APPG Calls for UK Government Action to Protect Yazidis

On 15 November Brendan O’Hara MP initiated a debate (full transcript below) to call for the UK Government to provide treatment for Yazidi former sex slaves of Daesh in the UK. They are ineligible to come to the UK under the current refugee schemes as they are Iraqi not Syrian.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief issued a statement welcoming the debate and strongly calling for the UK Government to urgently look into action it can take to support Yazidis who, despite the current systematic attacks on Daesh around Mosul, will remain incredibly vulnerable and unable to safely return to their communities for many years.

There are concerns that Yazidis who have been sexually violated may not be accepted back into their communities as before, that they may be caught up in retaliations between communities post-Daesh and that the bespoke support needed, beyond basic humanitarian support such as trauma counselling, will be forgotten in the midst of a humanitarian crisis after Mosul’s liberation.

The current UK Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS), under which 20,000 Syrians have been promised to be brought to the UK by 2020, fails to account for the systematic persecution at the hands of Daesh of Yazidis, 90% of whom are Iraqi.

The APPG has urgently called for the UK Government to assess the SVPRS and, not least in light of the Chilcot report, determine how it can provide Yazidis with a choice to receive urgent medical treatment and trauma counselling.

The APPG has received reports that thousands of Yazidis have already left Iraq, are residing within and outside UNHCR camps in Turkey and even Greece and are being told by UNHCR that their situation is not deemed serious enough to be eligible to have help from the UK.

The APPG argues that the UK Government has an international obligation and responsibility to protect such vulnerable refugees and asks the Government to take full note of what is outlined in the 15 November debate. It states that it would be happy to work with the Government to look at how such help should be provided.

Yazidi Former Sex Slaves: UK 15 November 2016

(This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.)

Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment and care of Yazidi former sex slaves of Daesh in the UK.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I will begin by putting on the record my thanks to Members from all parties in both Houses of Parliament for the good will and support that they have shown in the days leading up to this debate. I also thank politicians from as far afield as Canada and Germany for the support they have shown me, as well as the many UK and Irish citizens who have contacted me in recent days to thank me for securing this debate and to urge me not to forget the plight of the Yazidi women and children who are currently being held in sexual enslavement by Daesh, particularly those in the city of Mosul, which we hope will be liberated soon.

My reason for seeking this debate is very simple. While every one of us earnestly hopes that in the coming weeks or months the liberation of Mosul will be complete and that Daesh will finally be driven from the city and out of Iraq once and for all, we also recognise that, as a result of that liberation, there will be hundreds of thousands of terrified people fleeing the city, and that a massive humanitarian support operation will be required to help to rebuild Mosul, allowing its citizens to return home and resume their lives in peace. I applaud the efforts being made by the UK Government, the Iraqi Government and the international community to prepare for that operation.

However, I will concentrate today on the fate of one small, specific group of people who are being held inside Mosul—3,000 or so Yazidi women and children. Since 2014, they have been raped, tortured, brutalised, bought, sold, held in sexual slavery and even murdered by Daesh. I plead with the UK Government not to allow this group, which is arguably one of the most abused and vulnerable groups of people on this earth, simply to be subsumed into the greater refugee crisis that is being predicted for northern Iraq in the coming months.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose—

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab) rose—

Brendan O’Hara

I will give way briefly to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

Jim Shannon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. This subject is very important and I thank him for bringing it to Westminster Hall for consideration.

None of us fail to be moved by the violence and degradation that has been carried out against those who have been made sexual slaves. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must address not only the victims’ physical issues but their mental issues, including the trauma that they have suffered? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development should work together to ensure that they can help these Yazidi families, especially as they are in our hearts every day.

Brendan O’Hara

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he is a great champion of minority communities in the middle east and I entirely accept what he says. I will develop that point later in my speech.

Graham Jones

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is very timely that he has brought this subject to Westminster Hall. I was fortunate enough to be on the edge of Mosul last week and I saw six of the camps for internally displaced persons, which is why I have come here today to contribute to the debate.

However, I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman a question of fundamental importance. We all want to help those people who are victims of sexual slavery. The British Government and the Ministry of Defence have provided forty 50 calibre machine guns to the Peshmerga, to try to help to relieve the situation in Iraq. In addition to wanting to help the Yazidis, does he support the position of the British Government and the MOD in helping the Peshmerga?

Brendan O’Hara

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and yes I do. However, that is an entirely separate issue to the one I am considering today. While we support and will continue to support the military defeat of Daesh, I will concentrate today specifically on this tiny minority—the members of the Yazidi community—who are in desperate need of our help.

These innocent women and children—whose plight, in many ways, has become emblematic of the base depravity and callous barbarism of Daesh—need our help. These innocent women and children have witnessed the slaughter of their husbands, their sons and their brothers as Daesh has attempted genocide to try to erase all trace of the Yazidi community, and they need our help. These innocent women and children, who come from a very traditional and conservative religious community, and may well have been physically and psychologically irreparably damaged, need our help.

My motion today simply says to the Government: when Mosul is liberated and these innocent Yazidi women and children are free from the sexual enslavement of Daesh, please do not let them become lost in the throng of civilians fleeing Mosul towards the refugee camps. I ask the Government to recognise what these women and children have gone through; to see them as the unique case that they are. Together let us find a specific UK response that recognises the unspeakable atrocities that they have suffered, simply because of who they are and what they believe.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

I am sure that we are all aware that there are British citizens among the members of Daesh in Mosul and in Syria, and that they have committed crimes of violence against Yazidi women and other women. Will the hon. Gentleman join me—I am sure he will—in urging the Government to act as an agent of justice, collecting evidence so that justice may be brought against those British citizens?

Brendan O’Hara

I absolutely concur, and the full force of the law must be brought against any British citizen who is in any way involved in what has been happening within Iraq and Syria.

I am sure that everyone in Westminster Hall today is very well aware of the catalogue of atrocities carried out by Daesh against the Yazidi community. I will not go into too much detail, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the level of barbarism displayed by Daesh in its genocidal assault; some of it beggars belief. At the start of this year, I arranged for a young Yazidi woman to come to the UK to speak to this Parliament. Her name was Nadia Murad and the personal testimony that she gave that evening in February will live long with everyone who heard it.

Until August 2014, Nadia lived quietly in the village of Kocho with her mother, her brothers and her sisters. Then Daesh arrived, with the sole intention of completely destroying that small community through murder, rape and kidnap.

That evening in February, Nadia told us in her own words that

“They used rape as the means of destruction for Yazidi women and girls, ensuring these women will never return to a normal life.”

Days after Nadia was taken captive, she had to watch from a school building as six of her brothers were executed. Thereafter, she was taken to Mosul, where she says she was among thousands of women and children being held in the city. It was there that she was given to a Daesh fighter. She was repeatedly tortured and raped by the man, before one night, in desperation, she tried to escape. She was caught and punished. She said, about the man,

“he beat me up, forced me to undress, and put me in a room with six militants. They continued to commit crimes to my body until I became unconscious.”

Three months later, remarkably, and showing incredible courage, she attempted another escape. This time she was successful and is now resettled in Germany.

Graham Jones

As I said, I was in the camps last week. What the hon. Gentleman says is very powerful and true. Just how bad the situation with the Yazidis is cannot be overstated. When I asked the people who work in the camps, “How bad is this? What is the youngest person who has been raped and abused by Daesh?”, the answer that came back was, “A two-year-old”. That is the youngest person they have had in the camps who has been raped and sold as a sex slave. I just want to put that on the record, to reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Brendan O’Hara

I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is unthinkable to any normal person what the community have had to suffer. I do not want to go into too much detail because I believe it is far too upsetting, but the detail is there for people to see. But what I will say in praise of Nadia Murad, who was a teenage girl at the time, is that rather than hiding away from the world she has devoted her life to highlighting the plight of the people of her community, pleading with the world not to turn its back on them.

Graham Jones

I want to add that it is not just women; young boys are being sold for sexual slavery as well, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention that.

Brendan O’Hara

Yes, absolutely. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Nadia Murad is, without doubt, one of the bravest and most courageous people I have ever met or, indeed, am likely ever to meet. I am absolutely delighted that her selfless dedication to the cause of her people has been recognised internationally. As well as being nominated for a Nobel peace prize, she was recently awarded the Václav Havel human rights prize by the Council of Europe, and the highly prestigious Andrei Sakharov award along with another young Yazidi girl, Lamiya Aji Bashar.

In September, I was given the enormous honour of being asked to go to the United Nations with Nadia, where she was made a UN goodwill ambassador for the victims of people trafficking by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It was while I was in New York that I met a remarkable man—Dr Michael Blume from the State Government of Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Dr Blume runs what is known as the special quota programme, a scheme that has taken approximately 1,100 Yazidi women and their children to Germany so that they can receive specialist psychological treatment as well as get the much-needed physical and emotional support that will assist them in their recovery. Working alongside Dr Blume is Dr Jan Kizilhan, who this year was the joint winner of the Geneva summit’s international women’s rights award for what was described as his “extraordinary and inspiring” work in rescuing Yazidi and other women who had been enslaved, assaulted and sexually abused by Daesh.

Together, Drs Blume and Kizilhan have taken some of the most terribly damaged and vulnerable women and children out of northern Iraq and are currently providing them with treatment they could not have had if they had stayed there. As Dr Blume explained, part of the problem is that there are only 25 psychologists in the whole of northern Iraq and the vast majority of them are male and Muslim, meaning that a heavily traumatised Yazidi woman would not want to be treated by them.

Let me be clear that I am not demanding that the UK Government adopt the Baden- Württemberg model lock, stock and barrel, but what I am saying to the Government is, “Please look at what can be done by an Administration with the desire and willingness to make things happen”. The Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg, Mr Kretschmann, said when launching the scheme:

“This is an exercise in humanity, not in politics”.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)

How we deal with the plight of these innocent Yazidi women and children speaks to our collective attitude to supporting the rights and safety of religious minorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that more than ever we must commit to helping these poor women and children and say that we will always stand with those who are so vulnerable?

Brendan O’Hara

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We must commit to helping. We cannot stand by and leave it to others to take up what is a very challenging position.

I would like to point out briefly how the Baden-Württemberg scheme works. Dr Kizilhan, himself a German-Yazidi, and his team go to northern Iraq to identify women and children they believe they can best help. The selection is based on the following criteria: first, whether the woman or girl has escaped from Daesh captivity; secondly, whether there is clear evidence of severe abuse and psychological damage from their period of captivity; and, thirdly, whether treatment in Germany will help, beyond what is available locally. If those three criteria are met, with the approval of the Kurdish Regional Government the women and her children are offered refuge and intensive treatment in Germany. As I said, there are currently 1,100 former Daesh sex slaves, both women and children, in the Baden-Württemberg area—the youngest is eight, the oldest is 55 and the average age is about 19.

In Germany, once the women and children are sufficiently settled in shelters, they receive not only specialist trauma counselling but German language lessons, and for those who are of school age it is compulsory for them to attend school. I understand from what I have read that the results of the programme are very encouraging. Indeed, some of the women now have jobs and are able rent their own apartments. Admittedly, recovery varies considerably, and for some it will take much longer, but Dr Blume told me that in Germany they have not had a single case of suicide, whereas in the camps in Iraq suicide among traumatised women is, tragically, fairly common.

This is a programme that works and I believe that the Government would do well to look at it very closely, to see how this country can directly help those innocent victims of Daesh. When we spoke in September in New York, Dr Blume was clear that any Government or Administration wishing to establish a programme to help these women and children would be welcome to avail themselves of the tried and tested model currently in place. Germany provides a safe haven for the women and children, and I can see absolutely no reason why the United Kingdom cannot also do that.

Graham Jones

My experiences last week showed me that a lot of the Yazidi women are traumatised because their children have been taken off them. All of a family’s members are not located in the camps—they did not escape together. One of the psychological problems the women have is coming to terms with the fact that some of their children remained in Mosul and were sold on as sex slaves, and they do not know where they are. They do not want to be located further away from Mosul. They want to be located back there, so that they can go and find those children, who are being repeat sold on as sex slaves.

Brendan O’Hara

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It comes down to choice. The women are given the choice to go to Germany; they are not forcibly taken there. Many women who apply do not go; likewise, many women who could go choose not to.

As I said at the start of my speech, it looks increasing likely that the people of Mosul, having been held captive by Daesh for more than two years, could be liberated within weeks. In the immediate aftermath, there will be an urgent need to care for civilians fleeing the fighting. In that maelstrom, we must ensure that the Yazidi women and children, who have been most wickedly and cruelly affected by Daesh, are given the care they urgently require and deserve. If learning from what others have done is the best way to do it, I urge the Government to do that and to act quickly and decisively.

As I understand it—the Minister can confirm this—the Government’s policy for victims of modern slavery recognises that up to two and a half years of discretionary leave to remain can be given precisely in such cases as that of the Yazidis. If that is the case, I urge her to move quickly to ensure that the United Kingdom becomes a safe haven for those victims.

Time is running out. I hope that the liberation of Mosul is near, but let us be honest: if we do not do something now, we will not do anything. If we do not do anything, history will be our judge, and I predict it will pass a particularly harsh judgment on us.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sarah Newton)

This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I will not have the opportunity to answer every point in these 10 minutes. I will ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development respond to some of the specific questions. I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for securing this debate on an incredibly important subject. To hear about the plight of the Yazidi people at the hands of Daesh is utterly harrowing. We must do all we can to support the victims and defeat the vile perpetrators.

It is inspiring to hear about the case of Nadia Murad, who survived such appalling abuse and is now using her freedom to raise awareness about these terrible crimes. Nadia’s Initiative is working to ensure that all marginalised communities subject to mass atrocities, sexual enslavement and human trafficking can have a global voice and get the support they need. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman invited Nadia to speak in Parliament earlier this year and attended her appointment in New York as the first United Nations goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.

Tackling modern slavery, which includes human trafficking, is a top priority for this Government. The enforced sexual slavery of Yazidi women by Daesh is a particularly horrendous example, but sadly modern slavery is a global problem that exists all around the world, including our country. That is why just three weeks ago at the Vatican the Home Secretary announced a new modern slavery innovation fund of up to £11 million. It will be used to test innovative programmes to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery, particularly in those countries from which we see the greatest number of victims in the UK. That is also why we have announced a new child trafficking protection fund of up to £3 million, which will primarily fund work in the UK to support victims of child trafficking from aid-eligible countries.

Both funds are primarily seeking innovative ideas and are open to bids from organisations in the private, public and third sectors. Both funds form part of the £33.5-million UK aid programme that the Prime Minister announced in July. Working with our partners, that investment will help to tackle the root causes of slavery. It will support effective co-ordination among international partners and help to uncover and test new ways to tackle this horrendous crime.

Brendan O’Hara rose—

Sarah Newton

I will just make a bit more progress.

The hon. Gentleman talked about what more we could be doing right now for the several thousand women he identified who are in Mosul. While I totally agree with him, we need to be focused on defeating Daesh and bringing lasting peace to these countries. Clearly there is more that we need to do right now. Through our human rights and democracy fund, we are supporting projects on the ground in Mosul that are particularly targeted to support those members of the Yazidi community, whether male or female, who have been exposed to the most appalling sexual violence, as the hon. Gentleman said. That work is reaching several thousand people right now.

We have a long and proud tradition of bringing people into our country who seek refuge. There will be the possibility of the victims of this awful sexual exploitation coming to our country, but our priority is to support those communities on the ground now. As Members have said, people want to stay in their communities and their homes.

Brendan O’Hara rose—

Graham Jones rose—

Sarah Newton

I will give way once I have finished this point. We are providing psychiatric help and all sorts of other help on the ground to the people who have experienced these horrendous things.

Brendan O’Hara

Will the Minister accept the voice of experience that says that specialist treatment for the most traumatised victims of Daesh is not available on the ground and that there has to be something more than just saying, “We can deal with this problem in northern Iraq”? We have a responsibility to ensure that we give them the best, and the best is not in northern Iraq.

Sarah Newton

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to provide good psychological and other support for people in Mosul right now. My understanding is that the available DFID funding is being put in place. I am sure that more can be done. Because we have so little time this morning, I will ensure that the DFID Minister who is funding this work writes to the hon. Gentleman and other Members who have raised the issue this morning to ensure that we communicate exactly what is happening on the ground, including the amount of money, support and specialists we are sending over there to support local people in delivering these things.

Graham Jones

I concur with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara). There are very few mental health services. There are also very few non-governmental organisations operating in the field of mental health services in northern Iraq, as he said. It is a huge problem. The first thing the British Government could do to try to resolve the situation is ensure that the Yazidis are kept in a Yazidi camp, with other populations, such as Arabs—the Yazidis may fear them due to the mental issues and torment they have experienced—located in a different camp. At the moment, they are in the same camp, and that is proving exceedingly destructive. The first thing the British Government and the Minister could do is ensure that Yazidis are looked after in a camp of their own.

Sarah Newton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We are part of a global coalition of 67 countries working hard to support the Iraqi Government as Mosul is liberated to ensure that civilians are protected and the humanitarian impact is minimised. We are also looking at long-term programmes of reconciliation and peace in the area. Good progress is being made, with several dozen settlements already set up.

I happened to visit a fantastic NGO in my constituency on Friday, called ShelterBox, where I met someone who is a frequent visitor to Iraq. ShelterBox is part of the team of British NGOs setting up new camps literally as we speak. Its intention is to provide support in a co-ordinated way. With people flooding out of Mosul, it wants to ensure that each of those communities is properly looked after, with all the issues about their different faith backgrounds and the levels of trauma they have faced properly taken into consideration. I heard at first hand from people who are in Iraq and are going to Iraq—I hope they have arrived safely today—about the work that is going on. The best thing I can do is ask the Secretary of State for International Development to provide the quantum of the activity that is going on. Members will appreciate that it is a fast-moving, dynamic situation, but we will ensure that they get the latest information about the number of people going there, the type of support and the specialist provision that has been called for that focuses on the Yazidis.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked another important question, which was about whether we would be doing everything we can to ensure that data and evidence are being gathered so that we can secure prosecutions. I reassure him that we are doing everything to collect and preserve evidence so that it can be used by judicial bodies to make a judgment about the atrocities that have been taking place. Any UK nationals who have gone there and are participating in those atrocities can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in our domestic courts. Our absolute priority is to do our best to support the victims now. It is important that we send out a clear message that people cannot act with impunity. The appalling atrocities will be dealt with and people will be brought to justice. I hope that reassures Members that we take this matter extremely seriously and are doing everything we can to help the victims of the appalling situation in Iraq.

Question put and agreed to.