James Cleverly MP, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, makes a statement to the House of Commons on the situation in Sudan.
The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (James Cleverly)
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the situation in Sudan.
Thirteen days ago, intense fighting broke out in Khartoum. The conflict quickly spread across the country, and was being waged on residential streets in Omdurman, El Fasher in Darfur, and other Sudanese cities, until a US-led ceasefire was accepted by both sides. I am proud that we contributed to calling for that ceasefire, and we will continue to do our utmost to secure a lasting peace, but I remind the House that we anticipate that the ceasefire will end tonight at midnight local Sudanese time. I commend the hard work of officials from across Government and the military, not only those on the ground in Sudan but those who have been working day and night in our crisis response centre in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Their extraordinary efforts have been an inspiration to me and to all those who have taken the opportunity to visit them over the last few days.
The struggle for power between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has killed hundreds of Sudanese citizens and threatens to claim the lives, sadly, of many more. This is a monumental tragedy—one with the potential to destabilise not just Sudan but the wider region. It is therefore in our interests, and more importantly those of the people of Sudan, to secure a peaceful and sustainable settlement as quickly as possible. However, our ability, and that of all outside powers, to determine the course of events within Sudan is limited. What is within our power is the safe extraction of as many British nationals as practically possible. I am pleased to confirm to the House that the supported departure of British nationals from Sudan, facilitated by the UK, started on Tuesday. As of yesterday evening, six flights carrying 536 people had landed safely in Cyprus. More flights continue today, so that number is rising, and I will ensure that I find the opportunity to give updates to the House.
A ceasefire is due to elapse at midnight local time, and no one can predict the situation on the ground after that. We are encouraging those who wish to travel to make their way to the airport today. We will continue to engage with our international partners to attempt to extend the ceasefire and bring a permanent end to the violence, and I will of course keep the House updated on developments on that front. For those on the ground, as Members would expect, we are prioritising those in greatest need by allocating seats based on vulnerability, starting with families with children, the elderly, the disabled or people with documented medical conditions. We have been notifying British nationals registered with us about the evacuation flights, as well as announcing them through our travel advice and organic social media networks of British nationals in Sudan.
We are working with the Home Office, UK Border Force and FCDO staff on the ground to facilitate clearances for those boarding the flights, and we will continue to co-ordinate intensively with our international partners. Several countries without a diplomatic presence in Sudan have requested that we assist their nationals.
We are energetically exploring options regarding how best to do this without compromising our duty to British nationals.
A ceasefire is not necessarily a prelude to peace and the situation could deteriorate over the coming days. We will continue to support British nationals, which is why we have established a temporary presence in Port Sudan on the Red sea coast and have put consular officials on the border points in Egypt, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. Sudan is the third largest country in Africa. It is more than 800 miles from the capital to Aswan in Egypt and over 500 miles from Khartoum to the Red sea. Even if there were not a war, Sudan’s vastness makes the logistics of moving large numbers of people extraordinarily challenging. We are aware of a number of British nationals who have now left Sudan by other means, including some who were able to join evacuations led by our international partners. We are working with our diplomatic missions in the countries where they are arriving to provide consular assistance where required.
Although we are making every effort to evacuate our nationals, peace in Sudan will also be a key objective. We call on both sides to end the killing for the sake of the people of Sudan. They have already suffered enough, after decades of civil war. We are pursuing all diplomatic avenues to end the violence and de-escalate tension. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary, the Development Minister and I are in regular touch with our international partners. The role of the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and our partners in the region, in the Gulf and beyond will of course be critical.
The United Kingdom has profound ties and a historic friendship with the people of Sudan. We stand in solidarity with them and their right to demand a peaceful and democratic future and a return to civilian rule. When conditions allow, the UK is ready to join international efforts to rebuild the Sudanese economy and ease human suffering. That will not be easy, but it is vital for the region, and of course for Sudan, that we try. We will bring as many of our nationals as possible to safety, and we can and will play a pivotal part in rebuilding that great and ancient country. I commend this statement to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement, and the briefings that he and his officials have provided. The ceasefire announced on Monday night opened a crucial window in which to evacuate UK nationals and pause the needless bloodshed. I place on record Labour’s sincere thanks to our brave armed forces and tireless FCDO staff. None of us doubts the complexity and very challenging circumstances of this operation. The whole House sincerely hopes for its success.
We welcome the fact that more than 500 UK nationals have now boarded planes out of Sudan, but just hours of the ceasefire remain, and 500 is only a quarter of those who we know have registered with the FCDO. The true number of British citizens in Sudan is closer to 4,000. Amid the very welcome stories of families reunited, there are tales of real concern: there are those unable to reach the airfield because of violence on the route; there are patchy official communications; and there are British citizens travelling hours overland only to find the borders closed.
Yesterday, The Times reported that a British doctor is stuck at home with a bullet wound in his leg and dwindling supplies of antibiotics after the Government rejected his 86-year-old mother’s request for a temporary visa. It is not right that British nationals should be unable to leave because their close Sudanese family members are excluded from safe passage, especially as we know that planes have left the airfield without being full. I urge the Foreign Secretary to take swift action to ensure that British citizens can travel with their family now.
We all hope that the ceasefire will hold, but there is every chance that it will not. How confident is the Foreign Secretary that all who want to be evacuated will be by the time the ceasefire expires at midnight? What are the prospects for an extension? Will flights continue tomorrow anyway? What planning is under way to create alternative routes out of the country, should fighting return to Khartoum?
In the coming weeks, the Government will face legitimate questions about their handling of the crisis. Germany ran the Wadi Saeedna airfield when the UK’s initial diplomatic evacuation operation was completed and stood down. The Germans managed to evacuate 700 people from over 30 countries before our evacuation of UK nationals had properly begun. Why did other countries choose to evacuate nationals straight away when there was no ceasefire in place, while we chose not to? Why were both the ambassador and the deputy ambassador reportedly out of the country when fighting broke out? Why are Hercules aircraft, which have been used in two airlifts in two years, still set to be scrapped? And the elephant in the room: which lessons of the Afghan evacuation have been learned and properly implemented?
The immediate priority of the British Government is rightly to ensure that as many UK nationals as possible can leave quickly and safely, but we must not allow the world’s gaze to turn away from Sudan once foreign nationals have left. Sudan is at risk of lurching into deeper crisis—a crisis that its people did not make or deserve. They face the threat of intense fighting, dwindling supplies of food and water, and a wider humanitarian catastrophe. As I heard at first hand on my visit to Kenya this week, there is real concern that fighting could bubble over and cross borders, amplifying this conflict and human suffering. While we press the Government on their vital efforts to support British nationals abroad, we will continue to press for action to end the bloodshed of the people of Sudan and the wider region.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, particularly for his kind and thoughtful words about the military and other officials on the ground who are supporting British nationals in their evacuation. I also commend him on the tone that he has taken; he rightly pushes the Government and holds us to account, but is also being constructive and supportive of our first priority: the protection and evacuation of British nationals, where possible.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly spoke about communications. Communication with British nationals in Sudan remains a significant challenge. The mobile phone network is inconsistent and often down, the internet likewise. We have used multiple channels, including telephone calls, SMS messaging, and cascading information through organically created WhatsApp groups that existed before the conflict, but communications remain a huge challenge.
That brings me to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the total number of British nationals in Sudan. The UK does not routinely request that British nationals inform us when they are overseas. We did so when this conflict started, but just as it is difficult for us to communicate with British nationals in Sudan, it is very difficult in many cases for them to communicate back to us. We know that a number will have made their own arrangements for leaving Sudan. It is not possible for us to have an accurate assessment of how many have done so at this point. We hope to do so as they get in contact with us from third countries. We will continue to push information in whatever ways we can to the people we are seeking to help in country.
On an extension to the ceasefire, we are pushing hard for that. We are amplifying the voices of those in the region and more widely that a ceasefire is in the best interests of Sudan. I say here at the Dispatch Box to either of the generals, who might be watching this statement, that if they aspire to be the leader of Sudan, demonstrating a willingness to protect the people of Sudan would be an important starting point. We will continue to push, but it is almost impossible for us to predict whether there will be an extension and what the circumstances might be like if the extension does not happen. We will endeavour to keep evacuating people through the airhead in Wadi Saeedna, but we cannot guarantee our ability to do so. We are exploring the support to other routes, which is why we have set up a temporary presence at Port Sudan, and it is why we have officials at the border in neighbouring countries.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a couple of specific questions about members of staff who were in the embassy when the conflict started. The head of mission, our ambassador, was out of the country at the time, but we have a well-established chain of command passing-on process, and the formal No. 2 in the embassy was in command and control of the embassy when this initiated. The fact that the ambassador was able to plug in to the crisis response centre in the UK was invaluable. The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about C-130 Hercules. The simple truth is that they are an old airframe. There are newer and better aircraft that will be replacing their functions.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that in parallel with our evacuation operations, we have to work on the immediate and long-term stability of Sudan and make every effort to prevent this conflict from spilling over into neighbouring countries and destabilising the region, and we will continue to do so.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
I place on record my gratitude to the Foreign Office staff, those on the rapid deployment teams, those in the crisis centre, our armed forces and Border Force. May I also point out how unacceptable it is that some media have been outside not just the homes of civil servants who are not senior civil servants, but their parents’ homes? That is utterly unacceptable, and I urge the Foreign Office to make clear to the media that that cannot continue.
Moving back to the crisis on the ground, when the ceasefire was agreed, the clock began for how we would make sure that hostilities did not return from midnight tonight. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give me that we will not see westerners removed and the Sudanese left to face appalling violence? The point was made just now about our criteria for evacuation, and I urge my right hon. Friend to please review them. The reality is that we treat children as dependents, but very elderly, sick parents should also be treated as dependents. On the specific case that was just raised, the family have made their way to the airstrip, after my suggestion that they travelled. The NHS doctor has had to receive emergency medical treatment at the airstrip under local anaesthesia because of how advanced the infection was following his having been shot. He has not been allowed on the flight that departed about three minutes ago, because he wanted to take his mother with him. I urge the Government that we have the ability to change the criteria. I cannot quite determine whether it is the Foreign Office or Home Office who have determined the criteria, but a key recommendation from Afghanistan was to recognise that dependents are also the elderly and not just the young.
I am grateful to my honourable friend for echoing those words of support for our officials both on the ground and at home. It is completely inappropriate that people who have dedicated their lives to public service and have operated through incredibly intense situations should be hounded by the press in that way, and I call for responsible journalism in all respects.
I recognise that my hon. Friend has personal experience of some of the complexities of consular work from her life before politics and I always listen carefully to her suggestions and recommendations, which I know are all made with a genuine desire to improve the situation. There is a real challenge about extending the criteria for who we evacuate; we instinctively desire to be as generous as possible, but we must ensure that we discharge our primary duty to British nationals and the traditionally recognised dependents. I understand the point she makes about more elderly members of the family and of course we will look at what we can do to be as supportive as possible.
How many others we might be able to take is entirely dependent, as I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary a few moments ago, on whether we can get the ceasefire to stick and on our ability to continue the evacuation if the ceasefire collapses. We will keep all those decisions under review in the regular Cobra meetings that we hold.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
I call the SNP spokesperson.
Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. He is right that we must do everything we can to ensure a lasting peace and he is right to praise the performance of the men and women of the armed forces and others who have facilitated evacuations so far. However, time is of the essence. The Minister for Development and Africa said on TV last night that we cannot guarantee how many further flights will depart once the ceasefire ends, adding that,
“we hope there will be enough capacity to…get them all out”.
With the numbers arriving at evacuation points doubling or even trebling, why are we relying on hope rather than action?
The Minister also admitted on TV, when asked about safe and legal routes for Sudanese refugees, that they “don’t exist”. Will the Foreign Secretary comment on that? What is the current status of people who have fled from Sudan to neighbouring countries to escape the violence? Bordering countries such as Ethiopia, Chad and the Central African Republic have already become politically insecure. What are his plans to ensure that people fleeing here will be safeguarded?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Development and Africa is right that we will endeavour to continue to support British nationals in their evacuation when, or if, the ceasefire is not extended. We are one of only three nations in the world that have established an airhead in the vicinity of Khartoum to facilitate air evacuations. We, the French and the Germans are the only three countries in the world to have done so and that has allowed our aircraft and the aircraft of a wide number of other countries to airlift their nationals out. However, no one can guarantee what will happen when the ceasefire comes to an end.
With regard to the wider push of refugees because of this conflict, I remind the SNP spokesperson and the House that Sudan is not the only live conflict in the world. I know it is at the forefront of many people’s minds, and it is therefore completely legitimate that he asks questions specifically about it—[Interruption.] If he stops interrupting, he might hear, and I will answer his questions. Now that the Illegal Migration Bill has, despite his attempts to thwart it, gone through its parliamentary stages in the Commons, we will, as we have promised, establish safe and legal routes as part of our plan to control illegal migration. Further details will come through.
With regard to preventing regional instability, we remain closely aligned with the African Union and our partners in the region, with whom I speak regularly, to try to ensure that the conflict does not escalate and spill over into neighbouring countries.
Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Ind)
This country will always play its part in providing sanctuary to those fleeing war, and I thank the Government for their actions in Sudan to date. Is my right hon. Friend able to confirm that the UK is indeed the fourth-largest recipient of individuals from Sudan through those routes operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that those routes will remain open for as long as feasibly possible?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This country has a long-standing reputation for and tradition of hospitality and generosity to those from around the world who are fleeing individual persecution or violence, and we have demonstrated that time and again. There have been tens of thousands of people who have come to the UK using safe and legal routes over the last few years since we have been in government, and we will continue to establish safe and legal routes. Our ability to do so will be enhanced by the legislation that he, I and our colleagues voted on last night.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
I am grateful that constituents have been airlifted out and I thank the teams who have worked so hard on that. Can I raise with the Foreign Secretary the plight of those stuck because they are waiting for visas? A constituent’s partner has been in Khartoum for more than a year now, waiting for UK Visas and Immigration to handle her visa in the east Africa processing centre. She has now had to flee to Uganda, another very dangerous journey. Will the Foreign Secretary impress on the Home Office that its backlog has been pushing people into further dangerous situations?
I will ensure that I pass on the hon. Lady’s concerns. I pay tribute to the intense work that Border Force and Home Office staff have done in conjunction with officials from my Department, the Ministry of Defence and others to try to ensure that we facilitate as quick a flow of British nationals and their dependants out of war-torn Sudan as we can, and we will continue to do that work.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
I commend my right hon. Friend on the progress he is making and the calm way in which he is operating in very difficult circumstances. Clearly, we have a large number of UK nationals in Sudan and it is difficult for them to move around, let alone be airlifted out. What actions is he taking to enable our citizens to get away from Sudan by road or sea, if that is what they wish to do?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. One challenge is that our travel advice must enhance the safety of British nationals overseas and not inadvertently put them at greater risk. There is often a lag between our finding out information, broadcasting it and its being acted on. One of the things that we have seen—not directly because of the advice that the UK has given, but the advice that other Governments have given—is that inadvertently people have been called into more dangerous circumstances and come under attack. We have to give general advice. We have given the advice that we have the airhead operating in Wadi Saeedna, and we have officials at Port Sudan and at the border crossing points of nearby countries. We cannot recommend safe routes. We cannot advise at that level of granularity because that advice may be out of date and therefore counterproductive by the time it is acted on.
Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm what is happening to those visiting Sudan on refugee travel documents? To echo what the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) said, how long does he estimate it will take to process those people who were waiting for papers from the consulate in Sudan?
Ultimately, the processing of visas is a Home Office function. We are working closely with the Home Office, but I am not able to give her those details. The prioritisation that we have broadcast is to discharge our duty to support British nationals and their immediate dependants. I will of course make sure that my Home Office colleagues are aware of the hon. Lady’s question.
Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
The FCDO is rightly focusing on the immediate need to evacuate nationals. For that they have my thanks and, I suspect, the thanks of everyone in the Chamber. When that is completed, however, we will leave behind a nation in conflict. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to galvanise international support, perhaps led by the African Union, to help to end the bloodshed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That action is happening in parallel with our evacuation options. I have spoken directly to one of the generals and spoken through intermediaries to express my views to the other. I know that our action replicates the actions of our international partners, particularly those in the immediate region who have influence. We must push for peace in Sudan. The country has suffered enough, and we must ensure the conflict we are now seeing does not spill over into nearby countries. In particular, we must ensure that malign actors do not interfere in the events in Sudan in order to turn this into a regional conflict.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for updating the House on what he is trying to do to extract British nationals in what is obviously a very difficult situation. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I am currently dealing with the case of a constituent. My constituent’s husband, who is in Sudan, has been waiting 15 months for documentation to join her and for the family reunion visa to be processed. His passport is currently with the British embassy, which took it as part of the application process, and he is now stranded in Sudan.
When my office inquired about the situation, it received the standard reply that there is no timescale for dealing with the application. I appreciate that the Home Office is the lead Department in this situation, but surely we should have concern for all the people who are in this predicament. From what we have heard already, I suspect a lot of Members will raise this issue. We should have concern for all these people; we need to know there will be some attention to their situation.
As I have said in response to previous questions, the issuing of visas is a Home Office function, but its officials work in close co-ordination—often physically close—with officials from my Department. There is the ability to issue temporary travel documents in lieu of a passport. Obviously, I cannot comment on the specific details of the case he raises, but the traditional functions of the Home Office and the FCDO will continue in parallel with the additional function of evacuation. Where appropriate and where they conform to the criteria we have set, we will continue to facilitate the issuing of family reunion visas. That is one of the reasons we have established a diplomatic presence not only in Port Sudan but in nearby countries.
Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. It is now just under 10 hours 45 minutes until the ceasefire ends, so speed is of the essence. I thank him for the statement about the aircraft that have left, taking so many hundreds out, but surely shipborne evacuation would provide us with volume as well. Will ships be going to Port Sudan and elsewhere to get people out of Sudan?
The short answer is that we have, as a pre-emptive measure, diverted a Royal Navy vessel towards Port Sudan; that decision was made a number of days ago. We do not envisage that it will be used as a ferry, a relief platform or anything like that, but it will give us command and control capability and a protective platform in the region. We have also put forward a team of officials from across Government to facilitate the onward passage of people who get to Port Sudan. As I say, we already have diplomatic presence, which has been enhanced in Ethiopia, Egypt and across the Red sea in Saudi Arabia.
Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
I just want to put it on record how refreshing it is to see a Secretary of State appear to make a statement himself. I do hope that other Departments can follow his lead.
There has been a puzzling story, put around by German politicians, that in some way our rescue efforts have hampered their own attempts to extract their own citizens. Secondly, there is a story that our soldiers did not have permission to land in Sudan. Could the Secretary of State throw any light on those stories?
I can assure the House that I have a very productive bilateral relationship with my German opposite number. We speak regularly and have been in pretty constant text communication throughout this. I want to put on the record my huge gratitude to her, and through her the German military, who helped to facilitate the evacuation of British nationals and others. We have been working very well.
I see the concerns raised in the press; none of them have been directly raised with me. From the regular conversations I have with the Defence Secretary, it is not my understanding that at any point we flew without permissions, nor that that had a negative knock-on effect on others. I will, of course, in the near future, have the opportunity to have an extended conversation with my German opposite number. If there are any lessons that we need to learn about the complexity of operations like this, we will do so. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they have not been raised with me.
Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
I am sure we all share the deepest concern for the people of Sudan who are suffering this unfolding tragedy, as they have suffered so much tragedy in the past 20 years. We will have time in the future to debate why we failed to have a transition to civilian government in Sudan, but now we have the immediate issue of UK citizens trying to flee. One question that has not yet been raised is about the British and other international citizens stuck on the land border with Egypt, some of whom are in acute medical need. What is the Foreign Office doing to facilitate and work with the Egyptian Government to ensure that those citizens can traverse that land border and seek safety?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I remain in regular contact with my Egyptian opposite number. I have spoken to him directly a number of times during this operation and, as is the nature of modern diplomacy, we are in pretty regular text communication as well. I know he will have been made aware of the situation at the Sudanese-Egyptian border. I am planning to speak to him again at some point in the near future—either today or early tomorrow—and this will be one of the issues that we discuss. As I say, we have put forward an enhanced consular presence from the FCDO in those neighbouring countries to help to facilitate border crossings, which are always tricky, particularly during times of conflict.
Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement this afternoon. Like many other Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about friends and close family members who find themselves stuck in this terrible situation out in Sudan. Further to the questions raised by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), can I ask whether the Foreign Office is considering reviewing the eligibility criteria and, in particular, whether any consideration has been given to Sudanese passport holders who have entry clearance to the UK, be they students or other individuals, and whether there is any capacity to evacuate those individuals as well?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his praise of the work that officials across Government have done on this. I do not want to pre-empt any decisions by Cobra. We will of course look at the criteria, which we have kept constantly under review to ensure we are able to discharge our duty to support British nationals, which is the primary duty of the Government. I would make the broader point that if we were to change the eligibility, we would need to do so in a non-discriminatory way. We would not necessarily be able to say, “Sudanese people who—”; it would just need to be, “Foreign nationals who—”. That could potentially create an unsustainable degree of demand for evacuations that we might not be able to address. However, we always look at these things very carefully. We want to ensure that we not only discharge our duty to British nationals, but remain, as we have been, a generous at heart nation.
Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
On the point about safe and legal routes, there are, of course, no safe and legal routes for people to come to the United Kingdom. In fact, in 2022, Sudanese nationality was among the five highest for the number of people travelling in small boats across the channel. Has the Foreign Secretary had any conversations with the Home Secretary about establishing safe and legal routes in the light of this particular crisis, and in the light of the vote last night on the Illegal Migration Bill, which means that anyone arriving irregularly, in the United Kingdom after 7 March which people in small boats will be counted as, will be detained and sent to a third country, which I assume the Government would say is Rwanda?
I think the right hon. Lady meant to say that there are no current safe and legal routes established from Sudan. She said in her question that there were no safe and legal routes, but of course there are many specific to Sudan.
Let me also point out that Sudan is not the only conflict zone in the world. The Bill on which the House voted last night contains an explicit commitment to establishing safe and legal routes in parallel with ensuring that the people who come here illegally are administered quickly, fairly and efficiently, and it is right that we do both. Ultimately, establishing those safe and legal routes will be a Government decision, led by the Home Office with input from other Departments such as mine, and that is a discussion that we will of course have.
Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
Reports have shown that people operating fake Twitter accounts are impersonating key players in this conflict, and are being legitimised by the recently introduced subscription service on the platform. One tweet falsely reporting the death of the RSF leader gained more than 1 million views before being removed. What consideration has been given to the role that social media plays in spreading misinformation about this conflict, putting lives and operations at risk as a result?
The hon. Lady has raised an incredibly important point. I cannot express the level of frustration I feel with what seems in many instances to be proactively and intentionally dishonest messaging. As I said to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) earlier, the passage of information to British nationals and others is extremely difficult, and if it goes wrong or is manipulated by bad faith actors, it could put British nationals and others in enhanced danger.
I do not have an answer for the hon. Lady here and now, but she is right to raise this issue. It is a classic example of why we have to be very careful and check the provenance of information, and I would advise all people to do that, particularly if they are about to make life-and-death decisions based on it.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
May I have some real clarity from the Foreign Secretary about people who are not British nationals but who are nevertheless in the position of one of my constituents? My constituent has been working for Public Health Wales for the last two years and living in my constituency, and they went to Sudan to celebrate Eid with their family. They are now trapped there and, I understand, are being told that they will not get help from the British Government enabling them to return to their home and workplace in my constituency. Is that the Foreign Secretary’s policy, and if it is, can he change it forthwith?
The eligibility criteria have been part of our travel advice throughout this situation. I completely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but, as I said earlier, we cannot expand the criteria just for those mentioned by Members. To do so could substantially and unsustainably increase the number of people to whom we have given the implication that we could evacuate them. As I have said, the window is limited, the ability to evacuate beyond that is completely unpredictable, and we have a duty to ensure that we do everything we can to evacuate British nationals and dependants as per the criteria already published.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
We have all watched Sudan’s descent into civil war with horror, but for the Sudanese diaspora in Britain and British nationals in Sudan this is a time of immense trauma and suffering, recalling the trauma and suffering involved in the evacuation of Kabul. The situation is different, but the casework that I am seeing and what we are hearing today are very familiar. The Secretary of State says that visas are not his responsibility. Will he confirm that he is working with the Home Office, as a matter of urgency, to establish a consistent and humane approach to those who do not have the requisite travel documents? That includes babies born recently, spouses in the process of applying for visas, and, as we have heard, people who live here and are on holiday in Sudan.
It is inevitable that comparisons will be made between this operation and the evacuation from Kabul, but they are fundamentally different. The operation we have conducted—both the initial military operation to evacuate our diplomatic staff and those of other nations, and then the ongoing airlift of British nationals and their dependants from Wadi Saeedna—is fundamentally different from the situation in Kabul. As I have said, I am very proud of the fact that we are one of the three framework nations who have facilitated the operation from Wadi Saeedna, which has allowed the French, German, British and others to airlift people out. We will of course always make sure we protect the vulnerable where we can; I have said that in my statement and it is reflected in the travel advice. Ultimately our duty is towards British nationals and their dependants, and we have of course facilitated the evacuation of Sudanese nationals who are dependants of British nationals.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I thank the Secretary of State for his determination and leadership at a time when we look to him for that. Some 512 people have died and thousands have been injured since the power struggle began two weeks ago. The Foreign Secretary has urged all UK nationals to leave before the ceasefire ends at 12 o’clock tonight. I understand, and the Secretary of State can of course confirm this, that a number of UK nationals could still be left behind due to poor mobile phone contact or due to embassy staff not being available—that is not their fault, by the way; it is just about contact for people. I believe we have a duty to ensure protection for each and every one, and I know the Secretary of State also believes that, so what will he do to protect those UK nationals who were not fortunate enough to get out in time?
The airhead at Wadi Saeedna is one of our preferred options; that is why we made the commitment to be one of the three framework nations to facilitate the use of that airbase. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to identify the fact that it is very difficult for us to make any kind of commitment beyond the ceasefire. One of the best things we can do to protect British nationals in Sudan is try to make sure the ceasefire continues, and we work incredibly hard, both directly and with partners and regional powerbases, to facilitate that and bring a lasting peace. Even if the airhead is no longer operational, there will be other routes out, and our presence at the borders and at Port Sudan will be to facilitate that. We will keep communicating best advice on evacuation and keep-safe options through all channels, notwithstanding the point I made earlier that communication remains incredibly difficult.
Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
I have been reading reports about two NHS doctors who have been denied passage on planes evacuating from Sudan, and that struck me, because I have constituents who are NHS doctors themselves who are in Sudan with their young children. I am therefore very keen to hear what the plan is in relation to NHS doctors. I do not believe for one minute that the general public would expect that they will be abandoned by this Government to their peril in Sudan. How many children who are British nationals are in Sudan and not yet on one of the planes? What will the Foreign Secretary do to maintain proper food and water supplies for British nationals, and how does he plan to get these children home?
As I said in response to the initial question from the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), it is not possible for the UK, or indeed any other country, to know exactly how many of their nationals are in Sudan, or any other country. We do not demand that British nationals register with the Government when they are overseas. We have put out a “register your presence” website, which gives us some idea, but no Government in the world can say what the numbers are with certainty. Indeed, people who have registered on that “register your presence” website may well have already left. That is why no one can give a complete figure on the number of nationals in Sudan. We have pumped out messages across a wide range of channels letting people know that the airhead exists and we have called them forward. We will make sure that British national children, and of course dependants of British nationals, are airlifted out. Even if we are not able to maintain that airlift capability from Wadi Saeedna, we have a presence at the borders; we have a presence in Saudi Arabia and in Port Sudan.