During a House of Lords debate on the humanitarian situation in the Middle East this week, MAP President Baroness Morris of Bolton emphasised the need to ensure that the thousands of Palestinians who have fled the violent civil war in Syria are also able to receive the humanitarian assistance they need. Here is her speech in full:
“My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this informed debate and to have listened to the valedictory speech of my noble friend Lord Brooke, although it is tinged with great sadness that he is leaving us.
Five days ago, Arwa Damon, a journalist covering the refugee crisis for CNN, wrote:
“Some assignments fill you w/such sorrow U can’t imagine genuinely laughing again”.
The plight of thousands of refugees fleeing terror and poverty has touched so many. It is hardly surprising that countless people want to help. Just yesterday, Amir Khan set off from Bolton with a convoy of vehicles bound for Greece. People have given money, clothes and food. They have even offered refuge in their own homes. We all want to do something—to do more—but this is a catastrophe with no easy solution. I am afraid that in the not-too-distant future we will have some very difficult debates and some hard decisions to take over the future of Syria and the role that we play. We will probably need to look seriously at the provision of safe havens in Syria.
I will spend the rest of my time speaking about a particular group of refugees and their unique plight, already touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Green, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. In doing so, I declare my interest as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Before I do that, I ask my noble friend the Minister: what will happen to the refugees who have found their way to Europe and are now trapped between countries? I understand very well and sympathise with the Government not wishing to encourage people into the hands of the traffickers, but are we as a country offering practical help to the refugees who find themselves stranded? What, ultimately, will happen to them? When we take in the Syrians from the camps will we continue to offer the vital help to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have so selflessly welcomed those in need?
I, too, was delighted when the Prime Minister went to see with his own eyes what is happening on the ground. His visit to the refugee camps on the Syrian border in Lebanon earlier this week, followed by a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, has highlighted the valuable and crucial work done by the UNHCR and its partners in the Lebanese and Jordanian camps to support those fleeing war in Syria.
However, one of the most vulnerable populations in the region cannot access these services. Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, fleeing the horrors of siege and assault by ISIS and the Syrian regime, have no access to the proposed resettlement programmes proposed by EU countries, which leaves them with the only option of putting their lives in the hands of traffickers. Before the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Yarmouk, established in 1957, was home to 148,500 registered Palestinian refugees, more than half of them under the age of 25. In the four years that have followed, 3,000 are estimated to have been killed in the conflict and 18,000 Palestinian civilians are still living in Yarmouk, including 3,500 children.
In addition to the £1 billion the Government have so generously given towards refugee programmes, they have now pledged to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians living in the camps. This is most welcome but will not help those who cannot register with UNHCR. Palestinians are prevented from accessing the safety of resettlement because they cannot register. This leaves thousands of refugees languishing in the remains of Yarmouk with no access to proper healthcare, regular food or clean water, and with an outbreak of typhoid. As Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, so starkly observed:
“Yarmouk is at the lower reaches of hell”.
As well as those in Yarmouk, another 460,000 or so registered Palestinians, many of them Christian, remain in Syria and are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. Borders are closed to them and this drives many to make the perilous journey through Turkey or across the Mediterranean in search of a safe home and a basic standard of life, placing themselves at the mercy of the sea traffickers. These are the very people we see daily on our television screens.
The particular vulnerabilities of Palestinian refugees and their sensitive status in the region compound the already stark and violent devastation they share with Syrians. It is absolutely right that we as a Government should provide vital support for vulnerable Syrian nationals but we should also ensure there is life-saving sanctuary and assistance for all vulnerable people fleeing conflict in Syria, including Syria’s Palestinian population”