Skip to main content

Covid-19: Refugee Camps

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the response of international institutions to the impact of COVID-19 on refugee camps.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I am deeply concerned about Covid-19’s impact on refugees. The United Kingdom is at the forefront of the response and we have pushed to ensure that vulnerable groups, including refugees, are factored into international plans. We are working closely with international partners to provide dedicated support in refugee camps, including hand-washing stations and isolation and treatment centres. Partners are rigorously assessed before they receive funding, with robust checks and measures to ensure that they are delivering effectively.

My Lords, the head of the UN Refugee Agency warned earlier this week that Covid cases appear to be multiplying fast in Yemen. Almost 10 million people are one step away from famine and half the country’s health facilities have been destroyed. Can the Minister detail what we are doing in the UN and with allies to urgently support the people of Yemen?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important point. We have been at the forefront—he will be aware of the £744 million of UK aid funding which we have committed thus far to global efforts to combat the outbreak of Covid-19, split across three areas: building resilience in vulnerable countries, finding a vaccine and supporting the economic response. We are working with a raft of UN agencies, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, as well as UNFPA and UNHCR, to support refugees specifically.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan published by the UN and updated this month, which emphasises

“The importance of involving and supporting local organizations … given the key role they are playing in this crisis.”

In all areas where the world’s 70 million displaced people gather, faith groups and especially churches are often the only remaining organisations with reach from grass roots to leaders, but they are often ignored by international and relief agencies. In many cases, shortage of money and logistics hamper food distribution. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that faith-based local groups are fully involved by all international agencies in all aspects of relief, reconciliation and moral and spiritual support?

My Lords, what the most reverend Primate said resonates with me. I am a strong believer in the role of faith groups, particularly in the response to Covid. Specifically, we have, for example, allocated £55 million to established agencies such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as well as £20 million to international NGOs including Christian Aid. I share with noble Lords that I shall be convening a meeting of aid agencies working within the faith sector, to see what we can do in a more co-ordinated way across the world in our response to Covid-19, which will directly include faith leaders as well.

My Lords, I commend the Government on their commitment to provide £744 million to combat Covid-19 globally. I refer to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which I have visited. It is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, housing nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees. It is a well-run camp and several international institutions are providing help and support. Following the pandemic, there has been lockdown in the camp. Conditions are being controlled but the camp needs additional help. The UK Government have agreed to provide £55 million in aid for refugees in Jordan for a period of three years. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that aid will be continued, and that refugees in Jordan will have a share of the £744 million?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the issue of the camps—not just the Zaatari camp in Jordan, which I too have visited, but elsewhere in the world. Of course, measures such as social distancing cannot apply in those camps, so we have been applying practical measures such as hand-washing and sanitation facilities. I confirm that we will continue to support refugees across the world, including in our work with the Jordanian Government to support refugees from the Syrian conflict.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, I know that the Minister is well aware that 5.6 million Palestinian refugees are among those most at risk. Of course, this is mainly because of congestion, so what are the Government doing to respond to the $93.4 million appeal from UNRWA—UNRWA often gets left out of this scene—to make up the shortfall left by the United States?

My Lords, of course we are aware specifically of the plight of the Palestinian refugees. The noble Earl will be aware that the United Kingdom has increased its support for UNRWA, and we continue to support that agency for the vital support it provides to Palestinian refugees.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the “Panorama” programme earlier this week showing the conditions in some of the Greek refugee camps. He will have seen that, for example, in Moria, social distancing is impossible: if the virus were to get into that camp it would be unstoppable. The implications would be disastrous for the people in the camp, but equally disastrous for Greece and the rest of Europe, because it would spread from that camp further afield, so it is in our interest to help them. There are very few washing facilities there, and no social distancing is possible.

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to raise the issue of Greece. The UK is one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement states, resettling more refugees than any country in Europe. Specifically, we are offering Greece technical support to meet the challenges it currently faces and we regularly liaise with Greece on the challenges and burdens it is currently having to endure in relation to refugees within the country.

My Lords, given that cross-border aid delivery to Syria remains the most viable option for getting vital humanitarian aid into the north-west of the country, will the Government do all they can to urge members of the UN Security Council to reinsert the Iraq-Syria crossing at Yaroubiya as a named border crossing when Resolution 2504 comes up for renewal in July?

I can assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords of our commitment to Resolution 2504 and the need for an extension of the humanitarian corridors that currently operate in the north-west of the country.

My Lords, according to UNHCR, we need to pay urgent attention to the protection of refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls during this pandemic. They are among those most at risk: doors should not be left open to abusers and no efforts should be spared to help women surviving abuse and violence. What specific steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that refugee women and girls in camps do not become victims of abuse at this time?

My noble friend is quite right to raise this issue. I recently engaged in a virtual call with Pramila Patten, the SRSG on preventing sexual violence in conflict for the UN. I will be having further discussions on this to ensure that we give maximum support to girls and women who suffer because of conflict—and the Covid crisis brings this into focus.

My Lords, will the Minister pay tribute to the work of Translators Without Borders, which DfID helps to support? Its work with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, for example, found that older women have very limited access to information about Covid-19. It provides support in 89 languages, has produced a multilingual glossary on Covid to help health workers and monitors social media in multiple languages to eliminate fake or inaccurate data—work that no other international organisation undertakes. Will the Minister look positively at TWB’s need for more funding to leverage language technology to meet the needs of refugees?

My Lords, I fully align with the sentiments of the noble Baroness and of course I will look at all future funding requests.

My Lords, thousands of asylum seekers, potential refugees, are now unaccounted for in Libya, following hundreds being returned to the shore and many detention camps being closed as a result of Covid-19. Will the UK actively support safe, direct humanitarian evacuation corridors out of Libya in order to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable at this most difficult time?

My Lords, the noble Lord highlights an important issue around Libya and the conflict that continues to engulf the country. We are of course working with international partners to see what we can do in-country to reach a political settlement, as well as to provide support for the vulnerable, including refugees, in the country.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question, from the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill.