Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:49 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 12:49 pm, 20th December 2018

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on what action the Government are taking, because we depend on the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office Ministers to take a leadership role.

Spending time in our warm homes this Christmas will remind us of the conditions in which people are living in the camps in both Burma and Bangladesh. Being with friends and family will remind us of those separated from their loved ones, some forever. At a time of peace and good will, we should recall the fate of the Rohingya people and other refugees around the world who are subject to war, rape, execution and mutilation, their villages burnt and their lives destroyed.

This is not the first time that the House has debated the Rohingya refugee crisis, and it will not be the last. This is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. The United Nations fact-finding mission concluded that the Burmese military were responsible for

“consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses…in addition to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

It made concrete recommendations that the Burmese military

“should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

And yet so little has been done in practical terms to solve the crisis, provide safety and security for the Rohingya people and bring those responsible to justice.

How did we get here? We know from the history books that human beings only behave like this towards one another after a process of dehumanisation. From Cambodia to Srebrenica, massacres are carried out when communities have been isolated, demonised and presented as subhuman and worthy only of extinction. The Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma have been the subject of decades of systematic segregation and racial discrimination. Much of the forced segregation stems from the citizenship law of 1982, under which full citizenship in Burma is based on membership of one of the national races—a category awarded only to those considered to have settled in Burma prior to 1824, the date of the first occupation by the British. In Burma’s national census, the Muslim minority group was initially allowed to self-identify as Rohingya, but the Government later reversed that freedom and deemed that they could be identified only as Bengali, which they do not accept because they are not Bengali.

Over the past few years, the Rohingya have been indiscriminately targeted by the Burmese military. The August 2017 attacks were the most systematic and the largest in scale, but they were not the first. Attacks in 2012 and 2016 led to the internal displacement of more than 124,000 Rohingya people, who were forced to live in what are effectively prison camps in Rakhine state, with extremely limited access to food, healthcare and shelter. I visited those camps in Rakhine state twice, and the conditions have not got any better. People are arbitrarily deprived of liberty and forced to live in conditions described by the UN deputy relief chief as

“beyond the dignity of any people”.

There are echoes of apartheid in Rakhine, with one racial group separated, corralled and delegitimised. There are echoes too of previous genocides, with civilians sent to camps, villages burnt and human rights trampled under military boots. But this is not the 1930s, the ’40s, the ’70s or the ’90s. It is happening in this day and age, as we sit here in the Chamber this Christmas.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the violence and stand up to the military has been deeply disappointing. While power over security operations constitutionally resides with the military and her power to halt the military offensive is limited, her ability to speak out in defence of the Rohingya is not. She spoke out for democracy and human rights from house arrest and liberated her country, and yet she failed to speak out for the rights of the Rohingya people when a genocide took place.

The 2017 attacks by the Burmese military came after a lengthy campaign initiated by those in power to demonise the Rohingya people using online platforms. Hidden behind fake accounts, military officers exploited the wide reach of social media to promote their divisive rhetoric and create a culture of suspicion and anger. They created fake news and sent it into the battle against the Rohingya. Of course, incidents of mass violence have happened before, catalysed by other forms of media. In Rwanda in 1994, local radio stations incited Hutus to kill Tutsis. Within 100 days, 800,000 people were dead. While social media platforms cannot be wholly blamed, the UN fact-finding mission singled out Facebook as a tool used to disseminate hate speech and concluded that it played a “determining role” in inciting violence against the Rohingya.

Social media can also be a force for good, as it was in the Arab spring in 2010-11. It is highly influential and can play a positive role. However, it is important that we recognise its capacity to foment division and incite violence—and, in this case, murder. Social media companies have a responsibility to ensure that malicious posts and dehumanising material are removed from their sites without delay. We must ensure that there are regulations and controls to prevent these abuses from happening again.