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House of Lords Hansard
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Syria-Jordan Border: Rukban Camp
16 October 2018
Volume 793

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to prevent deaths from starvation at the Rukban camp on the Syria-Jordan border.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

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My Lords, the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst humanitarian catastrophe of this century so far. We remain immensely concerned by the ongoing situation at the Rukban camp in southern Syria. It is just another example of the Assad regime’s systematic and blatant disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law and for the well-being of its people.

The UK has been a leading voice among donors on this issue and we continue to raise it with the UN on a regular basis. In particular, we continue to lobby all parties for full humanitarian access to the camp to enable regular aid deliveries to take place. As a result of this lobbying, we understand that a humanitarian convoy from Damascus to Rukban later this month has now been approved. We call on all parties to ensure that this takes place to provide the assistance that these people so desperately need.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he confirm that most of the people in this camp have come from Raqqa and can he say whether there is a possibility that they could begin to return home safely? However, in the present crisis of virtual siege, will the Government co-ordinate with Jordan and the United States forces so that people can have access to food and perhaps water to prevent further deaths immediately and not in two or three weeks’ time?

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The situation is extremely serious. The information that I have is that we have not been able to identify the cities of origin of the people who are trapped there. However, we know from reports that almost 80% of them are women and children, which heightens the concern about their safety and safeguarding. We believe that our focus for attention in this area should be the Assad regime and Russia to ensure that access is made available. The fact that there is now a commitment that there will be an entry point on 24 October is progress in the right direction, but we believe that this offer of access should have come much earlier.

As to the situation of the United States, it stated as early as April this year that it would not block access. The situation in Jordan is more complex and we continue to make representations to both Amman and Damascus for access to these people, who the noble Lord rightly identifies as being in acute and urgent need.

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As the Minister rightly says, access is the critical issue, with 60,000 people, many of them children, dying as a consequence of this situation. UNICEF issued a statement calling upon both the Syrian regime and Jordan to give access. Can the Minister tell us a little more about how we are approaching the Jordanians to ensure that we can get humanitarian access and aid workers can get in to offer proper support?

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Those representations are ongoing through diplomatic channels and through the Syria support group process in Geneva. It has met and, in many ways, the response to and the access of the aid convoy were driven through that process. We are supporting the activities of a key actor in this area, the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura. I understand that he is due to give a report on potential solutions to the UN Security Council tomorrow. That has not been confirmed but I understand it to be the case.

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Can my noble friend clarify what the role of the ICRC is in this situation? In the difficulties over the war in Sri Lanka, when the UN withdrew at a certain point from supplying food and medicines and so on, the ICRC continued to provide supplies of food and medicines which, in the end, proved to be adequate. Can he tell me whether or not the ICRC is deeply involved in this case?

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The ICRC is always involved—it has a particular place in international humanitarian law and a responsibility to deliver assistance, so it is there. However, the problems and the challenges are not so much at the level of UNICEF or the ICRC but are more related to a political will to honour the humanitarian commitments which were given in UN Security Council Resolution 2393.

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It is reported that the Syrians and Russians are blocking aid from getting into this camp. What assessment have the Government made of the apparent plans of the Syrians and the Russians to transfer these IDPs from this camp? What inherent risks do they see?

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The plan has been put forward and we are familiar with it. It contains some challenges and we are still working through the detail. The UN has expressed some concerns about it. The briefing and support for the leadership of Staffan de Mistura and his reporting back to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council within the next day or two will be crucial in determining what shape the response to that proposal takes.

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My Lords, I am sure the Minister believes that Assad will, within the next 12 months, effectively gain control of Syria, with the help of the Russians. He might be a loathsome man—indeed, he is a loathsome man when one looks at what has happened—but the only way to help the poor, benighted people in that country is, surely, for us to have proper links with him and work to the future to look after them? Certainly the end of the civil war is one of the best things possible for the people of Syria because while it continues there will be more deaths and more refugees, and so it goes on.

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We are certainly supportive of the fact that the only real solution is for there to be a lasting political discussion. That is why we are putting so much energy into the Syria support group process in Geneva and at the UN. I accept that. There is a particular challenge faced by the effects of Daesh and it was right that the UK played its role as part of the international coalition seeking to drive it out of its bases in Syria.

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My Lords, will my noble friend not reflect on what the noble Lord, Lord West, just said? Time and again in this House, some of us have urged on Ministers the need for a diplomatic presence in Syria. It is completely wrong for us not to have that. We decided not to interfere in the civil war at the beginning but nevertheless derecognise the regime, thus reducing any influence that we might have had. Can we now try to regain some of that influence?

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I am afraid that I do not have what my noble friend would regard as a satisfactory answer on the latest situation in these matters. For some time now, diplomatic representations have been based in Beirut rather than Damascus, the status of which is of course dependent on future negotiations through the UN Security Council and discussions with our colleagues in government.

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My Lords, the Minister rightly said that Syria’s humanitarian situation is the disaster of the century. Why on earth do fair-minded states—one thinks of those in the West in particular—not do more to prevent such catastrophes occurring in the first place, whether in Yemen, Burundi, DRC or countless other places?

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I agree with the noble Viscount. The international community has done something extremely good in building a first-class A&E department where we provide humanitarian access to patch up the wounded and the sick from conflicts around the world. At some point, we need to start devoting more energy, effort and cash to preventive work to stop conflicts breaking out in the first place. Once they break out, of course, it is incredibly difficult to do anything to meet the humanitarian needs of the people.

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Following up on the points made by my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord West, we can be proud in this country of the humanitarian effort that we put into the Middle East. However, is it not a fact that we got the fundamentals of the policies we pursued in Syria—indeed, ever since Iraq, in Afghanistan and Libya too—wrong? To avoid these catastrophes in future, is it not time to go back, reflect on where we got things wrong in our foreign policy over the past 20 years and see if there is a better way of pursuing things?

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That would be a worthy topic for a short debate, or even a long one, in your Lordships’ House. These are major issues. The ultimate urgency at present is to stop the fighting and conflict and have a pause, a ceasefire, to allow humanitarian access and a breathing space so that the nascent process beginning in Geneva can take root in Syria and work towards a lasting political solution.