Refugees: Mass Displacement

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Thursday 6th January 2022

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and for his extremely powerful words in starting it. I also thank all other noble Lords for their insightful contributions.

A surge in violent conflict since 2010 has prompted historically high levels of mass and forced displacement. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said in his opening remarks, the UN refugee agency estimates that the number of forcibly displaced people rose to a record-breaking 82 million during 2020. That is more than 1% of the world’s population, or one in every 95 people, being driven from their homes, some by conflicts and natural disasters, others by hunger, climate change, poverty or persecution. In 2010, that figure was one in every 159 people, so there is little wonder that the international humanitarian system is under strain.

Crises are also becoming increasingly protracted, with around three-quarters of all refugees displaced for more than five years. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, again pointed out, in some cases they are displaced for much longer than that. The pandemic has made things worse. Covid has thrived in the cramped conditions that many displaced people endure and prevented them being able to return home.

It is clear that the international community has an immense and growing task on its hands to support those driven from their homes. I am going to set out some of the actions that the UK Government have taken to address this crisis and outline our work to tackle its root causes.

The UK has a strong track record of helping those who need our protection and assistance, as well as the host communities that give them sanctuary. Despite the seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy, the Government remain one of the largest donors in the world. Indeed, we spent more than £10 billion on overseas development assistance last year, making us the third-largest donor in the G7. In answer to comments made by a number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lords, Lord Hannay, Lord Dubs and Lord Purvis, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, Parliament has endorsed a clear pathway to return to 0.7%, which, on current projections, will be by 2024-25. I do not think it is out of place to say that there is a strong feeling that, as soon as those conditions are met, we must immediately return to 0.7%.

Displaced people are, of course, a huge priority for our overseas aid and for the international development community. Humanitarian assistance is one of the Foreign Secretary’s top priorities for the FCDO. Our work to support displaced people and host countries, and to champion international humanitarian law, is central to our efforts to build a global network of liberty. We have led the way in forging innovative solutions to refugee crises, championing a longer-term approach, and helping shape the Global Compact on Refugees, including with our pioneering responses in Jordan and Ethiopia.

The UK is one of the largest donors to the agencies working on the front line. We provided £29 million in core funding last year to the UN refugee agency, £25 million to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and £37 million to the World Food Programme. This helped agencies with rapid responses, staff training and accountability. Our support also goes far beyond funding. We play a central and influential governance role via these agencies’ executive committees and through our UN reform agenda. We also use our global network to carry out humanitarian diplomacy and support people directly through our own programmes.

In response to the increasingly drawn-out nature of crises and the years of strain they put on host communities, we have worked with international partners on innovative longer-term solutions. Our focus is on a holistic approach, restoring dignity and offering refugees a viable future while supporting their hosts. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, both said, this approach has won global acceptance through the internationally agreed Global Compact on Refugees. To reassure them both, the UK remains absolutely committed to the compact. It aims to help refugees stay near their homes and to support host communities by investing in education, job creation and economic growth. Our commitment to the global compact is reflected in our country programmes, including our contribution of more than £320 million to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh since the crisis began four years ago, which has provided life-saving food, healthcare and sanitation for refugees. It has also assisted vulnerable neighbouring countries.

The conflict in Syria, which a number of noble Lords raised, has been one of the largest crises in history in terms of displacement. In response to this, we have provided more than £2 billion of support to 5.5 million refugees and their host communities since 2012. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, our support in Syria has direct impacts and benefits for Yazidi communities, who have perhaps been on the receiving end of more horrific abuse than almost anyone else. I will have to ask the relevant Minister to respond on his question around the Sinjar agreement and get back to him; I am afraid I do not know the answer to that.

In northern Iraq, we continue to work with humanitarian agencies and Iraq’s Government to ensure that displaced persons can return home in a safe, dignified and voluntary manner. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the UK has contributed over £1 billion of humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict. This supports the most vulnerable groups, including those who have had to flee their homes.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, remarked on the rapidity with which things have deteriorated in Ethiopia as an example of how things can unravel incredibly quickly in unexpected parts of the world. In Ethiopia we have provided more than £76 million of humanitarian aid since the start of the conflict in Tigray. This includes food and water for the most vulnerable communities across northern Ethiopia. We will also deliver health, mental health and psychosocial support to around 40,000 displaced persons. Very briefly, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I cannot, obviously, go into details around the international development strategy, but I can tell him that our strategy will reaffirm very clearly our commitment to Africa. I am sure we will discuss—and perhaps debate—the issue in due course.

The worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is also hugely concerning; I note the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. We are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance this financial year to £286 million. This is providing life-saving food and emergency health services, shelter, water and hygiene services. The increase has also boosted our support to the UN’s regional response and to the neighbouring countries that are hosting many of those refugees.

Resettlement to stable countries is clearly a hugely important strand of the global compact. In the UK, since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from persecution. We have issued more than 39,000 visas under the refugee family reunion rules, around half of which were to children.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and a number of other noble Lords, the Government’s Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will provide up to 20,000 vulnerable people with a safe and legal route to resettle in the UK. I think that makes it the most generous such scheme in this country’s history. It is worth reiterating that, in the space of just two weeks, Operation Pitting—I hope I have that right—brought 15,000 people to safety in the UK. Working in incredibly difficult circumstances, a very large number of people were moved, in record time, to positions of safety. We are working with the UNHCR to design and open up that scheme so that it is more appropriate for the ever-changing circumstances, and we will be able to provide more details on that very soon.

The scheme I described earlier will also prioritise those who have assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for our values, such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law. It will focus on the most vulnerable people, such as women and girls, and members of minority groups. Under Operation Warm Welcome, we are helping Afghans arriving in the UK to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate within their new local communities. Since 2015, the UK has assisted more people through resettlement schemes than any other country in Europe.

Children, of course, need to be at the heart of our work; that point has been made in a number of speeches today. They make up 42% of all displaced people, and we know that children in fragile and conflict-affected countries are more than twice as likely to miss out on school compared with their counterparts in peaceful nations. If these children are to have any hope and the chance of a fulfilling and prosperous future, it is essential that we support them to continue that education.

That is why in Nigeria, for example—I say this partly in response to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—our humanitarian programmes have enabled more than 200,000 conflict-affected children to access education. With more than 2 million internally displaced people in Nigeria, our £425 million humanitarian programme is also supporting 1.5 million people with food assistance and providing access to toilets and clean water.

More broadly, the UK is also a founding member of, and the largest donor to, Education Cannot Wait, the global fund for education in emergencies. We have committed £90 million to the programme from 2019 to 2023. With our support, the programme has helped more than 4.5 million children continue their education over the past three years, through periods of crisis and conflict.

Besides helping those in immediate need, it is crucial—as almost every speech in this very debate has emphasised, and in particular the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds—that we address the root causes of displacement. That is absolutely central to our approach. It is not only central to our approach; it is directly in our own interest, as well as being the right thing to do. Addressing the triggers—from conflict to climate change, and from poverty to abuse of human rights—is a key strand of our integrated review, which sets out our plans to address these challenges over the next 10 years. We will use all the political, security, development and trade levers we have to reduce tensions, end conflicts, build stability, protect freedoms and spread opportunity and prosperity across the globe. The multilateral system is central to that approach, but we will not be constrained by its limitations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, helpfully provided the environmental context, which is a looming and growing context for so many of the movements that have been described today. She talked about the need to clear up our supply chain and about commodities causing deforestation and contributing further to climate change and displacement. Cleaning up our supply chains is a key commitment that we have made, and we are at the early stages of this. Much of what was discussed and agreed at COP involved the need to break the link between commodities and deforestation and to put stopping deforestation at the heart of our global response to climate change. I commend her also for her campaign—which she did not mention today—for the recognition of ecocide, which I think has a direct bearing, and certainly will have an even bigger bearing as the years go by, on the issues we are discussing today.

Conflicts will continue to be the main driver of displacement, and we will do all we can to prevent, manage and resolve them. The UK has contributed over £160 million to the UN peacebuilding fund since its inception, and in May last year, we announced a further £10 million for this financial year. We continue to work with UN agencies, funds and programmes, as well as international financial institutions and important regional bodies such as the African Union. This will help to ensure effective and sustainable approaches to reducing conflict in fragile states.

For lasting peace, we know that women must have a seat at the table; the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made this point very powerfully in her speech. We know that when women participate in peace processes, there is a 35% increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least 15 years. That is why the UK Government are leading proponents of the women, peace and security agenda.

To reduce forced displacement, we will continue to stand up for human rights and international humanitarian law and use our influence to hold to account those who violate them. As part of our efforts to defend human rights, as noble Lords will know we introduced a new system of Magnitsky sanctions in July 2020 to target human rights violators and abusers around the world. We have used the global human rights sanctions regime to designate nearly 80 individuals and entities involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations in recent years. That includes government officials and bodies in Belarus, Myanmar, China, Russia and North Korea. The UK also works with partners at the UN to target human rights violations and abuses. For example, we implement UN sanctions against individuals involved in human trafficking and human rights abuses against migrants in Libya.

Sexual violence is another recurrent cause of displacement. Since the launch of our ground-breaking Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative in 2012, successive UK Governments have transformed the way the international community deals with those crimes. We have sent more than 80 deployments of UK experts to affected countries. We have trained more than 17,000 police and military personnel on sexual violence issues. We have also committed more than £50 million to support numerous projects around the world. In November, the Foreign Secretary launched a major new global campaign to stop sexual violence against women and girls in conflict around the world. She is bringing together partners to condemn rape and sexual violence in conflict as a red line. This year, the UK will also host a global conference in which we hope to unite the world in action.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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Before the Minister moves on, as he rightly said, all those pernicious elements in Africa have been and continue to be present in Nigeria. The Government have cut their support from £250 million, as the Minister said, but he did not say that it will go down to just £60 million in 2023. Has an objective developmental system of assessment been carried out to inform that cut, given the fact that this pressure is ongoing, or are these simply arbitrary cuts?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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The noble Lord made the point well in his speech that there have been cuts across the board as a consequence of the move from 0.7% to 0.5%. That involved lots of difficult decisions; it is not something that I think most people welcomed. We have a pathway that will return us to 0.7%, hopefully in the next couple of years. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, when we publish our development strategy we will reaffirm the importance and centrality of the continent of Africa in our vision and plans. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will be reassured by the report when it is published, but I cannot go into the details at this point.

As a number of noble Lords have rightly said, all the science tells us that climate change and environmental destruction are likely to become a bigger and bigger reason for the increasing movement of people in the coming years; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made similar points. The UK has played a leading role in the global response to climate change. COP 26 made unexpected and really important progress on adaptation and climate finance, which are obviously essential to managing climate displacement. The work that we did in the run-up to COP 26 and the work that we will do this year as the COP president, which will be no less intense than the work that was done last year, are a really positive example of internationalism and in many ways embody what many of us mean by “global Britain”.

Domestically, we have committed to doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion over the next five years. We will put a significant chunk of that into helping to restore and protect nature as a serious and central contribution to tackling climate change. Above all, that £11.6 billion will be spent in a way that supports vulnerable countries to make themselves more resilient to climate change, and in doing so we hope to ease future migration pressures.

The tragic truth is that forced displacement is happening on a biblical scale today. Before I make that point, I want to comment on, without necessarily answering, the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. He issued a number of important questions to the CEO of Coca-Cola, Mr Quincey, and I encourage Mr Quincey, if he is paying attention to this debate, simply to answer them. It is important that he does.

As I said, forced displacement is happening on a record scale today. All the signs suggest that this will continue and that the trend is upwards. In the face of this terrible human suffering, I am proud that the UK has a strong record of helping those who need our protection. I pay tribute to the generosity of all host nations and communities who welcome those driven from their homes, and to the tireless work of those who support them in the most difficult circumstances. The international community can address need on this scale only through a holistic approach, with countless painstaking political, diplomatic, military and humanitarian interventions. The UK Government are committed to doing all we can—harnessing our political clout, diplomatic expertise, military know-how and humanitarian reach—to support the displaced and give them hope of a viable future.

I thank noble Lords for their comments.