm our broad negotiating position on EU reform.
If we are to have a coherent immigration policy in general, we must have a prioritised system. We must be firm on those migrants, however poor, from countries where there is peace. Those from the Balkans, for example, cannot use this emergency to jump on the Syrian bandwagon. The position of refugees is wholly different—in the case of Syria and some other countries, for example, where we have convention obligations. We must use all our compassion and experience from history to help this tragic people.
If the presumption must be against accepting migrants from safe countries, except those within the accepted current criteria, we must be generous to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. We see in Syria devastated cities, the effects of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and of the medieval brutality of ISIS. We have responded magnificently in financial terms, providing up to £1 billion. Yet, the UN has received only $1.67 billion of the $4.6 billion it needs this year. We must encourage those countries that are failing in their response. The UN humanitarian agencies are now overwhelmed. Will the Government join those who argue that such agencies should receive assessed mandatory contributions, as is the case with the regular UN budget?
What has been the response of the UK? After a bad start, the Prime Minister has had to respond more generously. If he rightly criticises other EU countries on their financial contributions, he should expect criticism from them on the numbers that he is prepared to receive. It is not either/or. The Prime Minister is right to concentrate on the solution for Syria, but for him to focus on the camps alone causes problems as certain minorities—Christians and Yazidis—are often excluded. There is an element of haste about his response, so that he is talking to local authorities only after the announcement. We have heard today about the gold command team. What is the structure underneath that at the regional level?
The UN speech by Mr Juncker on 9 September was a more generous note, but it begs many questions as to how the 160,000 refugees will be assessed, how many will be repatriated and so on. I notice that Australia has agreed to 12,000 refugees and the US 10,000, yet Saudi Arabia and the Gulf none. What are the prospects of the international community shaming the Saudis and their neighbours into a more positive response to their co-religionists?
One final thought: we are now seeing a new and widespread global migration. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan may be the first, but there are many failed states on the horizon—Libya, Yemen and certain west African countries are already in that category. We must surely be prepared, with the international community, to meet potentially even greater challenges to our hospitality and principles. At present it is Hispanics from central and South America seeing the US as the promised land; Afghans looking to Australia; Burmese Rohingya Muslims fleeing south; or those from the Middle East and north Africa looking to Europe. The world is far from finding a solution to these increasing migratory flows.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord. I agree with so much of what he said, most especially the fact that the Government’s concentration on the refugee camps in Lebanon is necessary but insufficient. The noble Baroness’s speech, effective as it was, nevertheless concentrated on that as a cover for doing so little in this appalling humanitarian catastrophe that Europe is now experiencing. I declare an interest as the president of UNICEF UK.
It is not just the fact that many of us regard the Government’s policy towards this catastrophe as morally deficient, rather that it is also logically totally inconsistent. Take the Government’s main argument: that if we help the asylum seekers we will encourage more. That was the discreditable argument that the Government put to us last December, when they said that if we stopped refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the consequence would be that we would have more. It was an immoral policy and one very soon discredited, as the Government saw.
A few months into the new year, as many of us predicted, we discovered that it did not stop more coming. More came, even more came, and even more drowned. Then the Government acted. They sent Her Majesty’s Ship “Bulwark” to save them. By the way, they saved them from the Mediterranean and then dumped them on the European mainland, where they were abandoned for Europe to deal with. We got the bit that attracts all the attention—the rescue by one of Her Majesty’s ships—but Britain had no part when it came to doing something to give them a future. One presumes that the Government decided to send HMS “Bulwark” and the other naval units to save people in the Mediterranean because they were convinced of the argument that it did not encourage others. How can it be logical for the Government to say that they sent HMS “Bulwark” to save people from the Mediterranean because it does not encourage further refugees, but they will not help those crossing the Aegean because it does? These two facts seem completely inconsistent.
The Government fail to understand the true nature of what is going on when it comes to asylum seekers. The Government think that to seek asylum is a discretionary activity: that you do it if you can be helped and you will not if you cannot. The Prime Minister seems to believe that to be an asylum seeker is rather like going to the theatre—that one does not do it unless one has a ticket. The reality is that it is not like that at all. These families are living in hell. They are living with the barrel bombs of Assad on the one side and the whetted knife of ISIL on the other. You do not have to provide them with bliss for them to want to flee from hell. It is not that they are drawn to us by the welcome; it is that they are drawn away from the terrible circumstances in which they find themselves.
If noble Lords listen to the Minister’s speech, and that of the Prime Minister, they will come to a second inconsistency. The Prime Minister’s Statement—the noble Baroness used the same argument—says:
“The whole country has been deeply moved by the heart-breaking images that we have seen over the past few days”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/15; col. 23.]
We know what those images were: they were that dreadful image of the body of a small child being carried up from the beach. One would think that if the Prime Minister prays in aid that tragedy his policy that follows would address it, but it does not. The Government then announce a set of policies that would have done nothing for that small, tragic figure, or, indeed, for the thousands—the hundreds at least—who still follow him and the many, presumably, who still die. If, indeed, the Government are genuinely moved by the plight of those shown in that picture—one suspects that their reaction might have been due to the fact that the picture appeared on the front page of the Sun, but perhaps that is an unworthy thought—they should let their policy address that crisis. However, they did not do so, and that was the case with the subsequent tragedies that occurred. This seems to me curious, to put it mildly.
The next curiosity about the Government’s policy is that although they have offered to take 4,000 refugees a year—Germany by the way is taking 800,000—which is rather fewer people than arrive on the Greek islands in one weekend, the vast majority of their effort is poured into the refugee camps in Lebanon. That is fine. Who can oppose that? Who can oppose providing resources for that? But here is the paradox: at a time when we are experiencing a tidal wave of asylum seekers from the tragedy in Syria, the Government put most of their energy into the camps where there are no asylum seekers at all. Indeed, those in the camps are well housed, well fed and secure. They are not comfortable; of course, they are not. Why do the Government do so much to help those who are not suffering from lack of shelter, accommodation and security, but do nothing for those who are desperate and, indeed, dying for want of those things and are tramping towards us in Europe? How can that be a logical approach to this crisis?
I sometimes wonder whether it is not the word “suffering” to which the Government object but rather “Europe”, because the one thing they will not do is anything which puts them in concert with our European allies as that would create all sorts of problems with their own Back Benches. Perhaps that, too, is an unworthy thought, but what explanation is there other than the fact that they will not contribute to alleviating a European crisis and will not join a European strategy? If that is the case, and perhaps we are right to be suspicious that it is, those terrible desperate thousands tramping across the dusty roads of the Balkans towards us are hostages of the Conservative Government’s right-wing Europhobes on their own Back Benches. If that is so, and one suspects it may be, then, irony of irony, they are hostages of the very people that the Prime Minister is hostage of as well.
Of course we should put money into these camps; it is necessary. However, it is not sufficient. Yes, we can be proud of what we have done to help those refugee camps but we should be ashamed of how little we have done—almost nothing—for the tide of asylum seekers who look to us for support and help. Here is the third odd thing about the Government’s policies. We, too, have our refugee problem. We have 3,000 banging on the gates of the Channel Tunnel. Whether that is a large or small number when measured against Germany’s 800,000 or the 60,000, 70,000 or 80,000 going to France depends on your point of view. However, this problem—theirs and ours—can be solved only within a European strategy. It cannot be solved by our acting unilaterally and alone, as we are doing. The only way this can be solved is by working together with our European partners. It is the only way it can be done, but this is the very thing the Government will not do. In not doing it, they act against this country’s best interests, diminish our Prime Minister’s bargaining power in Europe to get the kind of deal he wants and act contrary to the values of this country and against its noble traditions. In that blindness, they also miss one other fact: these refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Germany are all desperate but are not poor or uneducated. These are the educated people, the Ugandan Asians of our day. The German Government are happy to welcome them; of course, they are. Have noble Lords noticed how many of them can speak English? These people would benefit our country in the future.
I am not pretending for one second that this is not an immensely difficult problem to solve; of course, it is. It is a very difficult problem to solve. We will have to discuss it and come to measured and difficult agreements on this. Perhaps we will have to adapt some of the principles that we are now applying, but let us do so as Europeans together and keeping in touch with European principles of decency and humanity as much as we can.
We are moving into very turbulent times. This is a problem for the future as well. It is going to be much larger when global warming takes place. We have to start considering this in a more measured way than this Government are doing. I do not think there are many lights that will guide us through the years to come except our wisdom and humanity. It is a shame indeed that the Government’s policies in this matter are inconsistent, illogical, against our country’s best interests and counter to our traditions and values and I, for one, with some regret, have to say that they are morally shameful.
My Lords, the humanitarian emergency which is engulfing the whole of Europe is a complex and accumulative one—a phenomenon that has been building up for several years. If we have been taken by surprise, it is only because we were unwilling to face up to realities before they broke over our heads. It is a phenomenon which goes much wider than one country, Syria, and the refugees fleeing for their lives from the civil war there. Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Eritreans and Yemenis also meet the criteria for asylum under the UN refugee convention and we have an obligation to be willing in principle to offer them refuge. So our response needs to be as complex as the phenomenon itself. So far that response, like that of some other European countries, has been patchy and inadequate and has fallen well short of the needs of the situation. To use the words of the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, it has been thin.
Clearly, there needs to be a stronger, more powerful political response to the factors driving the current emergency: a more robust and better co-ordinated military effort against IS, including, I suggest, an extension of our air strikes into IS-controlled parts of Syria; a revived effort to bring about a UN-sponsored settlement in Libya, which could well require some deployment of UN peacekeepers; stronger support for the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan in their fight against their respective Taliban opponents and a readiness to renew the moribund efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria. None of that activity will produce quick results, but without it we will continue to be like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the holes in a dyke.
On the most immediate and pressing problem of the handling of asylum-seeking refugees, I fear that we have not yet begun to find the right response, even if the Government’s reversal last week of their earlier unwillingness expressed in a debate on 22 July—the last day before the Summer Recess—voluntarily to take in more Syrian refugees is welcome. However, the numbers—20,000 over five years—are still pitifully small and compare poorly with the offers of others such as France and, above all, Germany. Why do we limit the offer to Syrians alone when there are many others such as Afghans and Iraqis persecuted by IS with every bit as strong a claim to our refuge? Why do we insist on extending our offer only to those in camps around Syria’s border and excluding all those who have risked their lives to get to Europe? On that point I share entirely the views of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown.
The arguments about a pull factor are highly theoretical and are pretty unconvincing in the circumstances that now prevail. I hope that, in replying to the debate, the Minister will say that the Government will look again at all those issues. The Government have expressed pride, and rightly so, in the massive resources we have contributed from the aid budget to the refugees in camps around Syria’s border. The substantial increase in those resources now announced is particularly welcome, but more of those resources need to be devoted to education, health and the creation of economic opportunities for those in the camps—I was glad to hear the Minister recognise that—if the present precarious situation is not to become even more unstable and to feed further flows towards Europe. I hope the Minister can say a little more, when she winds up the debate, on those longer-term issues.
I will say a word about the European Union dimension to all this. Of course the European Union has not covered itself in glory in handling this emergency in recent months. There has been too much dither and prevarication. I remain doubtful that mandatory quotas are either desirable or viable. A much-enhanced voluntary effort is, however, essential, and I hope we will play a larger and more constructive role in that. I also hope that we will increase our contribution to FRONTEX and will be prepared to give asylum to some of those flooding into other European countries. If we want others to respond positively to our positions and our priorities for European policy, we would do well to respond positively to theirs.
In conclusion, this is a rapidly moving humanitarian emergency which still has far to run. We need flexible and humane responses, not ones driven by populist scare stories and xenophobic prompting. I hope that the Government will display that flexibility and will be ready to adjust our responses as the situation develops and demands.
My Lords, I shall make a couple of comments and invite the House to think a little about the humanitarian basis of this debate.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said, and the Minister said in her introduction, the scale is unprecedented in our times. The challenge, therefore, to be nimble is very great. I applaud the Government for the amount of investment that has been made in refugees and migrants. I also applaud the Government’s scheme to target the most vulnerable, including victims of sexual violence and torture, the elderly and the disabled. However, I agree with Lord Ashdown that because of the unprecedented scale we need to be generous in our approach and spirit. It is interesting that in the Financial Times today—as some noble Lords may have noticed—a number of senior business people in the City say that we should welcome migrants because of the skills shortage that our country faces. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, stated, there are many skilled and able people looking to come into Europe.
In Derby, where I work, we already have many migrants and the pressure on our inner-city infrastructure is enormous. Yet people are keen for us to be generous and to do what we can to reach out to people in such need. Churches are on the front line, administering to those who have already arrived. We have more than 600 people waiting for decisions on asylum applications. So we need to get organised if we are to take any more people. On 2 October we are organising a summit in our cathedral for MPs, local government people, faith groups and civil society, so that we can help the energy to prepare and be generous become organised and make a proper offer.
I invite the House to think briefly about the humanitarian basis of this debate and of our country’s policy. I am privileged to be a trustee of Christian Aid, which for 70 years has been reaching into these situations, and which began—you may remember—by helping refugees and migrants within Europe. Christian Aid is especially involved with those who are still in Syria. It tends to be the better-off and the well-organised who are leaving and the poorest of the poor who are left. I ask the Minister to consider—she mentioned this—how we can continue to encourage investment within Syria to help the most needy as well as those who are leaving.
My main point is about the humanitarian understanding of this debate. Humanitarianism is really based on the Christian understanding in Europe of the unique value of every person in the sight of God. In our modern, secular times that has become the human right of each individual. Because—sadly, I say, in brackets—it lacks the Christian understanding of sin, forgiveness, sacrifice and things that nuance that attempt at equality, it just becomes a simple right. It is a common secular theology in Europe that every human being is unique and precious, and that we should reach out to them, which is why the spirit of generosity is rising up in people.
We have seen what is happening with ISIL: the beheadings; the horrific and systematic sexual violence; the selling of women and girls, especially from the Yazidi tribe; stories of fighters buying young girls for as little as £16, abusing them and selling them on. I heard yesterday of a girl of 10 who died from internal injuries because she was raped so often by her captors. I heard another story of an ISIL fighter, who, before he rapes a girl, kneels down and prays, because he believes that he is fulfilling the will of God. I share these horrific stories because the people who ISIL are recruiting are being recruited to found a new state. It is a state based on those kinds of values, which are horrific for women and girls and for violence against the enemy. Those values are totally incompatible with what we in Europe understand as humanitarian. This is a bold attempt to establish a whole state and society on values contrary to the Christian ones, which, in their secular mode, are recognised throughout the world under the banner of human rights.
So there is an urgent challenge to us all—in this Chamber, in our Parliament and through our Government—to, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown said, cohere with Europe around a set of values that are humanitarian, whether we are of a religious or a secular background, because those values are vital to human beings being seen as unique and precious. We face a very well-organised and well-funded organisation that is trying to set up a state on a totally different and contrary basis. I encourage the Government to engage clearly with the organisation of aid and generosity towards refugees in such great need but also to take a lead in Europe in reaffirming our common European, Christian-based values about the rights of every person to be treated generously when in need, and as a unique and precious individual.
My Lords, if one is setting off on a journey, it is a privilege to be sent off by a bishop. I thank the right reverend Prelate for the quality of his colourful send-off. I shall use his book Thomas Hobbes and the Limits of Democracy as a gazetteer for my return to private life.
Fourteen years ago, in October, in my maiden speech, I did not use my allotted span, but this evening I hope that I shall not unduly claim it back. Indeed, I must apologise for having proved, over the years, to be a lineal descendant of Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale”, whose most famous line is as,
“a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”.
I hope that the time left to me enables me to press for one practical point of information in this debate, and another final proposal within valediction. On the former, I am relieved that—once a Whip always a Whip—I share Her Majesty’s Government’s analysis of Britain’s current obligations and intentions in the present crisis. Her Majesty’s Government favour a Syrian-based, UN-assisted operation, one criticised by others in that it omits those migrants in transit. I should declare an interest—as I always do in charity-oriented debates—in that I control two small charities within the Charities Aid Foundation. With the national and international charities under the Disasters Emergency Committee now in double figures, small charities like mine are under constant pressure for donations, in present circumstances, from Sierra Leone in Africa to Syria in the Middle East, with the transit migrants in between. One significant and common, but not universal, factor that recurs is these mega-charities explaining to us that Her Majesty’s Government are doubling up the proceeds of their current appeal. However, this information always comes haphazardly from the charities and not from Her Majesty’s Government. It would greatly help if Her Majesty’s Government, or the DEC, would not only announce the practice regularly but say why they are helping a particular appeal in this way. Is it just to secure leverage or is it a method of research to test which appeals have specific public support, or both? Is it to establish a pecking order of need? Whichever it is, it makes for an inefficient map among small charities of where their money can make the most difference. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can shed illumination on this dilemma.
As to valediction, in my maiden speech in 2001 I paid the habitual tribute to the help afforded by the staff of your Lordships’ House in welcoming us. Fourteen years later, I quote the Queen of Sheba’s tribute in the First Book of Kings, chapter 10, verse 7:
“Behold, the half was not told me”.
My gratitude to the staff was beyond the telling of it. However, I have one suggestion to make in departure about those of us who contribute to the work of your Lordships’ House in this Chamber, the Moses Room and the committee rooms upstairs.
In the interests of brevity, I shall take the liberty of infringing the rubric in this final speech to call my parents just that, rather than having the mild confusion between “my late noble kinsman” and “my late noble relative”. They were, however, in 1966—seven centuries after Simon de Montfort’s Parliament—the first couple to sit on the Front Bench together in either House, although non-partisan honesty obliges me to say that they did so in opposition in the Lords whereas, within a year, Dr Dunwoody and his wife, Gwyneth, also did it together but in their case in government, and in the Commons, which was a no-trumps victory. It is in this instance ironic that when at home in the 1960s and 1970s I heard my parents discussing which professions were missing from your Lordships’ House, a key gap was then Dr Dunwoody’s own profession of doctor—since then remedied, of course.
Those of us who are retiring under the new dispensation will be doing so from a variety of motivations but there may be a common sense of regret or loss. One use of the new valedictory principle may be to allow a departing Peer to nominate their private hope of how his or her gap may be filled. It would have no statutory significance but may be interesting for those making selections later. For myself, I once followed my noble friend Lord Waldegrave as Civil Science Minister, when both of us had been classicists. He was far superior to me in both disciplines. Although I am conscious that in my time my party has produced the Chamber’s archaeologist and the Chamber’s vet, I am less conscious of our having produced a pure scientist. That would thus be my own nomination. If pure scientists prefer the Cross Benches perhaps, in the wake of the departure of my noble friend Lord Jenkin, we could at least have someone who had played a significant part in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.
Finally, as I come, after 38 years and 10 Parliaments, to what those who have ever sung “Abide With Me” in French will recall is known as le dernier rendezvous, I remember that my predecessor in the Commons—who was likewise the predecessor of my noble friend Lord Tugendhat—the late John Smith of Smith Square, the founder of the Landmark Trust, said that of all the human groups with which he had been associated, whether in school or university, in the army or in business, the one of which he was fondest were his colleagues in the House of Commons. Of course, he never came here and thus missed the spell of your Lordships’ House.
In closing, let me above all say—in familiar and oft-repeated words—thank you. I have been ever conscious of the hazards of such words since a member of my family wrote to me and said:
“The school did ‘Hamlet’ last week. Most of the parents had seen it before, but they laughed just the same”.
In this instance, the words of gratitude are wholly genuine and most enthusiastically true.
My Lords, I hope that I may be permitted a little extra time to pay what I fear will be an inadequate tribute to my noble friend who has just made his valedictory speech. I feel certain that I am not alone in feeling immensely sad that he is leaving after distinguished service in both Houses and making a contribution not just to politics but, among other things, to the national heritage, the arts, historic churches, charities and, of course, cricket. The tributes paid to him from all parts of the House yesterday after the Statement on Northern Ireland were an indication of the value of his work there as Secretary of State at a most difficult time. We are to be deprived of his wisdom but, perhaps even more, we will miss his wit and those historic and political anecdotes, of which he seemed to have a perfect recall and an endless supply. We wish him and his family many happy and peaceful years, in which I hope he will be able to pursue his passion for the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Over 30 years ago, I bathed from deserted beaches on the island of Lesbos; today, lifejackets discarded by refugees cover the beaches. Lesbos has received about half of the 250,000 refugees who have reached Greece this year. The local population seems overwhelmed, threatened and increasingly angry. Similar scenes are found on Kos, where the body of that little boy was found, and on other Greek islands. Many of those who have risked the crossing, and a good many who have died, had been living in safety in Turkey but had obtained sufficient funds to pay the criminals to escape from the camps to what they believed would be a better life in Europe. I am sure that the Government are right to concentrate on those who are identified as most vulnerable by the UNHCR. That is the way to provide hope to those in greatest need, without simply providing an opportunity for exploitation and adding to the death toll. The Government have been right, too, and deserve great credit for the way in which they have directed this country’s massive financial contribution towards providing food, shelter, education and medical assistance to those in the camps. I particularly welcome the Prime Minister’s important speech in Lebanon this weekend, in which he committed further aid to Lebanon and to the 1.1 million people in the camps there.
Critics argue that the policy may be right but the numbers are inadequate. The target is likely to provide a considerable challenge to the UNHCR, to our own officials and to local authorities. One thing seems certain: over a five-year period, the situation will change. I hope that the Government will not set the target in stone. I was pleased that on 8 September my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said that it was,
“an evolving situation and the Government will continue to review the situation in terms of numbers”.—[Official Report, 8/9/15; col. 1316.]
I must press Ministers for greater clarity about the plight of Christians who cannot be in the camps because of attacks by Islamists.
The Prime Minister, on 7 September, and the Home Secretary, in her speech the next day, did not say that those to be admitted would come only from the camps but a briefing note from the Whips’ Office uses the phrase “straight from the camps”. There have to be exceptions. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said last week, in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that all minorities suffering such persecution,
“will be dealt with in the proper way, by ensuring that their vulnerabilities are protected and they are given the protection they deserve”.—[Official Report, 9/9/15; col. 1432.]
That did not offer much enlightenment. Pressed by my noble friend Lady Rawlings, the Minister said that “the plight of Christians” and other minorities “is being discussed”. On Monday, after the Statement, my noble friend the Leader of the House said, in answer to a question from the Archbishop of Canterbury, that,
“this is something for us to discuss with the UNHCR”.—[Official Report, 7/9/15; col. 1260.]
I hope that the Minister will be able to give us more information this evening and that Parliament will be kept fully informed of the outcome of the discussions.
The vulnerable are not confined to Syria and its borders. There were questions last week about the horrors taking place in the Sudan. Would I be right in thinking that these cases will be dealt with under the normal asylum procedures? Last year, 120,000 refugees were living in the UK, and 25,000 entered the asylum system seeking asylum in this country.
I have concentrated on vulnerable refugees: the 4 million in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the more than 6 million displaced from their homes but still in Syria itself and those fleeing from brutal regimes in Africa. Like the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I believe that the situation created by the flood of economic migrants who have been pouring into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa is different. They have been coming in numbers that, taken together with the real refugees, are likely to have profound social, cultural, religious and economic consequences and create growing tension. We have to pursue policies that will discourage and reverse that floodtide of economic migrants. I support the Government’s policy, including the measures described by the Home Secretary last week, their refusal to take part in a European quota system and the new naval activity off the Libyan coast, for which I understand that we are now seeking United Nations approval so that we can deal with some of the criminal gangs before they take refugees on board.
Population densities, birth rates and job opportunities vary enormously from country to country. Germany, with a declining birth rate, wants more skilled and educated workers. Britain is densely populated and has absorbed a very large increase in immigrant numbers, so that facilities are strained. Even Germany temporarily closed its borders this week, and other countries in Europe are closing theirs.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, called for a more measured approach. His was a pretty emotional diatribe which offered few measured solutions.
I conclude by noting that Jordan has been remarkably successful in creating a buffer zone in southern Syria where large numbers of refugees have gathered in their own country. It would be an important step if it was possible to create a similar secure buffer zone in north-west Syria, and hugely helpful if the Gulf states, in addition to providing financial support, would take immigrants to ease the burden falling on Lebanon, in particular. As my noble friend suggested in opening this debate, other countries outside Europe need to play a much larger part.
My Lords, let me first pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. Knowing him has been one of the great pleasures of my life here and I shall always cherish his friendship and his wit.
Let me try a completely different and somewhat utopian solution to the problem at hand. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said at the beginning, this problem has been going on for a long time. The war in the Middle East has been going on since, I think, 1973, but if not, at least since the beginning of this century. It will go on, it is not going to end. We are witnessing the consequences of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire 100 years down the line, and they are not going to go away.
I think that the European Union can solve the problem, but it cannot necessarily accommodate all the people who are going to come. Indeed, it is a travesty for the European Union to believe that it has done anything to solve the problem. It is Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey who have housed more refugees than Europe has done or will ever do.
My solution is the following—it is very utopian, I agree. The European Union should go to the United Nations and propose a global solution to the refugee problem. There are sparsely populated countries in central Asia: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and so on. Their population density is one-hundredth of the population density in Europe. I would like the United Nations to arrange a transfer of as many migrants and refugees as possible, with the co-operation of those countries, to settle them in those countries. The European Union should provide financial support and encouragement for that.
As the noble Baroness said, the UK’s contribution to humanitarian aid has been fantastic, whatever people may say about our ability or willingness to have people come here. Europe’s strength is in resources—money—and diplomatic clout. Europe should go to the United Nations and propose that global solution with the co-operation of the receiving countries. We can then transfer a lot of people from Lebanon, Jordan or wherever to those countries. They are Muslim countries. These are co-religionists of the people leaving Syria and Iraq.
Everybody will tell me that that is not possible, but what is the House of Lords for if not to propose utopian solutions? That is my solution, and I hope that someone takes it up. If anyone wants more information, I can give it to them, but if I stop here, I will contribute three minutes to the debate this evening, and that is more valuable than anything I have said.
My Lords, first, I associate those of us on these Benches with the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. We have appreciated all that he has done, especially for Northern Ireland, over the past years.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, spoke of the Middle East crisis starting in the 1940s or 1950s. I go back to biblical times. It has been there for at least 3,000 years, and the migration of the people of Israel from Egypt to the promised land is one of the first major migrations that we have heard about. I am told that about 50 million people in the world today can be put in the class of migrants. It happens in many places and over the years.
One of the first things that happened when I was a child—I do not quite remember it—was the influx of people from Germany into the UK in the late 1930s. Then there was what happened during and after the war: the migration from Poland and Germany. People went in their millions from one part of the world to the other. Then we had the division in the Indian subcontinent. It has been part of our lives to see people going from one part of the world to another. Every time, our hearts have bled. The world and the centuries go on. We know that 200 years ago, the total population of the world was 1 billion people. Today we are 7 billion people. In future, that will grow. It is a problem for our children and grandchildren. We must pray that they have the grace and the wisdom to tackle these problems in a more effective way than we have.
The Arab spring has become the Arab winter. There have been one or two biblical references here this evening. I think of the parable of the good Samaritan. On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, that poor guy was left at the side of the road and two very important establishment figures passed by. I am told that when they got to Jericho, they set up a committee to defend travellers on that dangerous road, but they left the poor guy at the side of the road. The person who is praised, of course, is the one who took responsibility and took this person to an inn, cared for him and paid for him. That is what we must do. The basics have been spoken of this evening. When we see the pictures of thousands and thousands of people trudging along those railway tracks and along those roads; when we hear of the immense amount of money that has been spent in order to get a place on a boat that will bring them to some sort of hope, and how that hope is often just shattered, we look at this and say, “Is there anything preventing us from playing our full part and being the Samaritans on this occasion?”. How can we look at these people without thinking what it would be like to walk in their shoes? What would our children and grandchildren be like in all that suffering that is going on at this very moment as we are having this debate?
We owe a great debt to Angela Merkel, who has contributed so brilliantly to this situation. I would also like to quote Edward Kennedy’s words:
“But we can perhaps remember—even if only for a time—that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek—as we do—nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness; winning what satisfaction and fulfilment they can”.
It is personal; it is a situation that makes us all weep. The Government do not realise that. I must not take up too much time, but what have we done? Okay, we are going to take 20,000 people over five years. That is 4,000 people a year, probably mainly in the same families. That is 1,400 or 1,500 families a year. The figures of the United Nations on Syrian refugees say there are 4,015,256 registered Syrian refugees. Can we not do better than 1,400 families a year? I am sure we can and that our people want us to have the hearts and the emotions of the Samaritans, not those who walk on the other side. I beg—I really do—those who have any influence with the Government on this matter: please remember that you are not speaking for the people of the UK. They have marched, held protest meetings and contributed. We want to be with them.
Finally, when they come here, as I hope they will, I hope they will find a hospitable immigration regime. I hope we will be able to allow them to work and not to have them in indefinite detention. I hope we will not send their youngsters back when they reach 18. There is a lot that we can do and a lot that our moral convictions oblige us to do, so we must be a welcoming people. Looking round the Chamber, I do not know where everybody here comes from, but I know that we are not people from our own areas. We have all been migrants or refugees at one time or another, so we should stretch out our hands and say, “Okay, we want to continue this, to bring hope to those whose lives are so hopeless and helpless at the present time”.
My Lords, as a former chairman of Medical Aid for Palestinians, I cannot let this debate pass without expressing my strong concern about the appalling humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and even more so in Gaza. They seem to have been tolerated—even ignored—for far too long by much of the international community. Today, however, I want to focus on Syria, a country whose affairs I have followed from a distance for nearly 50 years. I do not claim to go back to biblical times, but I was also there in fairly recent times as ambassador.
Humanitarian aid is essential, but it is also sticking plaster if we fail to achieve some kind of political settlement in that country and its region. What we are witnessing in Syria now is not just a humanitarian disaster: it is a destruction of an entire society, as indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, recognised. It is curious that for so long, Syrians have taken a pride in the diversity of their country, in their remarkable history and, unusually in the Arab world, in their links to Europe. However, they have had a very tough regime which did not hesitate to imprison them and even torture them if there was any opposition. People have lived in fear for 40 years of some six competing intelligence services, but they adjusted to it. The regime’s deal was this: stay out of politics, pay bribes as necessary and we will leave you alone. Another part of the deal, which is not often recognised outside of Syria, is that there was genuine freedom of religion and quite remarkable opportunities for women. That was far from perfect, but a million miles from today’s disaster.
Those of us who are concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Middle East have to be very careful about what we now advocate. In particular, calls for the overthrow of the present regime are extremely unwise, as my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond has pointed out on many occasions. Let us be clear: the regime and its supporters are by no means all Alawites, and they are fighting—literally—for their survival. A collapse of the regime would lead to the most appalling revenge killings on all sides, and total chaos would result. The fall of the regime would be an enormous psychological and religious boost to ISIL, which is our main enemy in that region. What is more, it is the most ruthless movement among the opposition movements, and it will be bound to increase its power in that region, and perhaps even come to dominate much of what is now Syria. Humanitarian efforts are, of course, essential, but they risk being blown apart by the misdirected policy on the part of western nations.
Fortunately, perhaps, Russia and Iran have signalled very clearly that they can see the dangers and they are striving to avoid them. If we are really concerned about the terrible humanitarian situation in Syria and its neighbours, we must press for some kind of modus vivendi among those groups in Syria that share our overriding concern about ISIL. It is ISIL that poses the most serious threat to the region, to British interests at home and abroad, and to any prospect of improving the humanitarian situation in the Middle East. For goodness’ sake, let us keep our eye on the ball.
My Lords, on returning home on Saturday evening, I switched on my television to catch up on the news, but instead caught the revellers at the Last Night of the Proms, singing:
“Land of Hope and Glory, mother of the free”.
It rather upset me in the circumstances. Sadly, we no longer have cause to be proud of ourselves as a nation after the last few weeks. In the eyes of the world, I am sorry to say, the Conservatives have turned the nasty party into a nasty Government, with their failure to act quickly in the present humanitarian crisis. On reflection, however, I do not entirely share that view; I hope to be constructive, and I commend the Prime Minister for his visit this week to the Middle East and refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
Last year, I visited Zaatari camp in Jordan and this year I saw several camps and enclaves of refugees in Lebanon, a country which has taken more than 25% of its population again as refugees in the last few years—a burden it simply cannot bear. These countries, together with Turkey, have taken hundreds of thousands of people, while UNRWA, which deals with Palestinian refugees, and UNHCR, which deals with the others from Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, are chronically underfunded. I congratulate our Government on being the second largest donor to UNRWA after the United States of America, but it is not nearly enough. That is the problem. Most refugees want a safe place to protect and feed their families until they return home, but the camps are overflowing and life in most of them is very grim. The fitter and braver ones head for Europe—and who can blame them? Our response should be on three fronts.
First, it is not enough to take a few selected families to come and live here. They are safe in the camps and should stay there. We should take the number requested of us and there must be European Union agreement on this. The United States of America should be involved and also the United Nations. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, who has left the Chamber, recognised this as a global problem and of course it is. This evening I heard that refugees have been tear-gassed at the borders of Hungary with Serbia. We should be ashamed of what is going on in our continent.
Secondly—this is my main request—we and our allies must step up the funding to UNHCR and UNRWA immediately, and ensure that those bodies can do a much better job as long as is necessary. It needs action by the USA, the UN and our country to raise the estimated £2 billion now needed for a really good network of safe, well-run camps in the Middle East allowing people to stay close to home. As the Minister said, this could ensure that the children in particular receive proper food and education, and safety from the traffickers, over the next few years. It could prevent young people being attracted by extremist groups. I know that both suggestions are very expensive but remind the House that Trident costs £2 billion a year simply to maintain, and replacement would cost probably a hundred or two hundred times that amount—I do not know. We have the money. I know where I would rather spend it.
Thirdly, and as the noble Lord, Lord Green, mentioned, before the civil war, there were refugees from Palestine all over the Middle East. More than half a million were in Syria, looked after by UNRWA there. They had been looked after for decades. I have been unable to establish how many Palestinians are among the people fleeing Syria at this time, but have the Government pointed out those Palestinians to the state of Israel? More than 26,000 people were immigrants into Israel and welcomed last year alone, mostly from affluent countries, so apparently it has the room and wealth to cope also with refugees. Last week on “Thought for the Day”, I heard the Chief Rabbi express quite rightly what I have experienced: the generosity of the Jewish people. He called for a paradigm shift in the response to this crisis. Finally, here is Israel’s opportunity. Give Palestinians fleeing war once again the right to return. Sadly, miracles no longer happen.
My Lords, the Syrian humanitarian crisis and the international response are moving at an incredible pace. Only last week, Germany had something of an open-door policy towards refugees, yet this week Schengen has been suspended there and in Austria. Hungary and, tonight, Slovenia have closed their borders. Now new routes are already opening up as refugees and migrants try to circumvent barriers in their path. I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on what the European Union has done so far to help the Balkan countries cope with what could be the new reality there.
There is an urgent need for the international community to get ahead of the crisis on all fronts, rather than repeatedly playing catch-up. In that regard I will make three brief points. First, we must assume that we have not yet seen the worst of the crisis. Food rations for refugees have been cut dramatically. According to the World Food Programme, a Syrian refugee receives $13 per month—that is, 50 cents a day—to eat and survive on. The UN has warned that a further 1 million Syrians could soon be displaced by violence. Winter is coming, inevitably producing further human suffering. The massive shortfall in aid risks a crisis of even greater proportions, as people leave both Syria and regional camps in search of safety. After four years in which the gap between the aid that is needed and that which is provided has grown, surely the time has come to name and shame the countries that are not pulling their weight—unlike Britain.
Secondly, this crisis will not be resolved by mass resettlement. Neither we nor Europe as a whole can receive all the Syrian people who seek security. Even if we were to empty Syria entirely, the threat to the region and to our own security would not go away. The only way to end the human suffering and protect our own security is by taking the diplomatic route, possibly without preconditions, and by being prepared to back that diplomacy with the threat of hard power if necessary. When a policy pursued is not working—and I would argue that the current policy is not—we should have the courage to admit that, examine the reasons for its failure and come up with a better one. British diplomacy excels in putting forward workable solutions to complex crises in conflict. We saw it in the Balkans only 20 years ago, in our lifetime. Therefore, I hope that at the UN General Assembly next week in New York, we will see Britain actively and visibly putting forward new proposals with our allies for how to achieve a negotiated solution and a political settlement that brings stability and security, justice and accountability. There is a great need for that visible leadership and diplomatic momentum. Therefore, I hope that the United Kingdom will advocate and secure a visit by the United Nations Security Council to the region to see the humanitarian impact of the crisis and begin to build diplomatic consensus as an important practical and symbolic gesture. It is astonishing that, after more than four years of conflict, the UN Security Council, the very body that bears the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, has not done that yet.
Thirdly, we will need as much leadership and political will as we can muster in the coming months, and Parliament has a crucial role to play. Two years ago, there was a vote in the other place on limited and proportionate military action to save lives by deterring further use of chemical weapons in Syria. The coalition Government were defeated. At the time, the so-called ISIS was in its infancy; today it is believed to hold sway over half of Syria’s land mass and is drawing recruits from across the region, from Europe and as far away as Australia. At the time, there were around 1.7 million refugees; today, there are more than 4 million. Then there were 4 million internally displaced persons; today, there are more than 7 million. Who can argue that things are not getting worse and worse by the day? I hope that those who voted against the Motion will ask themselves whether a critically important opportunity to change the course of the conflict was lost. I sincerely hope that, if there is another vote to take strong but necessary action, for the sake of international peace and security and our own common humanity they will not say no again. To stop the Syria free fall, we shall need more than our humanity—we shall need leadership and a plan. Today the world is in desperate need of both.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who always comes to this House well prepared with facts and figures. She usually goes out of her way to try to defend the Government, but she said this evening that our present policy in Syria is not working. That undoubtedly qualifies as the understatement of the evening. Our policy in Syria has been extraordinarily inept and extraordinarily unedifying.
As soon as the insurgency against the regime of Bashar al-Assad started, for some extraordinary reason the Government were determined to get involved with it, and the Prime Minister personally so, it appears. We sort of more or less declared war on Bashar at that point, and we have been in a state of war with him ever since. At the time I thought—and I continue to think—that it was a very bizarre decision. There does not seem to have been any particular national interest of ours in doing that; we should not deploy our forces frivolously. Of course, Bashar is an unpleasant dictator with blood on his hands, and much more blood now as a result of the insurgency against him, of course. But if that was a criterion for taking military action against a regime, we would be involved in at least a dozen wars overnight—all the way from Equatorial Guinea to North Korea—so that cannot be the explanation. We cannot say that we got involved because we wanted to avoid a refugee crisis, because it was the fighting that produced that crisis.
Most peculiarly of all, the decision flew in the face of all the lessons that I thought any sensible person would have learnt from Iraq and Libya—that trying to change regimes in other countries is always a problematic exercise and should never be embarked on unless one has available a viable and credible alternative regime to impose. That was clearly not the case in this situation, so I remain mystified as to why we did it. What is clear is that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, has just said—in words softer than mine, but the meaning is exactly the same—it has been a complete failure. The Government also made series of mistakes in political analysis and seriously underestimated the resilience of the Bashar al-Assad regime. We now find ourselves continuing to fight a war on two fronts in Syria, one a voluntary war started quite gratuitously by ourselves and the other an involuntary war, declared on us and the rest of the western world by Daesh. That is a very serious matter, but it cannot be very clever to engage in two wars at the same time, when one was inevitable.
That is the inept part of the story; the unedifying part of the story is the way in which we have handled the refugee crisis over the past few weeks and months. Until the PR agenda changed—because that is what changed everything, when the picture of the dead child on the beach was all over the newspapers—the Government were taking a very tough line, saying that they were not going to have any significant numbers of Syrian or other refugees here at all. The Government were completely obsessed by maintaining their arbitrary 100,000 person a year immigration total. Then suddenly, because the PR equation changed, they started making all sorts of declarations about receiving refugees and doing something for them. We have actually discovered that what they are doing, which the Prime Minister described as extraordinarily generous, was extraordinarily ungenerous, taking 10,000 or at most 20,000 over five years when other countries, as has already been said in this debate, are taking far more. What is more, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, pointed out very well, we are not actually taking the refugees who are most vulnerable, those who are on the road and have no accommodation or food and are in serious danger of dying on their travels. The refugees in camps are obviously not very comfortable in them, but at least they do not face those threats quite so immediately.
One has to wonder why we have not taken up our quota under the EU system. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said that he thought it was because the Government could not bear to do anything that looked like co-operation with our EU partners, because it would be unpopular with the Eurosceptics. I have to tell him that that is an appalling suspicion to have—that in a matter of life and death a Government would be influenced by party-political considerations of that kind—and I am very sorry to have to say this, but in my heart I cannot think of any other explanation for their conduct.
It is a very unedifying situation, and one in which we have no influence with anybody. We lost a lot of influence with the Americans because the Prime Minister was foolish enough to say to Barack Obama that we would get involved in Syrian operations without mentioning that he needed a House of Commons vote that he was not likely to get. We clearly do not have any influence with the EU now, with the way we have behaved, and we do not have any influence with third parties. That is very important as it is very important in this crisis that we encourage the Gulf states to take refugees from Syria. That is the most obvious solution because those economies are systematically dependent on immigrant labour and they are common cultural and linguistic areas, so it would be an obvious thing to do. But they are not taking any refugees; they are just paying cheques to keep people in camps, just like we are doing. Since we are doing that, we have no influence with them whatever. That is the situation we now find ourselves in.
I do not want to come before the House and just criticise. I want to say a couple of words about what I think we should be doing instead. First, we should regard the Daesh problem as a completely unique situation, which it is. People are fleeing a murderous horde of fanatics who will kill them if they can. We must open our doors and prevent that happening. Secondly, we should under no circumstances allow this to be a precedent, so that anybody who comes from a civil war or an area where there is a lot of violence can immediately claim asylum in the European Union or this country. It is not a realistic possibility. Thirdly, we must look again at the need to co-operate with our European partners. I think Mrs May has learnt the lesson that we cannot just say, “That’s all right—we aren’t in Schengen. We’ve got the Channel, so we don’t have to worry about people in Sangatte”. She has now belatedly realised that Sangatte is a problem for us.
Actually, it is a problem for us if these refugees come into southern Europe or the Balkans. We need to make sure that there are proper controls on the common external frontier. We have every interest in making sure that there is a robust common external frontier. I believe we, together with our EU counter- parts, should invest considerable naval resources in patrolling the Mediterranean to make sure that these poor people coming through on boats run by criminal organisations—criminal gangs in many cases—do not get through to the mainland of the European Union. They are of course rescued and given food and water when necessary, but they are towed back or taken back to Libya, where they mostly come from. We should negotiate, which I am sure is feasible, with the various warlords who now govern the Libyan coastline to enable us to do that. We need to have robust measures where they are required. We need to have a humanitarian response to this completely unique and horrifying Daesh phenomenon, and we need to make sure that in future we have well-thought through and coherent policies in these areas, which we certainly have not had up until the present time.
My Lords, I welcome this debate. The Middle East and north Africa is an area where I have worked and lived in the past decade. Sadly, it is a region where I have seen at first hand a very considerable deterioration of the humanitarian situation. In looking at the causes, the Syrian civil war has to come top of the list. It is a conflict that has now lasted longer than the Spanish civil war and indeed even longer than the First World War. To this can be added the turmoil that has ensued in Libya after the overthrow of the tyrannical rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Thirdly, there is throughout the region a deep-seated regional malaise stemming from the failure of the Arab spring to produce any real advance in reform and representative government.
In looking at the humanitarian situation in the region, I welcome the visit of the Prime Minister earlier this week to Lebanon and Jordan to see for himself the dire situation of Syrian refugees in those countries. He is one of the few European heads of government to have done so. I also pay tribute to the work of DfID in those countries and in the wider Middle East. I hope also that the Prime Minister’s visit will go some way to reducing the toxicity of the refugee issue in much of our media and, sadly, some of our politics. People and, indeed, Governments need to be reminded that 94% of Syrian refugees are living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey with only 6% currently in Europe.
However, that number is likely to increase as the refugees see no hope of a political settlement in Syria and rising instability in the countries of refuge in the region. In Turkey, we have sadly seen yet again renewed conflict between the Government and the Kurds. Lebanon has been without a president for two years, kindling fears that instability from neighbouring Syria could affect it. I remind the Minister that Hezbollah is an active fighter in the conflict in Syria, aiding Assad’s regime, and at any time that could have dire consequences for Lebanon and the refugees sheltering there.
One of the reasons that there is an increased flight of refugees is that Syrians have lost hope in the international community’s ability and, indeed, willingness to make any progress in handling the Syrian crisis.
When we are tasked with taking note of the humanitarian impact of developments in the Middle East, we must remember that we are not talking about a disaster like that which befell the Nepalese people in the earthquake in recent months. This is a man-made catastrophe that requires urgent diplomatic attention. Here I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic. The UN General Assembly meets next week. I expect the Prime Minister, like other heads of government, will be there. We need a diplomatic initiative. This conflict can be solved only through diplomacy, not through military force. Here the Security Council has great responsibility, and because the United Kingdom is one of only five countries that are permanent members of that council, the responsibility is particularly heavy. I hope that the Government, led by the Prime Minister, make some real diplomatic efforts in New York next week.
Lastly, I ask the Minister whether the Government will urge Gulf countries to take Syrian refugees. Their resistance to doing so is not understood in this country or elsewhere in Europe, and could all too easily affect our bilateral relations with the Gulf.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan. I also welcome this debate. Much of what I was going to say has already been said so I will not repeat it, but I want to touch on a few points.
The Minister outlined the catastrophic level of suffering: 12 million people have been forced from their homes. That is more than half the population of Syria. This is a country with one of the most ancient civilisations, and we have been watching it being hollowed out before our very eyes for the past four years. As a result of the conflict there is also widespread unrest in neighbouring countries that for the past four years have absorbed the vast majority of the refugees.
Turkey, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, just mentioned, has close to 3 million refugees now. As a result of the widespread absorption of so many people in such a short time, Turkey has been destabilised, as had been predicted and warned about in previous years. I do not have time to go into the conflicts and challenges faced by people in Turkey, which I know something about and I have been following very closely, but there has been a negative impact. The positive steps to the peace process with the Kurdish community, which we welcomed, now lie in tatters. The landscape there has been irreparably damaged and affected.
Turkey has welcomed those 3 million refugees regardless of their religion. It is a predominantly Muslim country but it has not looked at people’s faith; it has taken in people who have come to their borders. The Turks have opened their borders and been criticised for doing so, but nevertheless they have taken people in.
So neighbouring countries have been absorbing this. For four years it was not a European problem but a regional one, and Europe was quite happy to allow neighbouring countries to bear the brunt of it. However, this has now reached saturation point, and the camps are full and grim. Now that this has come to the shores of Europe, the debate, as the noble Lord has just said, has become quite toxic and at times quite inhumane. I have seen various reports talking about migrants coming here to seek a better life. Can we please be clear? When we talk about Syrians in particular, they are fleeing not only the terrifying barbarity of Daesh; they are also fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons. These are not economic migrants but refugees. The use of the word “migrants” to describe people fleeing Daesh is absurd, inhumane and misleading.
As we have heard, it took a photograph of a little boy on a beach in Turkey to start to change public opinion. I welcome that change—I think that we were all shocked—and it was clear that the outpouring from the British public was different from what we had been hearing from our Government. Many others have drowned, but that one event was a turning point. Far more people are beginning to realise that this is not an immigration problem but a humanitarian disaster.
We have seen that the Germans have welcomed the majority so far and have shown incredible leadership and humanity. However, as my noble friend who is not in her seat mentioned, we are now seeing incredible, chaotic and shocking scenes in Hungary and in some of the Balkan states, where people are fleeing and moving across central Europe to seek sanctuary. It is particularly shocking that Hungary, for example, has said that it will take only Christians as asylum seekers. As an EU nation, Hungary appears to share very little of the values and spirit, of the tolerance and generosity shown to Hungarians fleeing Soviet aggression by other countries including the UK. Today’s reports of tear gas and water cannons being used against people including women and children who are fleeing aggression, war and poverty is absolutely shameful. In behaving in that fashion, Hungary is not fit to be a member of the EU.
This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a global issue, and the population needs the support of the world. Instead, they are living in appalling conditions, sinking deeper into trauma and poverty or drowning in their thousands. Many of those in the terrible conditions in the camps have understandably had enough of the hand-to-mouth existence, lack of education, poor medical care and lack of a future for their children. Had any of us been in those camps for years with little hope, I wonder whether we would also have taken to the seas and looked for a better life. I know that as parents we probably would have—I certainly would have.
I do welcome the extra support and help that the Government have announced. That is important and we need to carry on with it. However, the Government’s pledge to take 20,000 people over the next five years, although welcome, is not enough, as others have mentioned. Today I have read reports that in Jordan cuts to aid are forcing more refugees to leave the camps and come to Europe. It is ironic that the Government have been warning us often and repeatedly that we are under threat from Daesh and that we must do more to stop some Muslim people from going to Syria to join it, yet when it comes to allowing sanctuary to Syrians fleeing the murderous Daesh we close our doors, pull up the drawbridge and refer to them as migrants. This makes no sense.
The UN, the EU and the West have failed in any positive engagement to secure a diplomatic resolution. We on these Benches believe that the UK should work with the UN to resettle its fair share of refugees already in Europe. The UK’s fair share would be established by considering a wide range of criteria including population, GDP and asylum-seeking cases. I was pleased to hear that the UK is doing more, but the UNHCR today said:
“Individual measures by individual countries will not solve the problem but will make an already chaotic situation worse”.
We must show more leadership, more collegiate working and work with other nations to bring about a diplomatic resolution.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and describing in some detail the Government’s response to developments in the Middle East and their impact. I was particularly pleased to hear the reference to the work on education for children, because given the scale, the nature and the extent of the problem it is important that there are long-term responses. Education is important in terms of economic and social prosperity for the future so that we do not have a lost generation. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could assure the House that these initiatives will not only continue but be enhanced and look at the quality of the education provided.
We have heard in this debate that the humanitarian impact of the developments in the Middle East and north Africa is unprecedented in scale, suffering and tragic deaths but the responses to this crisis have been slow and inadequate, both by the UK and by the European Union. Conflict in Syria is approaching its fifth year, and in other parts of north Africa and the Middle East the situation has been deteriorating for some time. It is only the recent tragedies that have stirred consciences and some limited action.
We heard earlier that this is a complex and challenging situation that requires, as the Prime Minister said in his Statement on 7 September,
“a comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/15; col. 23.]
However, we have to recognise that these responses to the long-term issues have to be multifaceted and we have to involve the United Nations, the USA and even Arab nations. Here, I very much associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan.
The dire humanitarian consequences that we witness daily require immediate action to avert all the suffering of refugees and the strain on some of the front-line states in the European Union and the neighbouring states. It is recognised that the UK is the first major economy to meet the United Nations target of spending 0.7% of GNI, and the UK is the second biggest bilateral aid donor for the Syrian crisis. Of course the Government’s contribution of £1 billion in aid in relation to the Syrian conflict and the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where Syrian refugees are, is commendable, as are the efforts in collaboration with others to rescue migrants and deal with smugglers. The Government’s practical assistance to EU partners, by providing assistance, expertise and support to Greece, Italy and Bulgaria through the European Asylum Support Office, is welcome.
However, the emphasis of the Government’s approach is predominantly on bilateral assistance. There is complete reluctance by them to be part of the European effort to respond to the humanitarian crisis within Europe. Greece and Italy in particular are confronted with exceptional migratory flows. The situation in Hungary, Austria and Germany is not good, either. There are humanitarian crises within Europe that are urgent and require exceptional action. Having said that, I have to say that Europe has not covered itself in glory in the way in which it has responded. Even on the question of resettlement, the Government’s policy began to change only in early 2014. Prior to that, their response was to commit large amounts of humanitarian aid to the relief effort but not offer resettlement to Syrian refugees, either as part of or in addition to their annual resettlement quota. Since early 2014, there have been incremental changes. It was only on 7 September that the Prime Minister announced an extension to the scheme, with a plan to resettle 20,000 Syrians over the next five years.
The Government have set their face against any involvement in the relocation scheme, voluntary or mandatory, proposed by the European Union. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, in response to a debate in this House on 22 July, said:
“The Government have no plans to opt into any relocation scheme, whether voluntary or mandatory”.—[Official Report, 22/7/15; col. 1202.]
The Government’s objection that a mandatory scheme will change the EU approach to asylum by reducing national control over immigration is understandable. Indeed, it is right that immigration control should be the responsibility of member states. However, it is regrettable that the Government’s approach to a voluntary scheme is negative. In the report produced in July by my committee—the EU sub-committee on home affairs, which I chair—we urged the Government to take part in the negotiation on the proposals on relocation, provided that it is voluntary and is part of developing a coherent and co-ordinated approach to current and future situations.
Collective actions are the only way in which to deal with the current humanitarian crisis facing the EU. The lack of co-operation will undermine the EU’s ability to develop a coherent and adequate response. I would therefore like to hear from the noble Baroness why the Government have set their face against participating in the EU relocation scheme.
My Lords, I come to this issue from a slightly different direction. I live in West Sussex and am looking at what is happening there as a result of all this. There is huge zeal and enthusiasm to be called upon to do something to help. In the absence of any direction or instruction from anyone, local people are trying to make it up as they go along. They are getting into a muddle and need some help. It is time that the Government started to actively participate in getting communities to prepare to take in refugees, if or when that happens. If it is not going to happen, they need to say why not and do something else. If it is, they need to get prepared for it.
In the network of villages that comprises West Sussex, there is an assumption that they will be high on the list of places that will be called upon to act. They want to act. However, there are four questions we need to think about. First, how many can they take? Secondly, how will they feed them? Thirdly, what will happen to the education system locally? Fourthly, what will happen to interfaith relationships? Each question needs a separate response, and they are floundering at the moment on all scores.
I will deal first with the issue of food. The assumption is that, because we are basically a hangover from the Second World War, we will go back to something like the “British restaurants”, where people could get a halfpenny meal a day with products supplied by the Government. People in the villages are assuming that nothing will be paid towards the meals and they will have to provide them free from their own pocket, getting no food from the Government. They are quite happy to cook and provide the meals, but they need to know where the food is coming from because there is not enough money in these poor villages for people to pay for it themselves.
At the moment, we have a network of fetes and little garden parties going on to raise money. Every local artist is putting up his work to be sold. At the moment, I have to book an appointment to have a cup of coffee with my wife because she has become the head of the sales desk for these pictures and is very hard to get hold of. They are making a little money, here and there, but it is not going to be enough to feed the population for more than a week or two when they get there. Can we please have some decision from the Government as to what they actually intend to do if and when refugees are sent to the villages? At the moment, it is causing chaos.
When the refugees get there, what are we going to do with regard to the education system? We have a network of mostly faith schools; Church of England and Catholic. Will those schools be required to take the young who come in? If so, I can say right now where the first local civil war is going to come. It will come on the day that any Islamic or Muslim family declines to send its girl children to school. That will lead to protests on the streets, which will get very violent, very quickly. People need to be told what to do about that problem before it happens. In the case of schools for boys under the age of 10, are they going to have to take in, say, two or three Islamic boys? In that case, what will happen during the religious training part of the day? Will an imam go in to do that? In that case, do they take the Christian boys out and let them play football while that is happening? Somebody needs to produce a code of practice for all these things and think it through.
The worst of all the issues that I am looking at came to me last week, and puts a significant demand upon the Church of England to do something. People have said that of course they are going to be very hospitable to these people and think that we should give them our churches to turn into mosques. To which, having picked myself up off the floor, I say, “Are you mad? Just think that one through for a moment”. They answer that they will give them the church for three or four days a week and keep it for themselves for the rest. Fine, I say. But Christmas Day this year is on a Friday. Are we going to have midnight mass at 11 pm on the Thursday? What will be done with the mulled wine stall outside the church, which usually makes such a roaring profit? “Oh, we’ll give the profits to them as well”, they say. That is a nice solution but it is unrealistic.
The church has to get off its backside and tell people what to do about all these faith issues, so that they know how to cope with them before they make fools of themselves and destroy the last vestiges of our own link with our own culture and society down the ages—it is coming if we do not do something about it very quickly. I ask the Bishops to please take that message back to his Grace and the synod and ask them what they are going to do.
This is a real problem and it needs attacking. There is so much good will to make things happen properly, but we are doing nothing to use what is available to us, which is an enormous reservoir of good will, enthusiasm and determination to help. Please, Government, start this ball moving now, and please, church, do something really positive and effective.
Like so many others, I have been saddened and outraged by the plight of those fleeing from tyranny. I am also outraged by our Government’s wholly inadequate response. My grandparents, like so many others, were themselves refugees. At the end of the 19th century, they fled here to Britain and like many were forced to endure physical and verbal assaults, as were the Huguenots before them and the Chinese, West Indians and many others. These were not Britain’s proudest moments.
We are now confronted with an equally sad situation. Genuine refugees cannot wait. They clamour for help. We have to heed their cries of pain. They cannot wait while Europe debates, however important that may be. This represents a real test of Europe’s capacity. Of course we cannot stand aside while all this happens. Joint European agreement is desirable, but that is for the longer term. Now is the time to respond: we have to act now. We cannot wait. We cannot delay. Young children, some of whom we saw on television as young as three, are drowning and they cry for help. That horrible sight is but one facet of a deeply unhappy event. Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Holland and many others cannot be expected to bear the whole brunt of this crisis. We must reject the utterly cruel and selfish posture of the Hungarian Government. It is unbelievable.
My plea today is that we here in Britain must do much more. The position adopted by the Government to reject the pleas of the refugees and then to come forward with an abysmally small number over five years will simply not suffice. There is on the part of the Government an attempt to play for time, and unhappily time is not on our side. The Government therefore must react now and not tomorrow.
My Lords, I declare an interest as deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council, for reasons that will become obvious. The leader of the council and I have issued a welcome on behalf of the people of Pendle for up to 20 families, at present, to come and live in Pendle and we have told the Government that that is the case. My question for the Minister is how many local authorities in England and Wales—or certainly in England—have made an offer to welcome refugees from Syria? I am told that it is quite a few, but I do not know the number. Do the Government have the details of these people and are they communicating positively with them?
I want to talk a little about Syria. The Prime Minister, in one of his statements on refugees from Syria—which have swung from one extreme to another but have included some remarkably silly comments—said about a week ago that our job was to provide jobs and security for people so that they did not need to leave. I think that he has now been to a refugee camp in Jordan and perhaps now understands why people are leaving. It is not about jobs, it is about security.
When Parliament debated whether this country should take part in bombing operations in Syria and the House of Commons voted against it, the suggestion was that we should take military action against the Syrian Government—Assad’s people. Now it seems that the people we are most against in Syria—for very good reason—are those who belong to ISIL, or Daesh, and the debate is whether we want to take part with the Americans in attacking them. The fact is that Syria is being wrecked. When the Prime Minister says that the displaced people he spoke to in the refugee camp in Jordan wanted to go back to Syria, I am sure that that is the case. The question is not whether people want to go back to Syria, it is whether it is possible for them to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, who is not in his place at the moment, talked about the problem of there being two sides in Syria now and that we are against them both. The world is no longer a simple one of goodies and baddies; it is much more complicated than that. I have to say that there are more than two groups in the country, and that is complicating the situation. It used to be said that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but it is more complex than that in Syria since some of the groups seem to be on the same side as more than one other group and then turn against them. We are not quite sure what is going on.
The Syrian Government have their army based heavily on the Alawite sect, which is Assad’s group. It is said that of the 250,000 men of fighting age in Syria on that side, one-third have already been killed. I do not know if that statistic is true, but that is what is being said. It is certainly true that an increasing number of Alawite people on the coast and in Damascus are leaving Syria, partly because the young men do not want to be called up and partly because they are frightened of the future. The main opponent used to be the Free Syrian Army, which still controls a lot of territory in the north-east and south-east of the country. It was the original opposition and it includes defectors from the Syrian armed forces, but in some areas it is now working with ISIL/Daesh, paving the way for an ISIL takeover. But whatever happens, people are leaving because of the fighting that is going on.
Then there is ISIL/Daesh itself, comprised as we know of hard-line fundamentalists, which now controls about half the area of Syria. It started off by working with the al-Nusra Front, which is an affiliate of al-Qaeda, but now they are fighting each other. So not only are they fighting the Syrian Government, they are fighting each other and probably anyone else who comes along. ISIL is now the strongest opposition group, with its headquarters based in the city of Raqqa in the north. The dilemma the Americans must face, as would we if we were to take part in military combat there, is that if we attack ISIL/Daesh, we help Assad. If we attack Assad’s troops, we help ISIL/Daesh. There appears to be no way through that. The al-Nusra Front, otherwise known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is still active in the same region as the Free Syrian Army. Its troops are fighting each other, ISIL, Hezbollah and others up there. Hezbollah is active in the north-west and controls territory on behalf of Assad, but it has its own agenda, and as we know it will turn on anyone if circumstances change. But whatever happens, Hezbollah is also driving refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, first, because people do not like the regime and, secondly, because of the violence.
I turn to the Peshmerga Kurds. Two parties have been successfully attacking ISIL in parts of the north. The Turkish Government, who were being urged to join in the military attacks on ISIL, had been conducting bombing raids in Syria, but it seems that for the most part they have actually been bombing the Kurds because that is part of their own domestic dispute. The whole thing is unbelievably complicated. Iran has put troops in on behalf of Assad, allegedly including 15,000 special forces personnel. Russia has an unknown number of people in the country, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the rebels.
The country is a shambles, so if people want to know why the problems in Europe are not going to go away and why the refugee camps are going to grow and grow, and why the situation is not going to be solved easily, they have to look at Syria. Somehow all the regional parties, including ourselves, must get together to try and stop the war. I do not think that anyone has the slightest idea of how to do it, so we had better get used to the fact that the stream of refugees coming across Europe will continue. I do not know how many there are at the moment; no one seems to know and there might be half a million on the move in different places. Moreover, as the winter comes, the stream is going to increase.
My Lords, I think we have to be grateful to the brave TV camera men and women and reporters who bring this crisis before us every day. Yet the images are so bleak, and the crisis is almost beyond our island imagination. Such a degree of hardship thankfully does not exist in our society. We cannot conceive of a world without anything at all to live on, yet we have to make judgments which we think can somehow change it.
Last week, the Prime Minister announced he would at last increase the numbers of vulnerable Syrians to be resettled. Some of us, along with the Refugee Council and Amnesty, have been pressing the Government for months on this. We were told that, up to March, only a handful, 183, and by June, only 216, had been resettled under this scheme. Media reports undoubtedly changed the Government’s mind, and we now, as a country, have responded modestly to the plight of refugees in the region and to UNHCR’s call for resettlement. I fully endorse what the Minister says about bringing stability to lands in conflict, but the Government’s otherwise welcome Statement failed to address the key question of Europe. As others have said, it is astonishing that we appear to be doing nothing to help thousands of Syrians and others stumbling along railway lines towards us.
One might ask why the UK has decided to stand apart from other member states and always hide behind the Schengen and Dublin agreements. I believe, with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that this was in part a soothing message from the Government to some of their Eurosceptic Back-Benchers that, for the moment, they do not want to spell out EU membership too clearly. I fully accept that Europe has not got its act together, largely because of the resistance of eastern European members. Hungary’s use of tear gas and barbed wire is incomprehensible to those who remember 1956, when its own refugees were pouring across the Austrian border. Unfortunately, Mr Orbán does not represent the view of Hungarian people any more than, say, Mr Rosindell reflects his own Front Bench in another place. Monday’s EU meeting at least showed that there is unity among the richer member states—we are meant to be one of those—which will inevitably have to share the responsibility. Much more, however, as has been said, must be done at the United Nations level. I wonder whether fear of numbers lies behind the reaction of some critics and Eurosceptics. The numbers are daunting, but surely there are not so many that they cannot be contained within and around Europe. We have to rely on crude estimates from UNHCR and FRONTEX, but we know they are six-figure numbers. The EU would like us to contribute now. Is that unreasonable?
I recommend doubters to examine the UNHCR list for refugee applications compared with populations in Europe. Sweden tops the list with 7.8 per 1,000 in 2014. Hungary is next, surprisingly, with 4.2, then Germany with 2.1. The UK is way down the list, at 0.5, which means only one refugee applied for asylum for every 2,000 of our citizens. If you compare our total population to recognised refugees, the number is of course lower, and the absorption of an annual 5,000 is barely noticeable. As Hilary Benn said in another place last week:
“The fact that we are not in Schengen does not mean that we should opt out of our responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with our European friends and allies in playing our part”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/9/15; col. 427.]
I assume that that still forms part of Labour’s foreign policy, but we will hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, on that.
It is a pity that Lord Moser is no longer with us to join in this debate. As a teenage refugee himself from Nazi Germany who was cruelly interned here during the war, he said that he discovered his love of numbers by counting his fellow internees. He went on to run the Central Statistical Office and an Oxford college, besides making many contributions to education and music. He is already much missed on these Benches. I also add my own thanks to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for bringing good humour to our debates over so many years.
Perhaps the Minister can help us with numbers. She cannot answer for the Home Office but she will know, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will remember, that this country has already been generous to an earlier generation of boat people, having received more than 24,000 refugees from Vietnam, who were resettled over time by local authorities. My main questions relate to her department. Was DfID fully consulted on the decision to take money out of the aid budget? What will be the consequences for other DfID programmes? As my noble friend Lord Hannay said, why should Syrians be singled out when there are so many other nationalities involved? What about Kurds and Iraqis—indeed, those who come across the Middle East through Libya, Turkey and other countries? What about eastern Europeans? Are Kosovan or Afghan refugees to be treated differently? These are difficult questions but they will have to be answered at some point. The Balkan states are now receiving EU funding but are still dealing with the aftermath of their own civil wars. The Syrians are special now, but other priorities must come up in future.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this informed debate and to have listened to the valedictory speech of my noble friend Lord Brooke, although it is tinged with great sadness that he is leaving us.
Five days ago, Arwa Damon, a journalist covering the refugee crisis for CNN, wrote:
“Some assignments fill you w/such sorrow U can’t imagine genuinely laughing again”.
The plight of thousands of refugees fleeing terror and poverty has touched so many. It is hardly surprising that countless people want to help. Just yesterday, Amir Khan set off from Bolton with a convoy of vehicles bound for Greece. People have given money, clothes and food. They have even offered refuge in their own homes. We all want to do something—to do more—but this is a catastrophe with no easy solution. I am afraid that in the not-too-distant future we will have some very difficult debates and some hard decisions to take over the future of Syria and the role that we play. We will probably need to look seriously at the provision of safe havens in Syria.
I will spend the rest of my time speaking about a particular group of refugees and their unique plight, already touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Green, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. In doing so, I declare my interest as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Before I do that, I ask my noble friend the Minister: what will happen to the refugees who have found their way to Europe and are now trapped between countries? I understand very well and sympathise with the Government not wishing to encourage people into the hands of the traffickers, but are we as a country offering practical help to the refugees who find themselves stranded? What, ultimately, will happen to them? When we take in the Syrians from the camps will we continue to offer the vital help to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have so selflessly welcomed those in need?
I, too, was delighted when the Prime Minister went to see with his own eyes what is happening on the ground. His visit to the refugee camps on the Syrian border in Lebanon earlier this week, followed by a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, has highlighted the valuable and crucial work done by the UNHCR and its partners in the Lebanese and Jordanian camps to support those fleeing war in Syria.
However, one of the most vulnerable populations in the region cannot access these services. Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, fleeing the horrors of siege and assault by ISIS and the Syrian regime, have no access to the proposed resettlement programmes proposed by EU countries, which leaves them with the only option of putting their lives in the hands of traffickers. Before the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Yarmouk, established in 1957, was home to 148,500 registered Palestinian refugees, more than half of them under the age of 25. In the four years that have followed, 3,000 are estimated to have been killed in the conflict and 18,000 Palestinian civilians are still living in Yarmouk, including 3,500 children.
In addition to the £1 billion the Government have so generously given towards refugee programmes, they have now pledged to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians living in the camps. This is most welcome but will not help those who cannot register with UNHCR. Palestinians are prevented from accessing the safety of resettlement because they cannot register. This leaves thousands of refugees languishing in the remains of Yarmouk with no access to proper healthcare, regular food or clean water, and with an outbreak of typhoid. As Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, so starkly observed:
“Yarmouk is at the lower reaches of hell”.
As well as those in Yarmouk, another 460,000 or so registered Palestinians, many of them Christian, remain in Syria and are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. Borders are closed to them and this drives many to make the perilous journey through Turkey or across the Mediterranean in search of a safe home and a basic standard of life, placing themselves at the mercy of the sea traffickers. These are the very people we see daily on our television screens.
The particular vulnerabilities of Palestinian refugees and their sensitive status in the region compound the already stark and violent devastation they share with Syrians. It is absolutely right that we as a Government should provide vital support for vulnerable Syrian nationals but we should also ensure there is life-saving sanctuary and assistance for all vulnerable people fleeing conflict in Syria, including Syria’s Palestinian population.
The Prime Minister said that,
“we must use our head and our heart”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/2015; col. 23.],
as he set out a staggeringly inadequate response to the refugee crisis, and then threw in news of drone attacks on individual UK citizens in Syria. The drone attacks were neither discussed or ratified by Parliament but were described in the Statement as an “act of self-defence” to kill a named individual in Syria who had been intending to murder British citizens. While that is not the subject of tonight’s debate, it deserves more interrogation on another occasion. But what is important for this debate is the conflation of these two issues. In conflating them, the Prime Minister chose to evoke fear of the “other”. It appears that the head of the Prime Minister was trying to divert a nation whose heart had been broken by the sight of three year-old Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach.
In the last several days, without going out of my way at all, I have been privy to a number of conversations about refugees from Syria. A couple with young children discussed how they would manage if they opened their home to refugees, how long they might stay, whether they would have to teach them English and be responsible for administering their immigration status and so on. At no point did they consider the discomfort to them or their young family, the cost of putting food on the table or the enormous burden of living with people in a traumatic state, estranged from their birthplace. They were looking at how, not whether, to open their homes to strangers in need. In another, a small group of teenagers studying to be professional chefs discussed how they could set up a soup kitchen. These young people were planning recipes that would give Syrian families far from home the comfort of the familiar. They worked out how they would raise money, shop, cook and serve on a rota, because this would be in addition to their studies. They were looking at how, not whether, to feed the influx.
Then there is my own mother, a refugee from Europe given safe haven in this country with my grandmother while her father hid in occupied Vichy. Perhaps, in the tradition of the House, I should here declare my interests. My family have been political migrants, economic migrants and refugees no less than six times in four generations. My mother, her parents and a single cousin were what was left of her family after World War II. They were granted asylum; others were not. She has donated and she has petitioned, but what does a woman in her late 70s do when her Government do not provide for this generation’s refugees the same safe haven that saved her life and the absence of which cost others theirs? She is looking to her Government to work out how, not whether, to save a life.
To find the balance of head and heart, the Prime Minister must use his head to fulfil what is in the hearts of the British people, who cannot unilaterally save, feed or welcome refugees into their homes but rely on Her Majesty’s Government to create mechanisms that enable them to do so. I share with the noble Lord, Lord James, a desire for action, although his anxiety about Islamic contagion is unfounded. We are the second largest bilateral donor in the region, and, as the Minister set out in her opening remarks, the Government are committed to a long-term political solution that might one day stem the flow. Neither of these approaches, however, is the answer for the tens of thousands of refugees who are, right now, in dangerous transit from somewhere to nowhere.
In setting out what he considered to be a comprehensive approach of causes and consequences, the Prime Minister said nothing about separating foreign policy from our arms trade; nothing about working for a pan-European approach; nothing about destroying the market for human trafficking gangs by providing safe passage; and nothing about our own responsibilities for military interventions and chosen alliances that have contributed to destabilising the region.
The Prime Minister’s Statement had no apology for the language of swarming; nor was there an explanation for why we operate a “Not in my backyard” refugee policy. It failed also to address UK citizens whose families and friends come from the conflict zones, who feel alienated by the Government’s response and worry about what it says about their own place and identity in this country. We need a comprehensive approach, but this is not it.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that this is an excuse not to take more migrants. The resettlement figure is simply too little over too long, and in refusing to accept resettlement from Italy, Greece and Hungary and using their opt-out to avoid signing up to a common EU plan, the Government are simply adhering to the ideological prejudice, or xenophobia, of those who have this Government on the back foot about Europe and immigration.
These refugees, who have escaped violence in their own country, risked their lives on their journeys and find themselves pressed against both the literal and metaphorical razor-wire fences of implacable European nations, including our own, are no less deserving and arguably more vulnerable than those already settled in camps. They are—as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said—equal, unique, precious and human.
UK citizens in their thousands are having conversations up and down the country like those I alluded to, from the powerful and privileged to those with very little who are willing to share that very little with desperate strangers in need. Our citizens are not bleeding-heart liberals but pragmatic and practical. They do not want this crisis on their conscience. We said “Never again”; this is “Again”, so until we have filled up every bedroom that is offered, we have not done enough.
My Lords, I, too, would like to be associated with the tributes paid to my noble friend Lord Brooke. In cricketing terms, he has carried his bat and scored a century in his last innings.
My speech is not about the plight of refugees, which I recognise, but about how to stop the war, eradicate ISIL and make it possible for the people to return and live in peace. During the Recess, I decided to study Saladin, guided by a book recently written by John Man. Saladin faced not dissimilar problems to the ones we do today. His answer was to provide single-minded leadership that united Sunni and Shia factions, with the objective of throwing out the Franks—that is, the West. His methods were a combination of force and soft diplomacy, which succeeded only because they involved—I emphasise this—Sunni and Shia. The challenge is not just a Middle Eastern one. It affects much of the world including China, India and Russia, all of whom face the danger of this radical, fanatical, vicious and fundamental Muslim sect. We need, I suggest, to analyse dispassionately the context.
First, in relation to Syria, this is the fourth Sunni-Shia war. Assad and his Government will not collapse because they are supported by Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia factions, plus the Russians; that is the reality. Secondly, we in the UK have to admit that we made some errors. We made a fatal error on 20 November 2012, arising out of the Doha conference, in recognising what we thought was a pro-western, modern Sunni faction opposed to Assad when we had no idea who they really were. We really should be ashamed at our total diplomatic failure to anticipate this. In fact, it turned out that the vast majority were Sunni jihadists, with some ISIL and a few western-educated Syrians. Thirdly, it does us good to reflect on our own disastrous Arab spring policy: in Libya, where we managed to destroy all law and order; in Egypt, where our interference nearly resulted in the Brotherhood fanatics taking over; and, sadly, even in the Maldives, which I know well, where having promoted a UK-educated Maldivian we have ended up with a jihadist threat there as well.
Why do we not reflect for a minute on what happened in the Second World War? It cannot have been easy for Churchill to decide to sit down to discuss how to attack Germany and deal with Nazism, when we know from history that there was very little rapport between him and Stalin. However, they worked jointly to defeat the common evil. That common evil is now ISIL, and it is on ISIL alone that we should all be focusing. That includes using Assad’s Syrian forces. All of us—Sunni, Shia, Turks, Kurds, Russia, the Western powers, China and India—must eradicate ISIL. It can be done. The House will know that I have been deeply involved in Sri Lanka for some 50 years. In May 2009, what was then the worst terrorist group in the world, the Tamil Tigers, was obliterated there. If we do not do this, the world will suffer; in particular, the West will suffer. So we must think again about Assad and the Shias. We need them all. We need to reflect on what Churchill faced and how he acted. We need to involve the great powers of Russia, India and China. We need to listen to those of our noble friends who have detailed experience of Syria and that part of the world. The noble Lords, Lord Wright, Lord Kerr and Lord Green of Deddington, know that area of the Middle East in depth.
We need to switch off the engine of publicity, particularly in the West. We need to be brave enough to ban any marches in favour of ISIL. It is a proscribed group, and therefore every flag-waving ISIL supporter is flouting the proscription and we must not be weak, but act. Defeat ISIL and the refugee problem will fade away as people return and rebuild, ideally helped by what I hope will be the equivalent of a modern Marshall plan.
The real question is: who will provide the leadership and soft power diplomacy to bring together Sunni and Shia Muslims to make the eradication of ISIL happen? In my view, somehow or other, that leadership must come from the Muslim world and a rapprochement between Sunni and Shia.
My Lords, this has been a long and worthwhile debate. I have found myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my noble friend Lord Hannay, but this evening I want to ask two questions. Will the Government give greater attention to the needs of refugees and displaced people living outside the official camps? Secondly, will they seek to redirect the total aid from Europe towards the Middle East and the northern half of Africa? These questions arise from visits that I made with colleagues to Lebanon in March and to the Kurdish Regional Government and the Jazira canton of north-east Syria in May. I have also had news from friends working in Tunisia and Jordan.
At great risk to themselves, Lebanon and Tunisia have each taken in about 1 million refugees. The KRG have coped with huge numbers of those displaced from the rest of Iraq. The aim should be to make all those people, both those in camps and those outside them, as self-sustaining as possible. That means education and training for all, but especially for the young. It would also help to prevent the camps becoming permanent.
I want to urge the case for redirecting the huge volume of aid given each year by Europe. As a number of speakers have mentioned, we have to meet the needs of those who have already reached Europe, most of whom cannot be repatriated. They deserve to be welcomed, as the Pope and many bishops and other faith leaders have requested. They will require language assistance and help to settle into many different societies—above all, for family reunion. Here, I mention two practical points. A Europe-wide tracing service would help families find their separated members, wherever they may be. Secondly, a Nansen-type passport or visa would enable them to apply for reunion and for protection.
We need to ask ourselves why so many leave home and risk dangerous journeys. The reasons are wars, oppression, lack of government, drought and poverty. Many thousands come from the Horn of Africa, the Sudan, the Central African Republic and other countries around the Sahara. At the same time, from Morocco to Pakistan the demography is almost the same: 30% or more of the population is under 30, but they have far too few opportunities to work. That is true even for graduates.
Europe can, I am sure, cope with large numbers of new arrivals, and should do so, given that in some of our countries the population is ageing and declining. However, it is in all our interests that the northern half of Africa and the whole of the Middle East should be prosperous. If they are not, there will be endless pressure to enter Europe at a pace that would destabilise European societies. There is ample scope for combining the resources and skills of Europe with the oil wealth of some Arab states. In this way, a large pool of investment capital could be created to generate jobs for the rising young generation. Locals would benefit just as much as refugees and migrants. We should start on this even while wars and conflicts continue to rage. I call on the Government to re-examine the following needs: war survivors outside official camps; camp dwellers; new arrivals in Europe; economic migrants; potential movers; and the unemployed young. Will they do so urgently, together with the European states and the EU Commission? Having assessed the available resources, will they then seek partners in the City of London and with the Middle East sovereign wealth funds? This could be the greatest job creation and resettlement exercise ever seen.
My Lords, this has been a vital debate, and I am glad that the Government agreed to table it. I know that this required some distinct encouragement from my noble friends, including my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness. It is surely not by chance that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, chose this important debate for his valedictory speech. I thank him for his life’s contribution to public service, not least in this House.
Contributions have been of a very high order. The Minister laid out clearly the Government’s position in her wide-ranging speech at the beginning of the debate, and I thank her for that. I hope that when she replies, she will do her very best, as I am sure she will, to answer all the main questions and themes that have been raised, with the possible exception of the most technical questions. It is less useful in terms of how this House operates to receive a letter some time later, copied though it might be to the Lords Library, responding to a debate. It is far better and more transparent to have the answers in Hansard, easily accessible. I am sure that she and her wonderful officials will endeavour to assist us in this regard.
High on the news agenda this summer have been those whom some have termed “swarms” of migrants or “marauding” migrants: the terrible scenes of overcrowded boats plying their way across the Mediterranean. We were shown the appalling sight of the little boy lying face down on the Turkish beach. I could hardly bear to look at him, or his smiling face or that of his brother in earlier photos. I think of his poor mother, who could not swim and did not want to take a boat at all. How desperate she must have been. I think of the Canadians who refused his family asylum.
We have to put a human face on refugees, to recognise that they are as us and our own children. Our common humanity was emphasised so effectively by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lord Roberts. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in her extraordinary speech, injected great passion and urgency into this debate. I hope that we have now moved beyond the use of words such as “swarm” and “marauding”, but are we seeing an effective answer to a hugely pressing crisis?
We know that the refugees are from war-torn and desperately fragile states: above all, at the moment, Syria, but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has pointed out, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Tonge and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, emphasised the particular plight of Palestinians, so many of whom have spent their lives in camps. The people traffickers do not care about those whom they traffic. Many die and many women are raped. Supporting development in fragile states has never been more important. In 2004, the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change—of which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was a notable member—rightly pointed out in its report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, that, as I often quote:
“Development and security are inextricably linked. A more secure world is only possible if poor countries are given a real chance to develop. Extreme poverty and infectious diseases threaten many people directly, but they also provide a fertile breeding-ground for other threats, including civil conflict”.
Is that not crystal clear today?
Under the coalition Government, the UK finally met its commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid. Liberal Democrats Michael Moore in the Commons and Jeremy Purvis—my noble friend Lord Purvis—in the Lords then ensured that this was put into law, with Royal Assent on the last day of the last Session. I am very glad that we did that but the UN statement also speaks of the necessity of countries working together for international action, with engagement through the UN not only on long-term development and security but also, in this instance, on seeking a political solution in the Middle East. The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Desai, and others made very clear the necessity for such international action, which is so lacking in the United Kingdom’s approach. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, knows a thing or two about conflict and refugees. She rightly argued that the current policy is not working and that the UK must engage more at the UN. However, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, have possibly different views on military action in this instance. My noble friend Lord Greaves showed how complex this is.
Right on our doorstep, are we working with our EU partners? Clearly not. Here we have been very laggardly, as so many have made clear. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, demanded an answer. We must hear that. To tackle the crisis in Europe and the war in Syria, it is critical that the UK works with our EU partners so that we play a central role as decisions are made. The Government’s total reluctance to do so not only damages our reputation but limits our ability to shape the EU reaction. It limits what we are doing to help those fleeing the terrible situation in Syria, as well as jeopardises our later campaign on the EU referendum, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown also emphasised. How can the Government thus endanger our future, as well as those who are in this plight? Various noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Ashdown and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, strongly suggested that this is simply to manage Conservative Back-Benchers. We need to lead, not reluctantly follow.
We welcome the increase in resettlement of refugees from camps in Syria and the region, but it is too little too late and does nothing to tackle the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe. As my noble friends Lord Roberts, Lady Tonge and Lady Hussein- Ece made clear, this may involve only just over 1,000 families a year. It should not be an either/or choice. We clearly need to tackle both problems. Interestingly, my noble friend Lord Ashdown and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby emphasised not only the need for generosity but also the economic benefit we could gain from the skills the Syrians have to offer.
The Government should opt in to the relocation programme proposed by the EU Commission president. Can the Minister assure us that the UK is able to opt in to take refugees who arrive in the UK, despite what her noble friend Lady Stowell said the other day? That includes accepting a small number of refugees who are already in Europe, but also seeking better ways to manage the EU’s external borders and strengthen the EU asylum process.
On the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, there are rules for working out what proportion each country might take, based on a number of criteria that he mentioned, as my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece said. Not being involved means that we play no part in devising those rules. As we know, the conflict in Syria has affected the whole country and led to millions fleeing it and millions more being internally displaced. Many of those fleeing have ended up in the refugee camps in the surrounding region. As my noble friend Lady Tonge pointed out, the UK under the coalition Government became the second biggest humanitarian aid donor in the region, and I am very proud of that. I am glad that this is continuing. We know only too well how destabilising it is to have millions of refugees in the fragile countries around. We must do our best to assist them. As she will know, we took precious few into the UK from those camps and, at first, the Prime Minister would take none. It was only with pressure from his deputy, Nick Clegg, that that policy changed at all.
Here I wish to address the aid budget. I note what the Chancellor said about using the aid budget more directly in the UK's interest, which has a rather chilling sound. As the UN High-Level Panel made clear, development is important for global stability, affecting us all; it is not something that it makes sense to view only as involving limited UK immediate interests. I note what has been said about using ODA for refugees in the UK, and I realise that it is permissible, but it is a concern. Can the Minister tell me when the aid budget was first used to support refugees in the UK? Can she tell me how much was used each year in the last five years to support refugees in the UK? Does she accept that the ODA budget cannot be used to integrate refugees in a donor country’s economy? What are the implications if they are to be so integrated? I do not find an adequate answer either in DfID’s annual reports or accounting to the OECD. Can she tell me what happens to the support for refugees after the first year has concluded? What will be done to ensure that they do not fall on hard-pressed local authority budgets after that first year?
The UK has a long history of supporting the most vulnerable, and reference has been made to what happened in the Second World War, when of course we accepted 10,000 Kindertransport children, one of whom is a Member of this House. So what are we doing now?
This has been an extremely important debate, and I am glad that pressure secured it. The Government have rightly been commended for their action in supporting refugees in the region—but, from all sides, the Government have been condemned for inaction in inadequately supporting refugees in the United Kingdom and for inaction internationally, and especially for inaction in the appalling inability to work with the EU and to help to lead in the EU to resolve this crisis, with a terrible effect on refugees themselves but also in terms of our very place in Europe. Why should our European partners help us to win that referendum when it comes down the track? There are very big questions here about our shared global future. I am not optimistic that we will get those answers tonight, but I can but hope.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on his valedictory speech, and thank him for his four decades of public service to this country. He has made a huge impact on politics in the United Kingdom, and on behalf of the Opposition I would like to wish him very well in his retirement.
The crisis in the Middle East and north Africa has created a humanitarian disaster on the borders of Europe, which has now spread into Europe itself. We know that the conflict in Syria continues to be by far the biggest driver of migration, but the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and human rights abuses in Eritrea mean that 71% of the Mediterranean Sea arrivals are from just three countries. Getting aid into Syria is becoming increasingly difficult, and humanitarian agencies are finding it extremely hard to provide food and basic provisions within this damaged country, so many people have had to move out of their country simply to survive. This situation will become more critical as the winter months come on.
The Minister outlined that in Libya the lack of government and lawlessness has meant that half a million people are using that country as a launch pad to cross the hazardous Mediterranean. Iraq continues in a quagmire of violence, and the situation in Yemen is increasingly desperate. According to the UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide reached 59 million at the end of 2014, the highest level since World War II. So, yes, this is a humanitarian disaster that Europe is having to cope with, but let us not forget that the brunt of migration around the world is borne directly by countries adjacent to the areas of conflict and human rights abuses, many of them desperately poor countries.
While the vast majority of people have stayed in the region, one of the features which distinguishes the current situation from other serious humanitarian crises in the past is that affluent people have been affected by this crisis. Many have the means to pay for their travel and, unfortunately, become subject to the whims and caprices of human traffickers who are exploiting this situation for all it is worth, but it would be wrong to define all those who are travelling as the fittest and wealthiest.
There is no sign in Syria of the causes of this mass exodus stopping. Military intervention would be risky and would throw up all kinds of new and dangerous issues in an extremely complicated environment. There are no simple answers to stopping the number of refugees, and therefore we, in the international community, must accept that we have a moral obligation to support those in desperate need, not just in the immediate region but in Europe and our own country, despite it not being part of the Schengen area.
Nobody can deny the UK Government’s generosity in supporting camps on the border of Syria. We understand that it is far better to help people near the conflict area, thereby preventing dangerous journeys and making it easier for those people to return if things improve. The statistic quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on the percentage of refugees from Syria being helped in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is worth repeating; it is 94%. But now that people are on the move, countries on the borders of the EU, such as Greece and Hungary, are under considerable strain. Greece is under profound economic pressure, and it does not seem fair that accident of geography determines how many asylum seekers each nation must bear. In the Greek islands alone, 30,000 people are currently asking for sanctuary and help, including 20,000 on the island of Lesbos—the same number that we are offering to help over the course of five years.
Despite the Government’s generosity to fund camps in the region, their response to the Europe situation has been unacceptable. The fact is that the Government misread the views of the British public on this issue, and a determination to dance to the tune of the anti-immigration lobby has back-fired. The Government are, I know, already working with our European partners to challenge the criminals who are trafficking these people and taking advantage of their desperation, and we need to support Europol and police forces across the EU to do more. How would we co-operate on these issues if we were outside the EU—who knows?
We welcome the deployment of HMS “Richmond” to operations in the Mediterranean, but let us not forget that the work of this vessel will be limited to searching for and seizing smugglers’ vessels. It is not, as a government Minister has emphasised, a passenger-carrying service. In October last year, the Mare Nostrum project was withdrawn by the Italian Government, and the British Government withdrew support for future search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, claiming, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, emphasised, that they simply encouraged more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. It was withdrawn, but they still came and are still coming. Desperate people will do desperate things. This was a dreadful decision, and one to which these Benches drew the attention of the House at the time.
Belatedly, in May this year, the Government sent HMS “Bulwark” to rescue desperate people in the Mediterranean, saving 5,000 people. The smaller HMS “Enterprise” was then sent to replace HMS “Bulwark” but, after a month at sea, had not rescued anyone. Will the Minister clarify whether HMS “Enterprise” is still operating in the Mediterranean and, if so, how many people it has rescued? Is she confident that the search and rescue capability—which should be distinguished from the attempt to stop traffickers—is equal to the task of saving lives in the Mediterranean?
We welcome the Prime Minister’s belated decision, following that public outcry, to agree to welcome 20,000 Syrians from the border refugee camps by the end of this Parliament. However, we are welcoming 20,000 over five years, when Germany is on course to host 1 million by the end of the year. That provides some perspective on the challenges that our continental friends are confronting. Some 20,000 people at some point in the future will do nothing to ease the burden that our continental friends are facing today.
It was heartening to hear the Minister state that we need to be part of a comprehensive European solution to this problem, but I am sure that her idea of a comprehensive European solution looks very different from mine. The Government must stop confusing people with talk of Schengen, asylum seekers, refugees and the free movement of people in the EU and all their rights in one breath. All of these are different, and confusing those issues stirs the sensitive immigration debate in a way that is unnecessary. The fact is that these people will try to come to Europe and the UK irrespective of our relationship with the EU. Migrants will gather in Calais in search of a better life on our shores. Desperate people will not wait for the Government to act, and it is in our interests to work in concert with other European member states.
It is clear that the Dublin regulation, the system that prevents asylum application to numerous EU member states, has stalled, and that there are considerable strains on the Schengen open-border system. How can the Government set a cap on the number of asylum seekers coming to this country over five years when they have no idea how the situation will unfold in the next few weeks, let alone the next five years? The time for action and help is now, so why not get on with the job and bring 10,000 people in before Christmas?
A senior UN official has claimed that, if the war continues, 1 million more refugees will find their way to Europe by the end of this year. Ultimately, we will need to find a solution in Syria. We need to increase the diplomatic pressure on Assad, and we need people to feel safe in their country and their region. We know that there are no quick fixes or immediate answers, but some kind of strategy would be a good start.
The issue of immigration is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We must not forget that at one stage or another we were all immigrants to this country. I remember that when I was a little girl our family was asked to take care of a Vietnamese boat family. They came, integrated and contributed in a real way to the economy and to the community. Today’s asylum seekers will do the same. I pay tribute in particular to the moving speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on this issue.
War and human rights abuses are not the only reasons for people to come to this country, or to move at all. In future years, our response to climate change will come too late to stop extreme flooding and famine. We need a global dialogue on this issue that understands the best thing to do is to address the issue in a multifaceted way, investing in stopping climate change, investing in diplomacy to stop wars and securing safety for people in their home nations where possible. Raiding the development budget this year will only take the Government so far. If we are not fixing issues in developing nations, we will need to fix them here at a great much greater cost. In the long term, it is a false economy to raid the overseas budget.
We have an immediate problem now, though. The situation is urgent; people are dying now. Long-term solutions will not solve this particular problem. The time for talking is over and the time for action is now.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their incredibly passionate contributions this evening. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Brooke for his valedictory speech, and on behalf of the House I thank him for his public service over many decades. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell summed up very neatly the work that my noble friend Lord Brooke has carried out.
As noble Lords have said, this is a debate about the head and the heart. We have to be proud of the work that we have done to support the Syrian people in this unprecedented crisis through our aid budget, through British NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children and through the amazing work of British humanitarian workers who risk their lives to provide life-saving assistance.
The picture inside Syria is unspeakably bleak. For four years the people of Syria have been bombed, starved and driven from their homes. Since the start of this crisis we have been there saving lives inside Syria and providing food, clean water, shelter and other essentials to support those who have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. We are helping those countries cope with the strain that the crisis is putting on them.
We will continue to push for improved international responses to the unfolding crises. The deliberate tactics of the Assad regime to bomb and starve its people into submission and the rise of ISIL and other armed extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have all served to intensify the crisis and to worsen the plight of the Syrian people caught up in it. That is why the UK worked hard with others to achieve the critical UN Security Council resolution in July that enables UN aid delivery across Syria’s border without the consent of the regime. Ultimately, a political resolution to the conflict in Syria is the only long-term solution, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, pointed out earlier.
There are a number of questions to which I need to respond, but I want to say firmly from the outset that the UK Government have been committed to supporting Syria. The UK was one of the first countries on the scene. Let us not divert the debate into Conservative Members wanting this to be an EU debate where the Government and the Prime Minister have been frightened to respond. That undermines the great work that not only DfID but the whole Government are doing. I urge all noble Lords to keep this debate on the track that it should be, where we as a country should be proud of the work that we are undertaking and the commitment through the DfID budgets and the other schemes that we support—not just the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme but the other schemes that are already in place, such as the Gateway scheme and the Mandate scheme; schemes which are already bringing in refugees and supporting them when they come to our country and ask for asylum.
If we ensure that up to 20,000 more of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees can safely reach the UK, using the aid budget we shall help both them and local communities to adjust to their arrival. We have to be mindful that we are going to be settling these people who are fleeing because they are the most needy, because they need the most support. Therefore we need to make sure that we prepare the places to which they are going so that they are thoroughly ready to receive those people with their needs.
By relocating them we want to make sure that we avoid adding to the trade in human lives that at the moment is the business of people traffickers. We must not forget that people are benefiting and profiting from the plight of people trying to flee. It is because of that that we need to make sure that we are working collectively with our European partners in ensuring that we tackle this heinous, horrible, horrendous use of people for profit.
However, as was rightly said by many noble Lords, the work that we are doing, and with other nations, is to try to make sure that we have proper funding, resources and responses to ensure that the people are helped. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed out that 94% or 95% of the people of Syria are still either within that country or in neighbouring countries. We need to make sure that support is there in order rightly to let those countries manage the plight of the people who are being given such a miserable existence within Syria.
The goals and global challenges are complex. Later this month, at the UN General Assembly, the world will sign up to new global goals. In December, in Paris, we expect to achieve a game-changing global climate change deal, the likes of which we have never managed before. This is a time for momentous decision-making for the planet and its future. British people can be assured that we, the UK Government, are doing everything that we can to deal with this current crisis—from providing aid to people in the region to giving asylum to those in need and saving lives in the Mediterranean, and hunting down people-smuggling gangs. Britain cannot be accused of not pulling its weight.
On Monday, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Richard Harrington MP as Minister for Syrian Refugees. He will be responsible for co-ordinating and delivering across government for Syrian resettlement, along with co-ordinating the provision of government support to Syrian refugees in the region. He will report primarily to the Home Secretary as well as to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He will also report to the Secretary of State for International Development on the provision of support to assist Syrians in the region.
The noble Lords, Lord Ashdown and Lord Anderson, asked what we were doing for those people who are living outside camps in Syria and the region. There are more than 4 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, of which the majority are being accommodated outside camps within host communities. The UK has allocated £519 million to support refugees in the region. This support is providing food, water and medical consultations.
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s generosity in giving way, given our limited time. Perhaps I may ask a specific question, and the Minister for Syrian Refugees could address it if the noble Baroness cannot do so. The Government have said that they will put a specific emphasis on allowing orphans and children to come to Britain. Will she confirm that it remains the Government’s policy that they will be subject to deportation at the age of 18? We know that they can appeal against that, and the Prime Minister has said that there will be a presumption in favour of such appeals succeeding. Quite how that will work, I do not know. Can she imagine just how much insecurity that will create for those children’s education, not to have their future beyond the age of 18 clarified? Can she address that question directly?
My Lords, I will address that question. Those people coming under the Syrian protected scheme will have, after five years, the right to indefinite stay. Among them, there will be young people who, when they reach the age of 18, will have applied through the system and remain here because of their status as having been among the 20,000 people who we will bring into the UK and will be supported under the Syrian protected scheme.
My Lords, perhaps I am not explaining this very well. Among the 20,000 coming in, Syrian refugees of less than 18 years will be provided with humanitarian protection for five years under the scheme. Under the Syrian protection scheme, we will not be looking to remove any such child once they reach the age of 18. I hope that that adds clarity.
Will the Minister confirm an answer that was given this very day last week in response to a question about the number of further leave to remain refusals that have occurred to people formally granted temporary leave as children upon applying as adults? Those refusals rose from six in 2006 to 870 in 2010; whereas, after plateauing at 871 in 2011, they fell in each year of the coalition thereafter to 374 in 2014. I personally regard those statistics as encouraging.
I thank my noble friend for his intervention. However, I reiterate that the scheme we are operating, the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, is different from other schemes and, therefore, under this scheme, those reaching the age of 18 will remain.
My Lords, so that we can make progress, I think it would be easier if I write to the noble Lord and put a copy of that in the Library.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked about the structure of the Gold Command team announced today. The Gold Command has been established in the Home Office as a dedicated resource to ensure that commitment to resettlement is fulfilled quickly. It will report to the new Minister for Syrian refugees and will co-ordinate the response across government, the third sector and international agencies.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said that the Government refused to co-operate with Europe, as did a number of other noble Lords. I repeat that the Government are working very closely with EU partners, through the Commission, the Council and bilaterally. There are very many areas that we agree on and will continue to work together on: securing the external border and establishing hotspots, and providing real help on the ground and practical support to front-line member states. So it is wrong to say that we are not co-operating with Europe. However, we have taken a decision that we will operate our national response in this way. We think that it is the right way to respond to ensure that people are settled and supported in their own country, or in the region near to their country, so that they can then return when the conditions improve.
Somebody asked how the people coming will be accommodated. I remind noble Lords that we have a proud history, over many years, of being able to operate resettlement schemes. We already have established and effective networks to accommodate and support resettled people. However, we recognise that the increase in numbers will require an expansion of current networks and have an impact on local communities and infrastructure. We will need to manage that carefully. That is why it is important that we work with a wide range of partners, including local authorities and civil society organisations, to ensure that people are integrated sensitively into local communities.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell asked whether the 20,000 figure is a firm target. We have always been very clear that the 20,000 figure is not a target. Resettlement schemes must be designed to respond to need, not to fulfil arbitrary quotas. The figure will always remain under review. We will monitor the situation and do what needs to be done as we see fit.
I will just finish this point.
My noble friend also asked what we were doing to support minority groups as we have seen some horrific cases of attacks on Christians and other religious communities by violent extremists, including ISIL. I reassure all noble Lords that all UK-funded assistance is distributed on the basis of need to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or ethnicity. We want to prioritise reaching the most vulnerable people across Syria. That includes Christians and those who have suffered from such violence. We will continue to work with the United Nations and the international community to ensure that all minority rights are protected and that our aid reaches those who are in greatest need.
My Lords, I remember the question. I will need to go back and source the answer for the noble Lord. At this moment, I suspect that we are working with local authorities and so will not have a precise answer for him, but I promise to take the question back.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked why we were limiting the expansion to Syrians. It is important to note that by the end of 2014 Syria was the top source country for refugees: one in every four refugees was from Syria. It was right and proper that we focused our efforts there first. The UK has already run many resettlement schemes that do not restrict nationality, such as the Gateway Protection Programme and the Mandate refugee scheme that I mentioned earlier. The noble Lord also asked how the UK was supporting health education and economic opportunities for refugees in the region. UK support in the region is providing medical assistance for refugees in Lebanon. The UK is working alongside the Government to expand the education system to reach thousands of Syrian children and improve basic services. The Prime Minister’s recent announcement will double education support for refugee children over the next three years— £30 million over three years. We will continue to talk to host Governments to expand livelihood opportunities for Syrian refugees.
I was asked about support for the work of the Navy and new naval activity. The Royal Navy has today offered the warship HMS “Richmond”, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, to boost the Government’s efforts to tackle people smuggling in the Mediterranean. It will support a surge of EU activity to tackle people smuggling before the start of winter and we welcome all noble Lords’ support.
I was asked whether there was a buffer zone in Jordan or other neighbouring countries. There is no official buffer zone for Syrians in Jordan. There are processing centres to register all Syrians for these countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked whether those arriving would be allowed to work. Under the scheme, they will be allowed to work and access benefits. They will have a five-year settlement visa and be able to have all the rights that come with that settlement. They will be assisted in the first year by ODA money and will then have access to the benefits and education systems, social services and health services that any British citizen would. That will be available to them.
I was also asked about what we were doing to encourage Gulf states to contribute more to the international response. We have actively engaged with the Gulf states on the humanitarian response in Syria. The Gulf states continue to contribute generously to the UN Syria appeals. Kuwait has hosted three fundraising conferences for the Syrian crisis, raising billions of dollars. This year, some $3.6 billion has been raised at the Kuwait pledging conference.
I have a number of responses to get through but I am fast running out of time. I would like to end by saying that it is really important to recognise that the work that the British Government, the British people and our NGOs are doing is going a long way towards helping to provide support for desperate people, but it is not enough. We need to encourage others to rise to the mark because as we try to build a more stable and prosperous world, there will be greater need. We are leading the international community in our response, but the UK cannot do it alone. Where I have not been able to respond to all the questions that have been put to me, I offer to write. However, as always, we could have taken a lot longer over this debate.