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House of Lords Hansard
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05 December 2018
Volume 794

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support and provide resources for reconstruction programmes in Syria.

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My Lords, while the conflict in Syria is ongoing, the UK’s focus is on delivering life-saving humanitarian aid to those affected. At the same time, we are making every effort to achieve a political settlement that ends the suffering and helps provide stability for all Syrians in the wider region.

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I thank the Minister for his Answer. The needs in Syria today are both huge and urgent. More than 50% of medical and educational facilities are in ruins, as is some 30% of the housing. But some organisations are operating in Syria outside the Assad regime; for example: MSF, the White Helmets, Syria Relief and the umbrella body UOSSM. In addition, the ICRC, which holds a long-standing tradition of neutrality and therefore responds to need wherever it finds it, is doing what it can to ensure continued access to essential services including, in some areas, infrastructure services. These bodies cannot always tick all the boxes that DfID requires to release aid, but they do provide accountability through multiple networks at ground level. Will the Government commit to some flexibility in allowing aid via these channels, so that what infrastructure remains can be maintained and further deterioration prevented?

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Certainly I recognise the figures that the noble Baroness outlined about the damage to infrastructure, which were set out in the World Bank’s Toll of War report. I can also confirm that British taxpayers have contributed some £2.71 billion since 2012, making us the second-largest contributor—and this our largest response to any humanitarian situation. When funding goes into a conflict situation, there is a well-established protocol that extra layers of due diligence and tests are needed. If that is not the case, funding to provide humanitarian aid could be diverted into perpetuating the very conflict that we are seeking to resolve. That is the reason that the restrictions and tests are so strict, but we continue to keep the discussions under review and will hopefully work with respected partners in the future.

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My Lords, estimates of the costs of reconstruction range from $250 billion and $1 trillion. As Russia is responsible for much of the damage, directly and indirectly, has there been any indication at all that it is prepared to pay its share of the costs of reconstruction?

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There has not been any indication of that and, of course, the conflict is ongoing. It is vital that all parties to the conflict bring their efforts to bear to stop the ongoing suffering. We believe that, while the suffering and conflict continue, there cannot be a meaningful discussion about how to begin the reconstruction, because that requires a Government we can deal with, and we do not have one at the moment.

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What assurances do the Government have that funds going to programmes run by the UN via Damascus are carried out according to core principles of development and transparency, and do not benefit the Syrian regime’s cronies?

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As I was saying, that is kept under review by DfID, by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and by the National Audit Office. ICAI produced its report in May this year. It found that we were doing what we could in very difficult circumstances. The reality on the ground is that the checks that have to be made are being made in a context that is not Switzerland but Syria in the middle of a conflict situation. It is very difficult to get a 100% level of assurance while still helping people in need.

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My Lords, given the powerful words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales at yesterday’s service in Westminster Abbey to mark the contribution of Christians to the Middle East, and in particular His Royal Highness’s moving account of Christians returning to Syria to rebuild not only their homes and schools but their gifts to society—schools, orphanages and hospitals—can the Minister give an assurance that responsible organisations that provide support for returning Christians and other minorities also have the support of the Government? Will the Minister join me in commending the Muslim children who will be joining Christian children to light 1 million candles on New Year’s Day as a sign of their hope for their country and for a shared future together?

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I am very happy to do that. It is indeed a message of hope in this situation. I had the opportunity yesterday to meet some of the clergy and patriarchal representatives who were visiting that initiative. I pay tribute to all involved in organising it. Their stories of what was going on on the ground and what they had gone through were quite horrific and a testament to their ability to keep their light flickering in the darkness that surrounds them.

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My Lords, will the Minister ensure that adequate aid is given to the areas controlled by the Syrian Government? Many thousands of Syrians of all faiths wish to return to their homes in these areas because they are now safe from jihadist attacks, but they desperately need help with reconstruction. On a related issue, given that massive amounts of UK aid money has been given to jihadist-related organisations in Syria, as illustrated by the BBC “Panorama” programme, will the Government publish information on who are the recipients of UK taxpayers’ money?

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I must say to the noble Business that I completely reject the accusation that funding has been going to jihadist organisations. That is not borne out at all by the investigations that we have carried out. We have very strict procedures in place. But it is a terribly difficult situation and above all we need all parties to put maximum pressure on the parties to the conflict to rekindle the UN Geneva process so that we can move towards a credible political solution.

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My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s response in relation to ensuring ongoing humanitarian support. In this conflict that has to be our number one priority. Can the Minister update the House, particularly on the Rukban camp on the Jordan border, where we were able to get aid and support in at the beginning of November? What is the latest situation and what are we doing with the Government of Jordan to ensure that support is given also to those who cross the border?

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It is a particularly difficult situation there. One humanitarian aid convoy got in in November, but that is nowhere near enough to provide for the people there. We are seeking to remind the Syrian regime of its obligations under international humanitarian law to allow access. We are also working with Jordan and as part of that we will be hosting a Jordan conference in London on 28 February next year, where we hope to make progress on a whole range of those issues.