Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 2:59 pm, 20th December 2018

It is always a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon. I pay tribute to the work that he does in the all-party group for international freedom of religion and belief. Perhaps I could even say, “Well done, you,”—but perhaps not.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate. It is a sombre and reflective end to the term, but, nevertheless, a very important opportunity to remember, as we go off on the Christmas break, that the seasonal message of peace, hope and joy should be not just aspirational, but motivational, as we remember those who will not enjoy the comforts that many of us are looking forward to, and, of course, that includes the refugees and the Rohingya people. I also echo the point made by others that, on another day, the Benches would have been considerably fuller. That applies to the Scottish National party Benches as well, and I speak on behalf of all my hon. Friends in this debate.

The House has considered this issue several times since the first evidence of the crisis. I remember, very soon after the 2015 general election, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) leading an Adjournment debate on the issue. He had also drawn the attention of the House to the issue in January of that year in Westminster Hall. Those debates were the straws in the wind, as it was becoming apparent then that the initial high expectations of democratic reform and the forthcoming elections were perhaps too high, and that there would in fact be trouble ahead. That has been reflected in the powerful contributions that we have heard in all the speeches today, especially from members of the International Development Committee who have travelled to the area. They include Paul Scully who has had first-hand experience of the area, and Dr Allin-Khan who gave a very powerful and moving account.

I just want to reflect briefly on the situation on the ground, some of the international responses and the role for the UK Government. We have heard those testimonies throughout the debate. Since 2017, and indeed before, there has been a brutal state-sponsored oppression of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state—mass murder, rape, abuse, destruction of villages, certainly a form of ethnic cleansing and now very clear ground to consider whether a genocide is taking place. We heard other moving stories from Lyn Brown in that regard.

More than 800,000 Rohingya people have already fled to Bangladesh, with women and children accounting for at least 80% of those refugees. The point was well made by the hon. Member for St Albans about the need to continue to raise awareness and public understanding so that this issue does not get lost. I pay tribute to my old friends in the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and Justice and Peace Scotland who, this year, commissioned the photo exhibition, The Journey, which has been touring Catholic cathedrals and other venues in Scotland, bringing home the harrowing reality of the refugee crisis and the experience of the Rohingya people and ensuring that they are not forgotten. I also join the tributes that have been paid to other non-governmental organisations working in the area. Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Burma Campaign in particular provided very helpful background for this debate.

There may now be a pretence of calm and an attempt to keep the lid on the situation, but it is clear that things remain precarious, that oppression continues, and that any attempt by Bangladesh to force repatriation on the refugees could once again lead to an escalation in violence.

It is important to recognise some of the responses from international actors. There is a widespread humanitarian response in operation. Last year, the Scottish Government contributed £120,000 from their humanitarian emergency fund. The First Minister said:

The Scottish Government has made clear that we support the UN Secretary General’s call for effective action that addresses the root causes of the situation and brings an end to violence. We also stand ready to support the UK Government in providing an appropriate response to this situation…The Scottish Government expects all states to comply with fundamental and human rights law, to condemn human rights abuses wherever they occur, and to take positive action to confront abuses and give practical day-to-day effect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

We support the EU and US actions and sanctions on individuals in the Myanmar military, including the European Council’s recent decision to adopt individual sanctions against Myanmar’s senior military and border guard officials for alleged human rights violations. The US has also adopted such sanctions, but, clearly, there are calls in this Chamber and from elsewhere that they could be stronger and more effective. I also note the decision of the US House of Representatives to agree a resolution that the Myanmar Government’s actions constitute genocide, and perhaps that does need further consideration here in this House.

It is clear that further support is needed for the authorities and responders in Bangladesh. It must not feel that it has to forcibly repatriate the Rohingya refugees—a point on which the Chair of the International Development Committee spoke very powerfully. There are some estimates that suggest that barely half of the required funding has actually been met. Likewise, the refugees must be treated with respect for their human rights and under humanitarian principles. The reports we have heard of prison-like accommodation and significant overcrowding in camps are simply unacceptable.

I echo the calls for careful management and regulation of social media. The comparison has been drawn with the situation in Rwanda. I had the privilege of travelling there with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association earlier this year, and the legacy of that genocide is still incredibly raw 25 years on. We keep saying that this must never happen again, yet here we are on the verge of it happening again. We have to respond and take action, which is why this situation should be among the highest priorities for the UK’s diplomatic efforts.

We have a long historical relationship with Burma/Myanmar and we should be using our influence with the country’s Government and on the world stage. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government have chosen not to accept in full the findings and recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission, and it is clear from this debate that there has to be further and full consideration of whether the violence against the Rohingya people constitutes genocide. I echo the calls of Imran Hussain that the Government must completely and unequivocally condemn what is happening.

As others have said, it would be useful to hear from the Minister an update on efforts to build support for a legal tribunal, whether that is a referral of the regime to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal to consider the situation. There are other steps that the UK and its agencies could take to more effectively enforce sanctions—for example, by making sure that procurement by the Department for International Development or the embassy does not source goods or services from military-owned or controlled companies in the country.

As others have alluded to, the sorriest part of the story is the fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi. She had been such an inspirational figure to so many people. As I have said previously in Westminster Hall debates, I grew up hearing about her house arrest and the inspiration she provided. When she was released, she was fêted here in this House, but now the civic honours are being stripped from her, including the freedom of the cities of Dundee and Glasgow. But she still has a crucial role to play, and could redeem her reputation and her Government, if she was willing to acknowledge the mistakes that are being made and take whatever steps she can to bring the army under control. The first and most important thing she must do is to recognise the rights of the Rohingya people to citizenship in their own country. That message is coming very strongly from this debate and from the international actors, and it must come strongly from the UK Government too.

This time of year is about hope. We must have hope, but we must take responsibility for bringing that hope to fruition. That message is coming strongly and clearly from this House in support of the UN’s findings, and the Government must use their resources and influences to build peace and seek justice for the Rohingya people of Myanmar. On that note, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everybody in the House and around the world—including the people of Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Rohingya communities—a happy and peaceful Christmas.