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Refugee Crisis: Greece and Turkey

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat as a Statement the response to an Urgent Question in the other place regarding the situation at the Turkish-Greek border and the refugee crisis in Greece.

“We are concerned by the situation on the Greece-Turkey border. We should not allow this crisis to detract from the reality that has created it: continued brutal violence, particularly in Idlib, by the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters, which has driven millions of refugees into Turkey and beyond. On 3 March, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed this with their Turkish counterparts; we have also discussed it with the Greek Foreign Minister. Key to the situation is dialogue, so we welcome President Erdoğan’s talks yesterday on the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal with Council President Michel.

We will continue to support the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, as it is crucial in effectively managing migratory flows and preventing people risking their lives by attempting to cross the Aegean. At the same time, we recognise Turkey’s generosity and the burden of supporting millions of refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria. Both Greece and Turkey face additional challenges as a result of increased migrant flows. We are providing support for their response.

In addition to providing humanitarian assistance in Syria, the UK is providing interpreters on the Greek island hotspots and search and rescue operations in the Aegean. We are taking forward a range of capacity-building projects with Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management, and we are working across government to explore where the UK can provide further support to improve the conditions for migrants, especially the most vulnerable.

As I say, a principal cause of the migration situation is the reckless and brutal nature of the Syrian regime and the Russian offensive in Idlib. The Syria conflict has been one of the most destructive in recent human history, and we want the war to end as quickly as possible. We very much welcome the recent ceasefire between Turkey and Russia, but it cannot stop there. We also continue to support efforts to renew political dialogue in order to bring a lasting end to the Syrian conflict. We support the constitutional committee in Geneva as a first step towards obtaining the peace that the Syrian people so desperately need, and regret that the talks have broken down.

The regime and its backers must now demonstrate commitment to resolving this conflict by engaging in good faith with the constitutional committee and the UN’s efforts. Preventing a further worsening of the humanitarian crisis is imperative, and we will do all we can to support those in need while pressing for an end to the Syrian conflict that has impacted so many around the world.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that response to the Urgent Question. In the other place this morning, the Minister highlighted that the UK was one of the largest contributors to the humanitarian effort. The European Commission last week presented an action plan of immediate measures, including the provision of medical equipment, shelters, tents, blankets and other necessary supplies. Can the Minister detail to the House how the UK is working with our European allies to increase the humanitarian effort and to protect the welfare of those at most immediate risk of suffering, exploitation, neglect and abuse? I would be grateful if he could also tell us what discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on putting together a comprehensive resettlement plan to share the responsibility for this crisis across the EU and neighbouring countries such as the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord for his remarks. I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House—we have all seen the images and pictures from the border—in saying that the situation is deplorable, with desperately vulnerable people seeking refuge and security. I am sure our thoughts are with those who have suffered, particularly those currently on the border. He rightly raises the issue of UK support. Last week the UK announced a new package of £89 million in humanitarian aid to save lives and protect Syrians at increasing risk of violence in Idlib. This includes tents, foods, medical care and, particularly, support for women and girls.

The noble Lord is right to raise the importance of working with key partners across the piece, including the EU. As I said in my Statement, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly with the Greek Foreign Minister and we are working closely with the Turkish authorities, who are crucial in this respect. President Erdoğan is visiting Brussels and the purpose of those meetings is specifically to address this issue; I will update the House accordingly. Last week my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was in Ankara, where this issue was raised directly with the President of Turkey.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. The refugees are clearly in the most desperate situation, being bombed out of Syria, pushed out of Turkey and pushed back from Greece. Does he agree that this plays into the hands of people smugglers and is yet another crisis that must be tackled multilaterally?

Speaking of crises that cross borders, neither Turkey nor Syria has yet declared any cases of coronavirus. Does the Minister think this is plausible, given the situation in Iran, and does he agree that refugees and those in the camps will be especially vulnerable to the virus? What analysis is being made of its potential impact?

Then noble Baroness raises a very valid issue. Indeed, when I was being briefed, that was a specific question. As she will appreciate, the situation is fluid. While immediate medical attention is being provided, there is no exact figure for the numbers who may be caught up in the coronavirus crisis. As she will be aware, part of the issue is that Turkey has closed its border with its near neighbour Iran, for containment reasons. However, a specific assessment of the numbers has not been made. On the wider point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we of course continue to lead. For the past three years, the UK has been the leading nation, with close to a quarter of the refugees who have taken safe haven across the EU coming to the UK.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that the best cards are held by President Erdoğan, who, I understand, left yesterday’s discussions with Europe without any agreement. There are 4 million Syrians in Turkey, and there will be another million if Assad takes Idlib. If that great mass of humanity decides to walk north, as 1 million people did in 2015, there will be an enormous crisis. It would affect us as well, because there would be pressure on the channel ports. If that is the case, I hope the Government will not make comments from the sidelines but will be actively involved in trying to resolve the crisis. Coronavirus will be settled in time, but mass migration on this scale would create problems for generations.

Those are wise words from my noble friend and I take note of them. He is quite right: I agree that the challenge is not just to comment from the sidelines. That is why we have been proactively engaging; only last week, my right honourable friend met both the Foreign Minister and the President of Turkey regarding Syria.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are giving additional funds to Turkey to support the enormous burden it has been bearing. Will British support for that effort by Turkey continue beyond the end of this year, when we are no longer bound, as we are currently, by obligations under European law?

Having assumed wider responsibilities in DfID, I know that in 2019-20 we allocated £118 million for the crisis in the north-west of Syria. We continue to support that. The noble Lord rightly asked about the continuation of funding. As I said in response to a previous question, the additional £89 million we have announced reflects the changing needs on the ground. We will continue to review the situation and keep in mind whatever support we can extend, be it medical, shelter or support for vulnerable girls and women. That will continue to be a priority for this Government.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the whole world is looking on in shocked horror at people on the Greek-Turkish border being treated as political pawns in the conflict? Will he confirm that, recently, the Greek Government appealed to other countries to share the responsibly for refugees, particularly those who have fled the conflict and arrived on the Greek islands? What has been the British Government’s response to that request?

The noble Lord raises an important point. We have sought to assist, and I have referred to some of the support we have provided directly to Greece, including technical support for the islands impacted by the refugee crisis. We have also called on both Governments to continue their dialogue on this issue. In response to his specific question about taking our share of the burden, the noble Lord will be aware of the announcement of a new resettlement scheme, which will take 5,000 refugees this year.

My Lords, this appalling humanitarian problem is not helped at all by the underlying ambiguity of President Erdoğan’s position. First, he was buying missiles from the Russians, then he was using these missiles to shoot down Russian aeroplanes; and then he positioned himself vis-à-vis the Kurds, whom we have been supporting and training, as being very violently the other way. Can we not make the point to him that if he wants to be a good member of NATO and an ally, he needs to clarify his position and that of Turkey, which otherwise is causing considerable difficulties, all of which underlie this horrific situation?

I assure my noble friend that we continue to make the case with our Turkish counterparts. As I said, the Prime Minister has talked directly to the President of Turkey in this respect. Turkey has played a major role in providing support for refugees in this crisis fleeing the conflict zone in Syria, including Kurdish refugees. We continue to make the case for ensuring that the refugees are provided with safety, security and, in the current climate, support for their health needs.

My Lords, the first step to family reunion is to claim asylum. However, the Greek Government have recently decided to suspend all new asylum applications for at least one month. Given that some refugees will want to reunite with family members across Europe, including in the UK, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that children and families may still access their legal right to reunite with loved ones here in the UK?

The noble Baroness will know that the UK has a proud record of helping vulnerable children and has granted protection to more than 41,000 children since 2010. This will remain a priority. I cannot speak for the Greek Government; I can speak for mine. We have a proud record of preventing and supporting unaccompanied minors. That will remain a priority.

What diplomatic links do we now have with the Assad regime, and what we have done to try to change these attacks by the Russians and the Syrians on the enclave?

As the noble Lord will know, we do not have direct dealings with the Assad regime, for the reasons I have often stated from the Dispatch Box. However, as I said in the Statement, we have implored again that the important Geneva negotiations should recommence. In all our interactions, particularly with the Russians, we have stressed the need to bring all parties to the table. Ultimately, this crisis has been the result of the direct actions of the Assad regime in Idlib. It needs to end now.