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UN: Individuals Displaced by Conflict

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had at the United Nations about the case for introducing an obligation on countries intervening in conflicts to accept a moral and legal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of individuals displaced by such conflicts.

My Lords, a range of obligations exist in international humanitarian law and international refugee law concerning the safety and well-being of civilians displaced by conflict. The UK consistently uses its diplomatic influence to uphold these protective laws and hold those who violate them to account. We work tirelessly with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other relevant agencies to ensure protection and humanitarian assistance are provided to individuals displaced by conflict.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but it does not go as far as I would like. It is important that any country contemplating military action in today’s world accepts full responsibility for its action. Twenty years ago, we invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein on the pretext that he was accumulating weapons of mass destruction. His removal resulted in brutal civil war between Shia and Sunni and a mass exodus of terrified refugees, genocide against the Yazidis and the emergence of ISIS and the Islamic State, leading to further mass killings and a still continuing flight of traumatised refugees to a hostile world. Then there was the debacle of Afghanistan. My request to the Minister is that the UK take a moral lead in working through the UN to make it mandatory for any country that embarks on conflict, causing an exodus of refugees, to accept full responsibility for their care and well-being, not only for humanitarian reasons but also to deter other countries from strutting their importance through the use of force in a smaller, interdependent world.

I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue and for the points that he has made, but we believe there is already a robust and comprehensive ecosystem of laws and norms to protect civilians displaced by conflict. However, he is right that the UK should use our position of leadership to highlight this issue politically and raise it on the global stage—and we do so. We regularly engage in UN discussions, including at UNGA and the UN Security Council, and underline the responsibility of all states engaged in armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law and international refugee law and act in accordance with our obligations under them. The UK has been one of the most consistent and loudest voices on the subject for some time.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for—I think—being clear that His Majesty’s Government still support the refugee convention, as I think he suggested that they are promoting it on the world stage. Will he commit to promoting it with his Home Office colleagues as well?

My Lords, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is a key partner for the UK. It provides protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees and other displaced persons. We have provided the UNHCR with more than £70 million in 2022-23, including £25 million for the Ukraine response.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the most evil and brutal invasion or intervention in recent years is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Does he agree that there is now a major moral responsibility on Russia to make sure that grain exports are facilitated?

The noble Lord makes a key point. We have repeatedly called on Russia through the United Nations to cease targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure and allow unfettered humanitarian access to civilians impacted by this illegal invasion. The lack of compliance with international humanitarian law contributes to displacement in Ukraine. As the noble Lord suggests, pressure must be mounted on Russia to take responsibility.

My Lords, I declare a voluntary interest as the UK chair of the peacebuilding charity Search for Common Ground. The UK is and continues to be a world leader in the “do no harm” principle, but the Independent Commission for Aid Impact highlighted a concern in its December report that:

“The UK government’s poor donor practice weakened results and increased the risk of doing harm”.

Has the FCDO had an opportunity to reflect on the ICAI report, and how will it ensure that we improve our delivery of peacebuilding services to ensure that we do not undermine the “do no harm” principle?

My Lords, the FCDO is a permanently evolving organisation. We always try to refine and improve the manner in which we make substantial annual investments. Despite the cuts to spending, which the noble Lord rightly raises on a regular basis, we remain a major partner to the UN and other multilateral organisations, while spending more bilaterally to allow us to focus on the UK’s highest priorities. We are providing £108 million in core funding to UN humanitarian agencies this year, which makes us one of the top contributors of unearmarked support. That includes £33 million to the UNHCR and £6 million to the International Organization for Migration, and we will provide a far higher figure through country-specific programmes.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the work of the United Nations General Assembly. In 2018, it affirmed the global compact on refugees, a framework for responsibility-sharing and international co-operation. Given that 83% of people who have been forcibly displaced are hosted in low and middle-income countries, can the Minister tell us how the Government will build on that compact at the Global Refugee Forum later this year?

I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the Integrated Review Refresh and the international development strategy, both of which were published recently, in which we reiterated our commitment to championing international humanitarian law. We are focused on protecting those most at risk, including from gender-based violence, and on barriers to accessing humanitarian assistance. We work closely with the UN humanitarian agencies, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council to promote compliance with international law, and will continue to do so.

My Lords, given the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, can it be right that the presidency of the Security Council is held by the Russians?

My Lords, I hope that I may make a valid point too, on the noble Lord’s assertion a moment ago on the amounts of money given by the Government to the UNHCR. I am off to Strasbourg on Sunday and will be debating the United Kingdom’s current immigration policy in its migration committee and in plenary. Granted the levels of support that have just been mentioned, I am interested to know why the UNHCR repeatedly, at length, in detail and according to law has set itself so fiercely against present proposals in the immigration Bill.

My Lords, there can be no doubt that there is an urgent humanitarian need to stop the small boat crossings. The UK Government have introduced legislation to prevent further loss of life by disrupting the business model of people-smuggling networks. Clearly, a system that enriches those smugglers and people traffickers is one that needs improvement. That is what we are trying to do. New approaches to these kinds of issues will raise new questions for the interpretation of international law. The UK will work openly and constructively to ensure that its new approach is fully compliant with international human rights, refugee and human trafficking protections. The legislation is about ending dangerous and unnecessary routes to the UK; it is not about denying protections to those in immediate, genuine need. We will continue to work with the UNHCR, not least through the financial contribution that I mentioned earlier, to ensure that those most in need can find sanctuary in the UK.

Do the Government believe that sufficient has been done to support those who were displaced in Afghanistan when we left so ignominiously in August 2021?

My Lords, the manner in which the situation in Afghanistan was allowed to change caused appalling humanitarian problems on a scope and scale that has rightly taken the attention of this House on many occasions. I make the broader point that, as we restrict illegal migration through the legislative pathway that I was just describing, we will do more to help people at risk of war and persecution by setting up safe and legal routes, as we have done in the cases of Syria, Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine. Since 2015, the UK has offered places and safety to nearly 480,000 people. The Government will commit to resettle a specific number of the most vulnerable refugees from around the world every year, working with local councils to understand their capacity for accommodation and support first and providing for the annual number to be agreed by both Houses.