Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

I am sure that was a rather mischievous intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but because it is Christmas we will let him get away with it. But he makes a serious point.

Let me touch on the issue of sexual violence, which was raised by a number of Members. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland asked about the legal status of children in camps. I will write to her, because I need to consult the FCO’s legal advisers to be absolutely clear about the precise nature of that. As many Members will know, we have worked very closely and played a leading role with our advisers on sexual violence in Bangladesh. We have a team of experts trying to map and document human rights violations, partly for the longer-term development of evidence, but obviously also to try to train up Bangladeshi expertise in this regard. Clearly that is an important part of our ongoing work in the camps.

DFID is very much leading the way in supporting a range of organisations that provide specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh, including 19 women’s centres offering a safe space, psychosocial support and activity for women and girls. At the last count, 53,510 women have been provided with midwifery care and advice. We also support projects in Burma as part of the preventing sexual violence initiative, including publishing guidance on support for survivors in a formal legal process.

In conclusion, we all know that the Rohingya people have a right to live in their home country in safety and with dignity—something we take for granted at this time of the year. For that to happen, those responsible for their persecution must be held accountable, and the Burmese state must show that it is serious about bringing an end to prejudice and discrimination against ethnic minorities who have suffered for so long. Burma will also continue to need the support of the international community if we are to see democracy, human rights and the rule of law embedded in that country for the longer term.

As things stand, we must prepare ourselves for what I fear will be a very long journey. We must remember that the Burmese people will have to endure every step of that journey, given the Government they have. That is why I will repeat today what I have said before: for their sake, the UK will stay the course so that one day the people of Burma can live together in peace, justice and prosperity.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I repeat the offer that my door will remain open on the issue. One of the frustrations in the 18 months or so that I have been a Foreign Office Minister is that there are certain matters—I was going to say “easy wins”, but nothing is easy in diplomacy—that land on my desk and in relation to which I can achieve something in very quick order. I have spent a huge amount of time working on this issue, as a number of Members have been kind enough to point out. Perhaps I do not share the passion or anger shown by some Opposition Members, but I share their concerns and wish that I could achieve more. I wish that I could say that we had been able to achieve a huge amount in the international community. Sometimes, as I have said on the Floor of the House before, one of the frustrations and challenges of being in the Foreign Office is that we take two or three steps forward and then take a couple of steps back. We have made progress and a lot of work is going on, not only among my team in the Foreign Office but in New York and Geneva, and particularly in Dhaka, Rangoon and Naypyidaw, where we have our high commissions and embassies.

The truth of the matter is that this issue is very tough. It is one of those issues that is not open to a rapid solution. I wish it were. It breaks my heart: I am a father of two children and, not least at this time of the year, one recognises the conditions in which many Rohingya live, and not just for the past 18 months, because many of them have been living in those conditions for decades. We have to be in it for the long haul. The UK Government and, more importantly still, in many ways, the UK Parliament is in it for the long haul.

I thank everyone for what they have done. As I say, my door remains open and I will try to ensure that as the situation develops we speak to as many Members with strong concerns about this matter as we can. Work is in progress, and although there is not a great dawn ahead in 2019, I feel that we are taking a number of tracks, and hopefully we will not only have accountability and improve the humanitarian opportunities for those living in Cox’s Bazar, but work with international partners to try to look properly to the longer term. As many people say, the issue in that part of the world is not just about the Rohingya today; it is about the precedent that is being set. Although we can never say never again, and they always seem like such hollow words, that is the real prize here. If we can do something and bring together an accountability process that is a precedent for the future, a lot of the very hard work on this matter that goes on, not only in the UK Foreign Office but in several other countries, will not be in vain.