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Syrian Refugees

Volume 765: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that they meet the Prime Minister’s objective that 1,000 Syrian refugees should be brought to Britain by Christmas.

My Lords, the Government have said that we want to see 1,000 Syrian refugees brought to the UK by Christmas. We are working closely with local authorities, international delivery partners—chiefly the UNHCR—and the voluntary sector, putting in place the plans and structures that will deliver this.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and the Prime Minister for his initiative. I also wish Tim Farron a good visit to Lesbos today. If they are coming under present regulations, does that mean that they will not be able to work for their first 12 months in this country? Does it mean that they will receive a subsistence allowance of £36 a week? Or is it a different regime?

It is a different regime. The whole point is that these people will be taken from the region, pre-cleared and identified as eligible for leave to remain in the UK. When they get here, they will have the status not of asylum seekers but of people who have leave to remain. They will have access to the benefit system and the labour market.

What sort of help are the Government going to give local authorities and voluntary organisations to provide the support that newly arrived asylum seekers would need? I speak from some experience from when I was with the Refugee Council, where we ran through a similar programme on behalf of Bosnians. They do need that sort of help.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that they need that sort of help. We have said that, for the first year, all the costs for people on this scheme, particularly those associated with housing, healthcare, social care and welfare will be reimbursed to the local authority from the overseas aid budget, under its rules. A discussion about year 2 onwards is going on between the Minister for Syrian refugees and local authorities which volunteered to be part of the scheme.

Does the Minister agree that the only long-term solution is a political solution to the Syrian problem? Will he update the House on any new efforts made by Her Majesty’s Government either to revive or to replace the Geneva process, which has been dead since February 2014?

My noble friend is absolutely right about this. We are treating the symptoms, but we need to address the cause, which is the carnage that is happening in the wider Middle East and particularly in Syria. A political solution has to be brought about by the international community working together in harness. So far, some 16 million people are in need of development assistance and 11 million people are displaced. At some point we need to get back to our focus of resolving the situation in Syria so that people can live there peacefully.

My Lords, I detect a kind of frustration at the moment around the fact that a good many people are very happy to help and willing to give homes to these refugees but find the process of working that out a little opaque and, frankly, at times overbureaucratic, while recognising that there need to be some bureaucratic safeguards. Will my noble friend comment on what the Government propose to do to make the process transparent and easily accessible to those who want to give genuine care to those in great need?

I recognise, of course, that the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that many people have been touched by the needs of people fleeing the violence in the region. Of course, many of the people that we are particularly looking at have been victims of torture and violence, have acute medical needs and are some of the most vulnerable and the offers that have been made may not be appropriate in those cases. However, Richard Harrington, the Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees, is working to compile a register of churches, faith groups and charities which want to make that generous offer of assistance. We want to make sure that it is as easy as possible for people to take advantage of that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most effective thing that the British Government can do is to help those Syrians in refugee camps around Syria? Much as we would like to have many thousands of refugees here, that is peanuts compared with the number actually suffering. To pick up the point he made earlier about the politics of this, we must work for some kind of solution in Syria. However, does he agree that if the Alawite regime in Damascus were to fall, there would be three dreadful consequences: the first would be the most appalling revenge killings; the second would be a massive increase in refugees; and the third would be a huge boost for ISIL, which is our enemy, which the regime in Damascus is not?

On the first point, about what we are doing to help in the country, of course, that is absolutely right. That is the position which the British Government have taken. We are saying that we do not want people to make this perilous journey across sea and land. We want people to stay in safe places within those countries. That is the reason why we are giving £1.1 billion—more than any other country in cash terms apart from the United States—and why we are urging our European partners to give another €10 billion to help in that area. We want to stop people feeling the need to make that journey and put themselves and their families at risk.

What I cannot quite understand is what the Government are doing to raise this issue specifically in Europe. It is absolutely essential that people who have suffered dire treatment should be treated with more humanity than is the case at present.

I assure the noble Lord that that is exactly what the Government are doing. We are urging our European partners to do more at source in this area. We are working with international partners, for instance in the UN Security Council, to pass the resolution which enabled our HMS “Richmond” to go into Libyan waters to start tackling the people smugglers at source before people make that dangerous crossing, so we are absolutely committed to working with European and international partners to try to find a solution to this awful, heart-wrenching situation.