Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:27 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 3:27 pm, 20th December 2018

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, and to Members for their heartfelt and emotional contributions. One difficulty of standing at this Dispatch Box is that although I have heard the poetry, there may now be a little more prose as I try to give a realistic assessment of what is achievable. As we know, politics is to an extent the art of the possible, but it is also the art of aspiration, and I hope to touch on a few issues that have been raised. I shall try to respond to all the points raised, but I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I revert to writing to a number of specific points. Helen Goodman will accept that it is better I do it that way, rather than try to give a glib answer that then begins to unravel.

I take this opportunity to condemn on the record the political violence that we have seen in Bangladesh in recent days, which has, and will have, a big bearing on these matters. Whenever I visit Bangladesh, I am struck—as I am sure other hon. Members are—by the absolute determination of its people to get on and prosper, and we all know that political instability and violence will not help them to do either of those things. Much can be said, of course, for many in the British-Bangladeshi diaspora

I am concerned by reports that some civil society organisations in Bangladesh are being prevented from observing the election. Independent domestic and international observers have a crucial role in helping to support a free and transparent process for the elections in 10 days’ time. We urge all in Bangladesh to refrain from further violence, to deliver a democratic election, to give Bangladeshis a properly representative Parliament that can propel their country to greater economic prosperity, and—to reflect the words of Stephen Twigg—to reflect on their ongoing responsibilities for the situation in and around Cox’s Bazar.

I now turn directly to the subject of this impassioned debate. The plight of the Rohingya people rightly concerns many hon. Members—many more, perhaps, than are in the Chamber today. Like me, several colleagues have made the journey to camps in Bangladesh to meet refugees and heard their distressing testimony for themselves. When I travelled to Cox’s Bazar in June, I could see the immense scale of the suffering. The refugee situation is heartbreaking, notwithstanding the immense generosity being shown to them by the Government of Bangladesh, who have given shelter to nearly 1 million people. Those whom I spoke to said that they wanted, in time, to return to their homes in Burma, but only if they could be certain that they would no longer be persecuted and discriminated against.

I very much agree with the sentiments of the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Bishop Auckland and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain): the citizenship issue is critical. If we do not get that right, it will be pointless for the refugees to return. But the situation is difficult: we cannot impose that but must work with the international community to make the case to the Burmese authorities. The UK Government will continue to work with international partners to press for the creation of conditions in Rakhine allowing for a voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees. However, there is clearly no appetite for such a return at the moment.