I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and its effect on the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank all hon. Members who have made the effort to come to Westminster Hall on such a lovely day. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), in her place and look forward to her contribution. I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to his new post and very much look forward to his response to the debate. When he held other ministerial posts, we held him in high esteem. We still do, and we look forward to hearing a comprehensive response, like those he has given us previously in reply to other matters.
The persecution of religious minorities in the middle east and its effect on the UK is a massive issue. It is one that we are greatly concerned about and one that we want to debate fully. I speak as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, in the knowledge that this human right—a right for all—is key to stability in the middle east. I shall talk about that freedom in the middle east and the effect on the UK. I make this speech very much on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters who live in the middle east. They have been persecuted over many years and their numbers have been greatly reduced. Other Members present will be aware of that and may wish to address it in their contributions.
While we watch, and are deeply saddened by, the recent horrific terrorist attacks that have rocked the world—in Nice, Dhaka, Medina, Baghdad and Istanbul, among other places—we must continue to bear in mind those throughout the middle east whose lives have been radically changed forever. We think especially of people in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, 1 million Christians have been displaced and dispersed all over the world. Just on Sunday past, I was talking to a gentleman from Canada who told me that Canada has taken in 30,000 Syrians, many of them Christians. Other countries around the world have also taken in Syrians. Many of those 30,000 will never return home; they will be settled in Canada and wish never to go back to their home country.
We are very aware of the situation in Iraq, which is one of those countries in which Christians are a small minority. Where do they feature in an Iraq where Christians are attacked or murdered and their churches destroyed? They are under a lot of pressure when it comes to education and employment. The Iraq displacement tracking matrix found that, between January 2014 and 22 June 2016, there were more than 3.3 million internally displaced individuals—more than 550,000 families—dispersed across 100 districts in Iraq. Such has been the impact of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in the middle east. I shall also discuss other religious minorities, because so many people are displaced and/or under pressure.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an issue that is so very important, not only to us parliamentarians and the wider community, but to Christian communities in the middle east. Does he agree that we would like the Minister to say in his response that the Government will utilise all their diplomatic and trade links to protect religious minorities from persecution?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for pre-empting a later part of my speech. When we give aid to countries around the world, we need to ensure that it goes fairly to all people in those countries. We have previously debated spending by the Department for International Development, and I want to make it clear that we support that spending and the commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Alongside the aid that will go to the countries and whatever trade agreement is established, there needs to be an agreement on the persecution of Christians, and if that is breached or infringed, there needs to be a proper investigation and those found guilty need to be held to account.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, which I know many of my constituents are following closely. Does he agree that the UK can use its authority to ensure that there is respect for human rights and for political and civil rights in Syria, Iraq and the wider middle east? We must ensure that enforcement of the international covenant on civil and political rights is seen as a fundamental that we expect to be upheld in countries to which we are offering aid and support.
I thank the hon. Lady for those wise words. That is exactly what this debate is about: the opportunity to consider human rights in the countries to which she referred and throughout the middle east. We will mention some others in the course of the debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being most generous—and congratulate him warmly on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we need to know the extent of the problem in terms of people coming to the UK? Is he aware that the Home Office does not compile statistics on claims for asylum on the basis of religious persecution? Does he agree that we should perhaps consider doing so?
I shall address that issue later in my speech. The all-party group of which I am chair recently published a report called “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which contains lots of information. In it, we make 10 salient points that we feel are important. We will hold a meeting with the new Minister to discuss these matters and ensure that those points are taken on board. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak to them later in the debate as well.
Weak governance in Syria and Iraq has left societies in which violent terrorist groups wreak havoc and implement their own rule of law and punishments, in blatant violation of international human rights standards and law. Although it is not a legally binding statement, last month the UN commission of inquiry on Syria determined that Daesh is committing genocide against Yazidis. The commission also found that Daesh’s abuse of Yazidis—a small ethnically Kurdish religious community—amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am sure he would agree that Daesh’s archaic interpretation of sharia law permits the enslavement of non-Muslim women and children. Such enslavement has been suffered by Yazidi people, as well as others. Treating people as the spoils of war is a war crime. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Minister to ensure that the UK plays its part in making sure that evidence is available so that the International Criminal Court can bring rapists and enslavers to justice?
The hon. Lady feels, as we all do, very passionately about the Yazidis and the terrible crimes, brutality and violence that have been carried out among them. We will have the opportunity to speak about that; I intend to discuss it later in my speech.
We had a number of meetings, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and, I think, some other Members were present. One could not fail to be moved by the stories that were heard—they were heart-wrenching and would have made a grown man cry. Many of us did shed tears for those who are under threat, face discrimination or, indeed, fight for their lives.
But it is not just the Yazidis who are suffering, it is the ancient religious communities, including the Syriac Catholics, the Mandaeans, the Baha’is, the Shi’as and Sunnis alike, the few remaining Jews in the area, the Protestants and the non-religious individuals as well. All their sacred sites are in danger of being wiped out. Less than a third of the 1.5 million Christians who were in Iraq in 2003 now remain. Looking at Iraq, the numbers have decreased dramatically—they are down to something like 250,000. And what about the destruction of all those ancient monuments and sites, and the destruction and burning of the ancient books that hold centuries of information? They destroy them all with a blatant disregard for how important they are.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about the destruction of the heritage. His motion is, of course, about the impact here in the UK, so does he agree that as well as fighting the discrimination and standing up for the minorities we—our heritage organisations, our museums and so on—have a responsibility to find ways of preserving the heritage and the areas that have been destroyed, and of commemorating that here in the UK?
That is absolutely right. In fairness, the Government have made some movement towards doing that. The Minister might be able to respond on that point. I think there are steps afoot to ensure that some of the monuments can be restored and some money sent that way to make it happen.
I would like to put on the record thanks to many organisations—I hope I do not leave any of them out. They are the churches from my area that support the middle east physically, practically and prayerfully, Release International, which does great work with Christians, Open Doors, which works in Christian solidarity worldwide, the Barnabas Fund, and the Elim charities that work on behalf of Christians across the whole middle east.
I mentioned other ethnic minority groups. The Baha’is in Iraq and Iran are subjected to unbelievable discrimination and hatred by those in positions of power. Let us look across the cauldron of the middle east and think of all the countries that are there. Indeed, eight of the 12 worst countries for persecution of Christians listed in a report by Open Doors are in the middle east. That is a list that no one wants to be in, because those are the places where persecution is more rife, rampant and deliberate. The right to freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right that nearly all the countries across the middle east have ratified and have made a commitment to uphold, but the reality is very different, with lots of lip service being paid.
When one group of individuals is discriminated against or persecuted on the basis of its religion or belief, that often signals conditions in which all but the deemed orthodox are oppressed and persecuted for their beliefs by the Government and/or non-state actors. Clearly, we must focus on those countries in the middle east that have ratified the fundamental human rights—referred to by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—but where we do not see much evidence of that ratification. Let us have evidence from those countries that have committed themselves to human rights freedoms—unfortunately, they do not always follow through.
Plurality of religion and belief is a crucial ingredient for a stable society, and the Foreign Office recognises that in its pledges for UN Human Rights Council membership from 2017 and in its current human rights structure, where the freedom of religion or belief team is housed under the human rights for a stable world stream. Last year the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief participated in a conference in New York, which almost 100 delegates from some 65 countries across the world attended. That was an opportunity for all those people to come together. In this House we come together as groups, and we encouraged similar groups from other countries across the world to come together, including from Canada, the United States, south America, Africa, the middle east, the far east and some of the eastern countries of Europe.
In countries where freedom of religion or belief is systematically violated, societal tension and violence frequently follow, leading to a more polarised society, with individuals retreating into their dogmas. Let us focus, again, on the group of which I am chair. The group had the chance to carry out an inquiry and produce a booklet on Pakistan and on how freedom of religious belief is looked upon there. The more we look at Pakistan, the more we feel for our Christian brothers and sisters and for other ethnic and religious minorities there. I know that the Minister has read the report, and I appreciate the time he has taken to do so in preparation for the debate. From a job and an education point of view, those who adhere to a religion outside the norm are the lowest of all the castes there are in Pakistan. The booklet, which we produced just last year, is another indication of why we need to look more deeply at Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously right to focus on the middle east—indeed, he is talking about Pakistan and Iran. Is it also worth remembering, however, that a significant number of religious minorities who come to Europe—to this country—continue some of those battles here on home soil, and that we also need to keep an eye on that? I was struck by something that happened when I was in a school classroom in Marylebone five or six years ago. I was already being told that Shi’a and Sunni Muslim schoolchildren were ganging up against each other in the playground. We have to recognise that a lot of the problems may be transported closer to home.
The right hon. Gentleman brings a salient point into the debate. Yes, we need to be aware of that. We need to be aware of integration into society and of how we can do it well. We also need to be aware of the problems that come off the back of that.
When working with partners in the middle east, it is crucial that we discuss means for individuals to be free within their own nation’s context to manifest their religion or belief and that we build and implement action plans for each context. Although traditionally less of a focus in political and diplomatic discussion, long-term strategies that integrate lessons from the past must be encouraged and supported in Iraq and Syria and across the whole region. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that. To truly secure human rights and restore long-term peace, not just emergency responses but a long game and a considered perspective are necessary.
As chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I encourage DFID—the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to this as well—to be sensitive to the complexities that religion brings, particularly to political action, which in many cases is contradictory to international law, that people use religion to justify. Even in the recent Turkish coup, we saw turmoil used as an opportunity to target and attack churches in Trabzon and Malatya. Using that and countless other incidents across the middle east to dismiss religion as too tricky and to determine that it is the main cause of violence and wrongdoing is simplistic. The underlying political motives must be recognised and tackled.
Let us just look at the coup in Turkey. The coup is over, but many, looking from the outside in, will say, “Is this a chance to suppress human rights in Turkey?” Many of us feel that it could well be a chance to clamp down on all opposition. Is that what we want? Is it what should be happening? No, it is not. Is Turkey a safe place for religious groups at this moment in time? The evidence says that it is not.
Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the fact that Turkey’s Government used to be very secular and that there are now many disturbing indications that religion is being used as a battering ram to bring about intolerance within society to help the political elites?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We all would concur with what he said, and we thank him for his intervention and for reminding us.
It is good sometimes to look where the story is beyond the headline stories and the media. The real story of Turkey is suppression, the denial of human rights and deliberate discrimination against other ethnic and religious groups. We have to look beyond the 6,000 people who have been arrested and the coup that failed because people did not want it and turn our attention to what will happen off the back of it.
The Department for International Development already works with faith communities to eradicate poverty, but I urge it to ensure that, where aid is provided or contracts are awarded overseas, those things are channelled to civil society organisations and Government programmes that can demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of freedom of religion or belief and how their work will have a positive rather than a negative impact. That will not only help DFID’s November 2015 strategic objective to strengthen global peace, security and governance but will help achieve sustainable development goal 16, which is to secure peace, security and global justice.
The all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief this year brought out another document entitled “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which I intend to speak about, because the motion we are debating is about the
“persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and its effect on the UK”.
We need to look at how can we help influence what is happening in the middle east and best ensure that those coming here also have the opportunity to have their freedom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Home Office’s approach to applications for asylum from some of these persecuted minorities is crass and clumsy? There is a need for much greater training of Home Office staff so that simplistic approaches to assessing whether people have suffered religious persecution are abandoned and so that we have a much subtler understanding of the trauma and why people might find it difficult when they apply to express what happened to them.
The hon. Lady is very much tuned into the report, because it says that. Before the debate started, I spoke to the Minister and made him aware of the 10 points that we asked to be considered. I do not want to trivialise the work that the Home Office does on asylum seekers, but some of the questions are almost a Bible trivia quiz. People are asked, “Can you tell us the books of the New Testament?” or, “Can you tell us the names of the 12 apostles?” Let us be honest: some of us in this room might be challenged to do that.
I am not going to give you the names of all 12 apostles, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. What he is saying reminded me of “The West Wing” episode “Shibboleth”, in which persecuted minorities wanted to go to the United States from China, and President Bartlet brought one of them in and challenged them, and they got the question right. That ignores the fact that there is also cultural persecution, not because of someone’s personal and strong faith but because they are identified with a greater collective community. The questions are completely erroneous and do not touch the heart of the persecution that people suffer for their family or community connections or the fear that they have.
May I just allay some of the fears? I asked some questions, and in assessing claims based on religious persecution, caseworkers are expected to ask appropriate and sensitive questions based on an understanding of religious concepts and forms of religious persecution. Where the credibility of a conversion to a particular faith needs to be established, an interview is far more an exploration of a claimant’s personal experiences and journey to their new faith in their country and the UK than it is a test of religious facts, such as, “Name the ten commandments.” Those are not the sorts of questions we are asking.
If things have changed, that is good, but the evidence so far indicates that perhaps they have not. I am being respectful. We have asked for a meeting about this issue, and I hope we will have it with the appropriate Minister. I think that is the Minister who is here today, now he is in place. We look forward to having the opportunity to develop the 10 points we raised with our inquiry. They indicate that some things need to be put right.
We all have a great passion for the idea that there is terrible religious persecution across the world, but it is legitimate for any immigration authority, which is the Home Office here, to recognise that a minority of people—a small minority, but none the less a minority—will try to use persecution as a means of getting in when that is not justified. To have a process in place is entirely legitimate from a Home Office point of view.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be a process. We are not saying that there should not be a process; we are saying that it needs to be effective and to take into account the trauma of those who have been persecuted. It needs to reflect an understanding of the circumstances and why they are here. It is about how we do that in a compassionate way that gets the answers to the necessary questions and enables that person, whoever they may be, to apply for asylum and be granted it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the fact that these questions are being asked is a clear indication that the person asking the questions does not understand the essence of what it is to be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew? None of those things are about memorising facts. Is it not the case that his all-party group’s inquiry also found evidence that sometimes the person asking the questions had to google the answers half an hour before the interview took place?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again. This debate and this issue in particular raise article 9 of the Human Rights Act. In that regard, does he agree that the championing and protection of human rights in the UK are vital if we are to protect those same values in other countries, particularly in the middle east?
All the hon. Lady’s interventions have been applicable to the issues, and I thank her for that. It gives us a focus. I am conscious of time, Mr Stringer, so I will try to head on.
Despite the systematic persecution of religious or belief groups in Iraq—some expert bodies think that the situation with the Yazidis amounts to genocide; I think that, too, as do many others in the House—the UK’s Gateway, Children at Risk and Mandate resettlement schemes have helped only a few hundred in the past year or so. While some Iraqis may fit all the criteria under the current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, they are not eligible for asylum in the UK because they are not Syrian nationals.
The all-party group that I chair is urgently calling for a modest expansion of the Syrian scheme to create an Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. That would permit Iraqis who fit the current vulnerability criteria and are recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be made eligible for asylum in the UK. That would be a small change and a small number, but it would be a significant move that would enable those subject to persecution to have an opportunity. In the wake of the Chilcot report, the UK cannot absolve itself from assisting Iraqis. Prioritising Iraqis alongside Syrians for resettlement in the UK is the least we can do. Daesh does not discriminate depending on whether individuals are Iraqi or Syrian, and neither should we.
Finally, the all-party group’s latest report, “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which I referred to a few moments ago, highlights what happens when individuals who have been persecuted for their religion or belief reach the UK and claim asylum, and the lack of understanding and misperceptions of religion and belief among decision makers working in the UK asylum system. We are trying to be constructive. We are not pointing the finger or trying to be nasty. We want to point out where constructive changes could be made to help the system and those people who have every cause to be here and can no longer live in their own country. In religious persecution cases, Home Office caseworkers have often based their decision on whether an asylum seeker is genuine on quick internet searches, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, on informal staff-made crib sheets and, in the case of Christians, on Bible trivia questions including, “What colour is the Bible?” It could be black, white or red. Does it matter what colour it is, for goodness’ sake? What is in the Bible is what matters. The word that it contains is the important issue. I sometimes wonder how these things happen. Such methods limit the capacity to differentiate between individuals who are genuinely part of a religious community facing persecution and those who have learnt the “correct” answers, as has already been referred to. Misinterpretation also plays a large role in the errors occurring in such cases. I urge the Home Office to recognise its genuine shortcomings and equip itself with well-trained staff and suitable translators to ensure a fair hearing of all cases.
I hope that the Minister agrees with the importance of addressing persecution in the middle east in both short and long-term strategies so that we in this House can, in conjunction with our partners abroad, secure the most stable world possible.
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate, and for his faithfulness in highlighting the issue in this place over some years.
The most recent report from Aid to the Church in Need, “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, which analyses persecution in 22 countries, notes a serious deterioration since its previous report in 2013 of a deepening cycle of persecution. It states:
“The vast exodus of Christians from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East highlights the very real possibility that Christianity could soon all but disappear from much of its ancient homeland.”
It states that the cause is in large part
“the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred.”
The actions of Daesh, which have acted tragically to instil a fear of genocide, do not just impact on Christians, as we know, but have affected many other groups: Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Baha’is, Kurds and others. What should be our response to the suffering of those people? I want to briefly address three points.
First, we should speak out. Holding a debate such as this is valuable because it tells our brothers and sisters who are persecuted for their faiths that they are not forgotten. But we need to do more. Secondly, we need to work together with others, particularly internationally, for the religious freedom of those who suffer persecution. Thirdly, we need to work for justice and ensure that the actions of the perpetrators are stopped and that they are brought to justice. I want to speak briefly about those three issues.
First, on speaking out, here in Westminster Hall at the end of June we held the national prayer breakfast, which 740 community leaders from all over the country attended. The theme was the Church in the middle east and the aim was to highlight the concerns about persecution there. It was notable that 150 parliamentarians attended, the most of any national prayer breakfast. That highlights the concern that colleagues in this place have about this issue.
The keynote speaker was Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK. He spoke powerfully about the importance of the role that we all have to play in speaking out honestly and graciously to express our concerns. He called for us to work together. He said:
“Christians in the Middle East are indigenous people and reject minority status. They see themselves as intrinsic members, and indigenous peoples...We need to address the reality of this situation...there has been a systemic, yet gradual prejudice, marginalisation and alienation of Christians and minorities allowed to continue over decades. This does not have to continue on our watch...We must realise that the current situation is greater than us all; it needs us all to work together…There can no longer be a concept of ‘over there’ because families of those affected in the Middle East are members of your constituencies, our Churches, and our society as a whole…We are one very large community…our paths cross, our experience is one and our journey is one that we must share. Regardless of which House one sits in, which Church one worships in, or...which faith one does or does not have, we must work together for the freedom and dignity of human life and speak with a collaborative voice.”
He particularly emphasised the oneness of the human family and how there is no more space for a “Muslim East” and a “Christian West”. He emphasised how we are now all members of a global community; our world is now intertwined. What happens in each part affects all the others and we must promote human dignity, equality and respect.
The speech was powerful; many in the room were deeply moved and looked to how they could take forward their responsibility in this respect. I shall now briefly touch on how the UK could work with others.
The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, said:
“Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”
He has focused on the need for global attention to deal with the plight of religious minorities, particularly in Iraq and Syria. He has challenged the world to
“find the resources to help those harmed by these atrocities.”
Knox Thames, who has been appointed by him, has within the past few days put out a call, together with the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the US, David Saperstein, and they are convening a conference on 29 July at the State Department in the US, entitled “Threats to religious and ethnic minorities under Daesh”. The purpose of the meeting will be to advance intergovernmental efforts to protect religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and to discuss with the international community what additional actions can be taken to help ensure a future for religious diversity. More than 20 countries will be represented, many at ambassadorial or head of department level.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way because I want to raise a point that I fear may not otherwise come up. I am sure she shares my concern that encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram are being used to sell Yazidi and other non-Muslim women as sex slaves alongside weapons and pets. One message shared with a Daesh group carried the description:
“Virgin. Beautiful. 12 years old...Her price has reached $12,500 and she will be sold soon.”
This is an area where every step must be taken not just to hasten the rescue of these women, but to ensure that the global digital platforms that are being used to carry out these atrocities are held to account and that this is prevented. There is a global role in this.
The hon. Lady makes a very pertinent point. The Yazidis have suffered particularly in this respect. The younger the girl, tragically, the more valuable the price extorted.
Will Her Majesty’s Government be participating in the conference organised by the US State Department on 29 July? Will the Minister ensure that we are indeed represented and that a report is brought back?
On ensuring that we work for justice for those who are oppressed, I will refer back to the debate on 20 April that has already been mentioned today. In that debate on the actions of Daesh as genocide, I called on the Government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council with a view to conferring jurisdiction upon the International Criminal Court so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. Time inhibits my referring to everything mentioned in that debate, but we heard that girls as young as eight were raped; that a two-year-old boy had been killed and his body parts ground down and fed to his mother; and that mothers were seeing their own children crucified. No one could deny that these atrocities are genocide. Executions, mass graves, assassination of church leaders, crucifixions, systematic rapes, torture of men, women and children, beheadings—there are so many acts of violence that the evil seems fictional and medieval. Yet, despite the vote that day in the House of Commons—279 to nil in favour of the motion calling on the Government to refer Daesh’s genocidal atrocities to the UN Security Council—still no referral has been made.
The new Foreign Secretary, in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 27 March 2016, said that Daesh
“are engaged in what can only be called genocide of the poor Yazidis (though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide).”
The debate called on the Government to ensure that the unanimous will of Parliament was implemented. It was not. Now that we have a Foreign Secretary who has made such a clear statement of his view that Daesh’s actions against the persecuted constitute genocide, will the Government register the referral that has been requested by a unanimous vote of Parliament, with the UN Security Council, so that action in the international community can be accelerated to bring the perpetrators to justice? We know that recognition of genocide brings with it obligations on the part of the international community to prevent, punish and protect.
Finally, I ask all colleagues in the House to sign early-day motion 346 on the recognition of genocide by Daesh, which I placed in the Table Office yesterday. It expresses profound concern that our Government have still not called upon the UN Security Council to take such action.
I am extremely grateful to be called in this very important debate. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing it forward and for the leadership that he displays on this issue, alongside many others in the House. The salience of this issue means that it has been spoken about many times both in the Chamber and in this place, and the story of recent years is a tragic one. It reflects the importance of the issue against the historical backdrop.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. He has always been a good and decent Minister in any Department, so we welcome his leadership at the Home Office.
The middle east has suffered at the hands of sectarian and religious-based conflict for centuries. Sadly, religious persecution remains a prevalent issue across the region. Minorities have suffered from sectarian strife, with whole communities being destroyed in Iraq. Up to half of Christians have fled, many to Syria, where today they face new threats. The situation greatly deteriorated last year with the escalation in the conflict and the rise of Daesh.
Daesh has been one of the most lethal organisations in the history of the middle east and is engaged in the persecution of anyone who does not espouse its medieval, corrupt and extreme Islamist theology. It has particularly targeted minority religious and ethnic communities, including the Christian, Yazidi, Shi’a, Turkmen and Shabak communities, who are especially vulnerable. Daesh has threatened the whole region, but Iraq’s stability has been at particular risk from this abhorrent organisation.
Human rights and religious freedoms have been threatened—Daesh’s violent religious and political ideology allows no space for religious diversity or freedom of thought or expression. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned, the group has deliberately expelled minority communities from their historic homelands, forced them to convert to its version of Islam, raped and enslaved women and children, and tortured and killed community members. It has deliberately targeted Iraq’s smallest religious minority communities. That could well mark the end of the ancient religious pluralism displayed by communities in northern Iraq.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this scourge has contributed to more than 3.3 million internally displayed people within Iraq alone, who have fled their homes since January 2014, in addition to the more than 1 million people who remain displaced since the sectarian conflicts of the mid-2000s. There are 230,000 Iraqi refugees in countries across the region. It is important to note that these are only the Iraqis registered by the UNHCR in camps in Egypt, Gulf Co-operation Council countries, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. As the International Development Committee recently noted, many refugees, particularly Christians, avoid refugee camps out of fear of persecution, and so, many vulnerable people may not even be considered for resettlement—as refugees in host communities are less visible to relevant authorities. We, as an international community, need more creative solutions to assist those people, although that is not to say that those in refugee camps are not also vulnerable and in need of refuge. In this country, our response should include a modest extension of our current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
The House recently unanimously voted to describe what is being done to Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria as
“genocide at the hands of Daesh”.
Estimates put the number of Yazidis in Iraq at between 500,000 and 700,000, with the vast majority concentrated in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar. In Syria, the number of Yazidis is estimated to be a tenth of that. Despite the fact that the majority of Yazidis in the region are overwhelmingly Iraqi, they are not eligible for the VPRS, simply because they do not live in Syria.
In 2015, 102 Iraqi refugees were resettled under the Gateway protection programme and four under the Mandate scheme and 216 grants of asylum or other forms of protection, at initial decision, were given to Iraqi nationals. In contrast, official statistics show that, by the end of March 2016, nearly 1,900 Syrians had been resettled under the VPRS in the UK, including 1,602 who arrived since October 2015. The current levels of resettlement in the UK provide persecuted Iraqi minorities considerably lower levels of protection than Syrians. That is a simple fact, and it is particularly disconcerting given that Syrian and Iraqi minorities have both suffered from Daesh. The former can qualify as part of the 20,000 that the previous Prime Minister spoke of. To be consistent and fair as a country, as we should be in the world community, the VPRS should be extended to include Iraqi minorities suffering from Daesh.
On that point, and the hon. Gentleman’s previous point that many people of a particular religious persuasion are not going to the camps because they feel at risk, does he recognise that that is particularly true of women and girls, because of the threat that they face? Does he also recognise that the German Government have been much more responsive in respect of Yazidis and other Iraqis, not only offering them refugee access but making sure that they have pathways to counselling and therapy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The particular vulnerability suffered by women and girls is visible inside and outside the camps. They also need safe passage to areas where they may gain asylum. Some scary numbers—for example, the number of young women travelling into Europe and disappearing, many of whom will inevitably be forced to trade their own bodies to enable their survival—should make us especially concerned about that group.
On the Iraqi minorities and the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, we should consider that the previous Prime Minister himself drew no distinction between either side of the “line in the sand” between Iraq and Syria. Indeed, this Parliament determined, in its decision on air strikes in Syria, that if Daesh were not respecting that line in the sand, neither should we in our counter-extremism tactics. We need to respond to that inconsistency in the existing VPRS.
Whatever people’s view of the decision in 2003—personally, I was opposed to the war in Iraq at the time—we have a continuing responsibility to the sovereign state of Iraq. The UK should not absolve itself of responsibility, especially given the recent Chilcot finding that the UK decision to embark on the programme of de-Ba’athification and the demobilisation of the Iraqi army exacerbated sectarian divisions, contributing to many of the problems in Iraq today. Making Iraqis eligible for resettlement through a modest extension of the VPRS is an appropriate and modest response, and entirely consistent with the decent man that I know the Minister to be.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate.
Religion causes all wars. We have heard that, have we not? A throwaway comment at a dinner table, or something overheard in a conversation? It is historical nonsense. It is a calumny of the highest order. Economics and doctrine, and their perversion, have been the root of most wars in the past 100 years, in our experience. The second world war was not caused by religion. In the first world war, religion had a marginal impact, perhaps in the tertiary areas of the conflict zone. In the 16th century, even the French wars of religion did not have all that much to do with religion.
The reality is that religion, which is about hope and about people trying to find a path through life and a way, with their loved ones, to a truth that they can believe in, is being used for the darkest of all possible purposes. It is, in effect, being perverted in the most extreme circumstances. It is being used to hang other issues on.
What we are experiencing in the world, however, is perhaps also a result of the 24-hour news culture, with this thing in our faces all the time, making us much more aware of the daily tragedies going on in the world. Furthermore, persecution on religious grounds seems to be more acute now than at any time in living memory, perhaps going back even beyond the Armenian genocide at the time of the first world war. Religion has become the basis for, or a means of bringing about, conflict, replacing conventional war, which has been put aside.
Given the changing nature of conflict, it is important for us as a sovereign, democratic and just society to stand up and say when we believe that something is terribly wrong. Therefore, what has happened to the Yazidi people in Iraq and beyond, and the Christians, is genocide. That is clear, and we absolutely should be saying so as a nation.
What do we do, apart from using that word and calling something genocide, rightly to force a programme on those who are indulging in such abominable acts? When Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, we had an “ethical foreign policy”, which seemed to have a hint of post-imperial angst about it. To me, an ethical foreign policy should be one in which we link our aid and economic engagement to how countries treat their minorities. Surely a litmus test for any society is how it treats its minorities.
If intolerance reigns in a society, frankly, there will be little rule of law, or contract law, and little good governance. From a corporate viewpoint alone, that is a bad investment; from a moral viewpoint, it is also a bad investment. We should therefore think carefully about how we position our international aid budget, which I am glad to see that we have kept at 0.7%. I want to see us use it in future to target countries that show they will protect the rights of minorities in their societies.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. He is absolutely right that we should be looking at religious persecution as a cause of poverty, displacement and many other degrees of suffering. Does he agree that if DFID did so, and looked more carefully at it as such a cause, we could prevent, down the line, a great deal of not only suffering, but humanitarian aid expenditure by the international community?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which returns to what I was saying about how the countries that indulge in such activities are actually bad investments. In effect, they are proving themselves to be unworthy of the aid that we are giving them. We need to be thoughtful about exactly how economically engaged we are with those countries.
In Turkey, we have seen increasing intolerance. Under Atatürk, the formation of modern Turkey was about a secular society—religion still played an enormous part in society, but the governance of Turkey was secular. It is now moving away from that and, too, hanging on to religion some of the darker elements in that society. We have to be very aware of that in an important neighbour on our doorstep. In 1999 or 2000, I think, when we were looking at the crisis in the Balkans, we were saying, “Isn’t it horrific that this goes on on Europe’s borders?” but Turkey is on Europe’s borders as well. We should be thinking about that in connection with our sphere of influence.
To conclude, we need to consider the APPG report. When we deal with individuals—after all, this is about individuals—we have to be much more thoughtful and better trained in how we do so. The better statistics help, so that we know the reasons why people are coming to this country—are they fleeing religious persecution?—as does better training for Home Office and UK Border Force personnel, in particular to assess whether an asylum seeker is a victim of religious persecution.
I imagine that it can be difficult for people to speak up, especially if they are members of a minority and have had to hide their religious light under a bushel. When they come to another country, the person they are seeing is not only in a uniform—perhaps not the reassuring figure that we might see, but a threat and authority—but someone from whom they would have kept things quiet, and now they are having to open up, often in a foreign language, and in a completely alien environment. I understand how people might find that incredibly difficult and their silence might be perceived as something different. We need to spend time with such individuals, and we need to support our staff to do so, in order to help all such people not only in our country, but in the camps, close to the conflict zones.
Thank you very much, Mr Stringer. I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Not for the first time, particularly in Westminster Hall debates, I am struck by the agreement and unanimity around the Chamber. I think that we have heard speeches or interventions from Members of six different parties—apologies if there have been more and I have missed any.
We are agreed that the world is facing genocide. That should strike at the hearts of us all. It does not matter whether it is happening on the borders of Europe, the borders of Asia or the borders of London; when our fellow human beings are being persecuted as mercilessly and brutally as the Yazidis, Christians and other minorities are, we should all feel the pain and we should all resolve to give them whatever help we can and not to allow the climate in other parts of the world to continue to evolve so such persecution happens again. Earlier this year, as we always do in January, we commemorated the holocaust with the words, “Never again,” but what are we doing to prevent the climate of hate, fear and ignorance that allows holocausts and genocide to be perpetrated again and again from being allowed to develop in the first place?
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not only for securing the debate but for the work that he and others have done to remind us that persecution, which in fact used to be described as martyrdom, is happening in several parts of the world. We are talking today primarily about the middle east, but the majority of cases in which it is established that Christians were murdered because of their faith are actually happening in parts of Africa. However bad persecution in the middle east is in numerical terms, there are other parts of the world in which it is as bad or worse.
I think that history will show that what Daesh is doing is on a par with what the Nazis did in occupied Europe. The numbers may not get quite as horrifically high, but I think that Daesh’s brutality and dehumanisation of human beings will be proven to be every bit as horrific and evil. That is why the United Kingdom Government and other Governments should not hesitate to say, “This is a genocide, it will be treated as a genocide, and the perpetrators will be pursued to the ends of the earth and brought to justice”—not by a court that owes its legitimacy or sovereignty to an individual nation state but by the court of the world: the International Criminal Court. These are crimes against humanity, and it is both the right and the responsibility of all humanity to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
As was mentioned earlier, where a climate of persecution is allowed to arise, religion is often used as an excuse, and it always has been. The massive upheaval that these nations saw in the 17th and 18th centuries was supposedly about religion, but it was not. It was about different tribes—essentially, different dynasties or political parties—fighting over power, but it was always presented as a war about which kind of Christian should sit on the throne. That is not a new phenomenon.
I do not know of any major world religion that instructs or even permits its followers to kill innocent human beings simply for being different, and if anyone can contradict me, I would be interested to know. I am a Christian, and there is nothing in the Christian faith that allows anyone to commit the crime of murder against an innocent person. If anything, Islam is even clearer: the taking of innocent life is not permitted under any circumstances. As well as being crimes against humanity, the atrocities that Daesh is committing are among the worst crimes that can be committed against the Islamic faith.
Just about all the religions that have been mentioned have in their scripture or teaching the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself.” That is not trite; it should be fundamental to the way we all live our lives. Perhaps if that rule were respected a bit more, there would be less need for such debates.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is important that as part of the healing process, victims are helped to understand that the people who persecuted them—those who raped them or murdered their families—were not acting in the name of Islam, Christianity or any other faith. If they were acting in the name of any ideology at all, it was the ideology of Satanism—the ideology of pure evil. For victims to understand that helps the healing process, and it also helps in the very difficult task of ensuring that victims are not left with a lifelong feeling of anger or hatred towards others from the religious community that they hold responsible for their ill treatment.
I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The debate is in part about the effect of persecution in the middle east on this country. Does he agree that in a climate in this country in which my Muslim and other constituents are reporting a rise in hatred and abuse directed at them because of their faith and ethnic background, it is important for the UK Government and authorities as clearly and often as possible to make exactly the point that he is making: that these acts are not carried out in the name of Islam or any faith?
I am grateful for that intervention. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been sneaking a look at my notes over my shoulder, but I am going to come to that point. To be honest, I am sometimes uncomfortable with that line of argument about the impact that persecution in the middle east has in the United Kingdom. We all have a responsibility to speak out and act against that persecution, regardless of whether it threatens anything about our way of life on these islands. It is more important to look at the impact that the United Kingdom can have on areas in which genocide and persecution are happening, and whether what happens in these nations is creating a climate that makes such horrors more or less likely in future. I must say that as an example of a tolerant, pluralist society, we do not do anything like as well as we sometimes like to think we do.
Our approach must be founded on significant humility and shame about what has been allowed to happen on these islands in the name of good government, not just back in the middle ages but much more recently. I have mentioned before in a Westminster Hall debate that within my lifetime, a magazine was criminally prosecuted in a United Kingdom court for printing a poem that was deemed to be offensive to Christians. I personally found that poem offensive, but that is no ground to threaten to throw someone in jail. Within my lifetime, citizens of the United Kingdom have had to flee their homes in fear because of persecution and harassment from their neighbours for following the wrong religious tradition, and there were jobs that people were not allowed to take if they were of the wrong religion. We might like to think that we have moved on from those days, but we have not moved on that far and we did not move on that long ago. When we look at other parts of the world where intolerance has grown to extreme levels, let us not forget our own often shameful recent past.
In specific reference to the comment by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), what does anyone think was the impact on tolerance and understanding when a newspaper complained recently that Channel 4 had the temerity to allow a Muslim woman to report on a terrorist attack? What effect on understanding and tolerance does anyone think could possibly have been created when one of the United Kingdom’s highest paid newspaper columnists wrote an article suggesting that the celebration of Ramadan was somehow a threat to our peace and security?
We cannot afford to be silent about this undermining of tolerance—this deliberate and systematic attempt to create a climate of fear, of misunderstanding and, yes, of contempt and hatred of people who happen follow a different religion—right here in this city, because apart from anything else, that is presented as the attitude of the typical westerner, the typical United Kingdom citizen and the typical Christian and used as an excuse by the extremists in Syria and Iraq.
To persecute a minority, the first thing that the persecutor has to do is to create a fear of that minority. The Nazis could never have got the acquiescence of so many people for the persecution of the Jews had they not been able to make people scared of the Jews. There are journalists and others on these islands and in this very city who are embarking on a deliberate attempt to make us scared of the Muslims in order to make us hate the Muslims. At the same time as we speak out and act against the persecution of minorities in the middle east and elsewhere, we must recognise that that fuelling of hatred against religious minorities on our own islands has an impact on the way that conflicts and oppression can be addressed elsewhere.
I wish we did not have to have this debate. I would love to think that our successors two or three parliamentary generations from now will never have to have this debate. I am not convinced that we as a society—I include myself—are doing nearly enough to deal with the seeds of hatred, ignorance and intolerance in their early days to prevent them from growing into the unbelievable barbarity that we have heard described. I pray that one day, when we say “never again”, it really will be never, ever again.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing these issues to our attention in his own, traditional way, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who also has a wonderful track record in this House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on also bringing forward these issues.
I agree with the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) that the debate has been cross-party in nature. I am sure we all agree on the question of genocide; the question is how we go forward from here to the main Chamber. He was quite right to say that the true Islam in the Koran displays an extraordinary respect for human life, which is unfortunately not what we see under the practices of ISIL/Daesh.
Many Members mentioned the coup in Turkey. Just yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and I spoke with members of the Alevi community here in London. We are hearing of a number of attacks by jihadists on Alevi communities in Turkey and huge concerns about the lack of order and insufficient policing. If the situation is not contained, I fear it could lead to further loss of life. That is why it is so important—the hon. Member for Congleton challenged us on this today—that we should somehow bring the question of genocide back to the House. If we are seen to stand by, then later on other atrocities will somehow seem to be acceptable.
I want briefly to address some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South. He is quite right, so may I press the Minister on the question of Syria versus Iraq and what priority the Government are giving to people who genuinely have faced the same issues, yet seem to be getting different treatment at the hands of the Home Office? I share my hon. Friend’s concern that we must listen to people’s individual stories and make a judgment on those, rather than whether they were one inch or two on the side of a porous border.
We know, too, that women and girls have suffered particularly badly at the hands of IS/Daesh, so I wonder whether the Home Office could learn some lessons from the investment in post-traumatic counselling and therapy in Germany. What can we do to learn from that, exchange ideas and, above all, genuinely invest in those approaches? We know that over the longer term people can settle much more successfully into British society if they have had that initial counselling and support, following some of the most vile crimes which women and girls have experienced.
The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned Archbishop Gregorios, who I know very well. I was with him at St Barnabas day in my constituency. He being Cypriot, from Famagusta originally, he is quite right to say that the tragedy for Christians—for us all—is that the indigenous nature of Christianity across the middle east seems to be disappearing and, with that, so many traditions, beliefs, beautiful art and wonderful cultural heritage. That is something we must stand up for, in the way that we stand up for all other groups as well.
Finally, may I press the Minister on the question of training for the Home Office? There is a great deal of pressure on the asylum team—they have many different pressures on them—but will he please tell us whether, as highlighted in the APPG’s report, he is 100% confident that individual casework officers, who make crucial decisions on people’s lives, have the right training on freedom of religion and that they understand the different religious groups and the persecution? Will he will underline his commitment in this debate to high quality decision making, and not just “That will do; let’s get through the pile of decisions”? As Members of Parliament, we know that people come to us in our advice surgeries desperate for a decision and desperate for their personal situation to be looked at. Will the Minister please give me his assurances that the training is up to date, that the decision making is on target and that he will pursue the issue of high quality training and retention of really good staff? We know that a lot of people have left the Home Office since 2010. I look forward to his response on that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, as I lose my virginity as Immigration Minister. I hope you will be gentle with me.
First, may I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for calling a debate on this important issue and for giving me the opportunity to respond? I pay tribute to him for his role in the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, and for all the hard work that went into producing the report to which he referred. I entirely agree that the Government should do all they can to help those fleeing persecution, whether they are targeted because of their religious beliefs or for other reasons, especially given the threat posed by Daesh in Syria. This has been a useful debate, in which I have been made aware of a number of issues, which I will ponder over the summer.
The UK has a long and proud history of providing protection to those who need it. For example, since the war in Syria began, we have granted protection to over 6,500 Syrians and over 900 Iraqis in the UK. Indeed, since 2013, over 400 Iraqis have been resettled under the Gateway and Mandate resettlement schemes. Iraqi nationals will also be eligible for resettlement under the vulnerable children at risk scheme that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), announced earlier this year.
However, our priority must be to seek an end to the conflicts in the middle east through diplomatic efforts, and to bring peace and security to the region to allow people to remain in their homes or to return to their homes without fearing for their lives. We must also continue to exert diplomatic pressure on foreign Governments to protect minorities and uphold fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and belief.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) asked specifically whether the Government will participate in the conference in the US later this month. We will consider that and I will ask my officials to raise that with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) to her place. She spoke about staff training. May I make it clear that we are committed to continuous improvement in decision quality? UK Visas and Immigration recently rolled out improved training on how to assess credibility in asylum claims, which covers the types of questions to ask during an interview.
It strikes me that there may be lessons to learn from the police. If someone comes forward to any police force in the UK and says they have been raped, sexually abused or assaulted, the police use specially trained interviewers who can also act as counsellors to help the person tell their story with the minimum of distress. Will the Minister tell us how the training of asylum and immigration officers compares with that given to those specialist police and civilian staff?
There may be some similarities in the skills needed, but specifically we need to train people working for UKVI in the type of work they are doing. Not only is there the extensive five-week training programme for new caseworkers, which addresses all aspects of asylum decision making, including religious-based claims and religious conversion, but we also need to look at some types of interpreters who may be antagonistic to the religion of the person, where that person has converted, and ensure that if the interpreter is not appropriate, we find an appropriate person to provide that service.
The Government are committed to delivering a robust, comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq as a leading member of the global coalition of 66 countries and international organisations. We are attacking Daesh militarily, squeezing its finances, disrupting the flow of fighters to its cause, challenging its poisonous ideology and working to stabilise areas liberated from its control. Our strategy is working. Thousands of people have so far been freed from Daesh’s rule and have been able to return safely to their homes.
The UK is leading the international policy debate. We are pursuing a comprehensive approach, both responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis and using our aid programmes to bring stability, jobs and livelihoods, reducing the pressures that force people to migrate. In February we hosted the Syria conference, which not only raised more in a single day than any previous event, but established a new approach to providing long-term support to neighbouring countries and the displaced Syrians to whom they are hosts. Our commitment to the 0.7% aid target ensures that we have the resources to demonstrate our global leadership in responding to emergencies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton wondered whether the Government agree that evidence must be collected for prosecutions against those who persecute religious minorities, and we are clear that those responsible for the heinous crimes that are committed—whether or not those are formally declared to be genocide—must face justice and be held accountable for their crimes. The UK co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution to refer all those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, regardless of affiliation, to the International Criminal Court, and we will continue to press that.
Will the Minister kindly undertake to discuss with the new Foreign Secretary the motion unanimously passed by the House of Commons on 14 April, asking the UK Government to honour Parliament’s request to refer Daesh’s actions to the UN Security Council as genocide?
There are a number of issues that I should like to discuss with the new Foreign Secretary, and that is one of them.
We continue to deliver a huge humanitarian aid programme and have been at the forefront of the international response to the conflict in Syria. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis—which is delivering vital assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries, on the ground, right now. We are also providing £79.5 million in humanitarian support in Iraq. That is the best way to ensure that our efforts have the greatest impact on the majority of refugees who remain in the region; and we believe that our focus needs to be on providing support through humanitarian aid to countries that are facing particular pressures, while offering resettlement to vulnerable people for whom return and local integration is not viable. To that end, we operate several discretionary resettlement schemes in partnership with the UNHCR—Gateway, Mandate, the Syrian resettlement scheme under which we are resettling 20,000 Syrians, and the recently announced vulnerable children at risk scheme, which focuses on identifying and resettling vulnerable children and their families from the middle east and north Africa region. We have committed to resettling up to 3,000 individuals at risk under that scheme over the lifetime of this Parliament. It is open to all at-risk groups and nationalities, including religious minorities.
I thank the Minister for the responses he has given about the Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but if that scheme were to be carried out in a way similar to the Syrian one it would enable some 300 Iraqis to qualify. Will the Minister consider that?
We certainly keep all those matters under review. I note the comments that have been made about a line in the sand, and I dare say that things may not be written in stone; we need to keep all matters under review as the political and military situation develops in the region.
Our resettlement schemes provide refugees with a direct and safe route to the UK, enabling them to avoid risking hazardous journeys into and across Europe. UNHCR works in the region and has expertise in working with refugees and vulnerable minority groups and in identifying individuals for whom resettlement is the best and most durable solution. It also ensures that our resettlement efforts are co-ordinated with schemes offered by other countries, so that the biggest impact is achieved for the most people.
It is important, however, that those in need of protection first register with UNHCR or claim asylum with the national authorities in the first safe country that they reach. Encouraging individuals to seek asylum at an embassy or high commission is not the correct approach; nor is it a practical one. First, under the refugee convention, someone must first be outside their country of nationality before they can be considered for refugee status. That is a matter of international law. Secondly, the Government’s approach is to alleviate the need to flee countries in the middle east by working to find political solutions while, in parallel, providing aid to the affected regions. A concerted effort from states to address the large movement of refugees and migrants will be discussed during the UN and Obama conferences in September.
The cases of those who claim asylum in the UK are carefully considered on their individual merits by caseworkers who, as I mentioned, receive extensive training and are expected to follow published Home Office policy guidance. I am encouraged to hear it acknowledged that we already have appropriate guidance for caseworkers. That guidance makes it clear that appropriate and sensitive questions must be asked, based on an understanding of religious concepts and forms of persecution. In particular, where a claim is based on religious conversion, the interview must explore an individual’s personal experiences and journey to their new faith. I agree entirely that that needs to be reflected in practice and I can assure hon. Members that I and my officials take the findings in the all-party group’s report extremely seriously. I will continue to improve training provided to caseworkers to ensure that policy guidance is followed in practice. Indeed, I undertake to create an early opportunity to see the processes being carried out, and to learn more about the challenges that we face in that regard.
I am very clear about the fact that we understand that conversion is often a journey or process—not a damascene moment, when someone sees the light. The interview questions and conversations seek to find out about that. It is not, as I said, just simple questions such as, “Name the 12 apostles,” or “List the ten commandments.” That is not the process we undertake.
The process provides a summary of the human rights situation in the country and clear guidance on the types of claim likely to lead to a grant of asylum, to support effective decision making and to ensure that we provide protection to those who are in genuine need. For example, we have recently revised our country information on Christians in Pakistan, following consultation with partners. I am grateful to the all-party group for its considered report on such an important topic and I have asked my officials to investigate the cases raised in it and to continue engaging constructively with members of the group.
We welcome the positive relationship that the Home Office has with the Asylum Advocacy Group and other interested parties. However, I do not think that there is a refusal culture or that the problems are endemic. UK Visas and Immigration works hard to ensure that all claims are considered fairly and sensitively, in line with Home Office policy. In the year ending March 2016, UKVI decided more than 26,000 asylum claims and more than 10,000—40%—were granted asylum or an alternative form of protection. In his latest report on asylum casework, the chief inspector of borders and immigration noted asylum caseworkers’ professionalism, dedication and commitment to fairness.
It is of course vital that we get decisions right and grant protection to those in genuine need, but we must also tackle abuse of the asylum process. Those who lodge false claims based on religious belief or conversion to delay removal when they have no right to remain here are undermining not only our immigration rules but also the places of worship that they approach to obtain support for such claims.
I hope that I have gone some way to provide reassurance that we already have a robust framework for the proper consideration of asylum claims and for granting protection where it is needed. We are not complacent, and are committed to continuous improvement in guidance, training and quality assurance processes to make sure that we get vital decisions right. We will provide a formal reply to the all-party parliamentary group’s report shortly, but I can say that I accept most of what is asked of us in the recommendations and have asked my officials to take that forward in close consultation with interested partners.
I am reminded of the scripture text Isaiah 41:10:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I thank the Minister sincerely for his response, which has been excellent and in which there were some good things, including his remarks about the resettlement scheme, in response to an intervention. Daesh does not discriminate, and neither should we. I assure the Minister of the support of all-party group members, of whom there are many in this House and the other place, and its staff. Along with the work of the UNHCR, and in the light of the recent report and the work of top international refugee law professors, we want to help ensure that those who are persecuted for their religion are given the asylum assistance they need. May I kindly comment on the new training that has been discussed: several organisations working on UK religious persecution asylum cases say there is still room for improvement.
I thank the Front-Bench spokespersons and all hon. Members who have taken the time to come and make a speech or intervene, for their excellent contributions, and I will close with another scripture text: John 14:31:
“Arise, let us go hence.”
Let us and the Minister work on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).