Stephen Twigg – 2017 Speech on Syrian Refugee Crisis

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Twigg, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, in Westminster Hall on 23 March 2017.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2015-16, Syrian refugee crisis, HC 463, and the Government response, HC 902.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. In January last year, the International Development Committee released our first report of this Parliament, which focused on the refugee crisis that has arisen from the conflict in Syria. On 15 March, the Syrian conflict marked its sixth anniversary. The scale of the conflict has been well documented: it is enormous, in terms of both the humanitarian challenge and the number of lives lost. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that since the start of the conflict, 450,000 people have lost their lives. Last year, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, almost half of whom—6 million —are internally displaced in Syria. In January 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there are 4.8 million registered refugees.

I refer to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: in 2015, I visited Jordan with Oxfam. A third of Jordan’s population are refugees. When I visited the Zaatari refugee camp alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), we heard the same message repeatedly from the refugees: all they want is the opportunity to return home to a peaceful Syria.

We have seen six years of repeated atrocities. Let me highlight two examples. Last September, the Syrian Government bombed a UN aid convoy, killing 14 aid workers. The convoy had been organised by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and was carrying food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies destined for families in areas of the country controlled by the opposition. A UN report released earlier this month said that the attack was deliberate, meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out. Then, of course, there was the long siege of Aleppo, which the same United Nations report called a war crime. It was reported that the Syrian Government and their allies were carrying out attacks on areas packed with civilians while the city faced chronic shortages of food, medicine and fuel. We have seen all those events unfold in real time on our television screens. We saw the shocking image of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy sitting in the back of an ambulance. We need to work together to bring an end to this conflict as soon as possible.

As with all conflicts, there are many parties acting for good in both Syria and the surrounding region. I want to draw particular attention to and praise the work of the White Helmets—the 3,000 members of the Syria Civil Defence—who work tirelessly to protect civilians ​caught up in the conflict and are often the first on the scene after bombings. We should also praise the work of the various non-governmental organisations and United Nations missions that deliver aid on the ground in some of the most challenging conditions ever seen.

Our Committee’s report made a number of recommendations to the Government, and principally to the Department for International Development, including on increasing the opportunities for cash-based assistance to the region, identifying and developing opportunities for investment and job creation in Jordan, ensuring that vulnerable refugees outside camps receive appropriate levels of support, and pressing the Lebanese Government to resume the registration process for new refugees. We urged the Government to come to a quick decision on Save the Children’s proposal that 3,000 unaccompanied children from Europe be resettled in this country.

DFID has led the way with its efforts to alleviate the suffering and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that still grips Syria and the surrounding region. The UK plays an active role in encouraging other countries to pledge money and resources to the region. A year ago, in February 2016, the Government hosted the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference, in which nearly $6 billion was pledged to help the UN co-ordinated appeals. An additional $5.4 billion was pledged up until 2020, bringing the total to more than $11 billion. That was followed up with an event this January, co-hosted by Finland and the United Nations, which launched a further appeal for $8 billion to relieve the humanitarian crisis. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what progress was being made towards achieving that, and what the United Kingdom’s contribution is.

In our report, we made it clear that we welcome DFID’s cash-based assistance efforts in the region and want them developed further. Many refugees exhaust their savings just to get out of the country, and many are heavily in debt. That is exacerbated by the fact that they are often not allowed to work in the country in which they have refuge. Cash-based assistance has proven to be a value for money approach to humanitarian assistance. I welcome the fact that DFID has already distributed nearly 1 million vouchers in the region.

Job creation, investment and economic growth are vital factors in ensuring that refugees in the countries around Syria are able to regain a sense of normality when the conflict eventually ends. During the Syria conference in London last year, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon—the main recipient countries of refugees—promised to open up their economies to help generate job growth, for both refugees and, very importantly, their host communities. I want to put on the record that the Jordanian Government and people have responded particularly positively to that. Syrian refugees are now able to apply for work permits in Jordan in sectors of the economy in which Jordanian participation is low— for example, construction, agriculture and other service industries. Those changes have allowed roughly 37,000 Syrian refugees to gain employment in Jordan—up from 4,000 at the time of the London conference. Jordan has also gained preferential access to European Union markets, which will give designated development zones the potential to provide more than 100,000 jobs to both Jordanians and Syrians in the future.

The United Kingdom is the second largest bilateral donor to Syria and the surrounding countries. As a result of the funding that humanitarian organisations ​have received, we are able to keep refugees close to home, so that when the conflict comes to an end they can return to Syria. Providing basic humanitarian assistance is vital, but it is not enough. There needs to be a sense of hope for a better future.

The UK Government, and DFID in particular, have taken some very positive steps to ensure that the humanitarian situation in Syria and the surrounding countries is well managed and well funded, but there are some areas where our Committee feels DFID could and should do more. In our report, we recommended that the Department make use of the Commonwealth Development Corporation’s expertise in that regard. We believe that the Government already have a good story to tell on job creation and investment, particularly in Jordan, but more could be done to provide sustainable job opportunities for both refugees and host communities if CDC’s expertise were engaged. Legislation has now gone through Parliament to increase significantly the amount of capital available to CDC. I urge the Government to look again at the question of whether CDC can invest in at least some economies in that region, particularly in the run-up to the forthcoming publication of the corporation’s five-year strategy.

Other outstanding issues were addressed in our report. The Syrian conflict has disproportionately affected certain minority groups, especially ethnic and religious minorities and disabled people. The best solution for them is often resettlement in other parts of the world, but for reasons of stigma or fear of persecution, many do not register, so they fall through the net. Only 23% of Syrian refugees live in formal camps, and there are no such camps for them in Lebanon or Egypt. There is the tragic situation in the berm, the area between Jordan and Syria, where a large number of refugees live, in often very desperate circumstances, in a state of limbo, unable to get out.

As the conflict has worn on, more people have sought out support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing with UNHCR and civil society to ensure that support reaches everyone who needs it, whether they are registered or not. Registration is an important step, but more needs to be done to ensure that all those eligible for resettlement, either here in the UK or elsewhere, are granted it.

On 9 February, The Independent reported that the Home Office wanted a “temporary limit” on requests from people with mobility problems and learning disabilities because of a lack of “suitable reception capacity” for them in the UK. Will the Minister include in his response the Government’s position on the temporary limit, and will he say whether they are planning to lift it? I simply make the point that the most vulnerable are those who need our support the most.

There is also long-standing concern about a policy in Lebanon that has inhibited UNHCR’s ability to register new refugees in that country. DFID has allocated £46 million to UNHCR’s efforts in Lebanon, but I am concerned that the policy may prevent people from accessing basic services. The Lebanese Government say that there are more than 500,000 unregistered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and that more than two thirds of the Syrian children born in Lebanon have not even had their births registered. Will the Minister update us on ​that Lebanese policy? Is it still in place, and if so, what is the United Kingdom doing to work with the Lebanese Government to make progress, so that, ideally, all refugees in Lebanon are registered?

Last December, the UK Government co-sponsored a UN General Assembly motion that sought to establish an independent mechanism to assist in bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious crimes in Syria. The UK has also worked closely with the French and American Governments on a motion to hold Daesh and the Assad regime to account for their use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the motion was vetoed by Russia and China. Will the Minister update the House on that, and in particular on the potential for an independent UN mechanism that would enable us to make progress in bringing to justice all those who have used illegal weapons in Syria?

The UK clearly has an important role to play in diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. It is promising to see that the UN-mediated political talks between the Syrian parties resumed in Geneva last month, and the next round is due to take place later this month. There have been calls for the 30 December ceasefire to be strengthened, so will the Minister tell us what role the UK will play in ensuring that the ceasefire holds and that we can make progress through diplomatic means?

The final issue from the report has probably attracted the most attention and public debate, and that is the Save the Children recommendation on 3,000 unaccompanied children. Last year, before the Government had an opportunity to respond to our report, Lord Dubs put forward an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have legally bound us to resettle 3,000 unaccompanied children from Europe. Ahead of the vote, the Government announced that they would resettle 3,000 vulnerable people from the middle east and north Africa over the course of the Parliament. Those people would not solely be unaccompanied children, but that was nevertheless very welcome.

When the Bill became an Act, it stated that the number of children to be resettled

“shall be determined by the Government”.

By September last year, no child had been brought to the UK as a result of the provision, which is still known as the Dubs amendment. By November, according to what the Home Office’s Minister for Immigration told the International Development Committee, about 140 children had been resettled, including 80 from France. We welcomed the progress. Last month, however, the Government announced that a total of 350 children would be resettled over the course of the Parliament, with 200 already in the UK. The Immigration Minister told the House in a written statement that the 350 number met

“the intention and spirit behind the provision”.

That figure is of course a fraction of the 3,000 proposed by Save the Children, a figure that was based on an estimate of the UK’s fair share of the 30,000 unaccompanied children who had made their way to Europe by 2015—and estimates suggest that the figure has since trebled. The Government can do more to ensure that children who have made the journey to Europe alone are protected. In 2014, an estimated 13,000 unaccompanied children arrived just in Italy, about 4,000 of whom have gone missing. There is real concern that some of those children ​might have become the victims of people traffickers and been forced into prostitution, child labour or the drugs trade. We cannot stand by while that happens on our doorstep.

Meanwhile, in the past two months, President Trump has signed two executive orders that prevent Syrian refugees from claiming refuge in the United States. The US has a positive and progressive track record of resettling refugees from many conflicts around the world; President Trump has broken with that. He said that European countries had made “a tremendous mistake” by admitting millions of refugees from Syria and other middle eastern “trouble spots”. How can giving people refuge from conflicts that are destroying their country be described by the President of the United States as a mistake? President Trump’s executive order does nothing but further complicate the humanitarian situation in the region. It is vital that the United Kingdom does not follow the Trump Administration’s lead.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

Would the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcome clarification of whether the Dubs amendment scheme is in fact closed? There seems to be uncertainty about that. Will the Government welcome any additional contributions offered by local authorities that feel that they may have more capacity in future?

Stephen Twigg

The hon. Gentleman is a relatively new member of the International Development Committee but already an active and committed one. I thank him for his work on it. I absolutely agree with him. If the Minister could respond to that point, I would be delighted. I agree that it is not entirely clear whether the scheme has been completely closed. I hope that it has not, and that there will be further opportunities for unaccompanied children to be resettled, beyond the 350 to which the Government have already committed.

I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate our report and the Government response. I thank fellow members of the International Development Committee for their work—a number of members from all parties are present for the debate—and I put on record my appreciation of the fantastic team of staff who support the work of the Committee. I look forward to listening to all contributions to the debate, which—this is my final point—we are holding in the context of great public and media concern about, and scrutiny of, international aid and development. I and other members of the Committee from different parties have argued consistently that those of us who believe in UK aid, and who defend the 0.7% target and DFID as a stand-alone Department, have a particular responsibility to demonstrate that that aid is being delivered and makes a real difference to the most vulnerable—that we truly have value for money.

In her statement to the House last week on the counter-Daesh strategy, the Secretary of State for International Development said that our work in Syria and the region

“shows Britain at its best and exactly why we have UK aid. It shows not only how the British Government lead across the world, but how we influence security and stabilisation”—[Official Report, 15 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 448.]

in many of these areas. I echo her remarks; she is absolutely right. The investment that this country has made in aid to Syria and its neighbouring countries in ​recent years is one of the finest examples of how humanitarian aid can make a real difference in a crisis. Our aid is crucial, but it is equally important that we redouble our efforts to find a diplomatic solution, so that the people of Syria can at last have the peace and justice that they deserve.