Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:07 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:07 pm, 20th December 2018

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and she is absolutely right. She made a powerful speech. Through their work and actions, she and Paul Scully have demonstrated that there is a consensus across the House on this matter, to which we want Ministers to listen and pay attention. She asked, what would be different in December 2019 and why should we wait for the independent commission of inquiry, because this is surely a recipe for delay and the loss of evidence.

My hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, who chairs the International Development Committee, made an excellent speech in which he emphasised the problems with repatriation and the conditions in the camps. He stressed the importance of enabling people in the camps to work and secure an education. He pointed out that this problem will not be solved quickly, and we need to borrow from best practice in other countries in order that these people do not become a lost generation.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is the Select Committee’s rapporteur, gave us the benefit of his deep and long-standing understanding and emphasised that the Rohingya themselves must have more control in this situation. My hon. Friend Imran Hussain demonstrated that the gender-based violence is not the result of an army out of control but is being used as a systematic weapon of war. He expressed his frustration with the position that the British Government have taken. He talked, in particular, about children born in the camps. There is a question for the Minister flowing from his remarks: what is the legal status of these children? It would be very helpful if we could have a clear legal view from the Foreign Office on their legal status, because we are clearly talking about thousands of young children. My hon. Friend also pointed out that relying on the internal state to provide security for the Rohingya people is completely inadequate.

My hon. Friend Lyn Brown talked about the catastrophe suffered by two people, in particular. As so often, the horror is easier to understand when one hears about individuals than when one hears about thousands of people. She also pointed to the propaganda war that has been run over a long period. Will the Minister consider what the legal responsibilities are of the social media companies? What, precisely, are the responsibilities that we should be attributing to Facebook—and, incidentally, has it given any money from its huge profits to address this vast humanitarian crisis?

My hon. Friend Dr Allin-Khan spoke about the atrocities that have occurred. Her testimony was so powerful that I really feel that I do not want even to begin to comment on it. She ended by saying that we need to move from platitudes to promises, and I completely agree.

My hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin pointed to the most recent evidence that has come out of the country. All hon. Members have said that the treatment of the Rohingya is obviously the most horrific act of the Myanmar Government, but a number of things are going on in the country that show that it is not open or properly democratic. The Government made such a strategic error when they jailed two Reuters journalists, because now Reuters is using satellite photography that shows that villages are being bulldozed and new people are being put into them. That reinforces the case that hon. Members are making that, when the Myanmar Government say that people should go back into Rakhine state, they mean that they are just going to be put into camps—enclosed, not given freedom of movement. That, in itself, is a completely unacceptable and unsafe situation. They are continuing to oppress the Rohingya people and they are suppressing open reporting.

Jim Shannon, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, made a heartfelt call for improvements across the board in Myanmar. I agree with him about what is happening to the Chin people. I was extremely alarmed—again, I would like some answers from the Minister on this—when I heard on the World Service that the UNHCR was proposing to send back people from that ethnic minority who are currently refugees in Malaysia, India, Thailand and Nepal. So I wrote to the UNHCR to ask it about this. I wrote for two reasons, partly out of concern for that group of people and partly because it sets a terrible precedent for the Rohingya minority. I had a letter back from the UNHCR at the end of November, and it said that the reasons giving rise to a fear of persecution under the 1951 convention have very significantly diminished. I will share the letter with the Minister afterwards, but I would like to know whether that is also the Foreign Office’s assessment. I do not think it is the assessment of hon. Members, not least because we have seen the Rohingya people continuing to cross the border throughout the year.

The big question, of course, is, what should be done? What should we do now? The Government are telling us that they think we should allow the Burmese Government to carry on with the process they call a commission of inquiry. The UK Government want to press them to ensure that the process is transparent, independent and considers international evidence. Everything we know about the Myanmar Government suggests that we cannot have confidence in an internal inquiry. Myanmar is not a country with a robust criminal justice system, and there is a big risk in behaving as if it is such a country. The risk is that people escape, that evidence is lost, that nothing ever happens and that people are not brought to justice.

Her Majesty’s Opposition believe it is now time to have a UN Security Council resolution referring the Myanmar military to the ICC. When the Minister wrote to me about that a few days ago, he said that we would lose and that it would not advance the cause of accountability should the UNSC try and fail to refer Burma to the ICC. I do not think for a single moment that that is an easy judgment to make, and nor do I think any Member would think that, but we need to look at where we think the opposition to such a resolution would come from.

First, of course, there is the risk of a Chinese veto. As part of its belt and road initiative, China is currently trying to build a port in Rakhine state. China is continually arguing that the Rohingya are an internal issue. That is clearly because China wants to have a good relationship with the Myanmar Government so it is able to continue with its belt and road initiative, and in my opinion it is also because China does not want people looking too closely at how it is treating the Muslim Uighur minority in the west of China.

We are also beginning to see an undermining of the ICC by the Trump Administration. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, recently said that the ICC is “dead to us”. He does not want the ICC to prosecute US army officials for alleged abuses in Afghanistan.

The question is really whether the British Government wish to hand over their moral conscience to the Chinese and the Trump Administration. Would it not be better to be open and straightforward by standing up for what we believe and letting them be tried in the court of public opinion?

Other hon. Members have talked about sanctions, and we now have individual sanctions against some members of the Myanmar military. However, two further strengthenings would send helpful and powerful signals. Unless we put more pressure on the Myanmar Government, they will feel that they have some impunity. The first point is to have a UN-mandated global arms embargo, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about the scope for that. The second point is to extend European sanctions, which at the moment are on individuals, to that part of the economy controlled by the military. We know there are travel restrictions on some of the Myanmar military, but we do not know—again, this is a specific question for the Government—what assets have been frozen so far.