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Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:11 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans 1:11 pm, 20th December 2018

It is an absolute pleasure to follow Rushanara Ali and I do not disagree with a word she said. I completely agree that it is up to us to keep this as a hot topic.

Yesterday, there was some Punch and Judy, some pantomime—call it what you like—in the House, and the coverage took up acres of press space. It is on the front page of every paper and every freesheet today, yet this hugely important debate probably will not get a column inch tomorrow. The Press Gallery is empty, and sadly this debate will not be watched by many people on telly. This is not a bit of theatre or a bit of entertainment; it is the most crucial issue affecting us as a country today. This is about our values and who we are. I say to any of the press who are listening remotely: if I do not see this covered tomorrow, be judged by your own standards when you judge us in here, because there are those of us in here who are interested in the important topics. I know there are not many people in the Chamber today, but that is not because we do not care.

In our defence, when the hon. Lady and I went to the Backbench Business Committee, it recognised how important and time-sensitive this topic is, but we were not allocated a date. We were given the possibility of a date and that date has shifted three times. However, because we feel this topic is so crucial, so important, we were prepared to take any date we could. Today is the thinnest date on the calendar for many Members because they will have made alternative arrangements. Because the date shifted all the time, it was hard for many Members to make it here today, but colleagues have told me that they feel acutely about this topic, too. Only a few Members are here, but those who are here are very knowledgeable, they care and they have a burning desire to see justice for the Rohingya.

As the hon. Lady said, an election is looming in Bangladesh—hopefully it will be a well-contested election —at the end of the month, which is why we wanted to make sure we had the debate now. The Secretary of State came to give a presentation to the all-party parliamentary groups on Burma and on the rights of the Rohingya. Whoever is in charge of Bangladesh in 2019, and we take no sides, the problem will last for a very long time and a handover is required to ensure continuity of care for those involved. If there is any change of regime, I want to be sure that the Secretary of State will be straight on the phone to keep up the pressure on the new regime to do the right thing by the Rohingya in these camps.

As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, most non-governmental organisations now estimate that up to 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in southern Bangladesh. Kutupalong is the largest refugee camp in the world, with a population of over 700,000. It is the same size as the city of Glasgow and 50% bigger than the city of Manchester. Other hon. Members and I saw the vast tide of suffering when we visited last September, and the crossings continue even now. The UNHCR has said that 100,000 people have crossed the border in 2018 alone.

In our debate in the House last October, it was widely accepted that ethnic cleansing was taking place. The stories coming out of the camps now point to war crimes and even genocide, which is why we felt it timely to have another debate. I challenge the House, as the hon. Lady did, to join the call for the actions of the Myanmar Government and militia to be referred to the ICC.

I tried to intervene on the hon. Lady, but she was in full flow. The one thing I would say is that Aung San Suu Kyi has not just turned a blind eye but has actually been complicit. She has said that she does not see these things happening. She sent officials over to the camps, and they said that they did not see Rohingya but saw only Bangladeshis. As the hon. Lady said, they are not Bangladeshis; they are Rohingya.

The fact-finding mission report of 24 October 2018 said that this is an “ongoing genocide.” The word “ongoing” should fill us with horror. This is not an event that has finished, hence the need for this debate. The investigators told the UN that the atrocities continue. They are happening now, as we sit here.

In response to a letter from the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya, which the hon. Lady and I both signed, the Secretary of State said in early November that he had told Aung San Suu Kyi that there must be accountability. I would say that is putting it mildly. I accept that the Secretary of State is using his best endeavours, but could he pep them up somewhat next year?

The Secretary of State also said that the Government are not naive about the Burmese commission of inquiry, which he said needs to be strengthened to have credibility and to be a path to justice. Will the Minister tell us how that is going to happen? Good words butter no parsnips, particularly at Christmas. I am not sure that, without any root, we will be any the wiser. The Secretary of State said that he does not think this can be immediately dismissed and that he intends to press the Government of Myanmar to ensure that the concerns are addressed. Again, I would like the Minister to give us some information on how that will come about.

Sadly, the Secretary of State does not think we have the votes for an ICC referral at present, and he believes that a referral to the UNSC would be vetoed. I do not know at what point we will ever test that. If we can keep this situation in the media, and if we can show that the world cares, the countries that might exercise those vetoes, as Mike Gapes said, may feel so shamed, or so pressed by businesses, that they threaten to withdraw any supplies they give to Myanmar or think about sanctions. We might then be successful, so I hope we will try at some point.

The persecution of the Rohingya is a tragedy that should stain the consciences and plague the souls of those who might exercise that veto and, if the feeling increases in Myanmar that it can act with impunity because a referral will not happen, at what point will we call the bluff? We are on the edge of a precipice. Myanmar is certainly not stopping this. It is an ongoing genocide. The Burmese Government do not care that the world hates them, so we need to call them out and test their resolve.

I welcome that the United Nations Human Rights Council mechanism has been established to collect and analyse evidence in order to bring about criminal proceedings against those who have committed international crimes. It is worth reminding the House of the definition of genocide, because I would be surprised if anyone here, or anyone who may or may not be listening, would say that this is not genocide. The mens rea is the

“intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

The actus reus, the means of bringing that about, is killing members of that group.