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Syria: Aleppo

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will join with other nations in assisting with the evacuation of the besieged inhabitants of Aleppo and surrounding areas.

My Lords, the UK is at the forefront of international action on Syria, including the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2328 on UN co-ordination of evacuations from Aleppo. The UK is not providing transport for these evacuations. We continue strongly to support UN action overall and the UK is the second-largest bilateral donor in response to the Syria crisis.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree with me that the immediate need is for safe evacuation and that a no-fly zone over Idlib would secure that safety, as well as halting any further destruction and killing? Will she press for this no-fly zone as a United Nations initiative? The people there need a safe and compassionate destination. The UK has pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Are the Government ready to move immediately to provide substantial sanctuary for these desperate people?

My Lords, I will address the two important issues raised by the noble Lord. With regard to no-fly zones, we believe that the priority is the protection of civilians in Syria. As I am sure he is aware, there are big challenges in any military option that need to be considered very carefully and in close consultation with our partners. That agreement is not forthcoming at present. The only real solution for peace and stability in Syria is a political transition to ensure that we have a stable Syria.

The noble Lord asked about the resettlement of 20,000 refugees, which this Government promised would take place during this Parliament. That is going ahead. We are keeping the pledge. I have direct information from individual authorities, including my own, about the care and attention they are paying to providing housing, medical support and education, as well as advice on access to employment.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the United Nations and the continued financial support. I hope the Government will keep under review offering yet further assistance in the form of hardware and personnel. Of course, giving full support to the United Nations means that the evacuation is vital but protection is as important. The protection of transport needs to be ongoing. Will she reassure the House that the Government will continue to monitor the situation and that they understand that war crimes have been committed, as well as the importance of gathering evidence?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I would stress that we keep in close contact with the United Nations to monitor the developing situation to see whether the aid we currently provide should be expanded or adjusted. To date, DfID has allocated £734 million to support vulnerable people inside Syria, including Aleppo. Funds have gone there. Indeed, just on 15 December the Prime Minister announced a further £20 million of practical support for those who are most vulnerable in Syria, including in Aleppo. Their protection is essential, both while they remain there but also when they are evacuated. With regard to pursuing justice for those who have suffered at the hands of those such as Daesh—and, indeed, Assad—I assure him that we are encouraging the international community to join with us in the campaign to bring Daesh to justice.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has just said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the collecting of evidence and the initiative that Her Majesty’s Government have taken at the United Nations. Can she share a little more about what mechanisms will be set up to ensure that once the evidence has been collected, we will be able to bring those who have been responsible for genocide or crimes against humanity to justice?

My Lords, it is important to recall that Daesh has committed these horrendous crimes not only within Syria but around the world. Earlier in Question Time, we remembered those who it appears died at the hands of two terrorist attacks just yesterday. I stress that while we will certainly engage with our allies around the world to see what judicial mechanism can be brought into play and how it can therefore be used effectively against all, regardless of their nationality, we also need to concentrate on the other aspects of the project launched by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary: to support the prosecution of those who commit crimes of terrorism in the name of Daesh around the world as well.

My Lords, in considering whether those responsible can be brought to justice, will the Minister recall that Messrs Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic were all, in turn, brought to answer for their behaviour to the International Criminal Court at The Hague?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to remind us of that. Indeed, I recall that some of them hid almost in plain sight during the years following their atrocities. We must hope that that does not happen this time, and we will be relentless in hunting the perpetrators down.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on all they are doing to give help in the area. The inhabitants being evacuated out of Aleppo will be very traumatised. I am delighted that there will be medical help for them, but will there be psychological help with the mental scars that they will all be suffering?

My noble friend raises an essential matter and I know that she has great experience of working through NGOs, such as GAPS, to assist those who have suffered these atrocities. The humanitarian assistance that DfID provides seeks to cover all aspects of the trauma suffered by those who are displaced, both those within Iraq or Syria and those who have fled those countries. Psychosocial help is essential. It is defined in different ways by different cultures and, indeed, by different individuals. It is also one of the most difficult services to provide because of its longevity. None the less, it is one of the most important.

My Lords, are members of the Government in dialogue with the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred earlier this afternoon? I suggest that such a dialogue could be extremely helpful in formulating and developing policy.

My Lords, much earlier this autumn, in October, I hosted a freedom of religion and belief conference which looked at the issues of how religion interfaces with counterterrorism work. I invited to the conference representatives from many faiths, which were well represented; but also, as a consequence, I was able each Thursday in the following weeks to meet representatives of Orthodox faiths from across the eastern area, including those, for example, from Damascus. I am most grateful to all those representatives of the Orthodox Churches who came to have conversations with me, most of which were confidential.

My Lords, the daily images on our TV screens tell their own story of indescribable despair pushing people out of the region. Does the Minister agree that a focus on tackling smugglers as a means of deterring refugees from coming to Europe is, to put it mildly, missing the point and grossly misguided? We already have refugees in Europe—for example, the children who have been moved out of the camps in Calais to other parts of France—who have escaped just this type of horror. I know of one Syrian who is still waiting in limbo in France. Can we not act more urgently for the people who are already here and able to benefit from our help?

My Lords, I know that my noble friend Lady Williams has answered many Questions on this point and set out very clearly the way in which we have acted urgently to help those who have been fleeing the conflict in Syria, and those who have fled from other countries as well. The vulnerable Syrians assistance scheme has been put in place and we have assisted those children who were unaccompanied. This is not just a British effort but an international effort, which is why we have ensured that we have led the world in the amount of money we have pledged to the Syrian conflict and its resolution. We will maintain that attention.