HC Deb 09 November 1948 vol 457 cc1508-20

9.52 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

The matter I desire to raise is very different from the previous topic. It is something which should weigh heavily, not only upon the conscience of the British people, but upon the conscience of the whole world, and that is the condition and the prospects of life and death of the Arab refugees in the Middle East. There has been much controversy over the question of Palestine, but I am anxious, in this opportunity afforded to me, not to add to that controversy in any way. What I wish to raise is a purely humanitarian issue. I wish also to make it clear that I do not seek to attack the Government on this issue. I know that they have been, and are, most active in this matter, and that they are doing what they can to help. I am very grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for having waited so long this evening for this Debate to take place and for having found the time when he must be very pressed in his work.

May I begin by quoting a few facts and figures to give a broad picture of the tragedy of the Arab refugees? At the present time, there are something like 650,000 destitute Arabs in the Middle East, and of that total, approximately half are refugee men, women and children who have fled or have been exiled from their homes, shops and land as a result of the fighting in Palestine. They include the major part of the Arab population of Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Ramleh and Lydda. They are distributed over various States. and over 200,000 are still in Palestine itself. There are about 90,000 in Transjordan and about 60,000 in the Lebanon. The refugees in Transjordan equal about one-quarter of the normal population of that country.

What is their composition? The survey made in August and contained in Count Bernadotte's last report to the United Nations gave these figures: under two years of age, 12 per cent.; from three to five years of age, 18 per cent.; from six to 18 years of age, 36 per cent.; pregnant women and nursing mothers, about 10 per cent., and aged, sick and infirm, 8 per cent. That means that 85 per cent. of these refugees are highly vulnerable to attack by hunger, cold and disease. What is their condition? Nearly all are destitute, often without even the tools of their trade. Some, but not all, have a few cooking utensils. Many of them have only the clothes in which they fled. I do not want to be accused of exaggeration, so I will quote the actual words of Count Bernadotte. He said: Early refugee groups had been accommodated in houses, but later groups congested and overflowed all available forms of shelter. Some 22 per cent. were simply camped on the ground under trees. Water supplies were inadequate, unprotected and a menace to health by infection and lack of control. In fact, an examination of a number of cases in the Ramallah area showed 49 positive typhoid fever cases. There was virtually no provision among the great mass of Arab refugees for the special needs of infants, young children, nursing mothers, pregnant women. the aged and the sick. That report was written in the summer. Now it is winter. Every day sees less food available for these unhappy people. The highest relief ration was 3½ oz. of bread a day. Quite soon that had to be halved. Recently the 150,000 refugees in the Nablus area had no food deliveries at all for 17 days. The figs and grapes from the orchards were eaten weeks ago.

As Count Bernadotte pointed out, it is not only a question of a shortage of food. There is an acute shortage of shelter as well. Already the bitter winds born in the snows of Mount Herman and the mountains of Syria and the Lebanon are sweeping southwards over the refugee areas, and those winds are much colder than the wind which was sweeping down Whitehall yesterday. The wind is sweeping over women and tiny children huddled in holes in the ground. Those who have a tent of sackcloth or a wind break of stones are comparatively lucky. Graveyards are favourite camping places, because the gravestones provide some shelter from the wind. Those living in the rock caves round the old Roman theatre at Amman are in comparative luxury. It is true that in Jericho, below sea level, it is warmer than on the high wind-swept plain, but here malaria is waiting to take its toll, for it is inevitable that there will be an influx of refugees from the higher ground. Measles, typhus, dysentery and smallpox have already made their appearance in the refugee areas.

That is the picture. Very little, and sometimes no, food. No milk for the babies. A drinking water ration of a pint a day. Almost no water at all for washing. For thousands no shelter at all. An acute shortage of doctors and medical supplies. That is the condition of 500,000 people, of whom about 150,000 are under six years of age. Five hundred thousand people asking no more of humanity than the right to live. Five hundred thousand people threatened with death from hunger, cold or disease before the winter is over. I quote the words of Brigadier Clayton, who has advised His Majesty's Government so well for a long time on Middle East affairs. He said: If a very large measure of outside aid is not forthcoming by the end of October, there are unlikely to be many refugees to worry about by the spring. Today is 9th November. We could picture it better if we imagined what Britain would be like——

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Mr. Baker White

We could picture it better if we imagined what Britain would be like if there were a sudden influx of some 11 million refugees, an addition of 25 per cent. on our population. The Arab League sent 32,000 blankets and Transjordan is spending £8,000 a day in bread alone. The Lebanon raised £20,000 by public subscription in a few days. The Turks have helped substantially. The Egyptian authorities are maintaining over 100,000 refugees. As the "Economist" put it on 30th October: The Arab States have scraped their larders and their exchequers. They have not got the dollars and it is in the dollar areas that the food is to be found—the food that can save a dreadful mass death. His Majesty's Government, private firms and charitable bodies have done a great deal. I understand that, as its first part, Britain has given £100,000 to provide 7,500 tents, 200,000 blankets and medical supplies. The Anglo-American Oil Company has given £50,000. The World Council of Churches is among the charitable bodies that have made substantial contributions. The Iraq Petroleum Company have given 180,000 blankets. Three thousand of them left by air from Bovington airport on Friday night; the rest are being shipped by the fastest possible boats. Could not the R.A.F. Transport Command get some of them out quicker?

Is not this the responsibility of the. United Nations organisation and of the whole world? I believe it is, and to a degree of the Jewish population as well. At the moment that responsibility is being shirked by many nations. One of the last things Count Bernadotte did was to ask for 10,000 tons of goods. Less than 3,000 tons have arrived or are in transit, and 1,100 tons are coming from the Australian Government alone. This is about enough to last to the end of the month.

A sum of 30 million dollars is needed to cover the period December, 1948, to August, 1949–30 million dollars to save the lives of half a million. That works out at about 35s. per refugee per month. They are talking in Paris. The United States Government, who could do so much, are talking, but so far are avoiding taking a decision. As the world talks in its well-warmed conference halls and goes to well-warmed and well-provided restaurants, these refugees are dying in the winter winds in the Middle East. I mentioned the Jewish responsibility. I quote again from Count Bernadotte in this issue: The immediate solution of the problem appeared to be the return to their homes of those refugees who desired to return. Even though in many localities their homes had been destroyed, and their furniture and assets dispersed, it was obvious that a solution for their difficulties could be more readily found there than elsewhere. I accordingly submitted to the Provisional Government of Israel, on 26th July, a proposal that, without prejudice to the question of the ultimate right of all Arab refugees to return to their homes in Jewish-controlled Palestine if they desired, the principle be accepted that a limited number, determined by consultation, might be permitted to return to their homes as from 15th August, 1948. The Provisional Government of Israel, however, replied on 1st August, 1948, in substance, that as long as a state of war existed it was not in a position to re-admit on any substantial scale the Arabs who fled. On later occasions it has re-affirmed its unwillingness to take back any refugees at the present time. I find it tragic that the Jews are sticking to the line that to play their part in helping to keep these refugees alive would be breaking the truce, because it would be helping the Arab Government. I ask them to think again, not in terms of politics or strategy, but in terms of human decency and charity. The United Nations organisation should vote immediately the money required. It should organise aid on an international scale, establish big tent camps for the refugees, fly in medical supplies, doctors and nurses, and divert wheat and food ships to the Middle East ports. Having done that, the United Nations organisation must decide the future dwelling places of the majority of the refugees, because it is evident that most of them cannot now return to their former homes.

My last words are these. We complain often that the United Nations organisation has accomplished little in removing differences between nations. It has now a chance to accomplish much, the chance to act in the cause of compassion and charity which is common both to Christianity and to Islam. It must act very quickly. The mountains are white with snow. Each day the wind blows colder. On it ride the four dreadful Horsemen. We talk much of the Charter of Human Rights. Let us grant to these 500,000 people the simplest right of all—the right to live. This is a challenge to the world—to Christian, to Moslem and to Jew. If we fail to meet it, let us hang our heads in shame and say that we have failed to observe the fundamental principle of our respective faiths.

10.8 p.m.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

I want briefly to support the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White). I do not want to introduce a note of controversy but I cannot help remarking that during the childish and frivolous effort of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) to which we have just listened for about an hour, about 35 or 40 Members of the Socialist Party were present. So soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury got to his feet to raise this appalling problem of the misery of nearly 600,000 Arab refugees dying by the thousand every day, at least 40 of those hon. Members got up to go out. It seems that that is an extraordinary commentary on the callous way in which we look upon human suffering today.

I want to supplement the figures that my hon. Friend gave regarding the extent of this problem. It may be that my figures are a little more up to date, as they arrived only today and I think that they are entirely accurate. A full statement was made to a Press conference in Paris on 28th October by the Archbishop of Galilee, George Hakim, and he was testifying as Archbishop of Galilee and President of the Refugee Committee in Lebanon and Arab Galilee. He said that the number of refugees should be put at about 600,000, including 100,000 Christians, and that their numbers were distributed as follows: 90,000 in the Lebanon with a population of one million; 140,000 in Syria which has a population of 3 million; 100,000 in Transjordan, which has a population of only 350,000, an increase of roughly 30 per cent. in this population; 100,000 in Judea, where there is a population of 70,000; 50,000 in Samaria with a normal population of 60,000; 75,000 refugees in Egypt and Negeb which have a population of 18 million; 15,000 in Arab Galilee, which has a normal population of 60,000; and 15,000 in Iraq with a normal population of 5 million.

The total number of refugees, on the figures I have given to the House, is 585,000, so the extent of the problem is even more than my hon. Friend said. In fact, almost exactly half the Arab population of Palestine are now refugees. That will give hon. Members some idea of the extent of this problem. And the cause of all this? Nothing more or less than the aggressive military action of the Jews.

All of us in this House, no matter what our party, must have the deepest sympathy for the appalling suffering, the untold suffering—and the story will never be told—of the Jews during the war, but I shall go so far this evening as to say that, as far as I am concerned, their behaviour in Palestine regarding the Arab refugee problem has alienated a great deal of my sympathy, and in present circumstances I feel sure that hon. Members must agree that recognition of the State of Israel is utterly unthinkable. Incidentally amongst the hon. Members who went out from here when this matter was raised were the few hon. Members opposite who are known to hold Zionist views.

The hon. Member for Canterbury painted a terrible picture without exaggeration. His Majesty's Government have, I know, taken a most sympathetic view of this problem and they have done a good deal about it already. I would be the first to say so, and I do not raise this in any critical spirit at all. However, the problem is one of terrible urgency, and so I ask the Under-Secretary to do his best to tell us as fully as he can what more His Majesty's Government can do by their own efforts, and what they propose to do to stress the urgency of the problem in the United Nations organisation which, so far, has manifestly failed to face it.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

I had great sympathy with the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) while he based his case upon humanitarian grounds. When the matter descended to crude anti-Semitism, I took a somewhat different view.

Major Beamish

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I take it that I am being accused of crude anti-Semitism. If that is the case, I ask for your protection.

Mr. Speaker

I heard no statement that I could describe as crude anti-Semitism. The hon. and gallant Member disagreed with some of the actions of the Jews, but that is not necessarily crude anti-Semitism because he was perfectly clear that he had great sympathy with the sufferings of the Jews during the second world war.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Further to that point of Order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman went out of his way to point out the number of my hon. Friends on this side of the House holding Zionist views who had left, but they could not possibly know what the subject of this Adjournment Debate was to be.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of Order. That is the hon. and gallant Member's own affair, not mine.

Mr. Paget

If I have said anything unparliamentary, Mr. Speaker, of course, I withdraw it, but I should like to bring this matter into a sense of proportion. There is war in Israel, and the idea that people who are carrying on a war should accept through their lines hundreds of thousands of their enemies, whose conduct during that war they cannot anticipate, should accept them at a time when they themselves are desperately short of supplies—such a suggestion is fantastically unrealistic.

Let us recognise this situation. The State of Israel was attacked by overwhelming numbers of great States around it. It was a war of aggression designed, and expressly designed, to destroy that new State. Well, the Jewish David smashed this Goliath, and all honour to her to have done so. When war happens refugees are one of the problems. That is why war is such a tragedy. Let us place the blame for that tragedy upon the aggressors. The aggressors here were the large Arab states who set upon this new nation. Theirs is the responsibility for these refugees. I agree that, if they cannot meet their responsibility, starving people are humanity's responsibility. Let us perform our duty, for it is always our duty when people are starving, but do not let us put the blame where it does not lie.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether we can be told in his reply what approaches His Majesty's Government have made to the United Nations organisation in this matter.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Mayhew)

I will, if I may, avoid entering into the extremely controversial aspects of the Palestine problem which were raised in the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and some of the controversial statements of the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), in the interests of looking at this matter in the most constructive way possible as a means of trying to avoid a terrible tragedy this winter in and around Palestine.

I think that the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) for raising this subject on the Adjournment tonight. The problem of the Arab refugees has sunk far too little into the world's conscience and the more we can direct to this appalling problem the attention of people who are in a position to help, the greater chance we have of averting tragedy. The picture drawn by the hon. Member for Canterbury was in no way overdrawn. The facts are as set out so plainly and humanely in his speech. I thank him for setting out for me, in a way I could not have done as well myself, the problem that faces us. He has quoted from the Mediator's report many facts and figures which I had intended to present to the House. I thank him also for the appreciation he has expressed of the efforts His Majesty's Government have made to solve this problem.

The picture now in Palestine is a terrible one. Arab refugees number at least 500,000—more than that in fact, since the Jewish attacks in the Negeb and in Gallilee. These 500,000 and more refugees in and around Palestine face hunger, disease and death; smallpox, typhus, typhoid and dysentery are spreading; thousands are forced to camp in the open and winter is approaching. Day by day the situation grows worse, and unless large-scale relief begins to arrive within the next few weeks a terrible disaster is certain.

Let me say a word about relief. So far, the Arab States have borne the brunt of the relief of their refugees. The Syrians are reported as spending £140,000 a month, and the Lebanese only slightly less than that amount; Transjordan, which is almost a ruined State, largely because of this problem, are spending £40,000 a month; Iraq, £13,500 a month; the Egyptian Government, by grants from its military funds, is helping refugees in the Gaza area. Perhaps the heaviest cost of all is borne by the Arab farmers in Palestine, since these refugees are eating the grain, the fruit, even the unripe olives—destroying the trees, in fact—and everything is disappearing as these refugees inevitably lay hands on any kind of food available to them. Egypt, the Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan are, of course, already importing cereals for their own consumption, quite apart from the needs of the refugees.

On the other hand, stocks of cereals are adequate in all those countries for the local populations and the refugees, for the next two or three months. The worst deficiency area is the Arab area of Palestine, where it is estimated that all the current harvest is exhausted, or will be exhausted by the end of the month, including even any allowances that may have been made for seed. The Arab States have borne the brunt of such aid as has been given so far to the refugees. Apart from the Arab States, the first help was by His Majesty's Government, when we put £100,000 at the disposal of the Disaster Relief Organisation, with which urgently need tents and blankets were supplied from Army stocks in the Middle East. The International Children's Emergency Fund have also sent some 800,000 dollars worth of supplies for women and children Arab refugees. The Mediator made an appeal for 10,000 tons of goods from Governments, to which, unfortunately, Governments responded only to the extent of 3,000 tons.

Those are the small and quite inadequate measures which have been taken so far. The House will want to know what action is being taken now and for the future to tackle this problem. His Majesty's Government took the initiative—I think some two months ago—in bringing the whole problem to the notice of the Security Council, and we have since taken the further initiative in the current Assembly to try to make the Assembly act. The Assembly must act, and it must act quickly, if this problem is to be tackled.

In the last few weeks the United Kingdom delegation, assisted by certain other delegations, have been attempting to push a resolution through the United Nations Assembly demanding, first of all, an effective administration of relief in Palestine. At present there is only the Disaster Relief Organisation existing there with a staff of only 15 persons, set up by the Mediator and capable only of co-ordinating the efforts of the Arab local authorities, but not of undertaking the great administrative task which is needed, especially in regard to transport, if this problem is to be tackled effectively. Our resolution will aim at requiring the establishment of an effective administration of relief. It will also make an appeal to Governments to contribute funds for the financing of relief supplies and it will appeal for a contribution from the United Nations Working Fund. At the moment, we have a joint resolution with certain other delegations which is going through the committee stage of the United Nations.

Mr. Pickthorn

Which other nations?

Mr. Mayhew

Two of the sponsoring nations are the Netherlands and Belgium.

Mr. Pickthorn

Who are the Goliaths who are resisting?

Mr. Mayhew

Perhaps I may be allowed to continue my speech in my own way. I hope the resolution will be passed and will lay down on the administrative side that a director of relief operations will be appointed to be directly responsible to the United Nations Secretariat, who will be responsible for administering the funds and also for co-ordinating the activities of all the voluntary societies.

On the subject of the appeal, we hope our resolution will secure a favourable vote in the Plenary Session for a grant to cover the minimum requirements of the refugees in the next nine months. Those minimum requirements were estimated by the acting Mediator in the middle of October at some 32 million dollars for 500,000 refugees. As I said before, the recent Jewish attacks will have raised the figure of 500,000 refugees, and the figure of 32 million dollars is related only to the 500,000. I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say that His Majesty's Government are prepared to make available their appropriate share of this sum. We have already given useful help towards solving this problem, and we intend to give our share, and more than our share, to any new appeal that may be made.

On the subject of the working fund, it is already agreed at the committee stage at the United Nations that five million dollars shall be advanced from the Secre-

tariat's working fund. That is, in effect, a loan which will be repaid out of the Governmental contributions towards the 32 million dollars. It will be a loan in dollars which will be immediately available in the specially critical next few weeks. That is the United Nations initiative for which we are hoping.

Apart from the United Nations Assembly initiative, I can also report that the International Children's Emergency Fund, in addition to the 800,000 dollars to which I have already referred, has agreed quite recently to grant six million dollars for supplies for women and children refugees in Arab countries. That will be an extremely useful contribution, particularly as it is immediately available. This decision followed strong efforts by the United Kingdom Delegation to swing the International Children's Fund Programme Committee round to making this grant.

There is other action outside the Assembly Resolution. The United States, British, Australian and Canadian Governments hope to make available urgently 8,000 tons of flour against subsequent repayments from their Assembly contributions. Again, the British voluntary societies are fully prepared to play their part in helping to solve this problem, particularly in regard to the provision of teams of medical and welfare workers for the refugee camps. A representative of the British Red Cross is at present in the Middle East to assess the extent of the problem in detail. Individuals can help by contributions to the British Society for Relief Abroad. Finally outside the Assembly Resolution, as the hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned, certain bodies are also giving useful assistance. I would name the Iraq Petroleum Company, which is contributing 180,000 much-needed blankets for relief this winter.

I have tried to give an indication of the effort being made to meet this urgent problem. I do not say that it is enough. I am not at all confident that it is coming quickly enough. Indeed, this international action, though it promises well, is desperately slow when we consider the urgency of the problem today. Nevertheless, I can assure the House that, so far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, we will continue to do out utmost, both unilaterally and by international action, to try to avert the impending disaster in and around Palestine.

Mr. Pickthorn

Can the Under-Secretary tell us what was the date on which His Majesty's Government first approached the United Nations?

Mr. Mayhew

Our first formal approach was to the Security Council. I think that that was some two months ago—perhaps longer—but I cannot give the exact date.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

The House will recognise what the British Government are doing, and what British firms like the Iraq Petroleum Company are doing. I think that more ought to be done——

The Question having been proposed at Ten O'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten O'Clock.