UK Parliament during question time
UK Parliamentary Questions Wednesday 21 October 2009 Sri Lanka
1. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What his most recent assessment is of the humanitarian situation of refugees in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): Two weeks ago, I visited Sri Lanka to see for myself the situation of the 250,000 internally displaced people detained in camps. Conditions have improved there compared with my previous visit in April, with basic needs such as food and shelter being met. However, health care and humanitarian access remain inadequate and we are concerned about military oversight of the camps and family separations. We also believe that conditions will deteriorate during the monsoon season, which is about to start. While I was in Sri Lanka, I repeated the United Kingdom’s call for freedom of movement for all the IDPs so that they can go back to host families, relatives or their places of origin.
Mr. Cunningham: May I ask my hon. Friend whether he has been able to get a time scale for the Tamils to go back to their homes in Sri Lanka? Also, how has the aid been distributed?
Mr. Foster: The Government of Sri Lanka were committed to having 80 per cent. of those detained in camps going back to their places of origin by the end of the year. To facilitate that process, I am pleased to announce today an allocation of £500,000 to the HALO Trust for mine surveillance and de-mining in the Mullaitivu area. That work has started and will make the area safe for homes and for land use for the people who were put in the camps.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Minister look into whether further pressure can be put on Sri Lanka by the Commonwealth? If Sri Lanka continues not to let people return or go home from the camps, perhaps it should be suspended from the Commonwealth.
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Mr. Foster: It is important that the international community makes clear its position with regard to the number of people still in the camps and the importance of freedom of movement. We believe that that is happening, but, as far as the Commonwealth’s position is concerned, I know that the Government of Sri Lanka are keen to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in a couple of years’ time. That might have some bearing on their response to the developments for people who are in the camps.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): May I thank the Minister for his statements and for his visit to Sri Lanka on behalf of my Tamil constituents? May I also ask his Department to support the EU Trade Commissioner’s GSP— or generalised system of preferences— plus report, which was issued on Monday, to ensure that preferred status will be withdrawn from Sri Lanka should things continue as they are?
Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend has long been an advocate for her Tamil constituents and I applaud her for her commitment. As regards the GSP plus and the announcement made this week by the European Commission, there is a process that should be followed to maintain the integrity of the GSP plus system. We believe that in the meantime the Government of Sri Lanka should look at the findings and act on them swiftly.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): As someone who visited the camps earlier this year, along with you, Mr. Speaker, I welcome the Minister’s report on the basic conditions in the camps. Does he agree with me, however, that the Sri Lankan Government would better serve their interests if they gave full unrestricted access to the camp to the media and all the agencies and fulfilled their promise to allow people to return home before Christmas? What are the chances of that happening?
Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman knows the situation well from his own experience and from his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee. I agree entirely with his assessment that it is in the Government of Sri Lanka’s interest to allow open access to the media. During the visit that I undertook two weeks ago, I had people from the BBC with me. It had full access to camps and individuals within those camps to do whatever reporting it felt necessary. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman an indication of the scale of the transfer that is needed. We have had a request from the International Organisation for Migration for transport assistance to help 41,000 people from the camps go back to Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, in addition to the 32,000 whom we know left the camps in September.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I had the very distressing experience with the all-party group of visiting the camps at Menik farms zones 2 and 3 at Vavuniya. In spite of that distressing aspect, there was an uplifting side to the visit because of the attitude of the people and their hope for the future. Will the Minister ensure that any aid that is forthcoming from the Government is directed primarily at the welfare of the people in the camps and their displacement back to their own homes, which have been out of reach, to be joined with their families? Secondly—
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Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not wish to be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that one question will do.
Mr. Foster: When I was in Sri Lanka, I made it clear to the Government that from the end of this year, when the monsoon season was brought to a conclusion, we would no longer be funding aid for closed camps and that our aid would be directed towards facilitating movement from the camps. That includes the de-mining to which I have referred and means that I can announce £250,000 for predictable, safe and dignified transport for people from the camps back to host communities, as well as a further £220,000 to the Food and Agriculture Organisation to provide bushels of rice seeds to enable people to have a decent livelihood when they get back to their homes.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Minister has confirmed this morning that a package of rehabilitation measures is being put in place by the Department. That is welcome, but he has also confirmed that emergency aid will be redirected away from the camps. The Government also voted against the $2.5 billion International Monetary Fund package in July and are now considering ending the EU’s special trade privileges that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned. Is that really the most constructive way to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to promote a long-term reconciliation process, and to meet their stated pledge that 80 per cent. of displaced people should be returned by Christmas? That is what members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, and all Sri Lankan people in the UK, desperately want.
Mr. Foster: We were speaking up for all the people I saw in the camps two weeks ago. It was clear that they wanted to be returned to their homes as quickly as possible, but the nature of the closed camps, with their restrictions and military oversight, is wholly wrong. That is why our assistance will be geared to the de-mining, transport and livelihood programmes, as they will enable people to move safely and securely from the camps back to their homes, where they will be able to get on with their lives. I think that that is what the diaspora community here in the UK wants to hear.