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The context in Iraq was clearly set out in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees global appeal 2008-09, published last November and headed “Iraq Situation”. The document stresses the sheer complexity of the operational, logistical and

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political environment in Iraq, which makes it difficult for the UNHCR to implement its programme both within and outside the country. It describes the insecurity and immense economic and social challenges facing neighbouring countries, most of which have not acceded either to the 1951 refugee convention or to the 1967 protocol.

The UNHCR report states that Jordan and Syria have been most affected by the exodus. Syria has between 1.2 million and 1.4 million refugees, Jordan between 500,000 and 750,000. In addition, there are more than 2.2 million internally displaced persons. This massive movement to neighbouring countries has led to great strains on the infrastructure and social services, particularly education—as the noble Lord said about Jordan—and has led to both Jordan and Syria introducing visa restrictions on Iraqi refugees.

Understandably, our media concentrates on other matters, such as the surge in US troop deployment, the stalemate in Iraqi national politics and the date for the withdrawal of UK forces. However, the refugee exodus continues and the numbers mask individual tragedies such as the cases contained in Marie Colvin’s report of 16 March in the Sunday Times, mentioned by the noble Lord.

For the UK and other host countries, there are the usual problems in ascertaining the strength of individual claims, hence the number of refugees given exceptional or discretionary leave to remain. It is particularly difficult to find the right dividing line between those who understandably escape turbulence in their own country for a better life for themselves, and political refugees under the convention criteria—and, of course, to ascertain when it is safe for the refugees to return. The noble Lord is to be commended for his campaign of behalf of Iraqi employees of our Government and Armed Forces, including interpreters. Clearly, each case has to be judged on its merits, and I agree with the noble Lord that some of the criteria appear to be particularly restrictive. From the point of view of the assassin, any service counts: one week can be as relevant as one year. This should be re-examined by the Government. If a tailor worked for British troops, was that sufficiently proximate? Where does one stop? There has to be sufficiently proximate responsibility to give a person a reasonable case to be considered as a refugee.

I shall briefly raise the problem of another group whose claim is clear, but is often overlooked; namely, the Christian community in Iraq. I do so not in a spirit of asking for special privileges for that community, but rather to highlight its plight, which should be recognised. The Christian community is not mentioned in the UNHCR appeal. Christian communities are under pressure in many other countries in the Middle East, including the Maronite Christians in the Lebanon and even in the Palestine Authority, where many have been forced to leave because of increasing Islamic fundamentalism, measured in part by the wearing of the headdress and the way in which the secular Palestine Authority, rather like Gaza, is becoming Islamised to a greater extent than heretofore. These Christians share many of the same concerns as other Iraqis who also live outside the Iraq, below the poverty line, but

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there are special features of the Christian community that have helpfully been highlighted for me by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Christians are subject to physical attacks and social pressures from Sunni, Shi’ite and jihadist militias as well as from Kurdish nationalists in the Kurdish areas. They are left largely unprotected as they are the only group without its own militia. Hence, they form the largest proportion of refugees. In a NewsMax article on 24 October last year, Kenneth Timmerman alleged that Muslim caseworkers for the UNHCR often discriminate against the Christians they meet, and he cites various cases. I have also been given information by the World Council of Churches. It says:

On 13 March 2008, under the headline “Christians besieged in Iraq” BBC News said:

The Jubilee Campaign also has alarming reports of ethnic and religious cleansing of Christian families in Iraq following threats. Whereas other groups with their own militias—the Sunnis, the Shia and the Arabs—have places to go in Iraq, that is not the case for the Christians who receive threats from Islamic militants demanding that they convert to Islam, pay Islamic tax levies on non-Muslims or leave the area. There appears to be a strategy by Muslim fundamentalists systematically to convert Christians to Islam or to drive them out of Baghdad. The ChaldoAssyrians make up more than 95 per cent of Iraq’s Christians, and they are the indigenous people of Iraq. We know that earlier this month the body of the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop was found. He had been kidnapped at the end of February and was only the most dramatic recent example of these pressures.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, posed the question of how we in the UK are responding. Are we doing enough in this refugee crisis? Turning to the situation of Iraqi refugees in the United Kingdom, on 13 March, the Guardian quoted a leaked letter from the Border and Immigration Agency of 6 March, signed by Claire Bennett. As the noble Lord said, it suggested that more than 1,400 rejected asylum seekers are to be given a deadline by which to go home or face destitution in the UK as the Government now apparently consider that Iraq is safe enough to return these failed refugees. Is that report accurate? Is it fair that these 1,400 people now face the threat of deportation? What is the

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policy of the Government? What is their assessment of the security situation in Iraq generally and in its different regions?

I notice that the BBC quotes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Guterres, who told it that it was time to start thinking about the possibility of returns, but it had to be established that conditions were right before going any further. It is the latter part—whether conditions are right—that is particularly relevant. How confident are the Government that their sources within Iraq relating to the reception of returning refugees are accurate? What is the Government’s assessment of the security situation? I mentioned the BBC and the UNHCR. The Red Crescent has apparently confirmed that up to 28,000 Iraqi refugees have returned home since mid-September but, as the noble Lord said, many of them have effectively been forced home by destitution or other pressures from the neighbouring countries. How many special charter flights to Erbil from the UK have there been since 2005 to return failed asylum seekers? How many failed asylum seekers have returned? In short, how do the Government see their policy evolving in the immediate future and are they confident in terms of meeting the claims of those who served us in Iraq in various capacities and those who have sought sanctuary in our country that we are responding adequately to our responsibilities?

2.59 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I echo the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that were expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for raising the plight of Iraqi refugees five years to the day after the launching of the disastrous war that caused nearly 5 million people to flee their homes. We have heard the figures: there are 2.5 million internally displaced people—1 million to 1.5 million refugees in Syria, 450,000 in Jordan and some 500,000 in other countries in the region. Those are the ones who survived. The estimates of civilian deaths range from the 82,000 enumerated by Iraq Body Count up to the 1 million given in the Lancet, plus the 800,000 people who were severely wounded, as given in yesterday’s Guardian. The Americans learnt from Vietnam not to count civilian deaths, so there will be never be exact numbers, but we do know that 4,230 coalition soldiers and 1,020 contractors’ staff have died so far, including 174 Britons.

The situation is not that much better today, as a number of recent reports demonstrate. Amnesty International says in its report, Carnage and Despair, that the security situation is not improving and that there is no incentive for people to go back. Indeed, they are still leaving Iraq in droves. A UNHCR survey showed that the flow of refugees to 43 industrialised countries, having slackened for a while, began to accelerate in 2006 and doubled between 2006 and 2007. As the countries in the region close their borders to Iraqis—particularly Syria which, although paradoxically not a signatory to the convention, has always allowed free entry from all other Arab countries in the past—there will be even greater pressure on European countries, including Britain. Egypt, with 130,000 Iraqi refugees, has closed its borders, and Jordan discourages refugees

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by making them pay for basic services. Only Lebanon recognises Iraqis as refugees and grants them full rights, including the right to work.

Here in the UK, Iraq was top of the list of asylum source countries in the last quarter of 2007, and that is likely to be the pattern of the future. Yet in these circumstances, as we have heard from both the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Anderson, the Border and Immigration Agency has written to lawyers and other agencies acting on behalf of refugees saying that because there is now a viable route for return, failed asylum seekers are to have their Section 4 support cut off, even though, if they return, they may risk serious harm as defined in Article 15(c) of European Council Directive 2004/83/EC,

There are court cases in the national courts of Germany and the UK and in the European Court of Justice on the construction of this provision, and it may well turn out to be unlawful to have made these persons destitute. Equally, it may be unlawful to hold them in detention, as in one case in which the destination was Baghdad, even though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says that it is not safe for any British citizen to travel there. The effect is that no escort can be provided for this person to return, which may be the reason for the delay.

There is an incompatibility between the policies of the FCO and the Home Office that needs to be resolved, and we suggest in the mean time that the BIA letter of 6 March should be withdrawn pending discussions between the two departments. We also ask that the detention of all Iraqis other than Kurds, who may be returned safely to the northern governorates, be reviewed.

The Refugee Legal Centre has dealt with a number of cases in which Iraqi clients have been detained pending deportation but who have then been found to have valid legal claims to remain. These cases, which the centre must generally undertake within very short deadlines, take up a great deal of time and show that the initial examination of claims does not work properly and that the procedures need to be reviewed in consultation with agencies such as ILPA and the RLC.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned that 24 international NGOs are calling on the US and UK to face up to their responsibilities and to deal with the humanitarian needs that we engendered by the reckless folly of the invasion. They are asking for a substantial increase in aid to the internally displaced and to the refugees in the region. It makes obvious sense to give far greater priority to creating the conditions that would enable the internally displaced and returnees to get back to a normal life, and the OCHA appeal for 2008 calls for a budget of $265 million for that purpose. The International Organisation for Migration says that its two-year appeal for IDPs is only 28 per cent funded, and presumably other agencies are in the same boat. Will the Minister say what contributions we are making to the OCHA appeal, to the IOM appeal and to the UNHCR appeal, and whether we are helping to

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mobilise proportional contributions from other states, particularly from members of the coalition? What is the Government’s response to the International Rescue Committee’s calculation that the response to the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world has been wholly inadequate and that the amount needed is some $3 billion to $4 billion, of which the US should pay half? No doubt the Minister can work out what our proportion of that money should be.

Of course, the effective delivery of aid not only requires the progressive improvement in security, which will rely increasingly on Iraqi forces over the coming year as the coalition withdraws, but, as the Brookings-Bern meeting in January recorded, relies on a number of factors such as the willingness of the Iraqi Government to acknowledge the rights of IDPs; the capacity of their Ministries to deliver on the ground; the permanence of the separation between ethnic and religious communities, or of accommodation between the communities in some mixed enclaves; the stability of the Governments in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt; and the willingness of those states to continue accommodating large numbers of Iraqis. Brookings has also just published an important study on the future of Kirkuk, which is home to 20 per cent of Iraq’s oil wealth and a region with a mixed population of Arab, Turcoman, Kurdish and Christian communities, to which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred.

Last week, I met Abbas al-Bayati MP, general secretary of the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turcomans, who told me that his party was opposed to the referendum that is proposed for the region and that was intended to be conducted before the end of last year under Article 140 of the constitution. Unfortunately, Article 140 is unclear on a number of points, including the precise area to which it applies and whether it should give voters the option to designate Kirkuk as a separate region as opposed to becoming part of the Kurdish region or remaining under the control of Baghdad. Mr al-Bayati wants the former, but he says that the referendum is not really the answer because unanimity is needed on the detailed legislation to put it into effect.

As of March last year, 132,000 property claims had been made by IDPs to the claims commission, including 50,000 from Kirkuk alone, and only a fraction of them had been decided. The IOM estimates that, at the present rate of progress, it will take 30 years to deal with the existing case load, and that probably thousands more claims would be lodged if there were any confidence in the process. Do the Government have any ideas on how to remove the constitutional impasse of Article 140 and how to accelerate the settlement of property claims?

On the neighbours, we understand that Iraq has voted a mere $25 million for assistance to their refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, which is only a tiny fraction of the help that they, particularly the women, need to survive. There have been several reports of desperate women and girls—as many as 50,000, according to one Iraqi women’s group—being forced into prostitution in Syria. The UNHCR says that because the Syrians do not allow the refugees to work, the refugees starve if they have exhausted their savings

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and have no family to send them money from abroad. Some tens of thousands did return home, but many women fled with their children after their husbands were killed, so if they go back, they have no support or protection.

The EU voted €50 million to pay for the health and education of Iraqi children in Syria and Jordan, and UNICEF has just allocated $5 million for Iraqi refugee children and women in Syria. But first they need to eat, even if that means working illegally for $1 a day, as many children do. I was glad to see that the World Food Programme was distributing essential items to 145,000 targeted refugees who had been identified by the UNHCR. But the World Food Programme said, which the UNHCR confirmed, that it was $113 million short of its targeted appeal for the year.

Jordan also needs a lot of help. On Tuesday, their Government officials asked for $416 million for education, $248 million for health and $423 million for the expansion of Jordan’s oil refinery, all to enable them to cope with the estimated 450,000 refugees that they are hosting. Those sums dwarf the amounts which have been allocated by the international community, let alone actually paid over. But why should the Jordanian people have to foot the bill for a crisis that was not of their own making? Does the Minister accept that huge burdens are being placed on neighbouring countries as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq? Does he accept that if there had been no invasion, the 4.5 million people who are now destitute and rootless would be living peacefully in their own home and benefiting from the infrastructure that we destroyed, which is now having to be replaced at a cost of billions of dollars?

Is the Minister satisfied that the many demands for humanitarian assistance within Iraq and in the region are being met effectively by the many agencies involved now that the UN has appointed Mr David Shearer as humanitarian co-ordinator? What extra staff will the UN provide him with in Baghdad to back him up? Finally, do the Government accept that we need to do more by way of widening the scope of our resettlement programmes, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, beyond those who were employed by our Government? Will the UK comply in the first place with the request made by the UNHCR for 131 resettlement places under the Gateway programme, carefully confined, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, to former employees of the Ministry of Defence? Is that really the best that we can do? I know that we have not lifted a finger to help the couple of hundred Iranians in the so-called Temporary International Presence Facility, which indicates that there may be a lack of sympathy for many other vulnerable people. The International Rescue Committee calls for an increase in the number of Iraqis accepted for settlement in the US from 12,000 to 30,000 and a proportionate number for European countries. Will we discuss that with our friends in Washington and Brussels?

The invasion of Iraq was a crime against humanity that resulted in the deaths and disablement of a very large number of human beings—men, women and children. We cannot do anything to bring back those who have died or to restore the mutilated victims of our military operations and of the terrorism that it

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evoked to their former health and strength. But we can and should make amends to the survivors for their suffering over the past five years. We and the Americans should do far more to help Iraq create the conditions for everyone to return to their home and resume a normal life.

3.13 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not just for securing this debate but for the determination with which, as I was reminded while going through the press cuttings in preparing for this debate, he has pursued this issue over considerable time. I am sorry that in a Conservative debate of this sort he is so thinly supported on the Conservative Benches. This is an important issue, which I hope that he and others will continue to push on all sides.

Post-invasion Iraq is one of the major failings of British and American planning. Since the Minister may say this, let me say for him that we all recognise that the previous regime was dreadful and that it created refugees and internally displaced people. Saddam Hussein’s behaviour towards the Marsh Arabs, the Shia and other minorities was appalling. But Prime Minister Blair told us that we were going into Iraq to make things better. As we can see from the opinion polls, many people in Iraq think that we have made things worse. That is a huge failure of a misplanned invasion, whose implications were not thought through and whose consequences have not been dealt with. Previous speakers have talked about where the refugees are. As we all know, they are primarily in Syria and in Jordan, with a significant number, particularly Christians, in the Lebanon.

Part of the continuing failure of American and British policy for the region is the extent to which different policies are being pursued towards different countries. The United States, above all, is pursuing an Israel/Palestine-led policy towards Syria, Jordan and the Lebanon. Even in the past few days, I have read in the American press that the Americans are thinking again of moving in against Hezbollah in the Lebanon and that the rest of the Lebanese population would turn against Hezbollah if the Americans started to bomb civilian infrastructure. That is a disastrous approach to the region.

The United States is refusing to talk to Syria. One needs to talk to Syria about a number of things, including the refugees. Similarly, the United States has just sacked a very senior admiral for suggesting that it needs to deal on a rather more intelligent and open basis with Iran. Anyone who knew the smallest bit about Iraq knew that removing Saddam Hussein would directly increase the influence of Iran on Iraq. The refusal to recognise the very evident link between those two is part of what has been wrong with American policy, which all too often, sadly, our Government have followed.

I read the Washington press and get cuttings from Haaretz and other media in Israel. I read about the Israeli-American determination that we need to support the Sunnis against the Shias across the region because Hezbollah and Hamas are supported by Iran: therefore, there is a Shia conspiracy and, therefore, we need to

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arm the Sunnis. The most disastrous development for the Middle East as a whole would be to encourage what my noble friend Lord Ashdown described the other day as a Middle East civil war between Sunni and Shia that would stretch from Afghanistan to Egypt. However, that is what some people in Washington are encouraging at the moment. In approaching policy towards Iraq—the territory where the Sunni-Shia conflict has been most acute—we should recognise our responsibilities for the whole region and the need, as Liberal Democrats have been strongly arguing, for a policy towards the whole region, into which policy towards Iraq, Iran, Syria and Israel/Palestine needs to fit.


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