Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:44 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 1:44 pm, 20th December 2018

I congratulate Rushanara Ali on securing the debate. Yes, the debate has been delayed, but it is always timely and it is always important to ensure that we raise our voices for the Rohingya people. I commend her powerful speech and the powerful speech from my hon. Friend Mrs Main. We have attended Cox’s Bazar and we have seen the camps together—more on that in a second. I also commend the very measured and sensible approach, as always, of Stephen Twigg, who chairs the International Development Committee. It is a pleasure and honour to serve alongside him.

Why is it important that we talk about this issue now and keep on talking about it? As I have said many times, it only takes something to flare up in Syria or the news we had this week in Yemen—never mind the pantomime we had in this place yesterday—to take the focus off what is such a huge humanitarian crisis in such a small part of the world. It is a niche area that many people, especially in this country, simply do not understand or appreciate. Burma was closed for 70 years, so there has not been the opportunity for people to find out much about it. If we ask people in this country outside this place what they know about Burma, they will say two things: Aung San Suu Kyi and Rohingya Muslims. That is about all.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans talked about the definition of genocide. Burma has form on this. For a number of years, since before I was elected, I have been going to meetings of the all-party group on Burma. I remember the days when Mr Speaker chaired the group. We had a chap—it must be nearly a decade ago—called Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer, then of DLA Piper. Before Burma opened up into the fledging transitional democracy that we sort of see struggling at the moment, he made the case that of the seven or eight conditions that one can ascribe to genocide, Burma was the only conflict post-war that matched every single one. Rwanda and Srebrenica matched some of them, but Burma matched every single one. Now we can see the past masters of this heinous crime are using all those instruments time and time again. It is time that we acted.

I want to set out the context of why we have got to where we are. I am half-Burmese and my first question, when I was elected to this place, was on what we then described as the Rohingya boat people. In 2015, people were being pushed out into the seas in fear of their lives, trying to find a safe haven. It was cyclone season and there was a horrendous number of deaths. If we fast forward to 2017, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans joined me and my hon. Friend Will Quince as, I think, the first Members into the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar just weeks after the latest exodus. At the time “only” 400,000 people had crossed the border. By the time we left, a week later, there were 500,000 people. We are now at 700,000+ people who have joined those already there.

The Kutupalong camp is the biggest refugee camp in the world. It has been there for 30 years, expanding and expanding significantly. We went to the Gundam border crossing where, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans said, we spoke to people who had been driven across the border chased by helicopters shooting at their ankles and the backs of their legs to hurry them towards the landmine-strewn border. We saw video and photo evidence of people who had had their legs blown off by landmines just four days before we got there. They were being searched by Burmese guards using drones, which were looking at the no-man’s land area where there were 5,000 people in a tiny little area on a curve of a river—they did not want to go to the refugee camps in Bangladesh because at that time they did not know or trust what would happen to them.

We saw people who were dead behind the eyes. These were the people, let us not forget, that the Burmese Government had accused of being terrorists. I saw a 60-year-old lady, who had seen her children genitally mutilated and her son-in-law slaughtered in front of her, and whose house was then burned down. To accuse her of being a terrorist was just fantasyland. As we sat there in Cox’s Bazar airport, Aung San Suu Kyi was on telly saying that nothing else was happening—that there were no fresh attacks. Fast forward a couple of hours and we were back on the Gundam border, and we smelled and saw the smoke from burning villages. It is no surprise that the intransigence we are seeing now is a continuation of the denial—the “hear no evil, say no evil, see no evil” —that we observed then.

Because the Burmese people are largely in favour of the exodus of the Rohingya, and because of the whipping up of the nationalist interests of those people, the military in particular are able to hide behind the populist uprising and say, “We have been accused of acts of terror, but that is just western propaganda.” We must cut through that very clearly. We must say, “Look, we will always help you when it comes to democratic support. We will continue the support that we have given in this place over the last few years to enable you to build up the rule of law and democratic structures in your Hluttaw”—the Burmese Parliament—“and we will not tell you how to run your country. But we will always call you out when you are breaking, in every sense, every international norm relating to human rights.”

Along with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I went back to Cox’s Bazar six months after that first trip. It was rewarding to see some of the improvements that had been made thanks to UK Aid, DFID funding and a number of other countries that had come together—and, indeed, thanks to members of the public in this country, who had raised £27 million through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. Worshippers in mosques and churches and charities around the country came together in a spectacular way, first to raise the money, and secondly to do what we are trying to do here: to keep the voice of the Rohingya in our minds. We saw a huge improvement in the registration camps. It had taken my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and me perhaps 40 minutes to cross areas that could now be crossed in 10 minutes because of the tracks and roads that had been built over those six months.

I think that landslides and cyclones posed a risk to about 200,000 people. Fortunately, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, our worst fears were not realised; none the less, people are still suffering in the makeshift camps, which are cleared jungle. It is the only hillside in Bangladesh: there is pretty flat land below sea level, but they managed to find the only slopes. The area is on an elephant migration track, and unfortunately when people walk around the landslides, some of them are trampled by elephants travelling back and forth on their normal annual path. So there is plenty more for us to do.

I was the rapporteur for the Rohingya report that we produced a few months ago. It is my job to follow up developments and ensure that we are keeping the Government and all the agency and non-governmental organisations on their toes, and that they are fulfilling our recommendations, to which DFID agreed. We could return to some of the stuff that we have talked about before, and discuss how we can prevent crises in the future, but that is for other debates and other crises not yet known. We need to empower the affected people. That means building up leadership structures through DFID and NGOs, but it is also up to the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, to ensure that we in Parliament can start to speak out. This is not just between the Bangladeshi and the Burmese Governments. Stakeholders—those people, those women, those children—must be at the heart of any decision making, so that if they are able to go back they will be repatriated in a dignified way, when it is safe for them to do so and when they have agreed to do so.

This is at a slight tangent, but there is one particular thing that I think our Committee needs to do. I appeal to any women Members, if they so choose, to put their names forward when there is a vacancy. Women and Equalities questions took place earlier today, and we have had plenty of debates about women’s equality, but this is at the heart of what we need to be doing. The Committee currently has just one female member, my hon. Friend Mrs Latham. One of the limitations when we are investigating what is happening in the camps is our inability to go into some of the health clinics and see people who are traumatised by the rape, the violence and the maiming that they have seen. It is impossible for the likes of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and me to go there, and even if we did, we would not get the information out. If Parliament is to do its job, it is fundamentally important for the Committee to have a better gender balance in future.

Many Members have mentioned gender-based violence, which is mentioned in one of our recommendations. How can we build up justice, and establish accountability for what has happened? We have clearly said that the military cannot act with impunity, feeling that they can do what they like and get away with it. They must be held to account. The next stage is reconciliation. How can we start to bring the different factions back together? That does not just mean dampening down military control in the country. If the Rohingya manage to return to their homes, they will need to be able to live side by side with the other members of the Rakhine community, who have been whipped up into a nationalist frenzy and pushed into perpetrating some of the violence alongside the militia.

The Rohingya communities were farming some of the land and harvesting, but as people have been pushed into Bangladesh, that has gone to pot, and many of the villages that were burnt have started to turn back into jungle, which is beginning to affect the community as a whole. The entire state is suffering badly, not just the million people who have been pushed out. DFID has done a very good job so far in providing medicine, vaccinations, food, shelter and trauma support, but we need to do much more. This is not just about helping the people who are there. Yes, we can continue to help them, but surely the best way we can help them is to bring an end to the conflict and allow all of them to return safely and in a dignified way, and that means that the citizenship laws must be overturned.

When I first went to Burma in 2016, I met a young lady called Wai Nu, who is now campaigning around the world—in America, in this country and back in Burma. She had been in prison for seven years, and she was 29. She had served a shorter jail sentence than anyone else I had met, purely and simply because she was so little. She had been imprisoned predominantly because of her father, who was a former Member of Parliament for the area. Now, because of those citizenship laws, not only could he no longer be a Member of Parliament, but he could not even vote. He could not even be a citizen of the country in which he had lived for his entire life, which is painfully ridiculous. This is a fundamental issue. We must press for change if the Rohingya are to have any comfort in the knowledge that they will be able to return to their country.

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister—who is always very proactive when it comes to matters relating to Burma and, indeed, the whole region, and with whom I have worked very closely—have been far more robust in recent weeks and months in respect of the possibility of a referral to the International Criminal Court. The work that is being done at the United Nations with the international community is extremely important.

We must think about what more we can do to target the military with sanctions. As I have often said in this place, I do not think that we should target the whole of Burma in a “blanket” way, because that would adversely affect so many people who are not in the midst of the conflict and who desperately need our help. We need to target the military so that they cannot feel that they can get away with this with impunity.

We need China’s influence as well. Yes, it has its trading links, but if it wants to be part of a wider trading partnership with the international community, it must realise that it has responsibilities as well. I do not care if ASEAN countries do not come out and say that publicly, as long as they are saying it when they are having conversations with the Burmese military, with whom many countries in the surrounding area are reasonably friendly. They can have private conversations that may bear fruit in the long run. They can say to Burma, “You need to tackle your responsibilities if you want to return as an open member of the international community.”

Finally and briefly, I want to broaden my speech and talk about why I have always believed we need a holistic approach. Dr Drew talked about the other conflicts, and it is important that have an understanding of them here, by looking at the Christians in Chin state who are still persecuted, and at northern Shan and Kachin where there is still conflict going on; airstrikes were reported only a few months ago, and there is open fighting. A bomb was found in Shan state just last month. There are also the Reuters journalists who have been put in prison, and a British national, Niranjan Rasalingam, who is in Insein prison serving a 17-year sentence on what many believe are trumped-up financial charges. We need to look at that, and address it by asking, even though many political prisoners have been released, what more we can do to make sure people whose charges might be fake or trumped up are judged under the open rule of law.

Without stopping too much DFID aid around the country, we do need to make sure we provide for the healthcare and educational needs and the democratic structures, so that when Burma finally decides to re-join the international community it has the capacity to do so in its Hluttaw—its Parliament.

I am the trade envoy to Burma and, finally, I want to say that the economic development of Burma is very important. We must build on prosperity and bring people into that, because if they feel the benefit of involvement with the wider international community, through improved facilities and services, micropayments, FinTech solutions for the smaller villages and so forth, that holistic approach will help to drive them back into the wider family of the United Nations.