Question for Short Debate
My Lords, no one can fail to be moved by the harrowing scenes that we have witnessed on the beaches of Greece and in the mud and rain of the Balkans. The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster of epic scale and biblical proportions. Europe has not seen such a forced movement of people since the end of the Second World War. The Syrian people are a proud people with an ancient civilisation. They are not leaving their country because they are economic migrants but because they have to. Four million people have left already, and more than 11 million, half the country’s pre-crisis population, have been forced to flee their homes. Overall, an estimated 12 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance, half of them children. The figures are mind-boggling.
The Minister will no doubt tell your Lordships’ House how much Her Majesty’s Government are already doing to help. The UK has committed over £1 billion in aid to support the refugees, doing more than any other European country, and is the second largest bilateral donor. Britain has provided over 18 million food rations, given almost 2 million people access to clean water, and provided education to 250,000 children. The Government have provided sanctuary to 5,000 Syrians in the UK, and promised to take in another 20,000 by the end of this Parliament. All these efforts are highly commendable, yet they provide no solution to a refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm Europe by its sheer scale. They partially address the symptoms while failing to offer a solution to the cause.
As the Prime Minister told the other place on 7 September last:
“This issue is clearly the biggest challenge facing countries across Europe today”.
He added that in helping the refugees, including those from beyond Syria,
“we must use our head and our heart by pursuing a comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences. That means helping to stabilise the countries from which the refugees are coming, seeking a solution to the crisis in Syria”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/15; col. 23.]
The issue here is that the Government appear to have no strategy whatever to stabilise the situation in Syria. In effect, we have contracted out our foreign policy in Syria to others. Without bringing peace to Syria, Europe will never stem the flow of refugees who are understandably fleeing the civil war, and facing death from both the Assad regime and its opponents. If the war continues, millions more will leave and head to Europe. The UK’s offer to take in 20,000 people will be less than a drop in the ocean.
In August 2013, the Government’s policy was to join the United States in bombing the Assad regime. Over two years later, the policy is to bomb President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, ISIL, ISIS or Daesh, if the other place allows it. Back in 2013, a historic opportunity was lost to work to achieve a diplomatic solution in Syria with the Russians, who managed at least to get the regime to give up most of its chemical weapons. Today, the West’s approach to the Middle East is in tatters. The policy of regime change in Iraq and Libya led not to democratisation but to chaos and a flood of refugees. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent, leading to yet more refugees heading towards the UK and Europe.
In supporting regime change in Syria and the removal of the indisputably brutal Assad regime, why does the West expect an outcome different from Libya or Iraq? In Syria, the West seems to have very quickly forgotten the lessons of history. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and UK trained and armed the mujaheddin, including a certain Osama bin Laden. We are still suffering the effects more than 30 years on. The US has spent $500 million in a programme to aid Assad’s rebel enemies, with the result that just four or five US-trained individuals are still in country, and some of the weapons that the US paid for ended up in the arms of ISIL, which is particularly barbaric, executing hundreds of people and beheading hostages—but other jihadi groups, such as the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, which operates in north-west Syria, are hardly benign.
The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between the Shia Alawite-dominated Assad regime, backed by Shia Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, against Sunni rebels backed by Sunni Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States. In the mix are the Kurds, detested by the Turks but one of the most effective fighting forces against the extremist Sunni ISIL. The allegiances are fluid, both between jihadi and rebel groups and their allies and opponents. To try to pick the “good guys” in such a struggle is not an easy task. Instead, the Government should make an effort to promote a political solution to the Syrian conflict. This may mean making a choice between the lesser of several evils.
US and Western policy to date to defeat or even contain ISIL has failed. We have all witnessed the tragic destruction of Palmyra’s irreplaceable antiquities and the growing threat that ISIL poses to our domestic security and well-being here at home. Some humanitarian groups have said there is no difference between Assad and ISIL. I would disagree; while both are barbaric, it is only the latter that poses an existential threat to our very society here at home. However bad Assad may be, he does not pose a terrorist threat on the streets of London.
There was an enlightening and erudite exchange on the Syrian crisis in your Lordships’ House last Thursday, when the noble Lord, Lord West, said:
“Unless we start to discuss and talk with Russia, Iran and—I am afraid—the butcher Assad, and all the coalition, we are not going to be able to put together a package that will enable us to destroy ISIL, which is the group that we have to destroy because it is the greatest threat”.
The noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, talked then about shooting,
“the wolf nearest the sledge first”.—[Official Report, 22/10/15; cols. 783-85.]
He meant ISIL—and he quoted Winston Churchill saying that if Hitler invaded hell, he would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, broadly concurred.
There has been much discussion about Russia’s aims in Syria, a country where it has had an alliance and a strategic interest since the 1950s. It is perhaps worth quoting Churchill again:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia: it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
What is often not quoted is the next line, which is,
“but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”.
We do not have time today to discuss Russian foreign policy. I have been following Russia for almost 30 years, and my books on Russia will show that I am not an uncritical friend of the country. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote that those who felt that Russia would follow the path of western-style democracy and a market economy were deluding themselves. I see the world how it is, not how I would like it to be.
There is scope for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Russia has no intention of turning it into another Vietnam or even Afghanistan. It seeks an exit strategy that maintains its bases and influence in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and the wider Middle East. It has stepped into the vacuum created by the United States, and it has genuine concern that the 4,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union fighting in Syria do not return home to further stir up Islamist fundamentalism. President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, at both the recent talks in Vienna and the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, talked about having broad discussions with all opposition groups to secure a political settlement. They also asked for co-operation and co-ordination from the West in the fight against ISIL.
It makes no sense, as the Times reported recently, to freeze out the Russians in the fight against our common enemy ISIL by refusing to share intelligence or co-ordinate air strikes against it. The Government should join a broad coalition to eradicate ISIL once and for all, and that means working with Russia, Iran and the Kurds to do so. I welcome the fact that Russia and Iran will be represented at tomorrow’s Vienna summit on Syria. The Assad regime, whether we like it or not, as the only effective opposition to ISIL on the ground, along with the Kurds, has to be part of the diplomatic talks to seek a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
On Tuesday, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 27/10/15; cols. 1093-94.]
I would like Her Majesty’s Government to be a bit more proactive on that score. In any event, we should prioritise the destruction of ISIL and the diplomatic peace process. Only peace will stem the otherwise inevitable continuing flood of humanity from Syria and its neighbouring countries to our shores.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, so vividly reminded us, the horrors in Syria continue. I am grateful to him for affording us another opportunity to look at what we can do to help the people caught up in this prolonged and vicious sectarian war. I declare my interests as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan and the Palestinian territories and as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians.
In our previous debate on the Syrian refugee crisis, I spoke of the desperate plight of the Palestinians of Yarmouk camp caught between Daesh and Assad’s forces, their only choice to stay and face near starvation and typhoid in the camp, or to chance their fate with the people traffickers, although for many even that horrific choice is unavailable as they simply do not have the funds to pay those evil people. The Minister wrote following the debate, and I am most grateful to her for her thorough and thoughtful reply. I am enormously grateful for the work of UK aid in addressing the immediate need for food and blankets for those fleeing the camp, and for the millions of pounds the Government have allocated to UNRWA to help the Palestinian refugees affected by the violence in Syria. Despite all this, their situation remains precarious, and they really are some of the most vulnerable people in this whole sorry mess. I wonder whether it would be possible for my noble friend to arrange a meeting with her and the Minister for Refugees, Richard Harrington, to discuss the Palestinians in Syria.
I shall spend my last couple of minutes on the Syrian refugees in Jordan. The world owes Jordan and the other countries surrounding Syria a huge debt for having so selflessly opened their borders to those in need. This has placed an enormous strain on their services and economies and that all-too-precious balance between helping others and looking after their own. On the third of this month I visited Zaatari camp in Jordan, which is situated just 10 kilometres from the Syrian border. I was proud of the new wells that UK aid and UNICEF have provided and of our work in providing education. I was enormously impressed by our DfID team in Jordan led by Jeff Tudor and by the international aid workers I met at Zaatari, especially the wonderful Hovig Etyemezian, the camp leader, but however good our aid, and however talented our aid workers, the people of Zaatari need hope, and that is in very short supply.
Many of the refugees had hoped that Daraa would fall and that they could return home, but that did not happen, and now the Russian intervention has led to more uncertainty. The young with no access to higher education or training and no prospect of a job have a stark choice: do they stay in the camp, do they return home—as one refugee put it, to “live, or to die quickly”—or do they set sail for Europe? Many of the younger ones are choosing the third option and starting to sell their land in Syria to raise the money to get to Europe. The provision of jobs is essential to stabilise the refugee population and curb the mass exodus to Europe, as is access to higher education and training, but it has to be done without taking jobs away from local Jordanians. That is why the Prime Minister’s visit to the camps last month was so welcome and so timely and why I hope that the talent that resides within DfID will be addressing these problems.
It is always easy to say we should do more, but I have been privileged to see just a tiny fragment of what the British Government and the British people are doing to support the Syrian refugees, alongside all our other commitments. We combine compassion with ingenuity and good common sense, and we can hold our heads high and be proud of our contribution to this heart-breaking situation.
My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for obtaining this debate. Aleppo has tragically been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of this war, which has destroyed an historic city which bears the marks of so many of the great civilisations of the past. The most sustained urban fighting of the brutal Syrian civil war has divided the city between Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the central and western neighbourhoods and the Syrian rebels, including various Islamist factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, in the eastern parts. Despite the city’s strategic location only 50 kilometres from the Turkish border and its role as a commercial hub, it is particularly important to the conflict because the loss of the city would deal a substantial blow to the Assad regime. It would entrench the demarcation line that has already emerged between the interior areas and regime-controlled areas around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, where the Alawite minority is concentrated.
Because of the city’s importance, Aleppo’s civilian population has been subjected to severe and sometimes indiscriminate violence from both sides of the conflict since mid-July 2012. This includes the regime’s infamous use of barrel bombs, which have claimed thousands of lives. As early as January 2014, the REACH Initiative, a UN-affiliated group focusing on humanitarian action, estimated that up to half a million people from the eastern side of the city were displaced due to the random bombardment of opposition-held areas by regime forces and the lack of basic services in the city. There are some estimates that, of the 1 million inhabitants of the eastern part of the city, only 40,000 remain. Given the severity of the bombing of civilian targets, will the Minister say what consideration the Government have given to referring those acts to the International Criminal Court?
The regime, Iran and Russia have largely focused their efforts over the past month on rebel groups in northern and central Syria, including those which have received weapons from the US. The assault they launched against rebels south of Aleppo earlier this month has allowed them to recapture some villages but has failed to substantively reopen the Aleppo-Damascus highway.
Tens of thousands of refugees have left Aleppo alone. On a recent visit to Lebanon I was able to see at first hand what that small country has done in taking in over 1 million refugees, 42% of them children. In Lebanese schools they now teach Lebanese children in the morning and Syrian children in the afternoon, a level of generosity humbling compared to the position of most European countries. I hesitate to make the comparison with what Europe has done or the UK, but could the Minister at least assure us that we will continue to support Lebanon generously and consider intensifying our support for children and education there?
This war has raged now for more than four years. Only with a political settlement can the refugee question be finally addressed as it was in other post-conflict situations where I served in the 1990s, such as Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. In this context I warmly welcome the talks beginning tomorrow in Vienna between the United States and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia is absolutely critical to advancing the cause of peace. Coming soon after the nuclear agreement with Iran, it is encouraging that the Government in Tehran are coming to the negotiating table. Equally, Saudi Arabia is to be commended for its willingness to sit with the Iranians, with whom it has been at odds for so many years. We must push for a negotiated settlement. I am pleased that the UK, together with Turkey, Germany, France and the Gulf states, is now attending. In this regard can the Minister say whether the Government are reviewing the level of representation that we have in Tehran with a view to announcing a new ambassador soon? This would send an important signal and would further advance the possibilities of peace.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, and his very wise words.
The great city of Aleppo was of course the beginning of the Silk Road but is now the beginning of a very different road for a large number of people who are now—quite rightly, from their point of view—trying to get out and are moving to other countries, particularly Turkey, and on to Greece and perhaps Bulgaria. There has been a lot of publicity recently about the position in Lesbos. That is not surprising, because of the Greek islands just off the Turkish coast, Lesbos has taken the most refugees. I have figures which suggest that it has taken 273,000 refugees this year—it is probably higher than that now, two weeks later. However, there are other islands in that area: Chios, Samos and Kos, which have taken 45,000, 63,000 and 69,000 refugees according to these figures. The figures suggest that Leros has taken 26,500, and only three days ago it took 730 in one day. People are being held up there by the bureaucratic necessity that is being put on them to register, and the situation in those islands is desperate.
From Greece, the refugees move on to Macedonia, Croatia and now to Slovenia. These countries are doing their very best to cope with the crisis within their borders; the crisis is nothing to do with them, it is not their fault, yet they are having to cope. Hungary has put up borders and is behaving in a way which is quite disgraceful for a member of the European Union. Croatia is trying to cope—they are building a new winter transit centre in Slavonski Brod as the desperately cold Balkan winters approach, but that will take only 5,000 people. How many people are trying to cross Europe now? Nobody knows, but we know that some half a million people have sought asylum in European countries this year already—I do not know how many of those are Syrians, but very many of them are—including all those who are setting off from their camps in Turkey and trying to cross the Aegean. Those who get across successfully are crossing Greece, the Balkan countries and Austria, which is now talking of putting up fences.
When my wife was looking at the internet to discover for me what the situation is for people crossing Europe she came across an astonishing Facebook site, which I will put on the record for anybody who wants to look at it. It is called People to People Solidarity: Southern/South-East Europe. It is full of stories of people—not necessarily the refugees but people across Europe who are helping the refugees trying to cross Europe. People in this country are collecting, making and buying stuff to send over there, which was the original purpose of the site. Some are organising transport in vans, not to Calais any longer but to Croatia, Slovenia and to wherever they think it is necessary; other people are flying to Greece and going to Lesbos. Some are volunteer drivers, others are going to provide help and support for people, and others are medical people who are going to give medical advice. There is a huge, spontaneous movement in this country of people who are trying to help.
However, one theme that comes across by reading the huge amount of experiences, questions and discussion on this Facebook site is that there is a lack of co-ordination, support and help for people trying to do their best. This at least is perhaps something the Government might look at doing rather better than they are doing at the moment. At present these people are on their own, doing their best, working together and with some NGOs, and they appear to me to be getting no support and help from the Government.
My Lords, I have the honour to be a patron of the charity Embrace the Middle East and visited Syria in May of last year for the enthronement of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Aphrem II, at Maarat Saidnaya, just outside Damascus.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for giving your Lordships the opportunity to discuss this pressing matter. With over half its population displaced, Syria is now a land of the dispossessed, and we are looking at a topography of dust, rubble and dried blood. This is the land where we read in Acts that the designation Christian was first used but where all minorities are now especially vulnerable in the particular context of the destabilisation of the state. We are witnessing a humanitarian disaster in slow motion, with repercussions which are impacting on many nations including our own.
Some in your Lordships’ House can speak with more expertise than me on diplomatic process, military options and geopolitics. Noble Lords will know of the Bishops’ letter to the Prime Minister, which called for a more generous response on the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict who will come to this country during the life of this Parliament. Today, however, I will concentrate on two areas only. One is the condition of the refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria and the second is the role that development agencies and churches are playing in the region and within Syria itself.
I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s Government for their financial commitment, which in bilateral terms is second only to that of the United States, which is a far larger economy. Indeed, UK government aid to Syria is significantly ahead of our European partners, although of course the refusal to work with other European Governments with regard to the migrants now in Europe significantly reduces their authority in encouraging others to help with aid in the region. I do not say that Her Majesty’s Government cannot do more, but it has done a great deal through DfID to help to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people in Syria and of refugees in the region, although it needs to be noted that the UK’s investment overseas in aid will decrease given the Government’s decision to use the aid budget to meet the costs of the 20,000 Syrian refugees to be brought to this country. Nevertheless, there is a pressing diplomatic need for the Government to pursue: it is for our European and international partners to invest more heavily in aid to the region in a way they have not done before. Why? The answer is simply that life in the refugee camps is not sustainable on the current levels of funding. No amount of resettlement will mitigate the continued failure of the international community to address the refugee crisis at source. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has calculated that for what was needed in the way of humanitarian aid, in three successive years the amount raised fell—from 71% in 2013 to 57% in 2014 and to a mere 37% by October this year.
What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children about this conflict? They will talk of cowering in flimsy houses while watching the regime’s barrel bombs fall, of watching beheadings and crucifixions of family members at the hands of ISIS, of payment of the extortionate jizya tax as humiliated minorities, of the deadening existence in refugee camps and of hazardous journeys to foreign lands. All will have stories that reflect the trauma of this avoidable tragedy. A recent study by the University of Saint Joseph shows that in Lebanon 24% of Syrian refugees are getting married before they are 18 and are becoming more vulnerable as a result.
Secondly, parishes and churches in this country are continuing to support a range of charities and mission agencies at work in the region, including Christian Aid’s Syria emergency appeal. The Jesuit Refugee Service may well be the largest Christian organisation working in and around Syria, serving, by its own estimates, nearly half a million people in the region. Our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, is also active in Jordan and Lebanon, supported by the British charity Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association.
I recognise that mass resettlement is neither possible nor desirable. The English bishops share the concern of the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo but also distinguish themselves from him on a number of points.
In conclusion, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, I note that the Home Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party conference, made a commitment to community sponsorship schemes to bring refugees to the UK. It would be good to know from the noble Baroness in what way this is being taken forward. I trust that Her Majesty’s Government will persist in their generosity in this crisis. The United Nations’ humanitarian summit in 2016 may prove such an opportunity, not least in seeking to restore some sense of international order in dealings with refugees. I would therefore also be glad to know from the Minister what steps are being taken to use that summit early next year to regalvanise the international community’s commitment to refugee protection and support. Lastly, what steps are being taken to reverse the declining mobilisation of funding for the UN humanitarian effort?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for giving us the opportunity to speak in this highly important debate. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for the extraordinary work that her department has been undertaking. In my remarks I will focus not on aid but on some of the other broader issues, so perhaps if the Minister cannot answer me without a departmental input immediately, she can ensure that written answers are provided to me.
My first question is a very simple one. What are Her Majesty’s Government’s plans for the aftermath of the current violence in Syria? We are faced with a society that, for whatever reason, has disintegrated. The international record of rebuilding societies in the Middle East and north Africa is not a good one. I would single out the United Nations, which, despite its immense attitude of well-meaning for the public good, is essentially powerless—people can just choose not to obey it. Sometimes the United Nations’ concepts in the region seem to be almost wholly unrealistic. I recall with pain and grief the first election in Afghanistan. The enormous complexity of the electoral system that the UN itself put forward was such that, when I invited the UN to comment on it privately—I was monitoring the election—I was told that it was a system that had never been tested anywhere in any democracy in the globe, yet it had been put in a country that had never had democracy in its entire history. So the record of the United Nations in rebuilding disintegrated societies in this region is not a desperately good one.
That leaves us with the coalition. I do not think that the different coalitions have proved adequate for this particularly complex and difficult task. You have only to look at Yemen collapsing, as it is, or at Libya. Indeed, there are other nations in the region and elsewhere where coalitions which come together to try to create peace are not equipped to rebuild a society. A good example of how that can be done is the European Union enlargement process. It is highly detailed and long-running, and is very descriptive of what should happen. I ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans we have for rebuilding Syria when the aftermath of violence has calmed. We must remember that the military make the space, but the question is: who will fill that space? Whom are we planning to put into that space? I suggest that the only people who could really rebuild the society are the people themselves.
I come to my second question. I had the opportunity recently to bring over to the United Kingdom three Yazidi victims. Mercifully, thanks to the good efforts of Germany, they are now in Germany or on their way there. Why are Her Majesty’s Government looking solely at Syrians? As I said a year and a half ago in a speech to your Lordships’ House, it would appear that genocide is being carried out against the Yazidis. Last night I was at the service in Westminster Abbey for the Armenian martyrs. We have a huge track record in Britain of picking up those who suffer from genocide. I ask Her Majesty’s Government very seriously: why not the Yazidis? It will be very difficult for them to return to any former home once the calming has taken place, as we anticipate it will.
My final question is a very simple one. In Germany there is a huge programme for the integration of refugees as they arrive. The Yazidi victims—the young ladies whom I hosted here—were in German language classes within a week of arriving there. They have futures: they may well go to university, and they are being offered training, jobs and skills development. I saw a similar excellent programme recently in Utah, America, called Pathway. It is run by LDS Charities, headed up by Sharon Eubank. It is a non-governmental programme and does not take any national or local government funding. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have for the real integration of the refugees whom we take here? I believe that the plans should be transparent and open, and I firmly believe that the plans for reintegrating institutions, civil society and a community in Syria should be just as open and transparent. May we have sight of those plans now? I urge the Minister to speak.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and her very wise words. I agree with a lot that she has said. Above all, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for taking the initiative in launching this debate. It is extremely timely, with the tragedy that has been laid out so clearly in the speeches that we have already heard. I agreed with most of them wholeheartedly, particularly those that set out the tragic statistics of this later stage—the refugees, the deaths and so on—and the great tragedy of the disintegration of Syria, which has always been a very great country. Therefore, it behoves us all to think very seriously about how we resolve these matters.
I am also saddened by looking back at the examples of how the West has miscalculated so much on these foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere, but mainly, and tragically, in the Middle East itself. I am going back a long way now and thinking about the 1 million, or maybe even 1.5 million, people marching down Piccadilly to object to the Iraq war. I was one of them. There is a notion that there was another motive behind the war and not just the ones that were stated at the time. Regime change was hinted at last week by a very prominent international figure who used to be the Prime Minister of this country. That, as we know, is illegal under international law unless it is certificated in advance by the United Nations through the appropriate machinery and resolutions. That did not happen in that case. Saddam Hussein before then had invaded Kuwait and quite rightly was expelled by the international community, with the United Nations leading the way, a year later. I am a life-long admirer of the state of Israel, but I find it rather peculiar, in contrast, that Israel is still in Palestine, 50 years after the 1967 war, because of the way in which the United States has allowed that to happen and international law to be violated in that way by the key democracy in the Middle East, which is Israel.
None the less, we look now at the results of the West’s mistakes in Iraq and what happened there. Whether the eventual judicial murder of Saddam Hussein was right or wrong is a very interesting question and a difficult one to answer properly. The situation in Syria is that Assad is still in power. Even if one finds a regime obnoxious and the leader of that regime even more obnoxious—people have different views on that—it is not for the West to determine who is in charge of running a country or how a country is run; that is for the United Nations to determine. Look at the situation in Libya. Again, having had a friendship agreement with Gaddafi, he was then killed by his opponents in Libya, which was regarded by many as a good thing. But is it a good thing when those countries are now broken countries? They are not operating properly at all, and that is partly the responsibility of the West, led by the United States, which has made many mistakes in the Middle East. Thank goodness that now, at long last, the United States has agreed to let Iran attend the conference. It took a long time to be persuaded, but now Iran and other parties essential to this will be there to try to resolve the problem.
I believe that the problem can be resolved, but only with a different approach. Church leaders, and Christian Aid’s excellent memorandum on the subject, called this approach an “inclusive peace gathering” to achieve peace in Syria. It cannot be selective, with some people excluded and others included. That is a great mistake in the West, and the more we do it, the more mistakes we make. It must be put to an end now.
I make my final request to the Government, echoing what the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said: we must be more generous in taking more Syrian refugees than the figures that were enunciated for the five-year period to 2020. In comparison with other European countries, this is a very niggardly number. Once again, church leaders are quite right in saying that the number should be at least doubled, and perhaps more than that. There is a lot that we can do to resolve the situation with humanity and common sense.
My Lords, I was a little puzzled by the introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, to a debate on the strategy for tackling the refugee crisis, in the light of the current violence in Aleppo. It seemed to me that he focused on the Russian narrative of how the conflict began and how we had to accept the Russian terms for resolving the conflict.
We will leave that to one side. I simply say that I do not accept his interpretation of the origins of the conflict.
On the immediate crisis, we see that Aleppo, the largest city, is now being substantially destroyed by barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian Government in Russian-made helicopters and by Russian planes that are bombing rebel forces in Aleppo and not ISIL. We know that that is going to lead to a further surge of refugees leaving the country. The weather is now turning worse—I am told that the temperature in Damascus and Aleppo goes down to minus 10 degrees or lower in winter—and there is no heating. They will try to get to Europe, and many more will die on the way because it will be cold, and next summer, we will face a very large surge. That is the immediate issue and concern for us. As some of us were saying to the Russian ambassador last week, “We have interests in what you do in this conflict, because the refugees will not try to get to the Crimea; they will try to get to Europe”.
That is where our immediate concerns have to be and we have to deal multilaterally with all the other actors in the conflict: supporting the Lebanese and the Jordanians; encouraging the Turks—whatever is happening in Turkish politics—to maintain their assistance; and saying to the Saudis and the Gulf states that they also have to accept their share of the responsibility and their contribution to a multilateral solution.
The violence that the Syrian state has conducted against its citizens is horrifying. When I saw pictures of Yarmouk, a part of Damascus that I visited seven years ago, and how appallingly it now has been almost completely destroyed, I was horrified that a state could do that to its own citizens.
The question is: how do we begin to work towards a situation in which we resolve this conflict, before Syria becomes a country in which only a very small minority of its 22 million people feel it is safe to live? It of course has to be by a multilateral approach, and certainly we need to include the Iranians, the Saudis, the other Gulf states and the Russians. As a country, we need to approach it in the way that we approached our negotiations with Iran—as the E3. That was very effective, with William Hague, his French and German counterparts, and the European Union special representative working multilaterally.
This morning, I heard Kate Hoey on the “Today” programme say that the one thing in which we do not want anything to do with our western European partners is foreign policy co-operation. Frankly, without foreign policy co-operation, we will not get anywhere. In the Middle East we have to work with our neighbours and our partners and say to them that they should be contributing more financially to the immediate effort for the refugees, but we have to work with them also in trying to build a multinational coalition.
An immediate concern has to be the refugees. We have to anticipate that it will get worse next spring and summer. We have to attempt to persuade the Russians that what they are doing—assisting the Syrian state to destroy those parts of Syria that have not yet been destroyed—is absolutely wrong-headed. Let us remember that ISIL now controls the most thinly inhabited parts of Syria. The areas that are being fought over by the other non-ISIL rebels and the state are the heavily inhabited parts. Beyond that, we have to attempt to negotiate with the major Middle East states, as well as with the Turks, the Russians and the others, to find a solution that will not be easy to reach.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for initiating this timely debate, especially with international talks resuming in Vienna today and with Iran joining them tomorrow.
The Syria war has killed a quarter of a million people, contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and become a breeding ground for Islamic State and other extremist groups that threaten not only Syria but its neighbours and all the powers supporting one side or the other. Desperate conditions in the refugee camps are driving more and more to risk their own lives and that of their families to reach Europe.
But, as we have heard others ask, what of the strategy? A June summit resulted in a voluntary agreement to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from front-line states. August saw the western Balkans emerge as the route from southern to northern Europe. The Vienna summit of regional leaders did little to prevent Hungary and Macedonia unilaterally stopping migrants from crossing their borders. In September, there were two more summits, at which a majority vote finally pushed through the use of mandatory quotas to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states over two years. There were also pledges of more aid for regional responses to the Syrian crisis, particularly in Turkey—the main launch point, as we have heard, for Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. This month, October, EU leaders backed an action plan to offer Turkey various incentives in return for its co-operation in stemming the numbers of migrants and refugees boarding boats for Europe from its coast. Next month will see the major summit in Valletta, in Malta, which will focus on gaining more co-operation from key origin and transit countries, particularly in Africa. What sort of agreement with the African countries does the Minister hope will come out of Valletta? What incentives and support will be given in return if one is achieved?
I, too, pay tribute to the support provided to the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but clearly we need to apply pressure on other European countries to increase spending so that the current cuts to the World Food Programme budget are halted. Britain is the biggest donor, but this effort needs to be matched by other EU countries in order to provide adequate financial assistance. Perhaps the Minister can outline what the Government are doing to encourage other donor countries to give their fair share in addressing the refugee crisis.
Finally, as we have heard in the debate, the Prime Minister told the other place in September that the UK will now accept 20,000 Syrian refugees, but over the course of this Parliament. The crisis is getting deeper and deeper. In light of the deteriorating weather conditions in Lebanon, how many refugees do the Government plan to take from the camps before Christmas?
I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for securing this debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. It is a short debate, but it has been a very well-informed one. We could have spent much longer discussing the issues that we all feel so passionately about. The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, has pointed out a number of things that DfID and the UK Government are doing but, as with all these things, it is good and right that we remind ourselves that as a country we have taken the lead in many areas in ensuring that we persuade others to make their mark to try to help those who live in such terrible conditions, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said.
In Syria and the region, the Syrian conflict has taken a terrible toll. The humanitarian crisis has reached catastrophic proportions. The UN estimates that 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and almost 4.2 million refugees are in neighbouring countries. The UK has a proud record of leadership on the response to the Syrian crisis. As has been pointed out by a number of noble Lords, we have pledged more than £1.1 billion to date. That is our largest response to a single humanitarian crisis. Again, as was rightly pointed out, we are the second-largest bilateral donor after the US. By the end of June 2015, our support in Syria and the region has delivered almost 20 million food rations. Each ration feeds one person for up to a month. We have provided more than 2.5 million medical consultations and access to clean water for 1.6 million people in Syria.
We have been at the forefront of efforts to push the United Nations and other agencies to co-ordinate better and deliver more effectively. There have been substantial improvements in co-ordination which have saved lives over the past year. We have also co-sponsored and lobbied hard for UN Security Council Resolutions 2165 and 2191, which have enabled the UN to deliver aid across borders without the consent of the regime. By 30 September this year, the UN and its partners had delivered 189 convoys of aid across the border since the adoption of Resolution 2165 in July 2014. These convoys of aid have helped to provide food, blankets, water kits and vital medical supplies to thousands of people in Syria.
Furthermore, the UK continues to play a leading role in encouraging the international community to make generous pledges in response to the humanitarian crisis. We have lobbied hard and mobilised funding from other donors ahead of the third Kuwait pledging conference in March, which raised $3.6 billion. Now we are exploring with the UN and other major donors how best to ensure that the momentum on fundraising is maintained over a longer period, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about.
Longer term, Syria needs hope and opportunities. To increase Syrians’ prospects of being able to stay in the region close to home, specifically we need to give Syrian children education and the adults the chance to earn a living. That is why the UK helped to launch and continues to support UNICEF’s No Lost Generation initiative to provide education protection and psychosocial support for children affected by the crisis.
We are also scaling up our support for longer-term stability and resilience-building work inside Syria and neighbouring countries, which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, asked about. It is not just about the now, but about the rebuilding once this crisis is resolved—sooner rather than later, we hope. We want to make sure that we help to expand job and education opportunities for refugees and assist with the impact on local services. All that requires a long-term sustained and scaled-up commitment from donors.
The conflict in Syria has intensified in recent weeks with major regime offensives on several fronts, with Russian air support. One such front is Aleppo, as the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, identified. Hundreds of thousands of people living in areas under the control of armed opposition groups are at risk of displacement. The United Nations and NGO partners are reviewing and revising the Aleppo contingency plan. A negotiated political settlement in Syria has never been more pressing. The worsening conflict has already led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed, and left millions in need and displaced from their homes. It has created space for extremism to spread through the region and beyond. Political transition by mutual agreement of the Syrian parties, supported by the international community, remains the only way to bring about sustainable peace in Syria.
The UK’s vision for Syria is for an open democratic society with greater social, economic and political participation, where violent extremism does not have a place and where refugees will feel safe to return. To that end, the UK has committed more than £84.5 million to support governance, security and livelihoods in Syria and the region. In particular, we have trained and equipped civil defence teams to carry out search and rescue operations, trained Syrian journalists and activists to help develop an independent Syrian media, and funded local-level peacebuilding projects within Syria and between communities in neighbouring countries where refugees are based. We are also supporting the Free Syrian Police, which is responsible for providing basic civilian policing in large areas of opposition-controlled territory.
A great range of questions has been asked today. I will endeavour in the remaining five minutes or so to answer as many as I can. However, in the event that I do not, I undertake to write to all noble Lords and place copies of those letters in the Library.
The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, said that the emphasis should be on a political solution. I could not agree more. A negotiated transition in the Syria area is the only way to end the conflict and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Political dialogue remains active between the UN and the international community, but we have to make sure that those who are in this conflict do not add to the complexity. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said, it is really important that debates and discussions are held collectively with a common goal of peace for the people in that region. Ending the conflict in Syria and addressing the national security threats posed to us from there will of course take time, resolve and determination. Defending our national security means that in Syria we must support moderate groups and tackle extremists and the drivers of extremism. That does mean tackling ISIL directly, as we and our allies are doing, and there is a case, of course, for doing more. In parallel with that, we must put pressure on Assad. We need to build the conditions for political settlement and a Government who can represent all Syrians. The only way that will happen is if we work together to undermine the extremists and defeat ISIL in the long run.
I know that my noble friend Lady Morris is incredibly passionate about her work. She asked a number of questions about what she has seen being done with Palestinians in Syria. As my noble friend is aware, we have been supporting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other UN partners for Palestinian refugees in the Near East to ensure that the needs of highly vulnerable Palestinians are addressed both within Syria and in neighbouring countries. To date, the UK has allocated approximately £59 million to UNRWA to provide food parcels, relief items, hygiene packs, education and cash assistance for Palestinian refugees affected by the violence. She asked if I would agree to a meeting with herself, a group from the Refugee Council and Richard Harrington MP. I am happy to do so and I will ask my office to contact her directly to put the meeting in place.
As is the way with these things, I am running out of time so I need to gallop on a little to address a few more questions. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about our support for Turkey. We have allocated £34 million for programmes supporting Syrian refugees, including the provision of food, shelter and primary healthcare, and we are working in partnership with multiple Turkish institutions on targeted projects in order to build capacity to target irregular migration. He also asked about the cuts made to the UN World Food Programme. As I stated earlier, we are the second-largest donor to this programme. Since the start of the crisis, we have committed £227 million to provide food support in Syria and the region, but we acknowledge that the needs continue to grow and that the UN World Food Programme is underfunded. We will be working to secure more funding with our partners, but we know that we need to direct what we are delivering into the areas where it is most needed and encourage others to do the same. The noble Lord also asked me how many people we will have taken in by Christmas. I think that the number in my brief is 1,000, but I will correct it if it is not.
I have run out of time and I still have a huge bundle of questions to go through. I apologise that I have not been able to answer them all, but I think that we all realise that a transition away from Assad to a more inclusive Government who can represent everyone is what we envisage the Geneva process delivering. We will continue to work with our international partners and, as I said earlier, I undertake to write to all noble Lords.