HL Deb 27 July 1979 vol 401 cc2149-52

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what accounts they have received of money given by Her Majesty's Government for humanitarian purposes in Ethiopia.


My Lords, perhaps I may apologise in advance for a rather lengthier reply than is customary.

During the financial year 1978–79 Her Majesty's Government made contributions of £750,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, and of £1 million to the International Committee for the Red Cross for the whole of Africa, of which we believe about £400,000 went to the Horn of Africa. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that it is providing assistance to some 30,000 families in Ethiopia at a cost of about £2½ million. The International Committee for the Red Cross spent 1.75 million Swiss francs, which is about half a million pounds, in Ethiopia during the seven months commencing 1st November 1978. Assistance has been provided for displaced persons in the Ogaden and Eritrea in the form of blankets, clothing, foodstuffs and medical supplies.

Her Majesty's Government have also made grants of £50,000 to United Kingdom voluntary agencies through the Disasters Emergency Committee, to assist them to meet the cost of sending relief supplies to the Horn of Africa. Her Majesty's Government provided 10,000 tonnes of soft wheat under the World Food Programme in 1978, and are in the process of shipping a further 14,574 tonnes. This food aid is provided for the people in the areas of severe food shortage.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl the Minister for that very comprehensive reply. Would he confirm that the refugee problem in the Horn of Africa, in terms of the numbers of persons displaced from their homes, is almost as grave, if not as grave, as that in South-East Asia, and that therefore all efforts must be focused on assisting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in attempting to alleviate the sufferings of those people? None the less, would the noble Earl not agree that there is a risk that some of the aid which is provided for humanitarian purposes, both by the United Kingdom and by the EEC in programmes in which we play a part, may be diverted to military use by the Ethiopian régime, and that in fact some medical and food supplies have been captured by the Eritrean freedom fighters from the Ethiopian troops who are occupying their territory? What steps will Her Majesty's Government take to ensure that aid that we provide for humanitarian purposes is not used, directly or indirectly, to assist the Ethiopian dictators in their war effort?


My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's first point, I accept that we would wish to support the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as much as we can, but I think it is invidious to compare the problems in one part of the world with those in another, although we accept that the difficulties of the refugees in the Horn of Africa are considerable. With regard to the point that the noble Lord made about food getting into the hands of the Ethiopian Army, he will of course realise that we can send food there only by agreement with the Ethiopian Government. It is our intention that this food should go to the refugees; but clearly we are not in a position to control what happens to the food, and if the noble Lord has details of instances of where it is going to military camps I would be grateful if he would let us know. But, of course, this is one of the hazards of sending gifts.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question: In view of the worldwide character of this problem, will the British Government take the initiative in having the whole issue discussed by the General Assembly of the United Nations and, afterwards, by the Security Council? Because some international action is needed if this problem is to be solved.


My Lords, we will certainly take note of the noble Lord's suggestion. It is slightly wider than the original Question, which was to ask what happens to the food which has been given, but we will take note of it.


My Lords, is it not true that this matter is discussed once every year at the United Nations, when the High Commissioner for Refugees makes his report? I do not think it is necessary to have anything else.


My Lords, certainly I accept that this is a matter of great concern which is discussed by many people in many forums.


My Lords, is it not true that this is the second case within recent weeks which has been raised in this House of money intended to relieve refugee problems in various parts of the world perhaps not having been used for the purpose for which it was intended? Would it not be possible for the noble Earl the Minister to suggest to his right honourable friend the Prime Minister that they appoint a Minister with sole responsibility for refugee problems and for ensuring that any monies are spent for the purpose for which they are being sent?


My Lords, that is a fascinating idea, but I rather doubt whether my right honourable friend would accept that a Minister should be specially designated for refugee problems. But I would remind the noble Lord that where any Government give aid for certain particular people there is always the danger that it may not reach those people, and it is very difficult for any Government outside the country concerned to take appropriate action.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether he has examined how the various nations, apart from ourselves, have contributed and how particularly the oil-producing nations, who are making fortunes at the present time, contribute towards not only other refugees but those whom they themselves call refugees?


My Lords, if the noble Lord will put down a Question when we return in October asking for specific information on aid given by other countries, I will do my best to answer it.


My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government consider taking the initiative in summoning an international conference (on the lines of the recent successful conference on refugees from Indo-China which was held on the initiative of the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary) to deal with the equally grave problem in the Horn of Africa? With regard to the diversion of supplies to the Ethiopian army, is the noble Earl aware that eye witnesses who have returned recently from Eritrea confirm that they have seen EEC aid, marked as such, both food and medical supplies, in material which has been captured by the Eritrean freedom fighters from the Ethiopian armed forces? If I supply the noble Earl with evidence of these eye witnesses, will he ask his noble friend the Foreign Secretary to consider seriously what effect this would have on aid supplied to Ethiopia directly or through the EEC?


My Lords, I will certainly see that my noble friend has his attention brought to both suggestions which have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with regard to a conference and with regard to the food getting into the wrong hands. I would remind him again that if we are to give aid there is always that danger. The difficulty is that, if the amount of material going to the wrong people is too great, the consequences might be even worse.

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