Stephen's Speech on the crisis in Aleppo and Syria
The text of Stephen's speech is below:
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has been such a powerful, consistent and long-standing voice on these issues in the House. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this important debate.
The situation in Syria is truly horrendous, and I want to focus on the humanitarian catastrophe. In Aleppo and the Idlib governorate, 2 million people are living without water or electricity, and there are attacks on health facilities. Across Syria as a whole, there are 470,000 people who have lost their lives, 8 million people who are internally displaced and more than 4 million refugees.
We can rightly be proud of our role in providing aid in the region, and I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for International Development to his place. We have seen £1.35 billion in UK aid to the region since 2012—money well spent. However, concern has been raised by a range of humanitarian, civil society and human rights organisations that the Assad regime is controlling deliveries of aid to the detriment of rebel-held areas. That raises serious questions for the United Nations—questions I would like the Government to raise with it.
May I echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the heroic efforts of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in coping with the massive numbers of refugees coming o their countries? The International Development Committee recognised that in its report in January on the Syrian refugee crisis. We also said in that report that we would welcome a decision by the Government to resettle 3,000 unaccompanied children. I would like an update today from the Government on what progress they are making on the former Prime Minister’s pledge to take 20,000 vulnerable people through a resettlement scheme, on the pledge to take 3,000 vulnerable children from the region and on the pledge to take children from Greece, Italy and France. I raised that yesterday with the Home Secretary, who said that around 50 children have been accepted so far. I would like to see that accelerated, because we have a duty to act here, in the same way that we have a duty to act there.
*Mike Kane MP Intervention*
My hon. Friend is making an extraordinarily powerful point. However, the resettlement programme is absolutely stuck in the mud. In Greater Manchester, agreement cannot be reached between the city authorities and the Government because the Government refuse to pay the money that is required to get these children and other Syrian refugees to Manchester, where we are willing to accept them. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The people of Liverpool have made a similar pledge, as have the city council and the mayor of Liverpool. The National Audit Office published a report last month on this very issue, in which it praised the progress made by local government in the last year but pointed to some of the issues my hon. Friend has highlighted—not least that it is not clear what funding will be available to support local authorities beyond the first-year costs.
Will the Foreign Secretary address another aspect of the current crisis? Some 70,000 Syrian refugees are currently in what is known as the “berm”, which is a demilitarised zone between Syria and Jordan. Those 70,000 people are, effectively, being prevented from going to the safe space of Jordan. Our former colleague, Stephen O’Brien, who is now the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has described conditions at the berm as truly dire. My understanding is that a plan to deal with the crisis has been agreed by the United Nations but not yet by Jordan. Will the Foreign Secretary use his good offices to pursue this as a matter of urgency with the Jordanian Government?
Earlier this year the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and another former International Development Secretary, Clare Short, brought to the International Development Committee’s attention the issue of the unintended consequences of counter-terrorism legislation for the delivery of aid. Several non-governmental organisations have been in touch with the Committee in recent weeks to raise that question and, in particular, two areas that require action from the Government.
The first area is the need to ease the concerns of banks. My understanding is that even when NGOs are fully compliant with counter-terrorism legislation, banks are sometimes nervous about lending, leading to delays in processing payments and the aid not getting delivered. The second is the need to use our good offices with urkey. My understanding is that it is not always easy for NGOs to function on the Turkish side of the border region between Syria and Turkey. For example, Syria Relief UK has told us that it has been waiting for its application to establish an office in southern Turkey to be processed, and that the Turkish authorities can be overly restrictive about the means by which they allow funds to be transferred to Syria. I realise these are rather technical points, but they are about how aid can most effectively be delivered, and I would be grateful to Ministers if they addressed those points during this debate.
The scale of the challenge is truly enormous. The heartbreaking scenes mentioned by colleagues on both sides of the House, particularly those in Aleppo, touch us all. They touch our constituents and they touch people in all parts of this country. I am pleased that several speakers have reaffirmed the important principle of the responsibility to protect, which arose from what happened in the 1990s in Rwanda and the Balkans. In the meantime, we need urgent action to secure the safe delivery of aid to all parts of Syria.
*Sir Desmond Swayne MP Intervention*
There have been suggestions that the International Development Secretary is disinclined to allow officials to shovel money out of the door towards the year end to meet a 0.7% target if those projects are not up to scratch. She is quite right to say so, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the state of need, there is no shortage of very effective ways of spending that money?
I entirely echo what the right hon. Gentleman the former Minister says. I entirely agree. The scale of need in Syria, but also, frankly in other parts of the world, including Africa, should mean that we can both deliver the 0.7% target and do so with true efficiency and value for money.
The safe delivery of aid is clearly urgent, but as others have said, we need to move forward to some kind of political process, with a return to the ceasefire. We need to explore every option: no-fly and no-bombing zones; airdrops; and we need to look at the role that Russia is playing.
*Stella Creasy MP Intervention*
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for helping the people in the region. Ultimately, however, what will help them is to end the civil war in Syria. Some are saying we should wait until the presidential elections are over, but we know that the people in Aleppo do not have the luxury of waiting. Does he agree that there is absolutely a role for sanctions to get Russia back to the table and to start the process again?
I absolutely concur with what my hon. Friend says about sanctions against Russia. I support the description of Russia’s role given by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield in his opening speech. The Russians should hang their heads in shame for the role they are playing in Syria, and we should use every available means we have, including further sanctions, to put pressure on President Putin. This is a colossal failure of the international system. It is a stain on our humanity, and all of us must do all we can to redouble our efforts to bring peace to the people of Syria.