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Westminster Hall

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 23 February 2023

[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Human Rights and Religious Minorities: Sudan

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights and religious minorities in Sudan.

I think the last time we discussed this matter was a debate in 2020. There was some optimism then, some two and a half or three years ago. This time round, I have done my research—Members have all done research on the issue—and the facts indicate a level of persecution and human rights abuse that is very disappointing. I am pleased that Members have been able to attend, and I look forward to the contributions of the shadow spokespeople—the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for the SNP and the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for Labour. It is nice to see the hon. Lady in her place and I know that the contribution that she and others make will be significant.

I am especially pleased to see the Minister in her place. We have had a good working relationship over the years on many things. I understand that this issue is not her direct responsibility, but I am sure she will convey our requests to the appropriate Minister. I have about five or six requests, which I will make at the end.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to highlight human rights abuses and the state of freedom of religion or belief in Sudan. Sudan has not received much parliamentary attention in recent years. In the previous debate in 2020, I expressed cautious optimism in the positive direction of the country at that time. The regime of Omar al-Bashir had just been overthrown, and a transitional Government had a mandate to establish democratic elections. The country’s new constitution enshrined freedom of religion or belief, the apostasy law was repealed and many closed churches were allowed to open. It looked like we had turned a corner and things were going to get better. In fact, the changes were significant enough for the country to be removed from the United States’ special watchlist. Countries on that list are a focus of attention; in countries that are not, things are better.

Sudan made important strides in upholding human rights and freedom of religion in the aftermath of the 2019 revolution. That progress is now at high risk following the military coup. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office notes that the Sudanese people’s freedoms are already severely limited. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government and our international partners must continue to urge the authorities to protect the rights of the Sudanese people as a priority?

As always, the hon. Lady makes a salient and important intervention, and I wholeheartedly applaud what she says. My contribution will explain what she said in her intervention in more detail.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Darfur—an important reminder that we have a duty to prevent mass atrocities, not just to punish the perpetrators after a genocide has occurred. The last few years have not been very kind to Sudan. A military coup in October 2021 has damaged the progress achieved by the transitional Government, and has led to increased human rights abuses and a resurgence of discrimination and violence against religious or belief minorities. The country rose to number nine in the Open Doors 2023 world watch list. Countries in the top 10 are not there for good reasons: if they are the top 10, they have done things wrong. The freedoms that communities had experienced were cruelly stripped away.

The coup returned effective control to the military and fundamentalist Islamic groups that made up Omar al-Bashir’s Government. Some of the bad guys that were there before are back in charge again; many former members of the regime have returned to power. As a result, a fundamentalist ideology once again forms a central part of the military junta. A military Government led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan imposed a state of emergency, which allowed the army to consolidate its rule—in other words, to use strong-arm methods. That gave them sweeping powers, which have been used to roll back much of the progress achieved by the transitional Government. Al-Bashir scrapped Sudan’s new constitution, which had enshrined protections for religious minorities, including freedom of worship and freedom to change one’s religion.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I am pleased to speak on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters in Sudan. I may never meet them in this world, but I can still speak for them. I speak for other religious minorities as well—Sudan’s Shi’a, Jewish and Baha’i communities are also suffering under a cruel regime that wants to properly impose sharia law in the judicial system.

Shi’a Muslims currently experience widespread discrimination. There have been several high-profile attacks on Shi’a mosques, which has led to many Shi’as self-censoring and avoiding voicing their beliefs or religious practices that differ from the Sunni practice. Under the transitional Government, Sudan invited its Jewish diaspora to return, as many had fled persecution under al-Bashir’s regime. That attitude has changed, and the country’s tiny Jewish community now faces violent attacks and hate speech. The state TV channel, under control of the military junta, has broadcast antisemitic conspiracies, with one programme stating that “Jews epitomise all trickery”. The Baha’i community is not recognised by the country, and can operate only in secret.

I will use the remainder of my time to talk about Sudan’s Christian community, partly because, as a Christian, the issue is close to my heart, but also for practical reasons. It has been easier to document attacks and discrimination against Sudan’s Christians, not only because they are a larger minority than the Jews and the Baha’is but because they are unable to operate under the radar by self-censoring. They have chosen not to do that. The crimes committed against them could be considered a case study of how Sudan treats religious minorities.

The coup led to a near-instant escalation of violence and intimidation directed at Sudan’s Christians. Overnight, the community faced severe restrictions on its religious practices and freedom of worship. Two broad issues have had a significant effect on the lives of Christians in Sudan: the change in the role of the police—directed by the military junta and the imposed Government—and increased pressure from society and extremist groups. Following the coup, the country’s senior police officers were replaced with individuals aligned to the al-Bashir regime. They got rid of them and then they brought them back to enforce the regime, only this time they are supported entirely by the Government. The groups most affected by that move are the church leaders and women.

In October, Sudan was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council despite ongoing concerns about abuses in the country, and particularly those perpetrated by the security services. Does the hon. Gentleman share the worry that this could risk affecting the perception of the UNHRC’s credibility?

I will refer to that near the end of my contribution. I do share that worry. It seems unreal to me that any country would be elected to that position when they have a totally different attitude to what the UNHRC wants to achieve. I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that.

Under the transitional Government, police were ordered to protect places of worship, but there are now worrying reports that they are being used to silence minorities. Church leaders have been harassed, arrested and even tortured by the police. Security forces have destroyed churches and stolen church assets. In one instance, a pastor in Darfur and his three children died in “mysterious circumstances” after a visit from—guess who?—the armed security police. The human rights group Waging Peace said that Christians are

“once more being persecuted by the Khartoum military junta.”

That has to be concerning.

As is often the case, women from religious minorities face a double level of persecution. In August 2022, the police introduced a new “community squad”. Its remit is nearly identical to the remit of al-Bashir’s morality police, which used to patrol the streets, targeting religious minorities and women to enforce how people acted and dressed in public. The community squad has started taking women to court and prosecuting them for violating the dress code or drinking alcohol. That forces Christian women to adopt a disguise in public and prevents the sacrament of holy communion—a basic part of our right to worship and have a religious belief.

Since the introduction of the community squad, its remit seems to have been expanded. Historically, the morality police were confined to what happened in public, but the community squad apparently intervenes in private life. Let me provide some examples. Days after the squad was established, it raided a private house in Khartoum in a high-profile operation and arrested 18 people for allegedly drinking alcohol. People are not free anywhere, even within the walls of their own houses.

Alarmingly, there has been a spike in adultery convictions. In July last year, 20-year-old Maryam Alsyed Tiyrab was arrested and charged with adultery. A state court found her guilty and sentenced her to death by stoning. In another case, a married couple are currently on trial for adultery after the husband, who did not do anything physically wrong, converted to Christianity. The law prohibits a Muslim woman being married to a non-Muslim man. In that case, the adultery did not involve anyone else, but was because the couple had different religions, the husband having left one religion to join another.

This is a time when violence against women and girls has soared. Such violence happens around the world and it depresses me to read stories about it. Since the coup, there has been a climate of impunity for those attacking women and girls, and a prominent message that women should not challenge traditional roles by leaving their homes to go to school or work. Women are second-class citizens.

There has been a resurgence in the use of apostasy laws. Despite the transitional Government having repealed Sudan’s apostasy laws, they are now being used to target Christians who have converted from Islam. For example, in July 2022 police raided a Baptist church in Zalingei, Darfur, and four Christians were detained, all of whom had converted from Islam. I am a Baptist; that is my chosen denomination within my faith. They were beaten by the police and questioned about their faith. All four were charged with apostasy under the penal code article 126, even though that article was abolished by the transitional Government. The police used a law that no longer exists for their own ends. The four people were taken to Zalingei prison and eventually released on bail. While on bail, they faced intimidation from the police and the local community. The Baptist church and the Christian homes in the area have also been attacked and there has been violence against all those people.

Besides increased pressure from the police and armed forces, Christians have seen a huge increase in hostilities from wider society. Under the transitional Government, places of worship received increased protection from the police and the number of attacks decreased, but following the coup that trend has reversed. Since the coup there have been dozens of attacks on churches and Shi’a mosques, and they started just days after the military junta took power. I want to give an idea of the scale of the attacks. I will not give an exhaustive list—far from it; a one-and-a-half hour debate is not enough time to give justice to all the cases—but I will give four or five examples.

The Sudanese Church of Christ in Jabarona was attacked on four separate occasions in the first three months after the coup. Church leaders received threats from extremists living in the area. One threat stated:

“If the government gives you permission to build a church here they better be prepared to collect your dead bodies.”

That was an instant, physical, violent and direct threat.

In Bout, on 28 December 2019, the Sudan Internal Church, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Church were all set on fire. They were rebuilt using local materials and on the night of 16 January 2020, some 19 days later, all three were burned down again. The churches reported both attacks, but the police did not investigate or put in place protective measures. Will the Minister take note of this example in particular? It is an example of case in which the police did not act. It is important that the Minister asks questions about that directly to the Sudanese authorities.

On 14 February 2022, a church elder was killed and several religious buildings were destroyed in Aneet market, in Abyei region.

On 10 April 2022, a Church of Christ pastor and members of the congregation were attacked in Gezira state. The church was damaged and Bibles were torn up. The victims attempted to submit a criminal complaint to the police, as we would do in this country, but instead the attacker and the pastor have since been charged with disturbing the peace, even though all they were doing was reporting a crime against their church and people.

On 16 December 2022, a Sudanese Church of Christ church was burned down by a soldier in Doka. Despite the soldier being identified by many witnesses, his connection to the military protected him from prosecution. In this country, if a soldier does something wrong, he does not have protection: if he does wrong, he is held accountable.

We have a clear pattern of behaviour: the rolling back of minority rights by the junta, the withdrawal of police protection, and the return of fundamentalist rhetoric has led to these attacks and others. Attackers are able to act with impunity. The police rarely investigate such attacks, and they intimidate or even arrest the victims. If someone makes a complaint, they are seen almost as a perpetrator by the police, which is one of the issues I want the Minister to address. After the coup, members of the security forces implicated in human rights violations have immunity. It seems that they can do whatever they want—a situation that must end. Those who carry out crimes in uniform or on behalf of the junta must be held to account.

In addition to the pressures from the security forces, Christians are facing increased pressure from other groups in society. This has led to an increase in killings and attacks on religious and ethnic minority villages. Gill Lusk from the Sudan Studies Society says that

“at local level, tribes identifying as Arab and Muslim are incited to take land from groups they see as black and/or Christian.”

In other words, if you are a Christian or an ethnic minority, what you have is not yours and they can take it. That cannot be allowed.

Groups that held power under al-Bashir’s regime have been emboldened to seize land from religious and ethnic minorities. More than 900 people have been killed in these land seizures, echoing the conditions that led to the Darfur genocide some 20 years ago. It is worth noting that the attacks on freedom of religion or belief are part of the wider context of human rights abuses in Sudan. Since the coup, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association have been severely restricted by the junta. There has been reports of numerous violations of human rights on a massive scale, including arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. Although the state of emergency was lifted in May 2022, these abuses continue.

The Sudanese Government have also been implicated in the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region, which has resulted in the displacement of millions of people and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Again, this is on a scale that is hard to talk about, and it is hard to visualise it as well. Recent protests have seen the deaths of 99 people and left more than 5,000 injured. The security forces have switched to using live bullets and driving their armoured vehicles at speed into crowds of demonstrators. Following the end of a protest, the security forces have taken to raiding nearby hospitals—again, clear criminal acts—and to using teargas and grenades to hunt down injured protesters. This has resulted in the deaths of patients who were not involved in protests, and of at least two doctors in those hospitals. The Guardian reports that patients had to hide under beds as security forces raided the hospitals.

Despite all this Sudan was, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council last October. We should not put a country into that group if it is responsible for a genocide, a murder campaign, and discrimination and human rights abuses against religious minorities. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said that he hopes Sudan will use its presence

“as an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community its commitment to international human rights law and to bringing those responsible for human rights violations to justice.”

It will be some time before they do that, because Sudan’s representatives are giving their own people, their own junta, their own military and their own Government officials the right to carry out abuses. Does the Minister think that Sudan has demonstrated its commitment to international human rights law during its tenure on the UNHRC? In other words, why was Sudan ever put on the UNHRC?

Exacerbating all this is the fact that Sudan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis fuelled by conflict, floods, food shortages, epidemics and the collapse of the economy following the coup. The British ambassador to Sudan, Giles Lever, recently told parliamentarians that 15.8 million people—one third of the population—will need humanitarian assistance this year. He described insufficient supplies of bread and wheat and how what was available was priced out of the range of the majority of the population.

I put on record my thanks to our Government, the Minister and officials. The UK Government stated that UK aid will not inadvertently exclude religious minority communities who are often unable to access distribution points. Will the Minister tell me of any specific steps taken in Sudan to mitigate against that? The reports that we are getting back indicate that religious minorities are not getting the UK aid that they should. I know that is never the intention of the Government, but if we give it we must make sure that it is conditional and minority groups get it.

The situation for religious minorities in Sudan is part of a broader human rights crisis in the country. The conditions in parts of Sudan are worryingly similar to those that preceded the genocide in Darfur. It is hard to believe that anyone could hate anybody so much. The International Development Committee’s report “From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow”, the Truro review and the genocide convention all highlight the need to prevent mass atrocities and genocide when there are credible warning signs. Does the Minister agree that what we see in Sudan could be a warning sign of future atrocities? If so, will the UK and our Minister raise the issue at the UN, through our membership of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council?

Will the Minister tell me whether the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has undertaken a joint analysis of conflict and stability assessment of the situation in Sudan? If so, can that be made available in the Library for everyone present and for those who wish to know more? What is the Government’s view of the legitimacy of Sudan’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council, given current abuses? How can any country be a part of that if they are carrying out abuse? What practical steps has the FCDO taken to ensure that minority communities have fair access to humanitarian aid in Sudan?

Does the Minister agree that there is a similarity with the conditions that preceded the genocide in Darfur? If we look at what is happening now, we cannot but see the similarities, so we need to do something now to make sure it does not get to that stage. Will the UK raise the issue at the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council? When will a JACS assessment on Sudan be completed and made available for Members?

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. We are here to represent people who have nobody to speak for them. Westminster Hall debates give us that opportunity and the chance to speak for our brothers, sisters and Christians around the world, and also for the Shi’as and other ethnic minorities, including the Jews and the Baha’is, and for many others who try to keep their heads down, but there is a concerted and planned strategy by the Sudanese Government against them. This debate gives us a chance to highlight that and to ask our Minister and our Government, who are extremely responsive, to ensure that UK aid gets to the people it needs to get to.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for speaking with characteristically heartfelt concern for the vulnerable—on this occasion, the vulnerable in Sudan. I thank him, too, for his dogged persistence, day in, day out, in championing the vulnerable across the world in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I cannot commend him highly enough for his leadership in that role.

If the Minister will accept this, I see this debate principally as an opportunity for the UK Government to update not only this House, but those in the wider national and international community who are concerned about human rights in Sudan, on the action that the Government have taken to address those concerns. We have not had a debate on the subject for some three years, although there was a flurry of parliamentary activity in late 2021 after the coup in Sudan, including several statements to which I will refer. I accept that as parliamentarians we have a responsibility to challenge and ask questions, and we have perhaps not called for as much information on the Government’s work since then as we should have. This debate provides that opportunity.

I have the privilege of being the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, but in this debate I speak as a parliamentarian, as I always do in this House, and as vice-chair of the APPG for international FORB. Members will appreciate that my human rights focus will be on freedom of religion or belief. Much of my speech will consist of questions. The Minister is very assiduous and conscientious and is experienced in these areas; I know that she will not be able to answer all my questions this afternoon, but perhaps she might be good enough to write to me after the debate.

After the coup in late 2021, the then Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), spoke of the importance of Sudanese people being able

“to protest and to pray without fear of violence.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 56.]

In response to a written parliamentary question in November 2021, she stated:

“Over the past two years, the UK has taken a leading role to support Sudan on their delicate path from oppressive autocratic rule to freedom and democracy. We welcome the progress made by the civilian-led government on the freedom of religion or belief since 2019, which included decriminalising apostasy, declaring Christmas a national holiday and lifting public order laws that disproportionately affected Christian women. The acts of the military puts this progress at risk.”

The Minister was, of course, referring to the coup that had taken place a few days earlier.

The then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made a statement calling for the release of those who were unlawfully detained during the coup, and for the restoration of the civilian-led transitional Government in Sudan. She stated:

“We continue to maintain public international pressure on the military to return to the democratic transition in order to deliver the freedom, peace and justice called for by the Sudanese people, and ensure that the gains of the last two years are not lost.”

I turn to my first key questions. What follow-up steps have been taken by our UK Government since those very important statements were made, to ensure that they have been acted on? With what results? Has the UK continued our leading role, notwithstanding the in-country challenges in engaging in Sudan that followed the coup in late 2021? Those challenges make engagement even more important, bearing in mind what the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states in its latest report:

“Sudan’s religious minority communities fear that returning the military to power and banishing civilian leaders who led national advancements in religious freedom and broader human rights may presage a reversal of those changes and improvements.”

The hon. Member for Strangford has already expressed concerns that that may well be the direction of travel.

It is right to point out that in November 2021 the UK took immediate action. It secured unanimous support for a resolution on the situation in Sudan at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council that made it clear that Sudan’s civilian-led Government must be restored, detainees must be freed and human rights must be respected. I believe that it is very important to make statements—I have the privilege of chairing the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which comprises 42 countries, and it makes a number of statements during the course of a year—but I always say that we need to follow up with action. Words are fine, but action can make a difference.

Sudan is a human rights priority country for the UK, as the 2021 FCDO annual human rights report, which was published in December 2022, confirms. It refers to the UK Government securing the special session of the Human Rights Council and says that that session

“mandated a designated expert to ensure human rights monitoring in Sudan.”

My questions are about action. Can the Minister tell us about the appointment, designation and mandate of that expert? What work have they undertaken in the 15 months since that session? What action have UK Government representatives on the ground in Sudan taken since late 2021 to connect Sudanese people with non-governmental organisations working in the region and with faith and community leaders and others concerned about the situation in Sudan, in their own country? Have any meetings with civil society representatives been arranged? If so, with what results?

I know from my work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB how effective it can be to work collaboratively with civil society organisations. In fact, those of us who champion freedom of religion or belief can do very little unless we work with civil society organisations and NGOs, including international NGOs, which are often the ones that draw our attention to the abuses of human rights that we speak about in this place.

It is also important for Governments to work with representatives of other Governments in-country on such issues; I have seen that being very effective. What collaborative work is being undertaken on human rights concerns in Sudan with other countries that are as concerned as the UK—particularly the US, whose State Department reports highlight its concerned engagement on these issues? What steps have been taken to maintain the public international pressure, which Ministers said was so important at the time of the coup in late 2021, to ensure that there is an improvement, not a deterioration, in human rights in Sudan?

Intercommunal clashes have flared up several times over the past year or so, and the UN special adviser has expressed concerns that violence is being incited by hate speech on social media. Does the hon. Member agree that social media platforms must do more to monitor and remove hateful content that seeks to fuel violence in Sudan and elsewhere?

Yes. The hon. Member makes a very important point: social media is being used, particularly by mobs, non-state actors and others, as an incendiary tool to whip people up—young people in particular—to commit FORB abuses. Many Governments could do more to address that.

I turn again to the work of the UK Government. Has it been possible, during this challenging period when the Government have not been as settled in Sudan, to undertake any work to provide technical support for legal and constitutional reforms in Sudan? Progress was being made up to 2021. Has it stalled? Is there anything we can hear that would be encouraging for us?

Have any steps been taken by the UK post in Khartoum to consider the training programme Religion for International Engagement, which was a year or more in the preparation? I was privileged to be involved in work on the programme for some considerable time, particularly during 2021. It was designed to help in-country diplomatic representatives in particular to engage wisely with their counterparts on freedom of religion or belief. I would really appreciate feedback on whether the post in Sudan and our representatives there have actually found that helpful. Have they been able to change their approach towards connecting with civil society and faith and belief leaders as a result, or is there more that ought to be done to help our diplomatic representatives in that regard?

A further, connected question is what use has been made of the funds available from the Magna Carta fund or the John Bunyan fund to address concerns about human rights issues, and specifically about freedom of religion or belief in Sudan. I know that Sudan is a human rights priority country and that funding to such countries has been prioritised, certainly in the case of the John Bunyan fund. It would be interesting to know whether it has been possible to make constructive use of such funds over the past two years or so.

According to the most recent FCDO annual report and accounts, bilateral UK aid to Sudan was £62.2 million in 2021-22 and £142.6 million in 2020-21. Can the Minister detail how that money has been spent? Has any of it been spent specifically on addressing the human rights concerns that have been highlighted in this debate? In March 2021, the then Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), stated:

“The UK also continues to work with the Government of Sudan, civil society and the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS), to deliver further progress as part of our wider work to support human rights improvements.”

I appreciate that that was some six months prior to the coup, but aid programmes have a long tailback and a long projection. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about how the funding has been spent and whether there has been any alteration in or reprioritisation of the use of such funds following the coup.

What assurances can the Minister give the UK taxpayer that steps have been taken, particularly since the coup, to ensure that where funds are used to support the provision of education in Sudan, such programmes enhance freedom of religion or belief and pluralism? Is any work currently taking place by way of technical assistance to support the Government in Sudan with regard to the provision of education materials and accompanying teacher training to support religious freedom, the need for which has been highlighted?

I turn to a matter of grave concern—and not just in Sudan—for many in this House. It has already been highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford. It is the treatment of women and girls. In the case of Sudan, concern about that is combined with concern about penalties for converting from one faith to another. The latest Open Doors world watch list report, which was published just last month, states:

“Christian women and girls in Sudan, particularly converts, are vulnerable to rape, forced marriage and domestic violence for their faith. On a broader level, Islamic extremists have reportedly kidnapped Sudanese girls for marriage and/or sexual slavery. Inside the home, converts may also be isolated to reduce the embarrassment and shame of the conversion on the family, as well as to ensure they cannot meet with other Christians. Converts will also be denied inheritance and, if they’re already married, divorced from their husbands…In August 2022, the government established a community police which resembles the disbanded morality police.”

That underlines many people’s concerns that the advancements in freedom and broader human rights before the coup may now be reversed.

Concerns about the penalty for conversion do not relate just to women. Open Doors reports are updated annually, so its most recent report was published after the coup. It states that Christians, who are a very small minority in Sudan, are

“vulnerable to extreme persecution in public and private life, particularly if they have converted from Islam, and the government hasn’t put real protections in place for Christians and other religious minorities. For example…confiscated churches and lands have yet to be returned to their Christian owners, and trying to build new churches is still extremely difficult.”

What consideration have the Government given to such statements about Sudan, which has moved up the Open Doors world watch list this year? Might the Minister consider the suggestion of convening a roundtable meeting in the FCDO with Sudan representatives, who I know have a lot of expertise in the field, and with non-governmental organisations such as Open Doors, CSW and Aid to the Church in Need, which are all extremely concerned? That might be a way of working together to see what more can be done to address these really important and concerning issues. International Women’s Day on 7 March, which is fast approaching, is a good day for us all to consider highlighting the plight of women and girls in Sudan.

Like many people across the international community, I warmly welcome the appointment of Dr Nazila Ghanea, a professor at Oxford University, as the new UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. She commands huge respect, not just in this country but across the international community of people concerned about freedom of religion or belief. I hope that during her mandate she will be able to address concerns relating to FORB in Sudan, which was last visited by a UN special rapporteur on FORB as long ago as 1996. It would be perhaps be helpful if the Minister considered drawing to her attention the concerns raised in this debate and, equally importantly, the Minister’s response.

The special rapporteur on FORB is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and has great international gravitas. Her task is to

“identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.”

Having recently read her report on two prisoners of conscience detained in Somaliland for their beliefs, I know how assertive and authoritative Dr Ghanea can be when she tackles individual cases as part of her mandate. It might be very productive if Members present could think about individual cases to which we might wish to draw her attention.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing about “Landscape of freedom of religion or belief”, the first report of the special rapporteur on FORB in her few months in the role, when she speaks at the UNHRC in Geneva in two weeks’ time. Her immediate predecessor, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, made mention of concerns relating to Sudan in some of his reports. Interestingly, he highlighted concerns about forced conversions and penalties for conversion; I am aware that this was pre-coup, but I do not think that it is inconsistent to refer to it. He noted:

“In 2018, twelve Christian men in Sudan were reportedly accused of apostasy, arrested, severely tortured, and pressured to recant their Christian faith.”

The ability to convert freely without fear of repercussion remains a continuing concern in Sudan that I believe deserves particular attention. As the Minister mulls over our debate, which I am sure she will have a great deal of time to do—my tongue is firmly in my cheek; I know how busy FCDO Ministers are with so many challenges—I hope she will particularly attend to that very concerning issue.

Sudan is signed up to the 1948 declaration of human rights, which includes article 18, under which everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, to manifest that right in private or in public, and, critically, to change their faith. Sudan is also signed up to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which states that no one should be subject to coercion regarding their faith. Too many countries sign up to such international declarations without taking steps to ensure that they are honoured in practice.

I hope that the Minister will concur that, however challenging the situation in Sudan, and whatever the capacity of countries to meaningfully address it, the UK should do all it can to encourage and support the people of Sudan to enjoy the freedoms its Government have signed up to. We should continue to urge Sudan to uphold its wider international human rights obligations. We must, as the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk, said at the time of the 2021 coup,

“continue to support the Sudanese people in their demands for freedom, peace and justice.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I am grateful to the previous contributors to this debate on an important topic. I am glad to be a member of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, because it helps to break things down into the fundamentals. People’s right to worship as they see fit, and to participate in religion, or no religion, as they wish, are fundamental human rights, so it is important that we shine a light on what is happening in Sudan. I appreciate the briefing information that has winged its way to me, and, I am sure, to other colleagues, from groups such as Open Doors, which does extremely important work to ensure continued awareness of the plight of Christians and other religious minorities worldwide. It is worth putting on record the work that Open Doors and others do.

The situation in Sudan is complex, and has arisen from the complex history of freedom of religion or belief, and violations of it, in that area of the world. There is a history of tensions and challenges between different groups, and this situation clearly demonstrates that those tensions have not gone away. Between April 2019 and October 2021, the transitional Government took significant steps to improve freedom of religion or belief in Sudan, but a lot of that progress has been rolled back and has dissipated since the military coup in October 2021. We might see some small positives, but we must be realistic: the overall picture is not positive, and we should focus on that. For instance, it is understood that by September 2022, at least 117 people had been killed and nearly 6,000 injured by state security forces. We therefore need to monitor things closely. It is important to be aware, so that we can try to take steps to prevent future atrocities.

There is no doubt that in the past two years, there have been significant increases in attacks targeting religious minorities. Let me go into that in a little detail, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did so eloquently. The dominant religion in Sudan is Sunni Islam. All other religious groups face significant restrictions on the practice of their faith. The largest minority religions are Christianity and Shi’a Islam. There is widespread discrimination against both those groups, and it has escalated over the past couple of years. People find it challenging to practise their faith, including people in the very small Jewish community, which has faced serious challenges, as we have heard, and hate speech. That includes hate speech broadcast on state television, which is deeply concerning. The Baha’i community is not recognised at all. As a small, minority religion, it is put in a difficult position. There are also challenges to do with security forces unlawfully detaining or forcibly disappearing people, and committing violence against those who are perceived to be active in any protest on the issue.

Obviously, we can consider the situation pre and post- coup. The hon. Member for Strangford set out pretty clearly that post-coup, about a third of the population needs humanitarian assistance; that is a pretty stark. It is absolutely vital that we think carefully about UK aid. What is the situation with UK aid? Is it doing what it needs to? Plainly, the answer is no.

The state of emergency was lifted in May 2022, but that does not mean that problems have been fixed. We must be clear about that. Regrettably, the abuses that justified the state of emergency continue. That includes the arbitrary arrest of protesters.

The situation of women and girls is of deep concern to me. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about that, as I was sure she would. It should be of deep and significant concern to us all. Some groups are doubly marginalised. Women and girls in Sudan fall into that category, particularly Christian women and girls and those who are converts. They are vulnerable to rape, forced marriage and domestic violence. There are reports of extremists kidnapping Sudanese girls for marriage or sexual slavery. Inside the home, converts have been isolated to reduce the family’s embarrassment and worry about the consequences. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke forcefully about the fact that women are second-class citizens. That should be of deep concern to us all.

Church leaders are particularly targeted and endangered. There are reports of drugs being falsely planted on them. Christian men and boys are vulnerable to beatings or worse. People may be shunned or face intense persecution in the workplace. Whatever angle one looks at it from, the situation is of grave concern. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that the problem is not just on the ground; it is being encouraged and driven by online and social media activity as well. It is not a straightforward situation, which makes it all the more important that we make ourselves as aware of it as possible, so that we can act.

Plainly, things are moving in the wrong direction. On the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Darfur, the situation in that area of the world is still deeply concerning. The hon. Member for Congleton was sensible in her focus on the work that should and can be done with civil society and NGOs. I am keen to hear from the Minister on that. It would be helpful to hear what more the UK Government intend to do to engage with others in the international community on freedom of religion and belief in Sudan. There is a responsibility to play a full part in promoting inter-community peace and establishing a more stable situation. The UK aid situation should be focused on. Aid to Sudan in 2021 was cut by 74%. We have talked about the profoundly difficult situation on the ground. It is very difficult to justify that statistic in the context of what is happening there.

The final thing I want to hear from the Minister on is atrocity prevention. All this comes back to our worries about people’s wellbeing and continued ability to live freely in Sudan. An atrocity prevention strategy becomes all the more pressing in the light of that. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. That is a phrase heard quite frequently in Westminster Hall these days. It is a pity that there is not more interest in Westminster Hall. I am not entirely sure what is going on; perhaps some colleagues who were elected in 2019, from all parts of the House, do not realise the value of these debates and the opportunity that they present to hold Ministers to account and raise issues that are of importance to constituents. I certainly regularly hear from constituents in Glasgow North about the importance of freedom of religion and belief, and protection of human rights around the world. The hon. Gentleman has given us a very important opportunity to shine a light on the situation in Sudan.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), I thank the many organisations that provided briefings and background information for the debate, both for that and for their ongoing work protecting and defending human rights, particularly the rights of those persecuted for their religion or belief in Sudan and around the world. Those organisations include Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Waging Peace and Open Doors. We should acknowledge the excellent work that the Library has done for us on this topic. I also thank our teams, and the team that supports the APPG; the hon. Member for Strangford deserves recognition, too.

As others have said, in 2011, when South Sudan gained its independence, there was much hope that in Sudan and South Sudan there would be a new era of peace, perhaps even leading to prosperity, but instead the cycle of violence and instability continues. South Sudan now ranks 191st out of the 191 countries that the UN is able to rank in its Human Development Index. The Republic of the Sudan is only slightly further up, at 172. As all Members have said, the situation continues to deteriorate.

The coup in 2021 was followed by the detention of several civilian Government officials, including the then Prime Minister. It was met with large-scale, pro-democracy, anti-military demonstrations, but they were repressed on a scale that led to scores of deaths and thousands of injuries among civilians. It is not dissimilar to what we are seeing play out right now in Iran and even, to some extent, Afghanistan. The Sudanese security forces are accused of unlawfully detaining, forcibly disappearing, and committing sexual and gender-based violence against individuals who are perceived to have been active in that protest movement.

Although the state of emergency that followed the coup was lifted in May 2022, abuses that had been justified under it have continued, including regular arbitrary arrests of protesters. In December, an agreement was entered into by the pro-democracy side and the country’s top miliary leaders, but progress still needs to be made. Even though the general principles for the formation of a transitional institution and the promotion of freedom and rights have been outlined, there is no clear timeframe and no benchmarks for reform of the justice and security sector.

Amidst that appalling array of human rights violations and political division, the religious minorities, and indeed minorities that do not subscribe to a religious faith, have continued to suffer from discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire spoke powerfully about the experience of the very small Jewish minority, and she is absolutely right: all religious minorities are feeling persecution. The Christian minority is one of the largest of the minorities, at 2 million people. That is a substantial number, but they make up only 4.3% of the country’s population.

All Members have said that the impact of all this repression is that Open Doors has now relisted Sudan in the top 10 of its world watch list, after it had dropped out and progress had been made, as the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) rightly said. Regrettably, it has gone backwards. Sudan now sits alongside Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in that list. Interestingly, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya and Yemen are all countries for which the Home Office will now apparently allow refugees to fast-track their applications through the use of a questionnaire. I think that is quite telling, and I may come back to that point towards the end.

As we have heard, the persecution that religious minorities and particularly Christians are experiencing comes in many forms. Sometimes it is brutal and violent beatings and gender-based and sexual violence, as Open Doors has reported; sometimes it is what we might call oppressive or repressive—the disappearances and arbitrary detentions and imprisonment. Waging Peace gave an example of the head of a Christian youth organisation in the Gezira state who was abducted and tortured by the country’s general intelligence service, then simply dumped in an open area of land.

Sometimes it is insidious, such as the confiscation of Church properties or selling off of Church land; CSW has reported that that is something that has happened to the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Even in the home, we hear that converts to Christianity are being shunned or ostracised by their family members—and that is to say nothing of the examples we heard from the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton about the state oppression of people who have chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity or another religion. Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, as everyone in this room recognises. We must resolve to do more to ensure that that right can be exercised by everyone, including those being persecuted in Sudan.

There is much that the Government of Sudan themselves could start doing to demonstrate willingness to respect those fundamental human rights as some of their predecessor regimes have done. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, there are legitimate questions about their role and position on the UN Human Rights Council but, as the hon. Member for Congleton said, they are actually accountable through the UN Human Rights Council as well, through the universal periodic review process. Member states and parties to that process, including the UK Government, should ensure that it is effectively holding international Governments to account—just, indeed, as the UK Government are held to account through that process.

The UK Government could be doing more on their own initiative. There is widespread support, even among their own Back Benchers—not least from the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), when she was Foreign Secretary, and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns)—for the Government to fully commit to and properly resource an atrocity prevention strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said, that could focus support among embassies to be able to report and monitor the risk of atrocities in their countries, and prioritise preventative efforts that support stability and good governance in those difficult parts of the world.

Of course, all that must be resourced properly. The reality is that the impact of cuts to the aid budget is now being seen and felt in many different areas, such as this. I do not think it is good enough for the Minister to roll her eyes—that is the reality of the situation. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has been cut by hundreds of millions of pounds in recent years. It was supposed to be a flagship programme of the UK Government; it was going to share cross-departmental expertise and make aid work smarter and harder to prevent violence and the abuse of human rights around the world, but if the money is not there, it is all just talk and posturing. Meanwhile, it is the people in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world that are hit the hardest.

If the Government do not want people to come here on small boats, and if they do not want to spend money on asylum seekers in hotels, maybe they should spend money helping to build peace and stability in otherwise oppressive regimes, so that people do not feel the need to flee war and conflict. If Christians and other persecuted minorities in Sudan and elsewhere in the world could freely practice their religion and go about their daily lives in safety, perhaps fewer of them would find themselves so desperate that they need to seek a new life beyond those borders.

It is a point worth making that we have these debates about freedom of religion and belief in various countries across the world, and they are always very consensual. That is a really good thing; it is a really important subject, and I am glad that we tend to agree largely, but we cannot get away from some of the factors that have an influence on that. It is right and proper that my hon. Friend raises that, and I hope the Minister is able to see the connection between what he is saying and some of the difficulties that people face.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last Tuesday, I met refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow as part of the Maryhill Integration Network. None of them were Albanians, and none of them were economic migrants; they were people who had come from difficult situations in Syria, Turkey and Iran, where they were in fear for their lives. They came here because there were established communities or because they respected the UK and understood that it could be a place of sanctuary for them, and the experience that they have had since coming to the United Kingdom makes them wonder whether it was worth while. Imagine thinking it would be better to go back to Iran and live in fear, rather than having to stay crammed into a hotel room with four other people in Glasgow city centre.

That takes us slightly away from the subject, but it speaks to the wider point that we all have a role to play. These debates are important as accountability mechanisms for the Government, so the Government need to show that they are committed to supporting persecuted Christians and other people of minority faiths and beliefs, or none, in Sudan and around the world.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I am truly grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate, because a debate about democracy and human rights in Sudan has been a long time coming, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly said. There has been genuine but limited progress on these issues following the Sudanese revolution in 2019, but the 2021 military coup put many of the advances on hold and into sharp reverse, and serious abuses continue. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I will start by focusing on freedom of religion and belief.

The law against conversion from Islam was repealed in 2020, and many guarantees made in the draft transitional constitution before the coup are repeated in the recent political framework agreement, which is a very positive sign. The fifth of the proposed general principles specifically guarantees freedom of belief and religious practices. However, as we have heard, abuses continue—some are very recent indeed.

On 16 December, a church that reportedly had been standing since 1991 was burned to the ground. The community has very little confidence that justice will be done, particularly because the person suspected of the arson is a soldier. As we have heard, that is not the only incident. I have been really fortunate to hear directly from Sudanese people with expert knowledge of the situation since 2019. I am told that the official estimate of the number of Christians in Sudan is 5 million, but the true figure could be more than double that. Only 150 churches are officially recognised, although there are possibly around 2,000. Of those 150, just 30 new churches have been recognised over the past 67 years, and attempts to rectify that before the coup were thwarted. The fact that the vast majority of churches are regarded as illegal makes it more likely that they can be subjected to arson or violence with impunity.

I have also been told that inequality before the law is widespread. That applies to many communities, including Christians, Baha’is, Jews and Muslim minority groups such as Shi’a Muslims and the Republican Islamic Movement. Mosques are offered services, such as electricity and water, for free; churches are not. The Koran is exempted from import taxes; Bibles are not. Blasphemy laws are used solely to prevent criticism of Sunni Islamic figures and beliefs.

We know that widespread discrimination nurtures a culture of inequality: it gives extremists and those who seek to benefit from increased division the cover that they crave. However positive the guarantees in constitutional declarations, obtaining genuine protection for religious minorities will require sustained action. We know the issue of human rights in Sudan goes far wider than freedom of religion and belief, and Sudanese people from the Sunni Muslim majority are regularly targeted. Since the miliary coup in 2021, more than 100 protestors have been killed, and deaths continue with no accountability. On 9 February, a 15-year-old boy was killed while taking part in a protest. Terrible intercommunal violence continues across parts of Sudan, including in Darfur. The UN estimates that 991 people were killed in that violence during 2022 alone.

Meanwhile, over the full year, the UN’s humanitarian response received just 43% of the funding it needed and it called for. That unmet need, in and of itself, creates circumstances for continued conflict between communities, but progress on the humanitarian needs of the people of Sudan will not happen without the advancement of human rights, justice and democracy.

Rape and sexual assault, in common with many other forms of violence, have been constantly used as a political weapon to intimidate activists and officials. Just last month, on 6 January, I understand a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped and thrown under a bridge in Khartoum. Sudanese women’s groups believe she was targeted because her father had worked on the committee to dismantle the corruption of the former al-Bashir regime. That is just one of the many horrifying cases of targeted sexual violence to shut down women’s voices and participation. It must not succeed and we must not under-estimate how determined some in Sudan are to hold on to their unaccountable, corrupt wealth and power at all costs.

Equally, there are some on the international stage that see obstructing the transition to democracy as being in their interests. We know Russia is actively seeking concessions, including a Red sea port, and there are credible reports that the Wagner Group is operating within the country. We see a pattern in other countries: Putin backs Wagner to offer a brutal form of internal security, and in return they plunder the gold and other natural resources in the country in secret.

Despite all the threats they face, the courage and resilience demonstrated by Sudanese people over recent years gives me so much hope that justice will eventually prevail. I believe we must continue to set out a clear position to all political forces in Sudan and in the wider region, because we are UN Security Council penholder on Sudan, which gives the UK a core diplomatic role. The UK must not support the unlocking of international finance and co-operation to the authorities until concrete progress is made on democracy and accountability, led by a civilian Government.

It is important to preserve unity with our international partners, which is why engagement and co-ordinated work with the African Union and our fellow members of the Troika, Quad and wider friends of Sudan group must be preserved. Sustainable peace and development in Sudan will not occur without action to make stated commitments to human rights a reality for all. Political prisoners need to be released, and the rights of Sudanese people who continue to protest against military rule need to be respected.

Finally, as I said in my speech this Holocaust Memorial Day, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the start of acts of genocide in Darfur. The work of the International Criminal Court continues to be obstructed; that must end. Impunity in Sudan has persisted for decades, which only underlines the importance of securing justice within the current transition. Supporting accountability requires focus and resources. In practice the only international capacity for monitoring abuses has been the UN in Sudan, but, like much of the international community, it has understandably been focused on securing transition rather than pressing for day to day progress on human rights.

I hope the Minister can tell us what is being done to support human rights monitoring with resources. Where progress is not being made and the perpetrators of human rights abuses are being protected by those in power, the Labour party believes that targeted sanctions should be used to prevent impunity. When it comes to the leadership of the central reserve police, that has not happened, so I hope the Minister will be able to set out how we are backing our support for the transition to peace, democracy and justice in Sudan with action. Will she take back to the Foreign Secretary our call for the targeted sanctions by the United States to be mirrored?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for bringing attention to the human rights situation in Sudan. I commend him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group, which continues to raise awareness of this particular human right among parliamentarians and the public. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), our Minister for Africa and development, is currently away on ministerial duties, but I am pleased to be able to respond on his behalf.

Under the 30 years of al-Bashir’s regime, human rights in Sudan were atrocious. The state restricted freedom of religion and belief and political space for any alternative voices. The state committed and failed to act against sexual and gender-based violence and committed grave human rights violations. Citizens were subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and state-sponsored violence. After al-Bashir was toppled in the 2019 revolution, the civilian-led transitional Government made significant progress on human rights.

In July 2020, the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights opened a country office, demonstrating Sudan’s commitment to allowing independent scrutiny of its human rights situation. The transitional Government made key reforms, improving the situation across the country. Criminal laws were reformed to abolish flogging and strengthen legal protections against torture. In August 2021, the transitional Government ratified the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment—known as UNCAT—and they ratified the international convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances.

Sudan joined the Media Freedom Coalition, signing the global pledge on media freedom. That is a written commitment to improve the domestic environment for journalists to work safely and to work with partners to improve international media freedoms. Measures were introduced to protect freedom of religion or belief. Christmas was declared a national holiday for the first time in a decade, and in 2020 the transitional Government abolished apostasy laws, a crime that previously carried the death penalty.

Women’s voices were key to the 2019 revolution, and significant reforms to women’s rights were made under the transitional Government. In 2019, the public order 1997 law that limited women’s dress and movements was repealed, meaning women could now wear trousers, or could leave Sudan without the permission of a male guardian, without fear of arrest or capital punishment. Progress was also made on sexual-based violence, including the criminalisation of female genital mutilation, making the offence punishable by a fine and three years in prison.

Sadly, as colleagues have laid out today, the situation has backtracked since the coup in October 2021, an event that threatened to derail the progress that Sudan had made from oppressive autocratic rule towards freedom and democracy. In response, the international community, including the UK, withdrew all development and technical support to the military leadership so as not to legitimatise the coup authorities. Only humanitarian assistance continues. I will ensure that the Minister updates my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and other colleagues about the ways in which official development assistance is being spent at the moment. Various colleagues raised that. I do not have that information to hand, but I will ensure that that is shared.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned our special representative for Sudan and South Sudan. She will be pleased to know that Robert Fairweather joined other envoys last month in Khartoum and they pressed Sudanese interlocuters to show pragmatism in trying to reach an agreement to appoint a civilian-led Government. Alongside international partners, we are encouraging a political settlement that will see the military step back from politics and allow a civilian-led Government to be reinstated. Once in place, that will allow international assistance to restart, and some of those key reforms to continue.

In the aftermath of the coup, millions of Sudanese demonstrators took to the streets in protest. They were met with violence from Sudan’s security forces. Between 25 October 2021 and 7 June 2022, more than 100 protestors were killed. Powers of arrest, search and immunity were returned to intelligence officers. Civilians and political activists were subjected to arbitrary detention and unlawful arrests under emergency laws, as Sudan’s military and security forces attempted to suppress opposition and dissent. Media outlets seen to be critical of the military were shut down, and journalists faced unlawful detention.

As the hon. Member for Strangford set out, women and girls experienced serious violence and rape during demonstrations and arbitrary detention. In July 2022, a court in Sudan sentenced a woman to death by stoning for alleged adultery, the first in more than a decade. I am pleased to see that that sentence was later overturned at appeal, but she remains in detention. There have been incidents of religious prosecution, including four Christians detained on apostasy charges and a pastor assaulted during a service and convicted of disturbing the peace. These are all unacceptable acts of violence and breaches of human rights.

In recent months, we have started to see some small progress towards a return to the democratic transition we are all hoping to see. On 5 December, an initial framework political agreement was signed, an essential first step towards establishing a civilian-led transitional Government. Since then, political parties, youth and women’s groups and resistance committees have come together for a series of dialogues to address the remaining barriers to Sudan’s return to democracy.

While the human rights situation remains concerning, there have been some limited improvements in response to international pressure. The UK has continued to lobby the de facto authorities to end all sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, to protect religious and media freedoms, and to end violence against people exercising their right to protest.

Members raised the point that the Sudanese police are not acting to protect those persecuted for their Christian beliefs. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to Members on that matter, on which I do not have any more information at the moment. We are aware of the creation of a new community police department last year, which has caused some concerns—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised that point. Our embassy in Khartoum reports that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has seen no signs that this new unit is behaving as a morality police, but I will seek further information and assurances.

[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

I believe everyone has mentioned the community police and the morality police. There is quite clear evidence on the ground that they are being used in that fashion; we are quite happy to furnish the Department with that evidence, if it helps the Minister.

My ministerial colleagues are always grateful to receive any such evidence to consider. We have obviously sought assurances recently from the OHCHR, but we should always feed in and continue to do all that we can to make sure that we speak with absolute certainty on what the realities are on the ground.

How nice to see you, Sir Graham.

A successful political deal returning a civilian-led transitional Government to Sudan is absolutely essential for the country to continue making progress on human rights challenges. The UK will continue to work closely with people in Sudan, and with international and regional partners together to support the Sudanese dialogue towards an agreement.

The UK will continue to use its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to raise concerns about the fragile security situation, as the penholder on the resolution to renew the mandate for the UN integrated transition assistance mission in Sudan—UNITAMS—adopted last June. We continue to be at the forefront of those voices at the UN. At the same time, we will continue to press the authorities to protect human rights and hold those responsible for violations to account.

Can the Minister say a little more about the UN and where she sees the situation with Sudan and enforcement in the UN, given the challenges on the ground?

There are many moving parts. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Lady with more up-to-date details so that she is appraised of the latest situation from the UN.

As I said, we will continue to press the authorities to protect human rights and, importantly, to hold those responsible for violations to account.

I asked the Minister whether she would take back to the Foreign Secretary the idea of mirroring the sanctions against the central reserve police. Will she undertake to do that?

As the sanctions Minister, I absolutely hear the hon. Lady’s question, and we have indeed been using our sanctions tools to a degree, but I will take that back and discuss it with the Foreign Secretary. We obviously do not discuss how we might sanction in future, so as not to reduce the impact of sanctions, but I hear her question and will discuss it more fully with the Foreign Secretary in due course.

You were not here, Sir Graham, but my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was kind enough to point out that FCDO Ministers are very busy with many challenges as we are out and about across the world. Indeed, that is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield is not in the Chamber today, but I assure my hon. Friend that FORB is a central part of all civil society discussions, wherever in the world, for all FCDO Ministers, whatever our brief. We consistently want to challenge and raise the issue, so that everyone knows that the UK’s position on it is absolutely clear. We will always stand up for freedom of religion or belief. We all very much take it with us in our pockets with our passports as we champion the UK’s values.

We hope that once we see signs that a civilian Government is back in place, we will be able to continue our support for a Sudan that protects the freedom, justice and peace that the Sudanese people are once again having to call for. I will ensure that the team replies to all the questions that I have not been able to answer today.

On one final point, we held our last freedom of religion or belief conference in July last year, and we had over 800 faith and belief leaders with us. I note the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for a roundtable on the Sudanese question. I will take that back to the Foreign Secretary to see whether we can draw that together, so that Members are fully apprised of this moving situation. The UK will continue to lead on championing FORB around the world and holding to account all those who do not.

I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed. I thank my dear friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for taking the stand; she is the special envoy and does her job extremely well. I am pleased that she contributed. She referred to a meeting, which the Minister also mentioned in her last point, and I would love to have that meeting with the Department and civil society. The hon. Member for Congleton also referred to UK aid. Where does that £62 million go? Does it make its way to Christian groups? She also referred to the conversion of women and girls and to the morality police. There is a clear evidential base to back that up, and we need to be on top of the issue.

The two interventions by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier)—she made three, but two on me—were very important. She referred to the UN, which the Minister also mentioned in replying to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). There is a collective of ideas here. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West also referred to social media driving hate, and she is right.

I am pleased to have had everybody’s contributions, but particularly pleased by that of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire. She is a vice-chair of the APPG, to which she makes a valuable contribution—she never misses a debate, to be fair. We are pleased to have had her contribution. She referred to hate speech on state TV, security forces actively attacking and victimising women and girls, which is a massive concern, sexual abuse and church pastors being arrested. She also referred to an atrocity prevention strategy. It was, again, a valuable contribution.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is also a dear friend, always brings knowledge and passion to these debates. He referred to Sudan being in the top 10, and to the attacks on non-governmental organisations. He referred to church property being destroyed and believers attacked.

I genuinely always look forward to the contributions of the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), because she knows the subject and does it well. She referred to intercommunal violence, and to the fact that international partners must work together. She also referred, in her final comment, to targeting sanctions. I am coming to the end, Sir Graham; I know that you are looking at me—I am racing here.

I thank the Minister. I genuinely look forward to her contributions. I believe she wants to help; I believe she can help. This is somebody else’s responsibility, not hers, but I know she will pass on everything we have asked to the relevant Minister, and she will ensure that the issue is addressed at the very top.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered human rights and religious minorities in Sudan.

Turkey and Syria Earthquake

[Relevant document: e-petition 632772, Create a Turkish Family Scheme visa for people homeless due to the earthquake.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for Türkiye and Syria after the recent earthquake.

Many of us in this place know that the UK has a strong Turkish diaspora, based primarily, though not exclusively, in London. The UK has also welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees into our country through the resettlement programme. In introducing the debate, I am conscious that there is not just great interest but real concern in our Parliament. That is evident from the number of colleagues present in Westminster Hall late on a Thursday afternoon. I thank everybody for being here.

The purpose of the debate is to highlight the situation following the recent terrible earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. In the early hours of Monday 6 February 2023, a major earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey and north-western Syria. The epicentre of the initial earthquake was near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, and it measured a staggering 7.8 on the Richter scale. It is reported to be the biggest earthquake to hit Turkey since the Marmara earthquake in 1999. Ten provinces in the south and south-east of Turkey were heavily impacted, as was northern Syria.

A second earthquake struck the same region nine hours later, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, and many aftershocks were also recorded. The impact of the earthquakes was felt hundreds of miles away, with shaking felt in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, and tremors in Cyprus, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Just this week, a further earthquake measuring 6.4 hit the region. Although the scale and extent of the damage is still being assessed, it is clear that Turkey and Syria have been left reeling from the worst earthquake in 80 years.

Current reports estimate over 46,000 deaths and over 100,000 people injured. There has been extensive structural damage in Turkey, with reports of more than 40,000 buildings collapsing, including three major hospitals in Hatay. Not only have buildings collapsed, but infrastructure has been severely damaged. It is estimated that 300,000 people across the region have been left homeless. As we have seen in recent weeks, many have been trapped under building rubble.

I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She is right to say that so many people have turned out on a Thursday because this is important to us.

My constituent, Kholoud, came to the UK as a refugee after campaigning against the president of Syria, and her family was granted temporary protection in Turkey. Her family is one of the many that have been displaced. To make matters worse, they have been refused the help they need and treated with hostility by the Turkish authorities. My constituent is very worried. She says that anti-Syrian racism has been widespread in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, and there are rumours that the rescue teams are prioritising the rescue of Turkish nationals. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Minister to provide some reassurance to my constituent that the UK is open to supporting everyone who has been affected by the tragic earthquakes, including Syrians?

The hon. Lady makes a really important point. A natural disaster recognises no boundaries and no borders; it just affects people—citizens. I am sure the Minister will respond to that point.

Few people would not be moved by the images we have seen and the stories we have heard—images of immense bravery, not just of the survivors and their families but of the rescuers who have gone in in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Of course, on top of that there is the added challenge of the weather and the freezing temperatures.

Before I talk about the UK’s aid and the international response, it is important to reflect on the fact that Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees displaced abroad due to the country’s civil war. In some of the affected areas, 50% of the population are refugees. I recall visiting some of those camps and communities back in 2014 as part of a Conservative social action project before I entered this place, and even at that point the numbers were high and it seemed that it would potentially be a long-term situation.

There are 47,000 dead—my constituency has 44,000 people in it. That gives a sense of what we are facing in human terms. On the subject of refugees, many of those who have been displaced will of course want to stay and rebuild, but they may want to send some of their family to join family here. Would this not be a great opportunity to give a lead in the world and set up a scheme for those who have connections here in the same way that we did for those fleeing war in Ukraine?

The right hon. Gentleman puts the numbers into context. It is one thing to talk about a number, but to relate it to the size of a constituency or a community absolutely resonates. I am sure the Minister will say a little more about the refugee situation.

When I was in Turkey, I visited Gaziantep—a beautiful part of the country—and the region close to the border, and I recall just how struck I was by the size of the refugee crisis. For Syria, this is yet another devastating crisis after 12 years of conflict. Syria is divided into hostile areas, with the Assad regime controlling most of the country. The northern regions are controlled by a variety of armed opposition groups. There is now the impact of devastating earthquakes to deal with, too.

In Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia and Hama governorates, there are reports of collapsed buildings. Major infrastructure damage has been reported too, and also in Damascus. The British Red Cross estimates that 4.1 million people in the north-west of Syria already rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. The scale and severity of the humanitarian situation is complex and severe.

In Turkey, the Government declared a state of emergency and requested international assistance. The country has an impressive disaster relief operation known as AFAD—the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency—which I was fortunate to visit in my time as Minister for the European Neighbourhood, but even that has been severely tested by the scale of the disaster.

The week of the earthquakes, I visited the Nurture Society in Cambuslang in my constituency to lend my support to the phenomenal amount of work it quickly undertook to support the Turkish community locally and across the central belt, and to get vital supplies sent to those on the ground. Does the right hon. Lady share my gratitude to local community groups that mobilised so swiftly? Does she agree that they are the pride of our constituencies?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I will touch on the tremendous support from local communities shortly. I am really pleased that in the immediate aftermath the UK Government—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and many others—took swift action and stepped up to deliver aid and humanitarian support. I want to take a moment to mention some of this work.

A Disasters Emergency Committee—DEC—appeal was launched and raised almost £53 million in its first two days. I was pleased to see the FCDO, which I know is a long-standing member, pledge to match the first £5 million raised. As at 20 February, which is when I last checked, the appeal had raised more than £93 million for both Turkey and Syria. Fifteen charities are involved in that vital fundraising and response effort.

UK ISAR, the UK international search and rescue team, funded by the FCDO, sent a 77-strong team of specialists—I was really pleased to note that that included eight West Midlands Fire Service personnel—along with four specialist search and rescue dogs, to assist with search and rescue. Many of us saw the scenes on our TVs of people being rescued from the rubble days after the earthquake had struck. I pay tribute, as I am sure all Members would, to all the search and rescue personnel and, of course, to the amazing rescue dogs, who have a vital part to play.

The UK has sent out thousands of lifesaving items, including tents and blankets, and announced an aid package. I welcome the UK’s sending out a joint Ministry of Defence and FCDO field hospital, which includes an emergency department and a 24/7 operating theatre to provide emergency treatment to the critically injured. The Government have committed additional funding to the White Helmets to support earthquake search and rescue efforts in north-west Syria, where the situation is extremely complex. And of course there are organisations and charities such as the British Red Cross, ActionAid and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name just a few of the many that do incredible work in these challenging and often dangerous humanitarian situations.

Before I move on to talk a little more about some of the challenges and to seek some reassurances from my hon. Friend the Minister, I want to recognise also the contribution of businesses, our local communities and individuals in the UK, who are playing their part in this effort. I want to mention in particular, from my own constituency, my fellow Rotarians in Aldridge, who held a collection in the village—I think it was in Morrisons —last weekend. Their response was very warmly received by the local community. Also, Tynings Lane Church in Aldridge recently collected blankets and warm clothes to send over with a family who were travelling to the region.

I am sure that the Minister will want to update us on the latest situation regarding the UK response to the Turkey-Syria situation and I look forward to that, especially because, following the visit to the region earlier in the week by the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), he will have more up-to-date information. I would also like to gently ask him how he balances this latest humanitarian situation among all the many other, equally important pressures on his budget. I can remember from my time in the FCDO that that is always quite a challenge, so I just wanted to raise it with him.

Let me turn briefly to the situation in Syria. Even before the earthquake struck, there was only one remaining UN-mandated border crossing, at Bab al-Hawa. When I visited in 2021, I saw at first hand the huge volume of trucks and aid that was passing through, and even then it simply was not enough to match the needs of north-west Syria. I am pleased that the UK is working very closely with the UN, international partners and non-governmental- organisation partners to look at mobilising support. I welcome the UN-brokered agreement of 13 February to open additional crossings, but I believe that they are only temporary—for three months—so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me and others that he will do all he can to keep those crossing points open.

Of course, the difficulty of humanitarian access to north-west Syria is not new; it is the result of the ongoing conflict and the Assad regime’s use of aid as a political weapon. The Turkey-Syria earthquake has acted to highlight the challenge once again. What more can the UK and the international community can do, working with the UN and NGOs, to help humanitarian assistance to reach those who need it?

US trade sanctions in Syria have led to accusations that they have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching victims of the disaster, which could reasonably be an unintentional consequence, despite exemptions on aid goods. Does the right hon. Member share my concerns about the Syrian Government’s attempt to use the situation to have sanctions lifted?

In any situation, I would always be concerned about the possibility of any regime using humanitarian aid as a weapon of conflict, so I urge those involved in the effort to do all they can to keep the crossing points open and the flow of aid going through to the people who need that help the most.

Finally, I want to return briefly to reconstruction. I am aware that there has been criticism of construction methods used in Turkey and the fact that many buildings may have failed to meet the correct standards. What can the international community do to keep the pressure on and ensure that reconstruction projects are built to the best standards possible, certainly where UK aid and UK companies are involved? That becomes ever more pressing as we move from the rescue to the recovery phase of the disaster.

In common with other Members, I have visited Turkey on a number of occasions, including both Gaziantep and Hatay. I have seen the beautiful mosaics in the museums. I have spoken with many people. I have visited refugee camps on the banks of the Euphrates and I have stood right on the border between Turkey and Syria, watching the aid trucks cross. Turkey has shown great solidarity by opening its country and its homes to many thousands of displaced people. I hope that today’s debate reinforces not just the UK’s role in international development but our solidarity with all those affected by the devastating earthquakes.

Order. Many Members want to participate in the debate. In order to try to get everybody in, I propose an informal time limit of five minutes on Back-Bench contributions. If Members do not keep to that informal limit, I will have no choice but to impose a shorter, formal one in due course.

I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this very important debate on support for the people of Türkiye and Syria following the devasting earthquakes. I join her in sending condolences to all those who have lost loved ones and in paying tribute to all the organisations and individuals who are working so hard to deliver aid and medical assistance on the ground. We will need a long-term commitment to the region.

The tragic events in Türkiye and Syria have been keenly felt in Newport East, where we have well-established Turkish and Kurdish-Turkish communities. The Kurdish-Turkish community in Newport has grown considerably in recent years, as a result of political discord and divisions in Türkiye, a divide that has again been brought into focus over recent weeks. In Newport, the majority of families in that community originate from provinces that have been among the most severely impacted by the earthquake, including Hatay, where some 21,000 deaths have been recorded, and the surrounding areas of Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep and Adıyaman, which are each districts with recorded death tolls of over 3,500.

We know that the official Government death toll across southern and central Türkiye and northern Syria is a staggering 49,000, and is likely to rise, not least as there are still scores of destroyed buildings where search and rescue missions have not yet taken place. That is particularly true for the towns and villages in mountainous regions that rescue crews have been unable to access following the devastation of road and airport infrastructure. It would be good to hear from the Minister today what steps the international community is taking to ensure that emergency support reaches survivors in those less accessible areas; my constituents have asked me to raise that question, as the scale is huge.

We are keenly aware that the world does not yet have a full picture of the devastation wrought in Syria. Residents in Newport who have family members stranded in Idlib, an area that is still recovering from the barbarism wrought by Daesh and cluster bombs from Russian and Assad-backed Government forces, are particularly concerned that the region should not be forgotten. Even before the earthquake, an estimated 4.1 million people in north-west Syria relied on aid to meet their basic needs, and we think that 5.3 million survivors in Syria are now dependent on humanitarian assistance.

I understand that there are now three aid routes open in Syria, and 143 convoys have been able to cross the border, but Save the Children highlights that those routes will be open only during a three-month window, and that most of the aid packages crossing the border have only a 12-week lifespan. A long-term strategy for aid and support is much needed, and any update on that would be much appreciated.

Since the earthquake struck on 6 February, I have been in touch with 250 constituents who have lost family or loved ones, and I have taken part in two community meetings in Newport over the last fortnight, which included heartbreaking and really harrowing accounts from those directly and indirectly affected. Last week, I spoke with two survivors who told me that they had just managed to escape their home before the building collapsed, but they were unable to save their neighbours. They could hear their cries from under the rubble. The cruel feeling they described of survivor guilt will never leave them, nor will the horrific memories of what they heard and felt that day.

I met another constituent who lost 10 loved ones in a single building collapse, and another gentleman who had lost 20 relatives. There are many people worrying for their vulnerable young orphans and frail and elderly relatives who are now living under those crude tarpaulin tents. As one constituent put it to me:

“If they don't die of the disaster, they will die of the cold. The water is dirty. They’re hungry.”

Another said:

“More people will die of infection and the cold than the earthquake - we just don't have time.”

Sky News followed one of my constituents, Ahmet, who travelled to some of the most challenging areas in the region to try to find his only surviving relative, a 15-year-old niece. He is now stranded, and cannot return home to Wales as there is no one alive to care for her.

A big ask from the community in Newport is for a temporary visa system to be put in place, akin to the support offered by other European countries, such as Germany and the Swiss and Dutch Governments, to allow those most vulnerable individuals who have been left stranded to reunite with family members here in the UK. I understand that might not be the Government’s position at the moment, but I would be really grateful to hear details from the Minister about what options might be available and what discussions he has had with the Home Office on the handling of new visa applications and speeding up existing visa applications. We are aware that many people, particularly the 15-year-old I mentioned, will have lost all documentation, so that is important too. What is the strategy for orphaned children without passports or documentation?

I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills about rebuilding in a safer way for the future. I reiterate the asks made by Save the Children—namely, for the UK Government to play their part in a sustained campaign of international support to prevent further loss of life, including in the secondary crisis of hunger and disease, and to ensure that the protection of children is at the centre of our action.

I will finish on a more optimistic note. I thank the 16 schools in Newport East that have joined forces to donate to an appeal organised by Maindee Primary School, a school with a massively big heart. The supplies were sent away last week, so a big thank you to all those who donated, including Birchwood Housing CIC. I know there have been many appeals in Newport at the rugby and in our local churches for people to donate to the DEC appeal. In dark times, we tend to see the spirit of human kindness shine through brightly, and I know that is true for both my constituents and people across the country. I know Wales and the UK stand with the people of Türkiye and Syria.

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate. Few events can have the capacity to shake us to our core more than an earthquake. We are all moved by individual stories of victims of these natural disasters. In the news last week, I heard of a man whose home was one of the thousands of buildings in north-west Syria that were completely destroyed by the 6 February earthquakes. At least a hundred people in the building died. He recalled the shaking and the smell of dust, as his children fled from the second floor. Another building crumbled down in front of their eyes as they stepped outside.

Two weeks after the earthquakes, he now lives in a tent with his wife and seven children in the garden of a non-governmental organisation. He used to work in an olive refinery, but he is now unemployed, and since the earthquakes his family gets by with food support provided by charities.

With the rise of natural disasters often triggered by the impact of climate change, the challenges our world faces are becoming more complex. At the same time, ever-growing regions are subject to political unrest and instability. In this context, the solidarity shown in response to Syria and Turkey’s emergency has been inspiring.

I take this opportunity to thank every Government organisation and individual who has offered immediate assistance in the form of much-needed critical resources, such as winter clothing, health and nutrition supplies, electric heaters and hygiene kits, as well as the specialist rescue units that are helping extract people from under the rubble. I am proud that as a country we have been able to pledge more than £30 million in assistance, including the deployment of search and rescue teams and an additional £3.8 million in funding for the Syrian White Helmets.

I am aware of the critical humanitarian situation in north Syria over many years. This natural disaster has exacerbated the high level of humanitarian need, with many Syrian refugees concentrated in the 10 affected provinces of southern Turkey, and Syria suffering from more than a decade of civil war.

Before the earthquakes, the region had a high level of humanitarian need and displacement, and the UN said that its funding for the area was already overstretched. While the earthquake was felt as far away as Lebanon, closer to home, northern Syria’s Aleppo and surrounding areas also reportedly saw thousands of buildings collapse, including two hospitals. The UN estimates that in north-west Syria, 120 schools have been destroyed and 57 hospitals have been partially damaged or forced to suspend their services.

Getting assistance to some 4.6 million Syrians living in the north-west has been slower than in the Government-controlled areas. It took nearly five days for the first UN aid to arrive, due to the restricted access. I am glad that the UK has been able to take steps to make it easier for the aid agencies to operate without breaching any sanctions that target the Assad regime.

Political unrest and instability clearly create challenges to countries wanting to offer aid. While aid agencies are working to help millions, there is concern that needs arising from other crises such as the war in Ukraine and Syria’s protracted civil war could affect that assistance over time. I would also like to highlight the fact that, as snow and rain have hampered the work of rescue teams, we also need to consider the safety and security of people offering the aid.

To deal with the aftermath of this crisis, we have years of work ahead. What support are we offering to ensure the rebuilding of housing so that populations are not displaced? As the situation on the ground moves to a new phase, from rescue to recovery, it is important that the UK considers the focus of our international aid budget in offering support that will last, by rebuilding people’s homes. This is a shared responsibility across the international community, but Britain will take a lead. I know that if we fail in this task we will pick up the cost of displacement in other ways.

It is important that the UK takes a role of leadership in international humanitarian support. We have a long and proud history of being at the heart of responses to disaster and conflict. The war in Ukraine has shown our allies how Britain can take the lead. In his recent speech, given next door in Westminster Hall, President Zelensky said:

“London has stood with Kyiv since day one, from the first seconds and minutes of the full-scale war. Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react.”

We need to continue to work with the United Nations and other partner organisations in Turkey and northern Syria to co-ordinate the emergency response, with a particular focus on areas where access is difficult.

I am surprised that you have called me so early, Sir Graham, but thank you very much for doing so. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for leading the debate and for setting the scene so well for us. We will add our contributions, some of which will probably involve talking about people from our constituencies who have gone out to Turkey and Syria.

This very important debate takes place during a sad period for the people of Turkey and Syria. We in the UK are a generous society. We have proven that over a number of decades and especially in the recent invasion of Ukraine. We do our bit on the global stage to provide help to those in need, and providing basic support is the least we can do for those suffering from natural disasters. I think it is right that we do that, and I thank the Minister and our Government for all the work they have done to ensure that help goes out to the people who need it. We encourage our Government to do as much as they can, and in these debates we ask them to do more, but we recognise what has happened.

Millions of people across Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus felt the effects of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and thousands have been coping with the physical and mental aftershocks ever since. People do not know where their loved ones are, they have lost their homes and livelihoods, and there has been economic devastation. Some 47,000 people have been killed—unfortunately, we expect that figure to rise—and hundreds of thousands more injured. Many of those people are now forced to live in decrepit conditions, with no healthcare because hospitals are overflowing. Desperate recovery efforts will be ongoing in the coming months and perhaps even beyond.

I have had many constituents contact my office in relation to donations, and I am sure every Member present would say the same. Many are wanting to send clothes, blankets, shoes and other necessities. Some of them have very little, but they want to help. We still have the mindset that we had following the invasion of Ukraine. The amazing thing about this nation is that our first instinct is always to say, “What can we do?” I never fail to be moved by the generosity of the people of my constituency, and I know it is replicated across the country.

The people of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are generous and we dig deep. I am aware that some places are encouraging monetary donations to help with the devastation, but many charities and organisations seem to be encouraging other types of donation instead. I know that monetary contributions will be put towards dedicated emergency relief and rebuilding efforts for families in all impacted areas, and that might be a better way, but sometimes people want to give practical things to be sent right away, which is also a very important part of the aid effort.

The charities that have been instrumental in providing life-saving assistance include DEC, UNICEF, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save The Children, and there are dozens more. I know churches that are active as well, and several of my constituents have travelled over to help with the dog search and rescue, and to work as paramedics. It has been heartening to see just how much we want to help.

The Red Cross has revealed that some 3,000 people are currently in temporary accommodation, with a further 380,000 in school facilities, and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to the 44,000 people who have died. To give an idea of the numbers affected, 380,000 people are a quarter of Northern Ireland’s population.

In addition to five mobile kitchens, 71 catering trucks have been deployed to provide food for people in the coming days. The Turkish Red Crescent is aiming to deliver some 50,00 blankets, 10,000 electric heaters and 25,000 sleeping bags. It is important that we do all we can to support the victims of the devastation, whether by donating online or by encouraging schools and other groups to raise money. The UK Government have sent a 77-strong search and rescue group that is helping to put families back together and find loved ones, at a total cost of £8 million.

Family links have proven to be instrumental in driving us to give all the assistance we can. We are here today to represent our constituents, including those from Turkey who now live in our constituencies, and those who are going over to help. Children do not know where their parents are, and family pets are wandering around looking for their homes. The impacts have been devastating. The Samaritan’s Purse charity is once again stepping up and helping. All these charities should be noted and thanked.

I hope that the aid we provide and will continue to provide can make a difference in trying to fix what has been broken in Turkey, Syria and surrounding areas. I know that my constituents are generous, compassionate and wanting to help, and they continue to donate where possible. That will be replicated across all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We say to all those who have assisted thus far, despite their own financial pressures, that their efforts are valued. We thank them most sincerely. They enable us to hold our heads high through their kindness and generosity, as we continue praying for all those affected by this dreadful tragedy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on her thorough introduction to this debate in which she highlighted the real challenges with some feeling. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who described so well, but so sadly, the reality of life for someone who has been through these devastating circumstances. I will pick up in particular her point about family reunion.

I am very proud to represent a borough in Hackney where just over 3% of the population—about 7,000 people —have Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds. I and my north-east London colleagues, whom I am glad to see here, represent what we might describe as a little Turkey. We have a huge engagement with our Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking communities, who contribute an awful lot to our society.

I will talk a bit about family reunion. I appreciate that the Minister has to defer to the Home Office on these issues, but the point must be made very firmly that we have examples in very recent times of reunion schemes to bring people from areas of devastation into the UK. The Public Accounts Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, looked at the Syria scheme, which was actually well worked out. Obviously that mostly involved people without family here, but 20,000 of them were settled, so there is a precedent. There is also a precedent in the Afghan scheme, although that was not about family reunion, of course, but resettlement routes for people to whom the UK owes a duty of care.

In addition, there is the example of Ukraine. There were rocky moments, but the family reunion and Homes for Ukraine schemes are worked-up schemes that are there to pick up anew. There was also Hong Kong, and back in 1996, when I was a young councillor, we welcomed people from Montserrat. Although that was from an overseas territory, we nevertheless had the capability, the capacity and the mechanisms to ensure that we could get people into this country.

I represent, as I say, around 7,000 Turkish and Kurdish people—well, I do not represent them all; I share that with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). There are many thousands of others across north-east London, and, as we have heard, in Newport and across the country. There are families here who have jobs and housing, who could quickly scoop up family members caught up in the devastation.

Many years ago, when I was the Minister responsible for dealing with issues such as resettlement, we would take a number of people from United Nations camps, but we now know that there are aid agencies there who can identify families or individuals who are very vulnerable, such as lone children, and who could be quickly routed through the existing compassionate route that we operate and support as the United Kingdom. The communities here—not just the individuals, with their housing, jobs and money that could support those people, but the communities in Hackney and around north-east London—could do a great deal to support people. We have groups such as the Alevis and very many Turkish community groups and organisations that would be very welcoming. My own mosque, Suleymaniye mosque, is a Turkish foundation mosque as well.

We know it takes time to get these schemes right, so there is no time for delay. It is important that we have child protection and other protection routes in place, so that we are not just accepting people for wrong reasons. Those such as the 15-year-old orphan girl my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East described need to come somewhere safe, and there is no safe place for them in the region at the moment because of the challenges.

I urge the Minister to give us an answer today on the Government thinking on this. I have already written to the Home Secretary, and I will continue to work with colleagues to press this issue. We are not necessarily talking about great numbers of people—sadly, with so many deaths, there will be very few people in this position —but at the very least we must reach out to those vulnerable lone children and other vulnerable people. I look forward hopefully to the creation of a wider scheme to support people, but could we please get moving on supporting vulnerable lone children and vulnerable family members of those currently in the UK as a starting point?

As we have heard, the series of earthquakes that began in the early hours of Monday 6 February have been devastating. The scale of loss has been immense. Some 46,000 people have been confirmed dead, and the Turkish Government officials have said that that is likely to rise fourfold or fivefold once they have cleared the rubble of collapsed buildings. An estimated 23 million people have been affected, including 7 million children. As a mother, watching a newborn whose whole family had died being pulled out of the rubble, and a father sitting holding the hand of his teenage daughter who lay dead under the ruins of their home, broke my heart.

This week when, we thought disaster relief could continue, disaster struck again, with two further powerful earthquakes in the area. Like many members of our country’s large British Turkish-Kurdish communities, my family woke up that Monday and started trying to contact loved ones and relatives. We were incredibly lucky to find out that the majority of our family were safe, but thousands of families have not been so lucky. I spent the whole day following the earthquake at the local British Alevi community centre. Families were talking to loved ones and watching via WhatsApp video calls while family members tried desperately to dig through the rubble. It was heartrending.

Desperation grew as time passed and people waited longer and longer for help to reach them. Feeling totally helpless, I, like so many in my community, could do little more than take to Twitter to raise the alarm and call for help for the relatives of my brother-in-law, who were trapped under their collapsed building. Sadly they died, having waited three days for help which did not reach their neighbourhood.

When such devastation occurs, one of the few aspects we can take solace in is the response and acts of others. The international response to the disaster has been immense. I am grateful to the Government for immediately sending over search and rescue teams and a UK emergency medical assessment team, and for £25 million of aid that has been committed to the region. A fund launched by the UK Disasters Emergency Committee raised more than £30 million in its first day. We also know that the UN, EU and the US have launched aid appeals for both Turkey and Syria.

As the Minister will know, Turkey has a very large Syrian refugee community, with over 3 million refugees in the area. A large number of them live in the region hit by the earthquake. I am receiving reports from community centres in the region and from members of the community here with loved ones in that region that the treatment of Syrian refugees is heartbreaking. Families are fearful; not speaking Arabic, they fear that they might not receive the help that they so desperately need. Search and rescue support never got to their area, and now they are not receiving the aid that they need to survive in the bitter cold. Can the Minister confirm that the UK will raise the concerns and plight of Syrian refugees and the other religious and ethnic minorities in the region who are affected by the earthquake to ensure that the aid that is sent is delivered equitably in the region?

Local community centres have spent day and night organising aid to be sent to Turkey via trucks. They have been holding fundraising events.

I want to put on the record our thanks for my hon. Friend’s language skills. It has been extremely stressful for her and her team, who have been inundated with requests for support. On behalf of all Members in this House, I want to put on the record our heartfelt thanks for the endless amount of time that she and her team have spent absorbing the trauma, stress and grief of others.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words and for her support to the Turkish-speaking community in Hornsey and Wood Green.

As I was saying, local community centres across north London and the UK have spent day and night collecting funds and aid to send to Turkey. Local faith groups in Enfield, including Jewish, Sikh, Christian and Muslim groups, came to the centre to show their support and make donations. It has been hugely heart-warming for the Turkish and Kurdish community in this time of crisis.

Sadly, the aid that was sent to Alevi faith centres for distribution in Turkey to purchase much-needed tents and goods has been confiscated. The Government have appointed commissioners to these centres and they are unable to distribute the funding, which is really heartbreaking for my community. My community has some serious questions for the Government, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer.

Those who remain in the disaster zone have lost their homes, possessions and family members. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 5.3 million people have been displaced by the earthquake in Syria alone. The winter weather is making life extremely difficult for survivors.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate. My thoughts and prayers are with the people in Turkey and Syria who are in desperate need following the recent earthquake, which has caused such tragic loss of life. Millions of Syrians caught up in the disaster will already have been displaced to camps and makeshift settlements. This earthquake is, therefore, yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable and already struggling populations. That will compound the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

Our practical solidarity is needed now. Trade unions are calling for contributions from their branches to go to the ITUC-Asia Pacific natural disaster fund to help with the relief efforts. Islamic Relief UK has an emergency appeal, along with many organisations in my constituency, including as faith and non-faith groups and local businesses, which I am proud to see donating money to these emergency appeals.

None the less, we must hold the Government to account, be realistic about long-term needs and learn from our responses to past disasters. The UK must step up further and play a role in co-ordinating and scaling up the response. Initial pledges are one thing, but history has taught us of the importance of having a well-funded crisis reserve that can provide ongoing crucial emergency aid, yet the UK aid budget continues to be slashed, with bigger cuts expected in the future. I urge the Government to reverse that trend as a matter of urgency and set out a long-term funding strategy for the region. Rather than cutting aid, we should be cancelling the deeply damaging levels of debt of low-income countries. A United Nations report published in October 2022 set out the unfolding global debt crisis using data on credit ratings, debt sustainability and sovereign bonds. The report stated that data was missing for several countries, including Syria. Can the Minister say more about the debt situation in relation to Syria?

We know that Syria has long been enduring an economic crisis, which is likely to hinder any earthquake response. I therefore highlight the United States’ decision to announce an exemption to its sanctions on Syria for all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts, and ask the Minister for the latest information on the possibility of lifting sanctions on Syria to speed up aid deliveries, given their widely noted significant economic and social impact?

The added difficulty is that it is Turkey which, like no other country, opened up to the world’s largest refugee population amid Syria’s continuing instability, as well as providing vital aid. Can the Minister update us on whether the UK is doing its fair share by providing asylum and ensuring safe routes for victims of the earthquake? We have a shared responsibility to help those who are least well off, both in this country and around the world. With the effects of covid-19, climate change, conflict, humanitarian crisis, inflation, economic instability and now this earthquake disaster, internationalism and global solidarity have never been more crucial.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this timely and important debate.

The tragedy unfolding in Turkey and Syria is heart- breaking. I join other hon. Members in sending my condolences and sympathy to everyone affected by the disaster. The impact of the earthquakes is unfathomable. More than 47,000 people have been confirmed dead, thousands are missing and many millions more have been displaced. Millions require urgent assistance across Turkey and Syria; there is desperate need for blankets, emergency shelter, food and clean water.

Like many places across the UK, my constituency of Enfield, Southgate is home to thriving Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian communities. Tragically, some have lost loved ones, and many more have been desperately trying to contact friends and family in the region who now face an acute humanitarian crisis. On a recent visit to the British Alevi Federation in north London, I saw at first hand its incredible work to co-ordinate collections of clothes and money for those impacted by the earthquakes. Many of those affected by the disaster are Alevi. It was heartbreaking to hear about the community’s experience. I also heard about the challenges that the federation faces in ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those who are desperately in need in their communities and in difficult-to-reach areas. The group raised concerns about the speed of the Turkish Government’s response; I urge the Minister to use our relationship with Turkey to ensure that all areas impacted by earthquakes are receiving humanitarian support.

From members of the diaspora coming together in solidarity to communities spending day and night organising aid deliveries, and local schools raising money through fundraisers, the generosity of our local communities has been amazing and should make us all incredibly proud. The international response has also been immense. I thank and pay tribute to everyone involved in the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal and all those who have donated. DEC charities and their local partners are providing urgent help to people in need right now.

In Syria, humanitarian support is needed more than ever. The situation in north-west Syria has rightly been described as a crisis upon a crisis. One of the world’s most vulnerable populations, which has endured 12 years of brutal conflict, now faces further desperation and trauma. Prior to the earthquakes, 4.1 million people in north-west Syria were already dependent on humanitarian assistance. Millions of Syrians have been displaced after more than a decade of conflict and are living in incredibly difficult conditions with minimal support. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the International Rescue Committee is warning of a secondary public health crisis.

I welcome the Government’s action so far in co-ordinating humanitarian support amid the incredibly challenging situation in Syria. I note, for example, their support for the White Helmets and their life-saving search and rescue and emergency relief operations in north-west Syria. They have also made wider efforts to support the international community’s response, which includes the UN and other agencies such as Action for Humanity, the parent company of Syria Relief, that are operating on the ground in Syria.

I also welcome the opening of the two crossings at Bab al-Salam and al-Rai, with the expansion of the UN cross-border operation, to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, the delay in opening the crossings demonstrates the challenges that we face in facilitating aid in a country ravaged by war, as well as the malign influence of the Assad regime and Russia in this humanitarian crisis.

In conclusion, given the strength of feeling in this debate and the response to the petition, will the Minister make sure that the Government show how they will ensure that emergency aid reaches those who need it most in Syria, and how help will be co-ordinated with our international partners and local partners on the ground?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to follow so many of my colleagues, not just from north London but from Wales, and other colleagues across the House who have spoken with such passion about this devastating disaster.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who has led on the issue in my local area, working very closely with the leadership of Enfield Council and of Haringey Council to pull together the enormous amount of good will. As we often find in these tragic moments, that good will needs to be supported and shaped, and the leadership role played by the two local authorities, which are both led by Turkish-speaking women, has been really something to see.

I put on record my thanks to the Mayor of London for coming with me and colleagues to the London Alevi Cultural Centre and Cemevi last week. There was a candle for every single one of the cities about which the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) spoke so powerfully, including Maraş and the Syrian cities that have been affected. Each city was represented by a candle, which was lit. We looked at them and spent time with the community, talking to people about what the needs were at that point, when people were still being pulled out alive. I was proud that our own firefighters, emergency rescue teams, doctors and nurses were there to provide the sort of support that is so vital in these terrible moments.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) was able to visit the Enfield Alevi Cultural Centre to provide reassurance that he would use his parliamentary role as shadow Foreign Secretary and be a shoulder to cry on, because at this point we are still very much in shock. Perhaps our requests need to be monitored on an ongoing basis so that we can get as much assistance as possible in the medium and long term. I put on record my particular thanks to the Komkar community centre in Hornsey, the Cemevi in Wood Green and all the smaller centres in my constituency, which all play their role.

I hope that the UK Government will be able to assist the Turkish Government so that we can have best practice on construction in areas where there are fault-lines and earthquakes such as this terrible one. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about the possibility of any support for construction that might be on offer. I also reiterate the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) for family reunion where appropriate. It needs to be quick.

On the medical question, there will be specialisms that we can offer in our London hospitals to those who are desperate and who need medical assistance as soon as possible. Will the Minister outline what programme the FCDO, in conjunction with the Home Office, can work up to meet those needs?

Finally, in relation to the aid and the gifts that are coming through, I ask that the UK Government take responsibility for people who wish to donate from the UK, but who may not be used to donating and may accidentally donate to a questionable charity. I have heard, as I am sure colleagues across the House have, that people have been seeing very sad stories on Facebook and giving people £100. That is not best practice. Will the Minister outline what he believes should be done in that regard?

Those are my questions for the Home Office, for the Foreign Office and for any other arms of the Government that can assist communities abroad in these terrible times.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this incredibly important debate.

May I begin by thanking and paying tribute to the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who spoke emotively? On behalf of the Scottish National party, I thank her for all the work she has been doing. We pass on all our love and support to her and her community.

The earthquakes have caused untold levels of damage. Sadly, the most recent estimates suggest that 49,000 people have lost their lives, and that figure is only likely to grow. I express my party’s deepest condolences to all those impacted by the disaster and our support for those in Scotland and across the four nations who have family and friends in the region.

With temperatures approaching zero, as many as one million people are currently living in tents, and such conditions are susceptible to outbreaks of disease. With healthcare infrastructure already stretched, that adds additional pressures. It will likely be months until families are put up in even temporary accommodation, so this is a humanitarian crisis that will last for years, not simply days or months.

As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) has highlighted, the earthquake has exacerbated an already desperate humanitarian situation in north-west Syria: 84% of the population in the region were already dependent on humanitarian support after years of conflict. An estimated 5.3 million people in Syria have been displaced from their homes because of the earthquake, but it is only the most recent compounding factor in a region that has faced so much devastation. From cholera to snowstorms and the impact of civil wars, there is already so much suffering. As the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) stated, we must do all we can to help a population that is already dependent on humanitarian aid. I would be grateful if the Minister detailed the discussions that the UK Government are engaging with at a UN level on opening additional crossing points for humanitarian assistance.

When natural disasters strike, it is too often women and girls who are disproportionately affected. For example, the immediate relief given will often not include sanitary products, so women have no option but to share those products, which can cause infection and increase rates of disease. Research evidence also suggests that triggers for violence against women and girls increase in the aftermath of natural disasters. There are 25,000 people due to give birth in the coming months; an earthquake of this scale hampers healthcare infrastructure, which will have both an immediate and a long-term effect on babies born into the crisis. As the crisis continues to unfold, it is paramount that the Government’s response be intersectional and that it consider the structural issues that are so often overlooked.

Over the past few weeks, some devastating videos and pictures have been shared on social media. One that particularly struck me was of a young boy who was taken out of the rubble. He had clearly been sleeping and did not really know what was happening. He said, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” The brave rescuers just said, “Nothing’s happening. Good morning,” just to give that little bit of reassurance to that poor kid impacted by this devastating earthquake.

Many children affected by the earthquake are likely to require medical attention to treat the injuries that they have sustained. However, many healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed, which is having a compounding impact, particularly in Syria, where very few healthcare facilities were functioning and supplies were already critically low. Will the Minister tell us the UK Government’s level of engagement with other Governments and with charities on provision for young children?

I echo the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in thanking civil society organisations for their tremendous work in responding to the crisis. Communities in Scotland have rallied together to respond. So far, the Scottish people have given £5.5 million to relief efforts. Local groups and organisations have played a critical role in responding to the crisis. I commend the work of groups such as the Association of Turkish Alumni and Students in Scotland, which arranged a plane to transport food, clothing and blankets to Turkey. Scotland has again displayed its commitment to being a compassionate member of the global community. The Scottish Government have also committed £500,000 to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

Aid and humanitarian assistance are key, but the UK Government could do more. Many victims of the earthquake will want to stay in their home country and help to rebuild, but will the UK Government commit to an asylum seeker scheme whereby victims of the earthquakes who have family links to the UK could seek refuge here? In asking that, I am echoing other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), so there is clearly support on the Opposition Benches for such a scheme. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point.

Charities have also provided invaluable support. For example, Islamic Relief is playing a pivotal role in north-west Syria, where it has worked for many years responding to the devastation caused by civil war. However, it has raised concerns about the ability for foreign aid to reach impacted areas in Syria. Humanitarian agencies run into issues when transferring money to organisations on the ground in Syria. Although it is welcome news that the UK Government have adapted the sanctions regime to allow for the greater flow of humanitarian aid at the same time that they are maintaining pressure on Assad’s regime, organisations such as Islamic Relief have asked for clarity about the changes so that they can create a long-term plan to respond to the earthquake. I would be keen to hear from the Minister about that.

Following this grave humanitarian disaster, the SNP welcome the UK Government’s decision to send a team of 76 research and rescue specialists to Turkey with equipment and rescue dogs. We also commend the FCDO for co-ordinating with the UN on support for those in Syria through the White Helmets.

The European Commission has announced that it will be organising a donors conference for Syria and Turkey in March to mobilise funding. I understand that the UK is eligible to attend that conference. Can the Minister confirm that he or another UK Minister will attend?

The World Food Programme has stated that it requires £46 million over the next three to four months to address the immediate needs of the region. I hope the UK Government will consider how they can co-ordinate their efforts with international partners.

The coming months will be challenging for those impacted by the earthquake and the aftershocks, and Ramadan is due to begin in only a matter of weeks. As the news cycle moves on, we must ensure that the support we give to those impacted in Turkey and Syria does not waver. We must continue to do all we can to help those impacted by the crisis.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing today’s debate, to which all colleagues have made considered and moving contributions.

I am afraid that when I saw the news breaking about the earthquake, I had a feeling of dread about what was to come. I worked on the Haiti earthquake response back in 2010 when I was an adviser at the Department for International Development, and I was previously in NGOs, including during the Boxing day earthquake and tsunami. When we see a report about an earthquake of this size, it can only lead to an unimaginable loss of human life and to devastation.

Hon. Members have made some incredibly powerful speeches. The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills gave a powerful summary and drew on her own experiences. We used to serve together on the International Development Committee, and of course she spent time as a Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) related powerful stories and spoke about the links in her constituency and the families affected—not only those affected by the earthquake, but those in Syria who had already been affected by the brutality of Assad’s and Russia’s attacks. She rightly asked an important question, which I hope the Minister will answer, about visas for those who have lost family members and who want to reunite with family in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) raised the same issue, rightly mentioning our track record of supporting those who have fled disasters and of providing support for disaster responses in the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) has played an absolutely crucial role in responding, not only in her own community but here in Parliament. We spoke just hours after the news broke. She gave very powerful testimony, not just about her constituents but about the impact on her own family and friends. She rightly raised an important and worrying concern about reports of the potential confiscation of aid. Will the Minister comment on those claims?

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) spoke about the cuts to the aid budget, which I will come on to. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) spoke about the personal losses in his constituency and talked about a visit to the British Alevi Federation. He said that we need to ensure that aid gets to those who need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) rightly praised the firefighters, nurses and others who assisted, and she mentioned the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to the Enfield Alevi Cultural Centre.

There were many other important contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) raised a very important point about the disproportionate impact of disasters on women and girls. I would certainly be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

The earthquake has resulted in more than 46,000 deaths —a number that will undoubtedly rise—and 100,000 people injured. We must remember those who have been critically injured by this disaster, and of course a disaster of this scale has mental health impacts, particularly for young people and children. As has been pointed out, a significant proportion of those who have died or been affected are from the Alevi Kurdish population. That community has a strong presence here in the UK; many constituents of hon. Members who have spoken today have been left in a state of unimaginable grief.

In recent days, we have seen aftershocks, and further people have been killed and wounded. Will the Minister clarify whether any other British nationals have been affected? On behalf of the official Opposition, I send my deepest condolences, thoughts and sympathies to all those who have been affected by this tragedy. I personally conveyed our condolences to the ambassador of Türkiye, and I know many colleagues have done so directly through communities in their own constituencies.

Türkiye is of course a close NATO ally and partner of the United Kingdom, and there are many close ties of family and friendship between us, as with the people of Syria, many of whom have fled from the crisis there to be in the UK. We are therefore duty-bound as a nation to respond to the challenges posed by this disaster, not just in the short term but in the long term, too.

As we know, the people of Syria have experienced 12 years of conflict, with 4.1 million people already relying on life-saving humanitarian assistance. Some 3.7 million Syrians have ended up in the area affected by the earthquake in Türkiye. It is a huge crisis upon crisis upon crisis. There have been cholera outbreaks in Syria. We even saw Assad barrel bombing areas affected—absolutely despicable behaviour from a regime that has already done so much damage. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on the complex situation in Syria, with different areas of control, different challenges and, of course, the influence of Russia, the Assad regime and other extremist organisations in regions that have been affected by the earthquake, which is making it even more complex.

I join others in praising the work of the British people in responding to the crisis. It has just been announced that the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal—I declare an interest as a past chair of DEC in Wales—has raised more than £100 million. That shows the strength of response of the UK people. On top of that, we have heard repeatedly about the community fundraising and relief efforts throughout the country, particularly among communities affected, but also in others who have raised money out of a sense of compassion and a desire to assist. The Boss & Brew Academy in my Cardiff South and Penarth constituency has organised a fundraiser. Many others are doing so, particularly among the faith communities, across the UK.

I welcome the match funding that the UK Government provided, and the fact that the Minister for international development and humanitarian response, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), has been out to the region. Of course, the question is where we go from here. I am concerned. There were discussions about cutting the aid budget to Syria as part of the overall Government aid budget cuts. I hope the Minister can confirm that that is being reconsidered. It seems absurd to consider that at this time.

I hope the Minister will provide some more detail on the £25 million aid package announced last week. How is that going to be split between the countries and communities? What will it actually include? Over what timeframe are we talking, and where is that funding being drawn from? I hope the Minister can also comment on some of the other allegations that have been made about aid—particularly aid raised here in the UK—not getting through to certain areas.

There has been some suggestion that some who lived in the disaster zones and have had to leave them could be prevented from returning. What discussions has the Minister had with authorities, where that is possible—I recognise the complex situation in Syria—to ensure that individuals can return, hopefully when reconstruction and redevelopment has happened?

The border crossing situation has been mentioned. It is good to see that the three border crossings are now open. What steps are we taking to ensure that they stay open, that we look at other potential crossings and that they are secure and are not frustrated? Will the Minister say what the Government’s position is on Russia’s game playing at the Security Council and their constant activities to frustrate and make this situation even worse?

When a disaster like this strikes, there is rightly the immediate outpouring of condolence, and there is the immediate support and relief effort. I praise in particular the international search and rescue effort that the UK sent out. I have personally met many of those brave search and rescue teams before and know what incredible work they do. But as the cameras leave, as the media leave, and as attention turns to other crises, the people will still be suffering the crushed buildings, the lives destroyed, the mental health impacts, and the long-term food, infrastructure, water, health and sanitation impacts.

We have to be in these things for the long haul. I hope the Minister will set out what we will do to galvanise the international community to be in there for the long haul, particularly in those communities that are hard to reach and those communities in Syria that, in some cases, receive no assistance at all. We must be in this for the long haul, which will require money and diplomatic engagement with other countries to ensure that we are playing our crucial role in responding to the crisis. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair once again, Sir Graham. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this important debate. I think we are all speaking from pretty much the same hymn sheet, in terms of the terrible devastation caused as a result of this natural tragedy and made worse by other issues and related factors.

I recognise the distinguished service of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills in the FCDO. I remember with great affection and gratitude the support she provided to me personally, and I am sure to many other Members present, during the pandemic, when she was trying to help us to get constituents back from all parts of the world. That will always stay close to my heart, so I thank my right hon. Friend for her work. Today, she has once again demonstrated her compassion and experience from the work she has done.

This has been an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and support across the House for those affected by these devastating earthquakes. As always, I respect the experience brought to the debate by the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I also highlight the important contributions made by other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who gave a very moving testimony that I am sure her constituents will be proud of. It must have been very difficult to do.

The Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), is travelling on ministerial duties; otherwise, he would be speaking on behalf of the Government in this debate. Of course, as has been highlighted, he made an important visit to the affected region on Sunday, for which we are grateful, and there was an aftershock at that particular time. His experience will help us in Government to respond not only to the questions raised today but to the other issues being raised directly on the ground.

I join in offering my condolences on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to those affected by the disaster. As the Foreign Secretary said in his statement to the House on the morning after the disaster unfolded:

“Earthquakes of this severity have not been seen in that region for 80 years.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2023; Vol. 727, c. 771.]

The devastating effects of the earthquake have sadly become clearer over recent days. There were harrowing accounts from the constituents of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and others, which highlight the tragedy that has played out in this much-affected part of the world.

Today, sadly, the death toll stands at more than 48,000 people, and at least 118,000 people have been injured. We know that, tragically, those numbers will continue to rise. About 25 million people—a staggering figure—have been affected overall, with homes, businesses and key infrastructure destroyed. The UK Government have stepped up to deliver aid as quickly as possible, working closely with Turkey, the UN, international partners and non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile, our consular team is supporting British nationals who have requested assistance. That number is relatively small at this stage, but we will continue to be there to support those who have needs.

The UK Government deployed an international search and rescue team to Turkey in the first days after the earthquake. Since 9 February, we have sent emergency aid—including 3,315 shelters and nearly 40,000 blankets— to Turkey and Syria. The search and rescue team has now returned to the UK, but it saved multiple people who were trapped in the rubble including, as I am sure others will be aware from reports, rescuing a two-year-old girl and a 90-year-old woman. The team has played an invaluable role and should be commended for its valiant efforts.

Will the Minister give particular regard to the needs of children at this time—particularly those missing education—and their need for special psychological support and anything around play, books and all those basics that we take for granted in our own families?

That is an important point. I will come on to the support that we are providing for women and young children.

As has been discussed, we have also provided additional funding to the White Helmets, supporting life-saving search and rescue and emergency relief operations in north-west Syria, which has been one of the most difficult areas to provide support to. The UK Government have set up an emergency medical facility in Türkoğlu in Turkey, providing life-saving treatment to more than 3,000 people to date. Medics from the UK’s emergency medical team and more than 80 personnel from 16 Medical Regiment and the Royal Air Force tactical medical wing are working side by side with Turkish medical staff. Royal Air Force aircraft are helping to deliver NATO’s package of emergency support to Turkey and the UK will continue to contribute to the alliance’s response to the earthquakes.

UK-funded NGOs have also provided medical care in the region, and the UN distributed food and other essential supplies, which the UK contributed to. We are grateful for their important work, as always. I hope that highlights to Members—I think we are all pretty aware—that there is a proper exercise in international engagement with all the different agencies to make the best possible impact.

As has been highlighted, the UK Government match funded the first £5 million of public donations to the DEC earthquake appeal. It has been highlighted that the appeal has now reached a staggering £800 million. I have to say that, coming into this debate, I thought it was £93 million. It shows that there is broad traction here. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) raised concerns about which charity people should support. We have published guidance on that, which has a section on how to make donations safely, but I would say that that appeal in particular is a great way to make a donation. It is an effort we should all be proud of. Others have highlighted the amazing work that has gone on—whether it is Rotarians in Aldridge or local schools and rugby clubs in Newport East, it is incredible to see how the community has come together, particularly where there is diaspora in those areas.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth asked me to comment on the £25 million package of additional funding that that Government announced on 15 February. It will fund additional emergency relief for Turkey and Syria, such as tents and blankets for families made homeless in what are now freezing conditions. The new humanitarian package will also support the work of the UN and aid agencies in Syria, as well as the ongoing relief efforts in Turkey led by the Government. There is a particular focus on protecting women and girls, which is an issue that has been highlighted, including support with childbirth and efforts to reduce the risk of gender-based violence.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) made an important point about sanitary products. I just wanted to make her aware that the UK is funding the United Nations Population Fund to support immediate need around childbirth, midwifery and reducing the risk of violence against women and girls. That includes providing dignity kits, hygiene kits and other life-saving items.

I thank the Minister for that additional detail—particularly the last point. I wanted to ask him about the reports of a planned cut to the budget for Syria. Obviously, Syria was in crisis before this disaster. Surely it is the wrong time to cut the longer-term support package to Syria, even though this additional money is welcome.

I was going to come back to that. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We had an interesting debate in this Chamber for an hour or so yesterday about the ODA budget, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will recall. Big and difficult decisions will need to be made in that respect, given the global situation and the economic impact, but his point is important and I am sure that the Minister for Development and the Foreign Secretary will hear it and the other points that have been made. The allocations have not been made yet, so I am not able to report back on exact figures.

In Syria, needs are particularly acute. There is extensive and severe damage to housing, infrastructure, schools, roads and hospitals.

I will, but I would like to make some progress because I am trying to answer everyone’s questions.

It is looking like the Minister may be running out of time to talk about family reunion, which I appreciate is another Minister’s portfolio. Will he undertake to ensure that the Home Office writes to all Members present in detail about what considerations are ongoing on that issue?

I was definitely going to come to that issue. Do not worry, it has been raised enough. I recognise its importance. The things is that we want to ensure we provide support to relatives impacted by the disaster, and when family members do not have British visas they will be able to apply by one of our standard visa routes, which remain available. The application centre closest to the affected region, in Adana, Turkey, has now reopened following temporary closure after the earthquake, which will support people looking for a UK visa and enable those who have already applied to submit their biometrics.

Those who have been affected by the earthquake are able to relocate safely within Turkey, and we have reports that some of those affected by the earthquakes in Syria have crossed the border as well. Our primary focus is on providing support. We will keep in close contact with the Home Office on the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier). It is a vital issue.

Will the Minister also commit to looking into the 90-day temporary visa that Germany has put in place for Syrian and Turkish people? Will he let us know what the Government plan to do about that?

I will certainly follow up with the Home Office on that particular point. Questions have been raised about where the responsibility sits, and they have been noted. I will follow up on that.

Let me turn to the other issues that have been raised. There was lots of talk about the border crossings. We want to ensure that the openings that have been put in place are verified and remain open. An important point has been made about how we secure a long-term improvement to the humanitarian conditions, hopefully by keeping those access points secured over a longer term. Russia obviously plays an important role and has not been co-operative in the past.

Comments were also made about what we can do on the longer-term recovery effort. I think everyone understands that the primary focus right now is on what we can do to provide urgent life-saving support and life-sustaining assistance, but we will continue to look at what more we can do to support the recovery effort. It is much more complicated in Syria, given the actions of the Assad regime, but we will continue to focus on that.

In the remaining time I have, I would like to highlight one other vital point—I know the hon. Member for Strangford feels strongly about this—which is about ensuring that we monitor events in Turkey and work closely to co-ordinate with the Turkish authorities, with the United Nations and NGO partners, and indeed with the opposition groups in Syria, to ensure that aid makes it to all those in need. That has come out loud and clear today. Please be assured that that is vital for us. We need to ensure that aid gets to the most vulnerable and the minority communities in Turkey and Syria. If Members hear of reports of that not happening, we would be very grateful for that intelligence. We need to push back to ensure that aid is absolutely made available.

In conclusion, these are truly tragic circumstances. However, we can be proud that we have responded quickly—as a nation, but as a Government as well—and are working alongside our international partners. In the difficult days and weeks to come, colleagues can be assured that we will continue to stand with the people of Turkey and Syria in their hour of need.

Thank you, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for responding to this debate. Equally importantly, I thank each and every Member from across the House who has contributed. We have had a really good debate. We have been able to highlight the tragedy of the situation in Turkey and Syria and the many organisations that have stepped up to the plate in many ways, including our own constituents, to help with this.

We have highlighted and raised a number of issues with the Minister that I hope he will take back to the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), on his return from his travels. I am particularly reassured by the point about fairness and equity of access to aid, as well as the really important recognition that women and girls are often most affected.

In conclusion, here in Westminster Hall this afternoon, we have shown that we stand united in our solidarity with those in Turkey and Syria and their families beyond. Again, I thank everyone who has contributed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for Türkiye and Syria after the recent earthquake.

Sitting adjourned.