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Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:27 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 1:27 pm, 20th December 2018

I agree entirely and wholeheartedly; in fact, my hon. Friend has anticipated something I was going to mention later in my speech. A number of highly respected advocacy groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Watch, have documented appalling human rights abuses by the Burmese military in both Kachin and Shan states. There is a broader set of questions about the protection of minorities in Burma; the Rohingya example is perhaps the most potent and large-scale, but my hon. Friend is right to remind us of the Kachin and Shan peoples as well.

Let me address the issue of repatriation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, last month there was an attempted repatriation of refugees following the announcement by the repatriation joint working group of the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma that repatriation would begin then. When that was announced, many of the refugees fled and hid in the surrounding forest. There was at least one reported suicide—someone so fearful of what returning to Burma would entail that they took their own life. As the buses arrived at the camp in Cox’s Bazar, a number of refugees were offered the opportunity to return. There were anecdotal reports that they were offered food in return for boarding the buses. As my hon. Friend said, no refugee agreed to return, and the buses left the camp empty. That clearly showed the refugees’ fear about any suggestion of returning in the current situation.

Why is there that fear? As Marzuki Darusman, the chair of the UN fact-finding mission, reported in October, and as the hon. Member for St Albans emphasised so powerfully, the genocide against the Rohingya is ongoing in Burma. Why on earth would the Rohingya seek to return? We have a responsibility to hold both the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments accountable on their stated commitments that repatriation will happen only when it is safe, voluntary and dignified.

I urge the Minister to commit again to ensuring that the important principle of non-refoulement is upheld—that people are not returned against their will and that the Government will continue to speak out clearly and publicly against any refugee returns that are premature, non-voluntary or in any way dangerous. It is pretty clear that the current lack of any sign of political will from the Government of Burma to address the conditions that led to this refugee displacement suggests, sadly, that conditions conducive to return are unlikely for quite some long time.

The protracted nature of the displacement crisis means that we have to think more about the short to medium-term needs of both the refugee community in Bangladesh and the local host Bangladeshi population. We need action to address the barriers to Rohingya self-reliance, including employment and access to services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in Cox’s Bazar, and barely 4% of them have any form of legal status.

We can learn lessons from other protracted displacement crises. The International Development Committee was in east Africa last month, looking at some of the consequences of displacement from South Sudan, Sudan, Congo and Eritrea, and at how in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda there are now sustained attempts to set up programmes that provide hope to not only refugees and internally displaced people but the often very poor local communities. We can learn from that example.

However, the best example that we can learn from is what has been done in Jordan for Syrian refugees. The Jordan compact is an agreement between the Government of Jordan, the World Bank, the European Union and others to support Syrian refugees to access employment. Under the agreement, Jordan reduced its regulatory barriers on refugees’ right to work. Two years on, the compact has led to considerable improvements in labour market access for Syrian refugees and education.

If we fail to provide comparable opportunities in Bangladesh, for both the Rohingya and the often very poor local Bangladeshi population, we know what the risks are. We are aware of the boredom that comes from living in a refugee camp and what relying on humanitarian assistance does for the dignity and sense of self-worth of refugees and their families. Policy changes are needed to create opportunities for the Rohingya to enjoy wellbeing and self-sufficiency so that they do not have to rely so much on aid in future and can maximise their own potential.

As has rightly been said, the Bangladeshi people and their Government deserve praise for welcoming about 1 million Rohingya refugees. We pay tribute to them and rightly congratulate our own Government on DFID’s substantial contribution to the humanitarian effort in both Bangladesh and Burma. We must not lose sight of the global responsibility that Bangladesh has taken on. We now need to address some of the long-term issues. Will the Minister set out how the Government will mobilise the other donors, the United Nations and partners to build support for the long-term measures that I have talked about—in particular, the idea of a jobs compact? As the hon. Member for St Albans reminded us, the Bangladeshi people will vote in their general election later this month. What discussions have the Government had with the Opposition parties in Bangladesh? It is important that there is continued support for the Rohingya whichever party or alliance of parties forms the next Bangladeshi Government.

I turn to education. We know from other protracted crises, particularly those involving large refugee flows, that education has often not been given the priority that it deserves. There is a real risk of a lost generation of refugee children. I urge the Government, and DFID in particular, to give much higher priority to education in our aid for the Rohingya. In July, Save the Children reported that more than 70% of Rohingya children in the camps were not in school. They are being deprived of the chance of a proper education. UNICEF has warned that children living in refugee camps face a bleak future:

“If we don’t make the investment in education now, we face the very real danger of seeing a ‘lost generation’
of Rohingya”.

One of the central aims of the UN’s global goals is to “leave no one behind”; a substantial increase in finance for, access to and quality of education in Cox’s Bazar is required to achieve that for Rohingya children. As both my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and the hon. Member for St Albans said so powerfully, humanitarian finance suffers from being short-term and unpredictable. The underfunding in this case is in line with pretty much all the funds for comparable humanitarian crises around the world. If education provision does not get priority and is ignored, the future of the children caught up in these crises through no fault of their own is at great risk.

In our report last year on education, the IDC recommended that the Government should establish a long-term strategy for education in emergencies. The reality is that, tragically, larger numbers of children are now living in these emergency situations—refugee crises often caused by conflict, ethnic cleansing and genocide and sometimes by climate change. The mechanisms to ensure that they get the education they deserve need to be in place; that is not happening at the moment. Support for programmes such as education cannot wait. That is now working, which is very welcome, but we need more of it.

We also need practical steps to minimise some of the risks that Rohingya people face in their day-to-day lives—basic but important things such as the quality of lighting, the lack of privacy in toilets and bathroom facilities and the absence of security for women and girls who have to leave the camps for whatever reason. All of that has come together to create, as the hon. Member for St Albans said, an environment that is incredibly unsafe, particularly for women and children, who form at least 70% of the Rohingya refugee population. Many arrived in Bangladesh having reported alarming gender-based violence by the Burmese military. Now that they are in Bangladesh, supposedly in safety, they still face enormous risks, with numerous examples of incidents of gender-based violence in the camps.

The International Rescue Committee says that despite that, there remains a significant gap in services that are targeted particularly at women and girls. I join the IRC in urging our Government to work with the Government of Bangladesh and other donors to secure a significant increase in support for programmes that relate specifically to the needs of women and girls, and especially to those of either sex who face gender-based sexual violence.

Finally, more needs to be done to ensure that we are ready for the monsoon season. When we visited in February, we heard a lot of concern about the 2018 monsoon season, and how ready the camp and its administration was for heavy rainfall. The Select Committee warned, in its second report, that without decisions and actions being taken very quickly, for example to enable relocation to begin and to facilitate other mitigations, people were going to die. When the downpours finally came, they did bring a lot of misery for the Rohingya—thousands of shelters and other structures collapsed, hundreds were injured and, tragically, some did die. However, the impact of the monsoon in 2018 was actually not as bad as our worst fears. I hope the Minister can perhaps say something about the Government’s analysis of why that was the case. Was it that we were better prepared and lessons had been learned, or were we more fortunate with the scale of the weather conditions, meaning that we could possibly face much bigger challenges in 2019? Decisions and actions need to be taken more quickly to mitigate the impact of landslides and floods that could come with the forthcoming monsoon season. In particular, there is the challenge of ensuring there is enough suitable land to enable the immediate relocation of the most exposed and vulnerable refugees, so that that can be done effectively and efficiently.

Let us remember that we face huge immediate humanitarian challenges on shelter, water, food, security, health and education if we are to provide at least some dignity and hope. We know that this is a protracted crisis. It is incumbent on the international community to work together to address it. There are three big challenges. I have chosen to focus, in my remarks, on investment in humanitarian and development support, and the crucial significance of staying for the long term. Alongside that, we must address the key challenges of politics and justice that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and the hon. Member for St Albans set out so powerfully.

In the end, we all have a responsibility to protect the refugees and to invest in humanitarian support and long-term development aid, but they have a right to go home, and that is what they want. That will happen only when there is true justice and when the Government of Burma—and, frankly, the people of Burma—address the need to make fundamental changes to their own laws and attitudes to the Rohingya, so that we can have in Burma a country that truly respects and protects the rights of all its people. That feels like a distant hope at the moment, but this debate at least gives us an opportunity, on a cross-party basis, to send a clear message that we will not forget the minorities of Burma. In this debate in particular, we continue to stand in solidarity with the Rohingya people.