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 share my hon. Friend’s concerns. The Government need to make it absolutely clear to the Burmese military and the Burmese Government that if they continue to carry on like this without progress on this very important issue, they will continue to be seen in a very negative light and as a pariah state. They will face difficulty doing trade, quite rightly, and challenges from the wider international community. If they want to make the transition towards democracy, and want to make sure that human rights are protected, they have to take action to get their country in order to protect people’s rights, including the rights of the Rohingya minority—and other minorities, because the military have been attacking others too.

There are now over 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Over half the refugees are children, 160,000 of whom are under the age of four. Following the 2017 attacks orchestrated by the Burmese military, some 700,000 Rohingya refugees joined hundreds of thousands who had already fled there following previous periods of targeted attacks, notably in 2012 and 2016. The border pathways are particularly dangerous. Last year, Amnesty International accused the Burmese Government of having laid landmines in the path of fleeing women and children.

In July 2018, I visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh with the International Rescue Committee to see for myself the situation of the Rohingya refugees, and to hear about their lives in the camps and how they got there. The overwhelming, immediate impression is the scale of the disaster. Almost 1 million people are now packed densely into only five square miles. During my visit, I heard terrifying stories of the brutal violence and persecution that the Rohingya faced at the hands of the military during last year’s attacks. The people I met were traumatised, unable to sleep or eat. Daughters were raped in front of their mothers; children were burnt to death in front of their parents. Women and men were separated into different rooms and slaughtered. A father painfully told me of his son and how he had been burnt to death in front of him. As I left, he added, “We want justice.”

I met non-governmental organisation relief workers. Local and international agencies are doing incredible work in very difficult circumstances. Some 30,000 NGO workers of Bangladeshi nationality are working in camps with international NGOs. But the NGOs tell me that the lack of long-term funding is making it very difficult for them to plan ahead and scale up their work, not to mention the restricted access and bureaucracy in trying to work in the camps. Although the situation is marginally better than in Rakhine, there are major challenges, and only two thirds of the UN appeal for funding has been fulfilled. That is not enough, and our Government need to do more to ensure that the outstanding funding is committed by the international community.

Last year, the response from the authorities and the people of Bangladesh was incredible. They demonstrated immense generosity to the refugees, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, with millions of people living below the poverty line and facing the greatest risks from climate change. Over recent years, when thousands were killed by the Burmese military and hundreds of thousands sought refuge, Bangladesh kept its borders open and provided them with sanctuary. But the international community and other neighbouring states must do more to support that country in the humanitarian crisis. We know from our experience in Europe that absorbing so many people is a massive challenge even for this continent, which is among the wealthiest in the world. The end result must be the peaceful return of the Rohingya to their homes, but that must happen only when it is safe and when the Rohingya believe that the danger has passed.

These are particularly turbulent times for the Rohingya people, as only a few weeks ago, in the run-up to the planned repatriation date, there were reports of an increased military presence in the camps. This, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, has caused a state of terror and panic. All the families placed on the list for repatriation refused to return to Burma as they were too afraid of the current conditions. It is imperative that any return is safe, dignified, and, crucially, voluntary. It is vital that we keep up international pressure on the Burmese Government. They need to know that the world is watching.

I welcome the contributions by Nobel peace prize winners Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire, who implored Aung San Suu Kyi to “wake up” to the atrocities after they visited Cox’s Bazar. Nobel laureates such as Malala Yusufzai, Muhammad Yunus and Desmond Tutu, among others, have also spoken out. I welcome the legal voices who have spoken out in favour of human rights and justice—Amal Clooney and Ben Emmerson QC, among others. I welcome the interventions made by Cate Blanchett, who visited the camps in her role as a UN good will ambassador, and by Angelina Jolie as a special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Others have supported the humanitarian fundraising effort by visiting the camps to raise awareness and keep the media interested and engaged in what is happening. They include Ashley Judd, Mindy Kaling, Freida Pinto, Priyanka Chopra, and many others.

Most of all, I am incredibly grateful to, and commend, my colleagues in this House and the other House who have visited Burma and Bangladesh and publicly campaigned and voiced their concerns. The fact is that the more attention we generate, the brighter the light we shine, and the more noise we make, the less likely that further murders and atrocities will occur. Scrutiny and activism from campaigners, the media and the wider international community is literally the only line of defence for the Rohingya people against the Burmese military and its might.