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East Africa: Refugee Crisis

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further action they are taking to address the ongoing refugee crisis and acute food emergency in East Africa.

My Lords, across east Africa the UK is providing life-saving humanitarian support, including reaching over 3.3 million people with food assistance and over 2.4 million people with water and sanitation. We are leading a new approach to support refugees, who are often displaced for many years, focusing on the provision of long-term investments in jobs and education.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I know that our humanitarian aid and our soldiers are making a huge contribution at the moment, as are the Ugandan Government, as he knows. However, my concern today is about security. This is one of the most dangerous places in Africa. He will recall that the United Nations almost overlooked the rapes and killings that were going on quite close to Juba in July last year. Can the United Kingdom do any more about this? Does the UN have it in its power to make this country more secure?

It is trying its best. It is a dire situation, to be quite frank, and some 80 humanitarian workers have lost their lives since the beginning of this crisis. The 400 British troops there are doing incredible work as part of the UN mission and are led very ably by David Shearer. There was a commitment last year at the UN for a further regional deployment of 4,000 troops. That needs to happen. However, ultimately it is for the Government and the Opposition to honour the ceasefire that was declared and to allow humanitarian aid to get through. We continue to keep that under review. Major General Patrick Cammaert undertook a review into the incident he talked about and we will continue to follow that inquiry very closely.

My Lords, I welcome the humanitarian aid that the Government are giving to east Africa but there are reports that the crisis is being used by some people to traffic women from east Africa into Europe. Can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to minimise this traumatic experience for some of the most vulnerable women?

It is a fact that that is happening. That is the reason why we are a party to, and led off on, the Khartoum process; why we are signatories to, and urging forward, the joint Valletta agreement on human trafficking, which was a follow-up to that; and why it is important that we work particularly with the African Union and European Union colleagues in that area to clamp down on this evil trade.

My Lords, the situation is appalling, the suffering is acute and the courage and resilience of thousands of people is amazing. I am glad that the noble Lord has been able to reassure the House that our humanitarian commitment is firm. However, would he agree that this situation is, sadly, a symptom of what lies ahead in the world, and that crises of this kind will recur, with inevitable pressures on Europe? Is not this the very time we should be working flat out with our international partners, not least in Europe, to think about the strategies we must develop to meet the crises that lie ahead?

The noble Lord speaks with great authority and understanding of these issues and I totally agree with him. We need to look at the underlying causes. This is sometimes portrayed in the media as a climate issue which has caused suffering to the people of this region. However, it is a manmade crisis, which needs a manmade solution. This means people putting their civilian populations first and protecting them, and the international community needs to come forward—as it did through the G20—with radical plans to bolster job creation, economic growth and security in that region so that there is the potential for peace in the future.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his responses. In the case of South Sudan, where conflict is the main cause of the crisis but it is also being further exacerbated by low rainfall, what is the UK doing in relation to internally displaced people? Perhaps I may also ask him to comment on the very different example of Burundi. Is this also an opportunity for him to say a bit more about how UK overseas aid is not a charity but is in our enlightened self-interest?

I agree with that assessment. In terms of what our aid is actually doing, at the basic level, during 2017 it will put 200,000 girls into education and help to construct and support 2,000 schools. It will provide food and medicine. We have committed £100 million to this crisis, which is one of the largest interventions that we have made. Moreover, we made it very early on and we have been leading in this area. What we are also trying to do is help refugees in neighbouring countries, where significant pressures are developing as the result of 2 million people having fled into them to escape from the fighting and violence.

My Lords, the situation in east Africa is truly awful and I commend the fantastic work that DfID and other UK agencies are doing there. The Minister will know that for every £1 we spend on preparing for disasters, around £7 is saved in recovery costs. I have two questions for the noble Lord. First, is DfID planning to increase investment in humanitarian aid for disaster risk reduction? Secondly, will the department commit at the very least to extending the excellent Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme when it expires in March 2018?

My Lords, we have not taken a decision on that particular programme, but I am happy to write to the noble Baroness once the processes have been gone through. This is at the core of what we do, and the humanitarian mission is absolutely critical in this area. We want it to be continuously strengthened. One thing that I am most proud of is that, in the case of Somalia in particular, we were there right at the beginning, and we led the initiative—because we know that sometimes there can be a lead time of months before much-needed supplies get to a region. We were starting our work in February, which has contributed to saving tens of thousands of lives in that particular country.