We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to update the House on the desperate plight of Burma’s Rohingya in the week that the UN fact-finding mission on Burma has reported to the Human Rights Council with its interim findings.
The international community has repeatedly called on the Burmese authorities to allow the fact-finding mission to enter Burma. Regrettably, Burma continues to refuse access. Despite this, through interviewing Rohingya refugees in both Bangladesh and Malaysia, the interim report has revealed credible evidence of the widespread and systematic abuse, rape and murder of Rohingya people, and the destruction of their homes and villages, primarily by the Burmese military. This is not only a human tragedy; it is a humanitarian catastrophe. Since August 2017, nearly 680,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in Bangladesh.
There have been some suggestions, including by the Foreign Affairs Committee, that the UK failed to see this crisis coming. With respect, I disagree with such a conclusion. Let us be clear about what has led to this current situation. The Rohingya have suffered persecution in Rakhine for decades. Such rights as they had have been progressively diminished under successive military Governments. They have been victims of systematic violence before, most recently in 2012 and in late 2016. On these more recent occasions, the Rohingya fled their homes—some to internally displaced person camps elsewhere in Rakhine, and some to other nations over land or sea. The outbreak of vicious hostility during the past six months is therefore only the latest episode in a long-lasting cycle of violence. We have been urging the Burmese civilian Government to take action to stop the situation deteriorating since they came to power two years ago. What was unprecedented and unforeseen about this most recent violence was its scale and intensity.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group has rightly noted that there is and can be no military solution alone to this crisis. The
I once again commend the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh for opening their doors to these desperate refugees. The UK remains one of the largest bilateral aid donors to the crisis. We have committed some £59 million in the past six months to help ensure the refugees’ immediate wellbeing. This includes £5 million of matched funding for the very generous public donations by British citizens to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Bangladesh last November and announced the latest UK package of support, including for survivors of sexual and other violence. We anticipate that the multi-agency plan for the next phase of humanitarian support, from March to the end of the year, will be published imminently. As the International Development Secretary confirmed during her Bangladesh visit, the UK is and will remain committed to the Rohingya now and, I suspect, for many years to come. At the end of last year, the UK Government deployed British doctors, nurses and firefighters from our emergency medical teams to Bangladesh to tackle an outbreak of deadly diphtheria in the refugee camps.
In northern Rakhine—within Burma’s borders—where humanitarian access remains severely restricted, the UK is providing £2 million of support via the World Food Programme and a further £1 million via the Red Cross, one of the few international organisations that has access to that part of Burma. We stand ready to do more as soon as we are permitted full access.
We continue to work tirelessly in co-operation with international partners to find a solution to this crisis, focusing international attention and pressure on the Burmese authorities and security forces. Since the final week of August, the UK has repeatedly raised the crisis as an issue for debate at the UN Security Council, most recently on
In November, the UK was instrumental in securing the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma for a decade, which delivered a very clear message that the Burmese authorities should protect all civilians within Burma, create the conditions for refugees to return and allow full humanitarian access in Rakhine state. Late last month, I was privileged to attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, where a programme of sanctions against senior Burmese military figures was outlined. I am glad to say that this was approved unanimously, and we hope to bring this work to the attention of the UN Security Council soon.
I know that many hon. Members remain very deeply committed to helping to resolve the appalling situation faced by the Rohingya community, and I welcome that continued engagement. I visited both countries in September, and I returned to Burma in November. During those visits, I met displaced Rohingya, but also Hindu and Buddhist communities in Rakhine, and heard harrowing accounts of human rights violations and abuses. It was clear that the communities remain very deeply divided, and there is still a palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust. At that time, I met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Minster for Defence and the deputy Foreign Minister to reiterate the urgent need to take action to end the violence and allow a path for the safe return of the refugees.
During his visit to Burma last month, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, pressed for the necessary steps to be taken to create the conditions conducive for the return of the refugees. He flew over Rakhine, and saw for himself the scale of the destruction—the ongoing destruction—of land and property there. He also visited Bangladesh, where he met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Ali, and visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar, where he heard distressing accounts from survivors, as well as their heartfelt hopes for a better future and their desire to return safely to Burma. Our visits have reinforced our determination to help resolve this appalling crisis.
I recognise that the House remains deeply committed to ensuring that the human rights of refugees, but particularly of the Rohingya, are protected, and we welcome the House’s resolution to that effect as recently as
Secondly, we must continue the patient work towards achieving a safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees. We shall press for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to oversee this process and ensure full verification of any returns on both sides of the border. As the globally mandated body, we believe the UNHCR remains the best equipped and most credible agency to oversee this very difficult process.
Thirdly, we must continue international progress towards bringing to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations, including sexual violence, in Rakhine. The international community has agreed to make the case to the Burmese authorities for a credible, transparent and independent inquiry. In my view, united international pressure will be essential in achieving that aim.
The UN fact-finding mission is a first and important step in what is likely to be a long road ahead. It produced its interim report on Monday, reflecting the violent, military-led, abhorrent actions against the Rohingya and other communities in Burma. We shall continue to support the mission’s important work, including urging Burma to allow it unrestricted access. We will also continue to provide support to build the capacity of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh to investigate properly and document sexual violence among Rohingya refugees.
As Canada’s special envoy to Burma, Bob Rae—I saw him at the Foreign Office only a few weeks ago—said,
“those responsible for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice”.
In my view, that applies to all involved: state and non-state actors, senior military personnel, and all individuals in authority. Yanghee Lee, The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, recently stated that the conflict had the “hallmarks of genocide”.
I must tell the House, however, that the only path to prosecution for genocide or crimes against humanity is via the International Criminal Court. It is a legal process. Burma is not a party to the Rome statute, and must therefore either refer itself to the Court, or be referred by the UN Security Council. I fear that neither eventuality is likely in the short term, but that should not stop us supporting those who continue to collate and collect evidence for use in any future prosecution.
Finally, to achieve a long-term resolution to the crisis in Burma, even in these desperate circumstances, the UK should play a leading role in trying to support a democratic transition and the promotion of freedom, tolerance and diversity. To do that, we will continue to engage, and support attempts peacefully to resolve many of Burma’s internal conflicts, and to bring all parts of state apparatus under democratic, civilian control. We stand ready to lead the international community in ensuring the implementation of Kofi Annan’s report from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. That crucial programme is designed to deliver development for the benefit of all the people of Rakhine state, including the Rohingya, and address the underlying causes of the current crisis. Above all, that includes reviewing the punitive 1982 citizenship law, and making progress on ensuring citizenship for the Rohingya, who are otherwise regarded by many as stateless. We must give them confidence that they have a future as fully-fledged citizens of Burma.
The situation in Burma serves as the clearest possible example of why our Government will continue to uphold their commitments to early warning and preventing the risk of atrocity crimes, in the context of broader conflict-prevention and peacebuilding work. It is vital that lessons from this human tragedy are used to prevent similar situations from developing in the future. I stand ready to work with Members from across the House, and with NGOs that have a real passion in this area, on getting a framework in place for the future.
The UK Government intend to remain in the vanguard of international action and to support a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts to help resolve this appalling situation. We shall continue to press Burma to facilitate the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya Muslims under UNHCR oversight, and also to address, properly and fully, the underlying causes of the violence. We shall not and must not lose sight of the fact that the Rohingya community have suffered for generations and will need our continued support to live the lives they choose. Neither will we fail to take account of the wider picture in Burma and the potential that sustained movement towards an open, democratic society offers to all its people. We shall push forward with persistence, focus and energy—it is our international and moral duty to do so. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for that clear and comprehensive update on the situation of the Rohingya, and for giving me advance sight of his statement. No one can doubt the effort and commitment that he and his officials in the Foreign Office and on the ground are putting into resolving this issue.
I also welcome several specific aspects of the Minister’s update. First, the interim report of the UN fact-finding mission—both in its level of detail about the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya and in the unflinching language it uses to describe those genocidal acts—is a vital first step in building a case against the individuals responsible. Secondly, I welcome the public’s generosity, and the Government’s continued commitment to providing humanitarian relief to the Rohingya refugees trapped in Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere. I applaud the tireless work of British medical professionals seeking to stop the spread of disease in the camps.
Thirdly, I welcome the Minister’s words on the role of UNHCR in ensuring a safe, dignified and voluntary return, and a sustainable future for those refugees. The international community must continue to put pressure on the Government in Myanmar to allow UNHCR to dictate when and how it will be appropriate to begin that repatriation process. Fourthly, I welcome the Minister’s continued support for the Kofi Annan report, and the vital long-term reforms it sets out to give full rights and lasting protection to the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Democratic and civil society development did not improve as we hoped two years ago, and only this week I heard also about 100,000 displaced people in Kachin state.
I welcome the progress that the Minister mentioned on agreeing EU-wide sanctions against leading Myanmar generals. Only two weeks ago, Foreign Office Ministers were avoiding a debate and voting down Labour’s Magnitsky amendments. I was therefore pleased that the Prime Minister expressed a change of heart yesterday, not least because we noticed that the United States used Magnitsky provisions to sanction one of the generals, Maung Maung Soe.
The Minister spoke about the importance of providing support for the victims of sexual violence, and documenting the abuses that they have suffered, with a view to bringing prosecutions against those responsible at some future date. He will know the concern across the House that when we last received an update on Myanmar, it was confirmed that only two of the 70 sexual violence experts employed as part of the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012 had been deployed to work on those cases. Have more of those staff now been deployed in the refugee camps? Are those two experts still there? How many people are now working to support victims and document their evidence? What percentage of the victims of sexual violence does he estimate have now received support and had their cases documented, whether by UK experts or other agencies working on this issue?
The Minister noted the impending monsoon season, and we are all aware of the risk that those heavy rains could turn the existing humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps into something even more catastrophic, including through the spread of waterborne disease. What assessment have the Minister’s officials, and their counterparts in the United Nations, made of the current shortfall in humanitarian funding to support the refugees, and of the expected shortfall if the monsoon season makes the crisis worse? If those numbers are as high as many of us fear, what emergency action will the Government take with our international partners to try to plug those gaps?
Finally, we must return to how we can best ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of and a sustainable future for the Rohingya refugees, and how we can ensure that those responsible for the atrocities against them are brought to justice. I appreciate what the Minister has said about the pressure the United Kingdom has exerted behind the scenes at the United Nations in terms of setting up the fact-finding mission and obtaining the Security Council presidential statement. However, he will understand the long-standing view on the Labour Benches that it is time to go further and be more public in using the UK’s formal role as penholder on Myanmar on the United Nations Security Council to table resolutions on these vital issues: first, to table a resolution setting out the terms under which the repatriation process should proceed, and the future rights and protections that must be accorded to the Rohingya refugees, obliging the Myanmar authorities to accede to those terms. Secondly, at the appropriate time, a resolution should be tabled referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, so that the generals, who this week scandalously dismissed the UN’s claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide by saying the Rohingya had burned down their own houses, can be brought to account.
The Minister spoke with candour on that second point, admitting that such a resolution would be difficult to get past the Security Council. I ask him to expand on that. What steps have the Government taken to engage with Myanmar’s near neighbour China and did the Prime Minister raise this issue with the Chinese on her recent trip?
Many of us fear that, if we do not act quickly to break the stalemate, especially with the monsoon season coming, we will have these types of updates for too many months to come, and the humanitarian crisis the Minister described will only get worse.
May I just give a little bit of advice to both Front Benchers? The speeches are meant to be 10 and five minutes. I think one was nearly 16 and the other was seven. I did not want to stop them, because this is a very important subject, but I would like us to keep to that in future.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s kind words, which were broadly supportive of what we are trying to do. I am very keen, as far as we can, to work together on this issue. I appreciate that, inevitably, these issues can be partisan, but I think there is a way in which this House can express its strong views, not least given our penholder status. Let me touch, if I may, on some of the broader issues she raised.
On sexual violence, I will come back to the hon. Lady with details of how many civilian experts we have on the ground, what their situation is and what work is being done. We are confident that significant progress has been made. As she will be aware, Rohingya women and children remain very vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. The Department for International Development is to a large extent leading the way in supporting and working very closely with a range of organisations, even if they are not necessarily from the UK, to provide specialist help for survivors of sexual violence. This help includes some 30 child friendly spaces to support children with protective services, psychological and physiological support, 25 women’s centres, which are offering safe space and support to the activities of women and girls, and case management for the 2,190 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Some 53,510 women are being provided with midwifery care and we are helping to fund the provision of medical services, counselling and psychological support. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will come back to her in writing with further details of the issues she raised on that point.
The impending cyclone and monsoon season is a matter of grave concern. Working with international partners, the UK has already done a huge amount with agencies to ensure that a quarter of a million people will continue to have access to safe drinking water throughout the rainy season. We have also supported cholera, measles and diphtheria vaccination campaigns. We are putting some pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to try to ensure that a little more space is cleared for further camps, if existing camps become uninhabitable. I should perhaps also say that, along with my colleague in the House of Lords, Lord Ahmad, I hope to meet the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary immediately after this statement. He is the most senior civil servant, as the hon. Lady will understand, with foreign affairs responsibilities. I have met him on a couple of occasions, both in Dhaka and here in London. I will be meeting him at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I undertake to discuss these urgent concerns about cyclone-related issues.
On returns, let me first confirm that at a meeting in China in February the Prime Minister made it very clear in private session with her counterparts the concerns we feel about this issue and have tried to get through the UN process.[This section has been corrected on
The hon. Lady mentions Magnitsky. She is absolutely right that that provides an opportunity. However, it is probably fair to say that, unlike many former Russian citizens who are in this country, many senior Burmese figures do not have huge financial interests in this country in either assets, wanting to arrive here for a visa or having children in schools. I do not think that if the Magnitsky amendment is passed into law it will be a silver bullet. I do not think it will make a massive difference in terms of sanctions against senior Burmese figures, but we will continue to work on it.
Finally, on the returns process, which other Members may wish to raise, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma signed a repatriation agreement as long ago as
The Tatmadaw has form and we should not forget the plight of the Christian community in northern Kachin, to whom we owe a particular debt of honour. They have been dispossessed by violence and prevented from returning by mining interests, and there being a sinister link between the two.
My right hon. Friend makes an entirely fair point, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. He is right. The issues around minority communities are not restricted to the Rohingya. The Rohingya are the largest single community to be treated in an appalling way by the Burmese authorities, but there are other minorities, Christian and others, who are being persecuted. We will continue to keep the pressure on the Burmese authorities.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement. It goes without saying in this House that this humanitarian tragedy has reached an unthinkable scale and the atrocities are almost unspeakable. As he knows, only last week, I visited the mega-camp in Bangladesh with the International Development Committee. The enormity of what we saw, with almost 1 million people in three or four square miles, was unbelievable. I am lost for words in trying to explain just how big this humanitarian emergency is. Five hundred people are still coming across the border every week from Burma to Bangladesh and their stories are the same—of atrocities, loss, murder, rape, and the rest, as we have been hearing in previous months.
Right now, we face an imminent challenge and we are running out of time, weeks away from a monsoon impending and a potential cyclone. I want to hear more from the Minister about what specifically is being done on that. Flooding and imminent landslides could both lead to further devastating loss of life. The reckoning is that more than 200,000 will be affected, and obviously, there could be subsequent waterborne diseases. The UK Government plan to work towards returning refugees to Burma. I know that needs to be slow and considered, but we in the Scottish National party are cautious and share the view of the UN and aid groups that this could thrust the refugees back into danger. Last week, we even heard from a Bangladeshi Minister that it is unsafe for the Rohingya to return.
We welcome the report by the UN fact-finding mission in Burma, which adds to the overwhelming evidence that what has taken place is a human rights violation of the most serious kind, likely amounting to crimes under international law. Earlier, we heard the UN special rapporteur state that the conflict had the “hallmarks of genocide”. As I speak today, my city of Dundee is considering the withdrawal of the freedom of the city that was given to Aung San Suu Kyi for human rights and democracy and for upholding international law. For my constituents, that is profoundly important.
The Minister said that he does not agree with the conclusion of the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry that the UK failed to see this crisis coming. However, this conclusion is backed by overwhelming evidence. The unchecked hate speech, lack of Government control over security forces, the presence of non-state and pseudo-non-state armed groups, growing nationalist support of the military and increased incidents of identity-based attacks were all serious indicators of the escalating violence against the Rohingya. The UK does not currently integrate an index of risk factors for identity-based violence, even though that would help to predict incidents of violent extremism, mass atrocities and institutional violence. I urge that the work on this index starts immediately, and I urge the Minister to announce today that he will begin the work on it.
Finally, will the Minister set out today what lessons have been learned from these events regarding atrocity prevention? How will these lessons be applied in Burma and elsewhere in future?
I thank the Scottish National party spokesman for his kind words about the work we are trying to do together across Parliament. On cyclone preparedness, the UK is working with a number of partners in Bangladesh on strengthening infrastructure and ensuring that at-risk households are provided with shelter materials. Part and parcel of the process is trying to persuade the Bangladeshi authorities. I will do that in the meeting this afternoon and express the strength of feeling that we need to open up more space, so that the confinement that the refugees are under, which could be calamitous if a cyclone hits part of that area, is restricted as far as possible.
I did not want to be in any way critical of what the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded, not least with its Chairman, my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, sitting on the Benches behind me. We have not been quiet about this issue in Burma and the fact that the Rohingya were continually going to be under pressure. We would contend that it is not the case that this notion came out of blue sky.
Being candid, I think everyone had a sense of wishful thinking. My right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, who spoke earlier, had a DFID role and was a Minister at one time—I am not in any way blaming him, but the whole international community was so hopeful that after decades of military rule in Burma, going back to 1962 and, arguably, to the creation of the state in 1947-48, we would suddenly have a big surge towards democracy. The constitution that we in the international community were all party to seeing set up, I am afraid, provided massive difficulties almost from day one, when Aung San Suu Kyi became State Councillor. The power that was still in the hands of the military meant that we overlooked, for example, the Rohingya’s rights. They were not included in the census and were not allowed to vote in the first elections. In many ways, we recognise with hindsight that that gave succour to the Burmese military in thinking that they could get away with what they have now got away with. There was a lot of wishful thinking. With the best motivation in the world, we wanted to see some progress. After decades of the darkness of being a military dictatorship—almost a closed state—we looked upon any advancement as something that we should grasp hold of. That is a lesson we shall learn for the future.
I want to work with many non-governmental organisations —Protection Approaches is a good example —to work towards having a set of policies with which we can look at conflict prevention for the future. However, many hundreds of lives have been blighted and tens of thousands of lives have been ended by this dreadful event, and we know that this is still an ongoing situation. The best legacy that we can give to the Rohingya is not just to get a better life for them and ensure that they have citizenship and a stake in longer-term Burmese society, but to ensure that the sacrifices and hardship that they have gone through can be used as an example to make sure that the rest of the world makes those changes. Ultimately, that is a partly academic, practical exercise, and we need to work within the international community to bring that to pass.
I visited the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in October last year, and I believe that I am right in saying that it is one of the largest and most congested refugee camps in the whole world. It is equivalent to a city the size of Bristol, yet it has no hospital, inadequate schooling facilities and very few roads. It seems that the biggest risk to the Rohingya is an outbreak of disease in this massive refugee camp, and that the No. 1 humanitarian priority is that the camp is broken up, with extra space found, so that if the worst comes to the worst, an outbreak could be contained.
My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge about this matter and I very much agree with him. Clearly the international community will have to work with the Bangladeshi Government on that issue, but we are focused on it. We have a good track record on disease prevention. We can be very proud of the work that we did to nip the diphtheria outbreak in the bud, but I am by no means complacent that similar diseases such as cholera, as well as diphtheria, will not be prominent in the months to come.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement and echo his words in describing this as a “humanitarian catastrophe”. I also reinforce what Mr Hollobone said about the sheer scale of the camp—it is 10 times the size of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and double the size of the city of Liverpool. I welcome the fact that the Minister is meeting the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister this afternoon, but we really need to say to Bangladesh at the most senior level that more needs to be done to prepare for the rainy season, cyclones and the monsoon. I urge our Prime Minister to ask the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to take a personal lead, because otherwise that humanitarian catastrophe will be multiplied in the weeks and months ahead.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words; he is absolutely right. I know that the International Development Committee, which he chairs, has done tremendous work. I only wish that it had been able to go to the other side of the border— that would have been very instructive—but the work it has done in Bangladesh is of tremendous importance.
We are both aware that the heavy rains and cyclones could have a severe impact on the nearly 1 million Rohingya who are already in Cox’s Bazar, as well as the host communities, because it is important to factor in the communities living in that part of Bangladesh. It is to the great credit of those communities and the authorities in Bangladesh that, hitherto, there have not been tensions between the two, but we cannot take that for granted. We are already working in great earnest with the Government of Bangladesh and humanitarian partners to improve preparedness. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns are passed on not just when I speak to our counterparts, but in our dealings with the Bangladeshi high commissioner to this country. I hope that he will feel able to play as strong a role as possible in making his robust case.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement and thank him for keeping the House updated on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. He also spoke about the plight of other minorities—the Hindus and Buddhists—and my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne mentioned the Christian community. Will the Minister say more about what will be done, by both the United Nations and the British Government, to protect those minorities, who currently do not seem to have any defenders at all?
I think it is unfair to suggest that they have no defenders, although I accept that, understandably and rightly, the focus has been on the Rohingya, who are a larger group that has been excluded from that society as being stateless. The Hindu, Buddhist and Christian groups that are being persecuted—the Buddhists within Rakhine, rather than in Burma as a whole—have at least some citizenship rights.
We will do our level best. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of our work in relation to freedom of religion and belief. We feel very strongly about that issue, and not just in the context of Burma. One of our slight concerns relates to the other things that are happening in that part of the world. We are seeing the deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka, and even in Thailand. There is suddenly a sense of the Buddhist community being against the Muslim community permeating in areas beyond the Burmese borders. That, I think, could lead to a calamitous state of affairs.
As the Minister has reminded us, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has described the conflict as having “the hallmarks of genocide”. It is therefore imperative that everything is done to bring the various actors to justice at its conclusion. The Minister was right to mention the challenges that we face in seeking that end, but there is an immediate issue. The best and most compelling evidence that will inform any future prosecutions is to be found now. What are the Government doing to ensure that every piece of evidence for future use is sought and acquired?
The right hon. Gentleman can be assured that we are doing our level best to ensure that there is a full collation of all the evidence to which he refers. We must be patient and recognise that this is a painstaking process. I wish that we could move more quickly to meet concerns about the process of dealing with genocide or crimes against humanity, but we are collecting the evidence very patiently and painstakingly and, when the moment arises, we shall be able to return to that process.
Let me first apologise, particularly to my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, for the fact that the Foreign Affairs Committee will not be presenting its latest report to the House this week, because no time has been allotted for Backbench Business. Let me also declare an interest: my father is among those who are currently training Burmese lawyers, and is serving as one of the judges sent to Burma by Her Majesty’s Government.
What is the Minister doing to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations? His work so far has been exemplary, and, indeed, the co-operation of Helen Goodman has been fantastic—this is a joint effort—but does he agree that ASEAN has a particular role to play, and that Britain’s role, alongside ASEAN’s, could be game-changing?
I agree that ASEAN’s role could be game-changing. My hon. Friend will appreciate that there is, rightly, an approach that ASEAN countries want to work together, but there are clearly tensions. Owing to the differences between the positions of, for example, Indonesia on the one hand, and Malaysia and Thailand on the other, it is more difficult for them to adopt an agreed single line on this matter. I raise that issue at every opportunity when I meet ASEAN figures, both here and internationally. I shall be working with Singapore, which is chairing ASEAN this year, and there will be a big meeting at the end of the year. That is some way away, but I think that this will be an increasingly important issue to raise. I hope that there will also be an opportunity for it to be raised prominently at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, at which three ASEAN members—Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei—will be present.
May I emphasise the urgency of addressing at the highest level the imminent threat from the monsoon rains and the cyclone season? Anyone who has seen the camps in Cox’s Bazar, as the International Development Committee did last week, will know that the flimsy plastic and bamboo shacks that are built on loose earth on deforested land will be simply swept away, and thousands of people could die. When the Minister raises this issue with the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, may I urge him to stress that it is not simply the intention of bringing more land into play that is important? What is most important is action to achieve that end—and action within days or weeks, not months.
The hon. Gentleman has seen what is happening with his own eyes, and he is absolutely right. This could be a calamitous situation. The deforestation makes much of the land unviable, other than on an emergency short-term basis. I will do as the hon. Gentleman requests.
I echo the Minister’s tribute to the people and Government of Bangladesh for the generosity that has been shown to the Rohingya refugees. What realistic prospect does he see of any significant numbers of returns to Rakhine state in, say, the next 12 months? He was right to highlight the pernicious effects of the 1982 citizenship law. Does he see any realistic prospect of that being reformed, as he rightly proposed in his statement?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the wheels of diplomacy sometimes move slowly, but that is not to suggest that we will not be patient and work towards this. I believe that there need to be returns soon. There is, of course, a political imperative: an election is coming up in Bangladesh, and I think that that is one of the reasons why the Bangladeshi authorities will be keen to see some movement towards returns. The fundamental point, however, is that we cannot accept returns—the international community will not accept them—unless they are “safe, dignified and voluntary”.
I strongly believe that it will take time to work through the issue of citizenship. It has been a running sore since Burma was created, and certainly since the 1982 compact. However, the single most obvious and fundamental aspect of the Kofi Annan report is that unless we get the issue of citizenship right, we will not achieve the reform in Rakhine that is required. We will therefore work with all our international partners to try to ensure that genuine progress is made as quickly as possible.
To be candid, I cannot give such an assurance, but, again, we will be making the case. I think that everyone is well aware of climatic conditions such as monsoons and cyclones. Some of those conditions are very severe while others are less so, but in any event we are heading into that season, and the issue is therefore at the forefront of the minds of all concerned.
I thank the Minister both for his comprehensive statement and for the work that has already been done in Bangladesh. When I met representatives of World Vision this week, they told me that they were extremely concerned about the number of bodies that are buried in shallow graves throughout the camps. The monsoon rains are imminent, and waterborne diseases could be spread if the bodies are exposed. What work is being done in that specific regard, both with the Bangladeshi authorities and with local communities?
To be candid—again—I am not sure exactly what work is being done, but I am sure that World Vision is working with many other non-governmental organisations on the ground, and that those concerns will have been raised with the Bangladeshi authorities. If that turns out not to be the case, the hon. Lady will have been able to raise the matter on the Floor of the House, and I will ensure that it is raised at the highest level.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. I especially commend his point that returns must be voluntary, but that, of course, means that they are very unlikely to happen. It is unrealistic to suggest that 700,000 traumatised people could be told, “Please go back to face the guns and the rapists that sent you away in the first place.”
There will be pressure—the Bangladeshi authorities, who I think have behaved admirably, will understandably want to see returns—but should it not be recognised that if there are to be returns, there must be security guarantees, and that those guarantees must be properly underwritten? They will not be for the short term; they will be for decades to come.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we would not seek for returns to be anything other than voluntary, so we must be patient.
It is also worth pointing out that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been engaged in a concerted effort of lobbying other nations. Certainly since the Foreign Secretary arrived back, this is an issue that we raise not just with ASEAN states, but with countries such as China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, to make it clear that we need collectively to work—potentially as a matter of great urgency—both on the humanitarian side, which is where I think the urgency will be needed, and on the diplomatic side, where we will have to be in it for the long haul. That is not being pessimistic; I am hopeful. I want things to work and I would love to see solutions sooner rather than later, but the hon. Gentleman makes the valid point for the whole House that this issue will, I suspect, be high profile for many years to come before there are the voluntary returns that we all want.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement. Some of my constituents in Ipswich have relatives who are resident in Bangladesh and are providing voluntary aid and support in the camps there. While working on the ground in the camps, they do not always see where the money is being spent. What communications can the Government make available to reassure people in this country that the British aid being given in the camps is used effectively so that they will have the reassurance they need to make further donations to help the Rohingya people?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. The great majority of Bangladeshi Britons come from the north-east of the country in Sylhet, rather than the area around Cox’s Bazar, although some are from near there. Although £59 million is a large sum in the context of international contributions, it is does not take us very far when we are dealing with 600,000, 700,000 or 800,000 Rohingya. The message I ask the hon. Gentleman to take back to his constituents is that we are doing our absolute level best. We are working hard on the ground, but the sheer scale of what is required might give rise to a sense of hopelessness, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to implore his constituents not to turn away from this very real humanitarian calamity.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
This humanitarian disaster shocks us all, but none are more affected than the Bangladeshi diaspora, as my hon. Friend Sandy Martin pointed out. I welcome the fact that the Minister will meet Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary soon after this statement. As well as urging Bangladesh to organise and prepare as well as possible for the cyclone and monsoon season, will he offer whatever additional support the UK can give to help with those preparations not only in terms of assistance, but as part of our leadership role as UN penholder on this matter?
I know that you have been asking for brevity in my responses, Mr Deputy Speaker, and without in any way being disrespectful to the hon. Gentleman, I can give a brief response to his question: we are very happy to do that, and we will continue to do so. I very much hope that we can continue to make huge humanitarian contributions, which will require more money from both us and the international community in the months and years ahead.