I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members from across the House—especially those on the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh—who supported the application for the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
In January, along with a number of MPs on the APPG, I visited Cox’s Bazar and witnessed the desperate plight of Rohingya refugees, particularly women and children. The visit convinced me of the need to keep this humanitarian disaster at the forefront of our hearts and minds, and to urge the UK Government to lead the international community in doing all we can to help. I thank all the non-governmental organisations, charities, human rights organisations and volunteers who work tirelessly on the ground to provide aid and assistance to some of the most desperate people on earth.
It is almost six years since hundreds of thousands fled Myanmar in 2017, when the Myanmar military, supported by militias, launched a brutal genocidal campaign that took thousands of lives. At least 700,000 escaped Rakhine state for Bangladesh. Now, 961,000 Rohingya refugees live in refugee camps—the largest in the world—in the Cox’s Bazar area. The vast majority are women and children.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officially recognises that a state of emergency remains in place across Myanmar. There is conflict and significant violence across much of the country, involving airstrikes, artillery bombardments, landmines and armed clashes. It is not yet safe for Rohingya people to return.
The generosity of Bangladesh in taking in more than 1.5 million refugees cannot be overstated. The pressure of responding to a humanitarian crisis on such a scale in the way that Bangladesh has would be difficult even for the wealthiest countries in the world. Although its economy is growing fast, Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world and needs our continued support to share responsibility for such a large and rapidly created diaspora.
Conditions in the camps are not good. Some of the MPs who are here to support the debate today have visited them. The plight of the people there is devastating. I have lived and seen real poverty, and I have seen the impact of conflict—the many displaced people, the people with nothing—but I have never seen anything like the suffering of the women and children in the camps we visited. The trauma etched on some of their faces still haunts me.
Vulnerable people and children have spent years living in squalid conditions. There are severe restrictions on the kind of temporary shelters Rohingya refugees can live in. Refugees’ homes are not permitted sanitation, water or electricity, and there is little access to education and healthcare. They are surrounded by barbed wire fences and have no freedom of movement. Children born in the camps have never seen an existence beyond their makeshift tents.
We must use all our political clout to assist these destitute people with no means or obvious hope of building a new life or returning to their old ones. Bangladesh wants and needs to work with international donors and Rohingya people to develop long-term plans for hosting refugees in decent housing, with access to proper education and health services. Bangladesh cannot be expected to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility. Although I think that was understood by the UK Government and many others in the beginning, support is fading fast.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing such an important debate to the House. He is making an excellent speech, in particular about the plight of the Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Does he agree that it is beyond disappointing that less than 50% of the aid promised by the international community has yet to be received?
I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important point. That is what I am saying: aid from the international community has been cut by more than 50%. Aid from the UK has reduced by more than 82%. That is really affecting the people who are living in such difficult conditions. We must improve our aid and lead a campaign around the world to ensure more help for the people we have seen living in such poor conditions.
Sadly, the plight of the Rohingya and those living in the camps no longer gets the news coverage or the national or international attention that it deserves. As pressure grows, without an end in sight, there are signs of increasing discontent in the Bangladeshi host community over insecurity, economic costs and other negative effects of the refugee camps. In December, the UK led efforts to secure the first ever UN Security Council resolutions on the situation in Myanmar. UN Security Council resolution 2669 stresses the need to address the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine state and create the conditions necessary for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.
But the situation in Myanmar has deteriorated since then and Amnesty International has documented widespread human rights violations, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity as part of the military crackdown on the opposition across the country. The Myanmar military continues to arbitrarily arrest, torture and murder people with impunity two years after the coup. Since then, nearly 3,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million have been internally displaced. As hope of repatriation fades, so conditions in the refugee camps become more hopeless. A range of conflict mitigation approaches that involve citizens, the Bangladeshi state and the international community is urgently needed to alleviate inter-community tension and prevent further conflict.
It has been reported by Human Rights Watch that safety has also deteriorated under the armed police battalion that took over security in the Rohingya camps in July 2020 due to increased police abuses and corruption. UK aid must be met with more efforts from Bangladeshi authorities to investigate these alleged abuses of power to ensure that refugees are protected.
The UK Government have done a great deal to support the Rohingya, providing £350 million in aid to Bangladesh since 2017. Understandably, the world has turned its eyes and efforts to do all it can to support Ukraine, but the scale of the humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya must not be overlooked. It cannot be either/or.
The new UN appeal for funding for the current year—the 2023 Rohingya joint response plan— requires $876 million. Only 15% of that fund has been met. So far, the British Government have contributed $6.4 million to the plan. I urge the Government to review this when the spending plans for 2023-24 are confirmed.
Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted. The only way to prevent the diaspora and refugees seeking a place of sanctuary on our shores is to do all we can to stabilise their lives in their homes in host countries. Dire conditions are forcing refugees to risk dangerous boat journeys to escape. When host nations do not feel supported, hostility grows. A recent survey by the US Institute of Peace shows that 68% of Bangladeshi people think that the Rohingya should be sent back to Myanmar immediately.
The Government of Bangladesh will find it increasingly difficult to do the right thing politically without sustainable support from the international community. UK aid cuts are not only a humanitarian tragedy; they are undermining our ability to negotiate with Bangladesh to improve conditions for the Rohingya people in the camps.
Bangladeshi officials and Ministers say that theirs is a poor country. They are having to host a million refugees while richer countries do not pull their weight. Although Bangladesh can do more to improve conditions and security, there is the fundamental truth that the UK and the international community must step up their support.
Ultimately, the solution must be to create the conditions for the Rohingya to return home safely and securely, and with dignity. China, as one of the few countries with influence on the Myanmar junta, has been seeking to broker a repatriation process. This is important, but we should be cautious about both China and Myanmar’s motivations.
The British Government have taken the lead in the international response to the attempted coup, rightly targeting sanctions on sources of revenue, arms and equipment, but they are doing so too slowly. The British Government can and must do more to limit the ability of the military to commit human rights violations. It is good that the UK has agreed to join the Rohingya genocide determination case at the International Court of Justice, but while this process takes its course, I urge the Government to respond to calls for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss how the Burmese military are ignoring provisional orders to prevent ongoing genocide.
I hope that today’s debate shows how much support there is in the British Parliament for the Rohingya refugees and for Bangladesh. I hope that it injects a renewed energy to address the causes and possible solutions that will enable the Rohingya to return voluntarily and safely to Myanmar as soon as conditions allow. The only real hope of achieving that is for the British Government to work with their international partners and with the Government of Bangladesh to meet the scale of the humanitarian disaster by fully restoring UK aid to Rohingya refugees above previous peak levels.
I congratulate Mohammad Yasin on leading this important debate.
In March, I had the privilege of visiting Bangladesh. As well as meeting the honourable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, and a number of businesses throughout the region, we visited the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar. It was a very moving visit and brought home the harsh realities of Myanmar’s relentless oppression, discrimination and victimisation of the Rohingya people, which has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.
At the same time, it was encouraging to see the level of support being provided to the Rohingya by the Bangladeshi Government, who have assigned a substantial amount of money and land to provide a safe, temporary home to those who have been made involuntarily stateless. It was also good to meet those involved in running the camp and providing the vital services on which the residents rely. This includes those working at a women’s health clinic who were offering ante-natal classes to pregnant women, as well as the people who were responsible for delivering water and energy and those providing education to resident children. These are tough jobs, but they are being done incredibly well in difficult circumstances. I was proud to see the “UK Aid” sign over the medical centre.
It is also important to mention that much of this work could not have been carried out without the significant contribution of the UK Government, having provided more than £340 million to the crisis since 2017. However, as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put it:
“Despite progress, the Rohingya remain in an extremely precarious situation. The root causes of their plight in Myanmar have not been addressed and their future is yet uncertain. Refugees have access to the basics, such as food and healthcare, but they are still extremely vulnerable, living in highly challenging circumstances, exposed to the monsoon elements and dependent on aid.”
This was clearly visible in the camp that we visited, where there was a deep fear of the incidents that had been occurring at night, as well as of the fires, mentioned earlier, that have ripped through the camp on a number of occasions. Shortly before we visited, one fire engulfed an estimated 2,000 wooden shelters—making around 12,000 refugees homeless—and at least 35 mosques and 21 learning centres. From January 2021 to December 2022, there have been 222 fire incidents in the Rohingya camps, including 60 cases of arson. It is clear that the camps, while crucial to providing emergency shelter to refugees, are not a permanent solution.
Alongside providing funding to Bangladesh to support those in camps such as the one at Cox’s Bazar, the UK Government must continue to utilise all their diplomatic firepower to bring an end to Myanmar’s horrific treatment of the Rohingya people and ease the burden on countries such as Bangladesh that are having to deal with the humanitarian fallout. I would welcome an update from the Minister on recent actions the Government have taken to achieve that.
Many of the children I met at Cox’s Bazar were young and small; they had clearly been born there and lived there their whole lives. That is no life. Those are innocent people who deserve to have a proper future. Please, let us do everything we can to give them one.
Finally, I take this opportunity, in the mother of all Parliaments, to thank the Government of Bangladesh—a country of only 52 years so far—for all that they have done to support the Rohingya, all the aid charities who work on site daily to help the residents, and the UK Government and other Governments for their aid. I also take the opportunity to impress upon those in charge in Myanmar that the world is watching. We ask them to stop the oppression of the Rohingya people and allow them to go home.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin on securing this important debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for us to debate this issue. As he mentioned in his opening speech, in January this year we visited Cox’s Bazar and south-eastern parts of Bangladesh with the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I declare an interest, because the visit was funded by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the parliamentary group is one that I chair, along with the APPGs on Burma and on the rights of the Rohingya.
The Cox’s Bazar area is a beautiful part of the world, with miles of sandy beaches, and has a reputation internally as a tourist destination, but now it is synonymous with the vast refugee camps that are home to 1 million Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya people are the most persecuted in the world, having had their citizenship rights stripped from them in the early 1980s by the Burmese military.
Before the January visit with colleagues, I had visited the camps a number of times, meeting with refugees and speaking to local and international agencies. I can tell the House that this is and remains an urgent and pressing humanitarian crisis. I also had the opportunity to visit Rakhine State on two occasions: once with Refugees International a few years after I was first elected, and then in 2017, before the attacks on the Rohingya population led to the forcing out of 750,000 people, who had to flee to Bangladesh.
Five years on, the situation has got worse, not better. The Burmese military, having perpetrated genocide and attacks on the Rohingya population and forced them out of Bangladesh, went on to carry out a military coup and oust the democratically elected Government two years ago. The impunity granted to the Burmese military over the genocide is a clear reason why it calculated that it could get away with a military coup in Myanmar.
I thank my hon. Friend for all her continued efforts for the Rohingyas and for that region, and I think Members across the House will agree. Does she agree that in autumn 2017, many of us stood in this Chamber and pleaded with the Government to take action when we saw the beginning of the ethnic cleansing and genocide, only to be told by Ministers that they would not interfere because of the fragile democracy in that region? As she says, what have we achieved by doing that? The Government’s inaction has emboldened the military there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that, in the hope of securing a transition to democracy, the international community failed to see the dangers for minority groups in Burma. I think we can all recognise that that was a massive oversight, despite warnings from some of us in this House—not just in my party but in others—about the need to ease sanctions gradually rather than letting the Burmese military do as it pleased without any levers left for us to influence and curtal its behaviour. The reality is that it was not a full democracy: the Burmese military continued to control the police and the major security operations, and it used Aung San Suu Kyi as a human shield to defend its actions and the bloodshed and genocide that it committed. It is a great source of regret and disappointment that she then defended the military in the International Court of Justice case. That was completely unacceptable.
These are lessons that we all need to learn from rather than continuing in the same vein and allowing genocide to be perpetrated in other countries. In a number of countries—China in relation to the Uyghur Muslim population, for example—ethnic cleansing and human rights violations are increasingly being used by leaders as an acceptable policy tool. We have to do more to prevent ethnic cleansing and the persecution of minorities in a number of countries, and lessons need to be learned.
I celebrate my hon. Friend, who has campaigned and challenged on the Rohingya since the inception of this awful situation. Does she share my frustration that the Minister sat back when it came to declaring genocide and just waited for the international courts to do it? People are dying as a consequence of this situation.
I am grateful for the support that I have had from colleagues across the board, particularly on the Labour side, on this important issue and on ensuring that our Government take action to support the cause for justice in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. My hon. Friend is right that the UK, as the penholder in the UN Security Council in relation to Myanmar/Burma, has a unique and special responsibility.
We have had a failure of leadership by our Government. That is not a criticism of the relatively new Minister of State with responsibility for the Indo-Pacific, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who recently visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar. I know that she is conscious of the need to seek justice. One of the ways in which we can protect the Rohingya people who remain in Burma is to ensure that the International Court of Justice case led by Gambia is properly supported. That case against the Burmese military is protecting people in Burma from being persecuted. I hope that the Minister will be able to address the point about the need for proper support. The UK Government announced last year that they would support that case, but we need to see that in concrete terms, with the UK joining the Netherlands, Canada and the other countries that were first out to support it. We should be leading the charge.
The hon. Member is making an informative and powerful speech. Does she agree that a number of major countries with huge clout should know better and should have done more and been stronger in their condemnation of the behaviour of the Myanmar regime? That has been disappointing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who serves as a vice chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh and who is a powerful advocate for the Rohingya people, for working cross-party on this important issue. He is right that we could have done more and should do more, but we can rectify some of those mistakes by ensuring that we support the International Court of Justice case. I welcome the fact that the UK Government have agreed to support a referral to the International Criminal Court, but we need further clarity on what action will be taken to enable that to happen. I recognise the point made by the then Minister about the risk of the Chinese blocking a referral to the International Criminal Court, but we cannot use that as a justification for no action.
Despite the attacks on the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Burma, the Rohingya are forgotten and face constant threats from the Burmese military in that country, along with other groups. We had a debate in Westminster Hall recently about the situation in Myanmar and the attacks and airstrikes by the Burmese military on their own people, which is causing the displacement of millions within the country and putting at risk their ability to survive because of the way in which the country has been devastated by the military coup and the actions of the Government there. Before, they were persecuting certain groups, in particular Rohingya refugees and other minorities. Now, the whole country is being persecuted by the Burmese military once again. They have seized control, and there seems to be no end in sight to their repression of the people of that country.
More than half the refugees in the camps in Cox’s Bazar are children. A generation of children growing up in refugee camps are being denied a decent education, denied opportunities to grow and develop their talents and abilities, and denied a future. That is not to say that the Bangladeshi authorities and Bangladeshi NGOs, working with international NGOs, have not made an enormous effort. In a context where many countries, including our own and other western countries, struggle to accommodate even a few thousand refugees, Bangladesh has accommodated 1 million refugees, and we commend it for that, but these areas need improvement with our support.
I congratulate Mohammad Yasin on securing this important debate. The International Development Committee has long been concerned about the situation for Rohingya refugees, in particular those in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, which we visited some time ago. We saw how important UK aid funding was in supporting refugees there, in terms of both preventing extreme hunger and protecting women and girls from violence. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is crucial for the Government to rethink their 80% cut to aid funding for Rohingya refugees since 2019-20?
I am really grateful to the hon. Lady, and I commend her for the work she does on the Committee and her commitment to this agenda, including her work on UN Women. Given that she is in the ruling party, I hope that even if Ministers do not pay attention to what we say, they might pay attention to her and her colleagues, who are making very important points with us. There is cross-party agreement on the need to support those who are struggling, not least because half of them are children and the majority are women.
This is a broader point, but if we are serious about addressing these issues and making sure that refugee crises around the world do not put people in a position where they have to risk their lives and find clandestine mechanisms to get to our shores at the hands of criminals and gangs who try to exploit them, we need to ensure that there is proper support in countries that are hosting the largest number of refugees. That is ultimately the only way in which we are going to be able to address these issues.
Therefore, it is in our self-interest to ensure that those who are in refugee camps in these countries get the appropriate support and protection that they need, so that they are not exploited, and also so that we do not need to use those resources in this country—resources that could go a long way. At the moment, the UK Government are spending £6 million of the overseas development aid budget per day on housing those who have got here, in order to keep them in shelter. If that continues because not enough action is being taken to address the source of the issues, the aid budget will diminish further, which cannot be right. We will have even less scope to help millions of people in other countries and get more value for our money in our aid efforts. These are interconnected issues, and I really hope that they are taken seriously, rather than politicised—which, sadly, has happened on the domestic front while people continue to suffer.
Returning to the way in which the Burmese military have acted, as I mentioned, we are seeing them continuing to act with impunity. That is why, in past debates, we have spoken out about the need for the UK Government to ensure that sanctions are placed on the Burmese military. I welcome some of those that have been introduced, but there is a lot more we can do to make sure the Burmese military do not continue to carry out airstrikes against their own people, because that is forcing more of their citizens to seek refuge elsewhere in other countries.
I pay tribute to our Government and aid agencies, as well as to the Government of Bangladesh and other authorities, for doing incredible work over the past five years to support those who need help—people who face a desperate situation, who have been traumatised and have lost family members. On top of all of that—on top of seeing members of their families brutally killed, women being raped and sons being killed in front of their fathers, which is what I was told on previous visits by men in the camps—they have since faced a global pandemic. They are in a country that is climate-vulnerable and susceptible to floods, and which has its own challenges with high levels of deprivation. For years and years we have seen people with no hope—no hope of being able to return to their homes and build a life with some sense of hope for the future.
That is why it is so disheartening that our Government have responded, not by ensuring that there is appropriate support on an ongoing basis, but by cutting the Rohingya refugee budget by more than 80%. I hope that the messages that have already been provided by colleagues across the House will be heeded, and that the Minister will do all she can to persuade her colleagues not to maintain that cut. According to Burma Campaign UK, what was £112 million in 2019-20 will be £20.26 million in the 2022-23 Budget. The interventions in the early years of the crisis were very welcome: they were significant interventions that saved lives, and of course, I commend the Government for what they did in those early years. All I ask is that Ministers do not continue with the cuts and that they look at restoring the support, for the reasons that have been made clear in the interventions and in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford.
The need for aid and compassion is greater, not less. This is not about altruism; it is absolutely in our self-interest to act and make sure that we deal with the issues at source. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tom Andrews, reported that 45% of Rohingya families are living on insufficient diets; half of the children are anaemic; four in 10 pregnant and breastfeeding women are anaemic; and four in 10 children have their growth stunted because of poor diets. Imagine what will happen when the budgets go down further. In a letter to United Nations member states in response to what could be a series of further cuts to World Food Programme food rations for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, he said:
“These cuts will be devastating for a traumatised population that is already suffering from widespread malnutrition”.
As has already been said, when the cross-party delegation that I was a part of visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar in January 2023, people highlighted just how challenging the circumstances were. When I first visited the camps in 2018, a year after the exodus when all those 750,000 people fled to Cox’s Bazar, the men and women, but particularly the women were relieved, although the camps’ conditions were not good, to be in a place where they were not going to be killed. That is how they saw it. They were just relieved that they could sleep without being taken away and raped. They felt that they had found refuge, and they were incredibly grateful to have that. The problem is that years and years on, they cannot see any signs of hope, and it is a true sign of desperation when some of those people say that they would consider going back, even though going back is not an option and the dangers are even greater.
Given how the Rohingya are feeling and where they are in terms of a lack of hope— for reasons that we can understand—we cannot have a situation where we make matters worse by reducing food rations and putting them in a position where there is no hope, and where their survival is in danger. We heard from refugees about that despair and hopelessness, while the people responsible for genocide are still in power with no justice for the Rohingyas. They told us that they had no conception that five years on, they would still be living in refugee camps with little chance of safe return home.
Our lasting impression is that the plight of the Rohingya remains a stain on the conscience of the world. Every humanitarian, diplomatic and Government effort needs to be focused on securing justice for the Rohingya people. That must include safe return to their homes and the legal prosecution of those responsible for the genocide. Women in Cox’s Bazar told us that they wanted more autonomy within the camps. They raised concerns about their safety and that of girls, especially after dark, when the aid workers are absent and there is a lack of security and little light. Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the aid agencies within Bangladesh, as well as the international agencies and the major NGOs, the Rohingya are living on the brink of what feels like a constant state of humanitarian crisis that will only get worse, not better, if we do not play our part. There is a massive and vital role for international aid, and budgets should be increased as soon as possible to avert disaster.
The situation is worsening, with around 350 people having died at sea trying to escape. That highlights the desperation of the situation. Hostility towards the Rohingya population is increasing in Bangladesh. There was a huge welcome in the beginning and people were helping all over the country, but years have gone by and they have their own pressures, and some of the hostilities are growing. The US Institute of Peace suggests that nearly 70% of Bangladeshi people say that the Rohingya should be sent back to Myanmar immediately, despite the obvious and apparent dangers. Even within the camps, children are denied access to education, and no permanent homes are to be constructed. Refugees are being denied proper sanitation, water and electricity.
There is also the ever-present danger of epidemics. The World Health Organisation reported in March 2023:
“Beyond COVID-19, persistent threats in Cox’s Bazar include diseases such as dengue, diphtheria, and cholera, as well as environmental health challenges like cyclones, floods, and landslides.”
There is evidence of criminal gangs preying on vulnerable people. A report published by the London School of Economics in February stated:
“and other criminal gangs. These groups control everything from drug trafficking to extortion”.
There is also an increased danger of fires. In March this year, a terrible fire ripped through camp 11 in Cox’s Bazar, leaving 12,000 people homeless for a second time. So we need to recognise that the situation is not sustainable, and we have to be active partners and provide the resources needed to make sure the situation does not get worse.
There is much that still needs to be done. Repatriation of Rohingya people is currently impossible, as has been stated. The British Government should make it clear to international partners that there can be no forced repatriation of Rohingya people back to Myanmar. The Rohingya can only return when their citizenship rights are reinstated, and when their full human rights are respected and protected. The UK Government, who have of course slashed these budgets, need to make sure that that support is reinstated. Aid cuts to the Rohingya refugees need to be reversed. The cut in humanitarian aid is now working as a push factor, forcing more people to risk their lives to find a better life, and dying, as I have pointed out. The 50% cut in the UK aid budget to Burma since the coup needs to be reversed if we are not to see a further deterioration in people’s conditions within that country.
As I have said, we welcome the British Government support in principle for a referral to the International Criminal Court and their support for the International Court of Justice referral, and I hope we will get more information from the Minister on what that will mean. It is clear from the continuous reporting that these measures are not being implemented and the Burmese military is still getting away with genocide. So we urge the British Government to support any other justice initiatives taking place, including universal jurisdiction cases, and to reconsider British laws in relation to making universal jurisdiction cases possible in this country.
We must increase the aviation fuel sanctions on Burma, because the military is increasingly using its air power to target civilians across the country. The British Government should speed up sanctioning, and cut off all sources of revenue and arms to the military. This includes sanctioning Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise and the natural gas industry. The British Government should also increase pressure on India and Pakistan to stop supplying arms and equipment to the Burmese military.
We need to improve in practical ways the support we provide so that conditions are not deteriorating further for the people in Cox’s Bazar. We need to make sure that the Bangladesh Government have the support and encouragement so desperately needed to ensure that education and training are provided to half a million children in that country. We need to allow for proper utilities to be provided, including clean water, electricity, lighting, and drains and sewage, or the situation will just continue to get worse. Action and support are required to make sure that criminal gangs do not prey on the most vulnerable people in the world, which is what is happening at the moment.
I am grateful to the Minister for the visit she made recently, and I hope she will recognise the strength of feeling in this House. Over 100 MPs and peers have supported the campaigns we have run over the years for support in the camps for the most persecuted refugee population in the world. It is not a competition, and we need to support refugees wherever they are—notably, of course, with what is happening in Sudan and Ukraine—but we need to make sure that support is not diverted away from one group to another, because that is not right and it is not going to serve our national interests either.
My plea to the Minister is that I hope she will find the resources needed urgently to stabilise the situation in the camps. I am grateful to colleagues across the House for their support for our campaigns. Ministers have changed regularly, but I believe that it is because of the campaigns from colleagues across the House and in both houses that we have managed to get the referrals and the support for the referrals on the international justice side. I hope the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling about the need to restore the aid budget for those who need it in the camps.
It is a privilege to follow Rushanara Ali, a key voice on all Bangladesh issues, particularly this one.
Since being elected to this place I have had the opportunity to visit Bangladesh three times, which is quite a lot really. I initially went to Bangladesh because I have quite a large number of British Bengali constituents; I met a few people then and made a few connections and ended up going twice more—the only times I have been to Asia are when I have been to Bangladesh.
I have been to the Rohingya refugee camp three times as well. When going somewhere a number of times there is a danger that the power of the experience might diminish, but it has not. Every time I visit the Rohingya refugee camp I leave with the same feeling and sensation, and I believe that that will continue to be the case if I visit again.
I have been to lots of different parts of the camp, including Bhasan Char, the island, where I took part in a quick game of football. There are some ways in which the accommodation there is better than that of the main camp; I understand others have concerns about it, but there are some opportunities for livelihoods there, which is not the case in the main part of the camp.
I remember a lot of the conversations I had at the Rohingya refugee camp, and I remember the look in the eyes of a couple of the refugees I met and the slight terror in their eyes when I spoke to them about their experiences. That will probably be what sticks with me the most, particularly from the visit I made to the camp in January when I went with the all-party group on Bangladesh. I will never forget some of those conversations. They really are the most genuine refugees it is possible to meet: the experiences they have gone through; the horror they have experienced; a lot of the women there have been repeatedly raped, and have lost fathers, sons or husbands in the most brutal of ways; chased, driven from their homes purely for their ethnicity, their religion, for who they are—hated for what they are; driven from their homes for what they are.
Sadly, it continues to be the case that huge numbers of people of Muslim faith across the world continue to experience this persecution, and that should never be forgotten. No one religion is immune from dipping its toes in evil; we have seen that in Myanmar, and we must never forget that.
I went to the camp in January with colleagues including Mohammad Yasin. I forgot to thank him at the start of the debate for his successful application, which I was happy to support behind the scenes—I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary so I could not officially do so, but I like to think that I was a steadying force of support behind the scenes. Four of us went on the trip in January and I was the only Conservative Member of Parliament, but the politics have been stripped out of this issue: it is about our humanity, and I feel very passionate about working closely together. Actually, it is good that, on a Tuesday when a lot of people have other things on their mind, there is a decent turnout and it is a cross-party turnout for the debate. That should be taken into account. I am really pleased how many people have turned up for the debate and how many speakers we will have and interventions will be made.
From what we could see, a lot of good things were happening at the schools that we went to. Burmese was being taught to the children there. The children seemed happy. But my concern is about when they get a bit older because of the inability to have a livelihood, or to have any future at all. That is when a lot of the problems start. Many teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s are completely directionless with nothing to do and can be victim to gangs: that is a significant concern we had when we left the camp. The situation they face is unique because they have effectively become stateless. That puts them in a more vulnerable position than almost any other group of refugees in the world. I do not want to start comparing different types—a refugee is a refugee—but they are particularly vulnerable; they are stateless. It is true that, when they first found safety in Bangladesh, a lot of them were just thankful to be free from persecution. However, one year became two years, three years, four years and five years, and they look to the future and see no hope.
When it comes to aid, the UK has made a generous contribution. The Government have to make really difficult decisions in the wake of the pandemic, where hundreds of billions of pounds were spent, so I am not just going to say that it was a mistake to cut the international aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%—I was one of the people who completely understood why the Government did that—but there is a question: within the 0.5% we are spending on international aid, could we channel more to the Rohingya camp to support them because the demands have only gone up? The population of the camp has increased, so, if anything, the amount of money that we should be providing should be going up, not down.
We have played a leading role through the UN and the UN resolutions. It has been disappointing that many other countries have not played a bigger role in condemning the Myanmar regime. There is a question about what role India and Pakistan are playing in condemning the Myanmar regime. Are they comfortable with the role that they have played? Do they think that they have done enough? I think it needs to be an international response.
I apologise for intervening. My hon. Friend is talking about countries that could do more. Is not the reality that a big, important country is deliberately undermining any efforts made on the Rohingya, and that is China? It is about its relationship with Burma, its support for Burma, weapons and everything else. It is doing this all over the world. Surely when the Government think about our relationship with China, they need to consider what China is doing in other countries and not just among the Uyghur Muslims.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his intervention. He never has to apologise for intervening on me; it is always a great privilege to be intervened on by such a distinguished colleague. On this, he is completely right, as he is on many other issues. China is playing a sinister role in the Rohingya crisis, and it is concerning to think that economic ties with China may be getting in the way of some countries seeing the issue for what it is: a moral crisis where a clear rogue state is inflicting misery now on upwards of 1 million people. That is an important point to make.
Further to what my very good friend, my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said on China, may I remind the House that once you define a crisis as genocide, articles 1 and 2 of the genocide convention say that every signatory should take action to sort it out and that includes military force? We are signatory to that convention. This is a clear case of genocide, so we have to do all that we can to sort it out.
I thank my right hon. Friend for intervening. I have sympathy with what he said. When the crisis began, it grabbed the attention of our country and our media, but I have to say I am surprised how little about the Rohingya crisis has been written about in our national media over the past year or so and how little coverage there has been. Of course, our hearts go out to Ukrainian refugees, and we have to do what we can to support them and any other country, but the situation of the Rohingya is without precedent in many senses. They are so vulnerable—the majority are young people and women—and we have to get attention back on what is happening there because there appears to be no end to the misery. I can see no pathway in the medium term for the situation realistically to get any better—it is probably going to get worse.
I will talk briefly about the Bangladesh Government. As I said, I have been to Bangladesh three times since I was elected. It is important that we recognise the situation that Bangladesh is in. It is one of the fastest growing economies and has, I believe, a very bright future, but it is still a developing country and—I have seen it in Bangladesh—certain areas still have significant levels of deprivation. The Government there have a huge challenge when it comes to tackling inequality in their own country; I have seen some of that poverty across Bangladesh through visits with colleagues. So it is unfair to ask them to shoulder this burden alone. They have given a huge amount of financial support.
I would echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. I am concerned about the sentiment among the Bangladeshi population and how it may subtly change over time. To be honest, I noticed that a little in my visit in February 2022 and in my most recent visit; I have noticed a subtle change. That is my concern because they cannot shoulder the burden alone. As just one example, in the area to which the Rohingya refugees initially fled, a couple of people were killed by elephants and a huge amount of work was done to divert the elephants. A huge amount of work has been going on. Returning to the point about international aid, I have occasionally been sceptical about international aid. Whether it is 0.7% or 0.5%, I believe there is scope for us to recognise the uniqueness of the Rohingya situation and the pressures and to make a further contribution. That is very important.
I make a point now about the short to medium term: when does this end? What is the pathway to it ending? At what point do we say, “Enough is enough. Something has to be done”? When I asked some refugees at the camp what they wanted, they just said that they wanted to go home. That is all they want. They want to go home safely. But is that a realistic prospect in the next year, two years or three years? At what point do we say, “Enough is enough. The wait has gone on too long. There is no realistic prospect of things getting any better”? They cannot safely go back to their homes, so at that point we will begin to have to start thinking about the possibility of resettlement.
I understand why Bangladesh is wary of any conversation about the majority of those at the camp staying. I have touched on the reasons why it would be unfair for Bangladesh to shoulder the burden alone. We might have to enter the conversation about a resettlement programme, but the question is: at what point are we going to do that? In many respects, that would be a great shame because one of the places I went when I visited the Rohingya camp in January was the Rohingya cultural centre, where we learnt about Rohingya culture. If it were the case that they could not return home, the concern would be that that culture would be destroyed and lost and we would be giving in to this barbaric regime. The end goal we want is for the Rohingya to go home and for that culture to be preserved and enriched. That is what we need to strive for, but if we cannot deliver that, at what point do we say, “Enough is enough”?
The camp is growing in size each year, the suffering continues and people are looking to the future with no hope. There is no way for them to have a livelihood or build a future. There needs to be some kind of conversation about when we should start turning to different options if we cannot get what we all want, which is for them to safely return home.
This debate has been necessary because many Members across the House have been to the camp and have been moved and forever changed by our experience. We want this debate to help raise the profile of the issue and to put it further up the Government’s agenda, so we can do more to support some of the most desperate people in the world, and be part of an international effort to ensure that those behind it pay for the misery that they have inflicted on almost 1 million people, who have been persecuted because of who they are. So we need to do more. We need to support the Bangladeshi Government in every way we can to end this.
It is a huge honour to follow Tom Hunt, whose passion and knowledge of this topic came out well. I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin for securing this timely debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting it, because it gives us the opportunity to speak today and draw attention to this sadly forgotten crisis.
It has been nearly six years since the Rohingya people fled violence and persecution in Myanmar to seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. We must be clear that the root cause of the crisis rests squarely with the Myanmar military, which has never recognised the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar and has fought a brutal campaign against them. We commend the Bangladeshi Government and their people for opening their borders and allowing the Rohingya into the country. However, the past six years have not been easy for around 1 million Rohingya refugees who live in camps in Cox’s Bazar.
The situation only seems to get worse. The Rohingya refugees are still living precarious lives in flimsy, overcrowded shelters, because they are banned from using permanent construction materials and from installing water, sanitation and electricity infrastructure. Children do not have access to full formal education, and most Rohingya are prevented from earning a living. The dire situation has been compounded by devastating floods and fires in the camp, which have destroyed thousands of shelters and brought additional trauma to already vulnerable inhabitants.
As the crisis has become protracted, the camps have not provided safe havens. Instead, the Rohingya face violence and intimidation from neighbouring communities and increasing militant activity, as armed groups seek to dominate the camps. That is no way for anyone to live.
Since 2017, the international community has stepped in to support the Government of Bangladesh to host the refugees and to provide basic services. I am grateful that the UK has provided more than £350 million in funding since the start of the crisis. But, as happens all too often, the plight of the Rohingya fell out of the news bulletins and off our TV screens, and so did our support. Russia’s war in Ukraine has both diverted our attention and driven up food and fuel prices around the world, causing needs to rise just when budgets are being spread ever more thinly. In March, the World Food Programme announced, unbelievably, its first ration cuts for Rohingya refugees, going from $12 to $10 dollars per person per month. That was a crushing blow to the nearly 1 million people who rely on that vital lifeline.
Those cuts might not be the end of the misery. The World Food Programme has warned that, if sufficient funds cannot be found, it will have to make further cuts. The consequences of such cuts could be felt for many years to come. Malnutrition in the Rohingya communities in the camps is already causing grave concern. Increases in malnutrition today will inevitably drive up the need for assistance tomorrow. Children under five, adolescent girls and pregnant and breastfeeding women are most at risk. Complications from malnutrition and stunting in children will cause developmental delay, jeopardising those children’s life chances.
The additional £5.26 million in funding for the Rohingya response, announced by the Minister in March, is welcome, but it is not enough. Reducing our support also reduces our diplomatic influence with the Government of Bangladesh, and therefore our ability to call for the human rights of the Rohingya to be respected and upheld. To support intercommunal relations, the UK must work with its partners to ensure that the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar addresses the needs of both Rohingya refugees and host communities living in the vicinity.
As we move towards the general election in Bangladesh in January 2024, it is crucial that the Rohingya crisis does not become a political football in the campaign. In our report, “Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya”, the International Development Committee raised fears that the Government of Bangladesh would relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the bay of Bengal. Unfortunately, those fears have been realised, and around 28,000 refugees are now living on that island. How can those refugees exercise their right to freedom of movement when they are located on a remote island?
Increasing numbers of Rohingya are setting out on perilous journeys in small boats to countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and we can imagine the consequences of some of those missions. The Committee raised concerns about that development in 2021, but the situation continues to deteriorate. More Rohingya died at sea in 2022 than in any other year since the crisis began in 2017. We all know how important it is to stop those perilous journeys, and the solutions lie at the source.
The hostile security situation in Myanmar means that a safe and dignified return for the Rohingya is currently unthinkable. Since the military took over in a coup in February 2021, the situation has only deteriorated. The Myanmar military and security forces have arrested thousands of activists and carried out attacks on ethnic groups across the country. We must shine a spotlight on those atrocities and ensure that the perpetrators are held to account for them. I welcome the UK’s announcement that it will join the Rohingya genocide case at the International Court of Justice. That is the right thing to do and an important step in securing justice for the Rohingya. The UK is the penholder on Myanmar at the UN Security Council.
Today, I am not asking for more funding, although I will take it, even though I am not asking for it. I am asking for political leadership. I welcome the resolution that the UK brought forward to stress the need to address the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine state and to create the conditions necessary for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees. However, building on the point so eloquently made by my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali, the UK must do more to bring together key actors to work towards de-escalation. Also, it cannot be so nervous about China and Russia vetoing any action as to be rendered useless.
The International Development Committee’s report on preventing future mass atrocities around the world called on the UK Government to
“introduce a cross-departmental strategy for preventing and responding to mass atrocities globally, both within and outside of conflicts.”
I urge the Government to reconsider their negative response to that key recommendation. They need a clear strategy to respond to the heinous violence taking place in Myanmar to ensure that refugee populations can safely return home. To be honest, nothing else will work.
I congratulate Mohammad Yasin on securing this incredibly important debate, and thank everybody who worked hard to support his application.
At the outset, I declare an interest: I have been to Bangladesh twice, supported by the Zi Foundation, a charity set up by my constituent, Zillur Hussain. The Zi Foundation supports charitable endeavours here in the UK and back in Bangladesh, where Mr Hussain is from. When I was in Bangladesh, I saw some of the relief efforts the foundation has set up in Sylhet province. We met business leaders and Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and we visited Cox’s Bazar refugee camp on two separate occasions. Last time I went to Cox’s Bazar, aid agency workers showed us the sanitation and healthcare facilities and some of the new accommodation that has been set up since the recent fires. All that had been provided through aid, much of it from the UK.
Of course, I was very pleased to see this money being spent in such an incredibly useful way, but one experience stayed with me. A gentleman showed me and the other parliamentarians with whom I had gone there—many of them are in the Chamber—around his modest shelter. He showed us the place that he called home, which he shared with his family. He was proud of what he had. However, we also saw children running around. As the father of a three-year-old and an eight-year-old, I can tell the House that seeing children living in that camp, and the awareness that that is all they have ever known, changes you: it has a lasting impact.
That man who showed me around his home was very proud, but the difference between him and me was that I got to go home; I got to leave. He could not go home, because he was no longer welcome there. He had been forcibly expelled from the place that he called home, and was now living in a refugee camp.
I met people who had seen their daughters, their mothers, their sisters raped; people who had seen their brothers, their fathers, their sons murdered. It changes a person to hear that directly. I am not the sort of person who is usually shocked by anything, but I know that when I describe hearing those stories, I also speak on behalf of many of the Members, across parties, who were with me. One of them was my hon. Friend Tom Hunt. The first time we visited the camp, we had a longer meeting with a group of refugee and camp leaders. As we sat with them, they told us stories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I now want to make three points. The first is that this is not a new issue, the second is about aid, and the third is about Bangladesh.
Sadly, what is happening is not new. It has been going on since the second world war, and I think that the British Government have a unique role in trying to resolve this crisis. In fact, I think we have a moral duty to do what we can to support the Rohingya. During world war two, the Rohingya Muslim population of Rakhine province supported the British, whereas some of the other populations there supported the Japanese. The Rohingya fought bravely, with the British, through the jungles of Burma. I think they had the understanding that they would have a Muslim state of their own, but in the end that did not happen; Burma gained independence.
This has been going on since 1947. We are a power in the world, and we have a moral duty to support these people who once supported us on the battlefield. As I have said, this is not new: there has been significant violence, and there have been flare-ups and persecutions of the Rohingya population in 1978, 1991, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Operation Dragon King, instigated by the Myanmar—then Burmese—Government, was a mission to expel those whom they called foreigners, namely the Rohingya. This has been going on for all that time. It was estimated in a 2017 report produced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that 43,000 people had been murdered, and a 2018 report from Harvard University said that 24,000 had been murdered and 18,000 women and girls had been raped. It has been going on for decades; it is not a new issue.
Of course, the UK Government have been very generous with aid. Ours is one of the leading countries in supporting the Rohingya with aid, and that has to be recognised. On an international basis, however, I hope the Minister recognises that, as a country that has a unique and leading role to play as a member of the Security Council and a country that owes so much to the Rohingya people themselves, we should step up and secure citizen rights for the Rohingya and then a safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation to their home. I want to see a situation in which the man I met is able, like me, to go home, with his family, and I urge the Government to use all their diplomatic power to that end.
The hon. Member is making an excellent, passionate speech. I do not often say that about him in this Chamber, but I will on this occasion. The spirit today is very clear: we are taking a cross-party approach, as is right and proper, and that is when this House is at its best.
Talking about safe routes, I have one of the largest Rohingya populations in my constituency, and many of them have family who are eligible to come to this country through legal routes. I have been pressing the Government on this for three years now, but tragically, due to the red tape requirements such as TB tests, those Rohingya communities cannot come out of the Cox’s Bazar camps and join their families here. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the very least we can do is to allow those who are legally eligible to come to this country to be reunited with their families?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and the Minister will have heard exactly what he has said. There is an all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, led by Rushanara Ali with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich as a vice-chair, and I would urge him and others to come together with me to talk about this and see what pressure we can bring to bear to resolve some of these issues.
What I am keen to stress is that this cannot be left on the “too difficult to do” pile. This cannot be a situation that goes on and on and on. If any country is going to lead the international effort to resolve this problem and to allow that dignified safe and voluntary return, it is the UK, and I would hope that that message has been heard loud and clear. There are challenges. My right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith made an incredibly powerful point about China, and we should not be afraid to call such things out.
The second point I want to talk about is aid. The UK Government have provided about £350 million to support 449,000 people through the World Food Programme, and when we were in that refugee camp, we saw where that money was going. It was going on food, shelter, healthcare, water and sanitation. This aid is changing lives. It is providing the basics—actually, to be fair, more than the basics. I saw some of the voluntary aid workers there, and what they were providing was very impressive. The way they were managing to supply that vulnerable population was very impressive, and I left with a sense of admiration for the volunteers and the professionals who are dedicating their lives to saving lives among some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. I give my admiration and my thanks to them.
I support the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow in saying that our international development budget should be spent on what it is supposed to be spent on, which is international development. It needs to be targeted at places such as those we all saw when we went to Cox’s Bazar, because if we do not tackle these problems at source, they will come back and hit us later on. I think there is a firm recognition of that, and I hope we will see that made incredibly clear in the Minister’s remarks today. We have done a lot, but there is certainly a lot more to do.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the response from the Government of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is not a rich country, but it is a country with a big heart and enormous potential. Its economy is growing incredibly quickly, but it is absolutely clear that it does not have the resources to support a refugee population such as this for any considerable period of time. The willingness of Bangladesh to work with the international community, and with the UK, should be commended. What it has done is incredibly impressive and perhaps not recognised enough by the international community.
I am going to see the honourable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, when she comes to Cambridgeshire, my county, in a few days’ time on bank holiday Monday. She is coming to the Cambridge central mosque and then to a children’s hospital that I think one of her relatives has something to do with. I am looking forward to seeing her, and I will make the point again that I made to her when I was in Bangladesh, which will be to say a big thank you on behalf of the UK Government. That is the first thing we should say when we talk about this issue: a big thank you for what Bangladesh has done. I am not blind to the challenges that Bangladesh faces, including—perhaps—the beginning of some resentment from the local population about the support for the Rohingya population, but we should all remember the fact that it has provided so much when it is not a rich country.
I looked out of the window when we were on the plane travelling to Cox’s Bazar and I was struck by the beauty of the area, with its rolling beaches. The area is prime for development, and there is a growing tourism industry in that part of Bangladesh. The most important thing is for Bangladesh to have a big heart and to support its neighbour and the fellow Muslims on its border, and of course that is what the Bangladesh Government have done, but that area could enrich Bangladesh and make it a much more successful country. Having welcomed these very vulnerable people in, Bangladesh cannot use its tourism industry right now—we sometimes forget that impact on the country. Again, we have to start from the premise that what Bangladesh has done is incredibly impressive and we in the international community should all be grateful for it.
Let me end my remarks by reiterating that Britain has a unique role and a unique duty when it comes to the Rohingya. This cannot be left on the “too difficult to deal with” pile. The UK has been leading international aid efforts, and we should all be very proud of that. A lot has been done, but there is a lot more to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin on securing this important debate. I refer the House to my declaration of interests. In March, I had the pleasure of visiting Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. I was blown away by the unbelievable resilience of the Rohingya people living there. Over 1 million refugees live in Cox’s Bazar, with more than 900,000 of those having fled persecution in Myanmar.
I was a nurse for 25 years, and I worked in public health all my working life before being elected to Parliament. The conditions that vulnerable refugees in Bangladesh face are some of the worst I have witnessed. Living conditions in Cox’s Bazar are extremely poor, with overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and limited access to clean water meaning that infectious disease spreads very easily. Chronic malnutrition is also a major concern: 40% of children suffer from stunted growth, 45% of Rohingya families have insufficient diets, and 41% of pregnant and breastfeeding women are anaemic and just do not have access to the health services they need.
Many refugees have experienced trauma, including violence, displacement, grief and loss, all of which can lead to significant mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am a lay manager at my local NHS trust in Birmingham and I know the difficulties that many people face with their mental health here in the UK. We can only imagine how difficult it must be for people who have been forced away from their homes and families and seen indescribable violence along the way.
What my hon. Friend is saying about what she saw at Cox’s Bazar is heartrending. As the hon. Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) said, this has been going on for six years. We cannot allow it to continue for another six years. The international community must bring an end to it, with Great Britain playing a leading role.
I absolutely support what my hon. Friend says. This has to come to an end.
When I went to Bangladesh, it was an absolute honour to go to those camps. Sometimes, it does not matter what you read; you have to see it and experience it. When I went there I saw the conditions that people were living in. Paul Bristow talked about the small house that a number of us went into. The gentleman was quite proud, because that was all he had to call his home. But then you think about what they do not have and the fact that they were worried about it becoming dark because it then becomes lawless. It was uplifting to see that he was proud, but it was really sad to see what they have gone through, what they are experiencing and what was about to happen, even on the night we left the camp. It really opened my eyes.
Governments have to get together and support the Bangladeshi Government to get this travesty ended. As with any conflict, the impact has hit women and girls disproportionately hard. UN Women has said that most women and girls in the camps in Cox’s Bazar are either survivors of, or witnesses to, gender-based violence. Fires in the camps, which were highlighted earlier, are a significant problem, with the most recent, in March this year, destroying health facilities, waterworks, women’s centres, learning centres and mosques. Those things are important to these people.
It is now over five years since the Rohingya crisis began. While I am glad to see the Government’s recent announcement of a funding package to help over 400,000 people through the World Food Programme, it is still concerning that UK aid to this crisis has fallen by 82% since 2020. It is imperative that UK Government support continues and focuses on the serious public health issues and chronic malnutrition in the camps. In the midst of the Government’s rhetoric and unworkable gimmicks on migration, it is also important that we remember how much value refugees bring to the UK. I was overwhelmed by the willingness of the Government of Bangladesh to support the refugees and not to give up on the Rohingya, but they cannot do it alone. I hope both sides of this House can work together to improve the safety, security and health of all the Rohingya people living in the largest refugee settlement in the world.
I thank every Member, without exception, across the House who has spoken during the debate, for their authoritative, impassioned and moving speeches, many if not most of which were well informed by personal visits. Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you for calling me, but in the light of such a high-quality debate, I feel that all I can do is echo the profound concerns that have been expressed for the Rohingya, but I do want to do so because I want to put it on record that I share them.
Few, if any, communities around the world have suffered such severe, grave, continuous and prolonged persecution as the Rohingya. They have been targeted both by the Myanmar military and by extremists from the Rakhine ethnic group and by other proponents of religious intolerance and extremist Buddhist nationalism within Myanmar.
The Rohingya people have been the victims of a sustained and appalling campaign of hate speech, discrimination, violence and, since 2016-17, a campaign that resulted in atrocity crimes, which the US Administration and other international experts have recognised as genocide. The Rohingya are targeted because of their ethnicity and their predominantly Muslim faith.
Since August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have fled Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of March this year there were nearly 961,000 refugees in Bangladesh, almost all of whom are settled in refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh, forming the world’s largest refugee settlement. More than a million Rohingya people have fled Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the 1990s. The UNHCR said in an emergency appeal that
“most walked for days through jungles or mountains, or braved dangerous sea voyages across the Bay of Bengal. They arrived exhausted, hungry and sick—in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance.”
Since the coup in Myanmar on
This military regime are brutally suppressing civil society, independent media and pro-democracy activists. It is such a sad change from the country of Myanmar that I travelled across just a few years ago, where I met young people who were so hopeful about the future of their country. The conditions for the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, therefore, are almost certainly not there at present. Indeed, as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said as recently as March this year, the small Rohingya community that remains in Myanmar
“continues to face widespread and systematic discrimination in every area of life”— and that—
“the necessary conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified returns of refugees to Rakhine State simply do not exist.”
Yet Bangladesh, which has provided sanctuary for the Rohingya for many years, cannot be expected to shoulder this responsibility alone, as indeed we have heard tonight. Bangladesh is preparing a pilot scheme for repatriation, which Human Rights Watch has called for a halt to because
“lives and liberty may be at grave risk.”
Conditions in the camps in Bangladesh are dire, leading to thousands of Rohingya refugees risking their lives in precarious boat journeys across the sea to south-east Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, in search of a better life. Traffickers who facilitate these dangerous sea crossings are giving Rohingya refugees false promises and false hope and placing them in grave danger yet again.
The Rohingya people are trapped. They are stateless, unable to return home to Myanmar, unwelcome in other countries in the region, and in a desperate situation in Bangladesh. The solutions to this appalling humanitarian crisis are twofold: in the immediate term, increased aid to the refugees in Bangladesh to improve their conditions and security, and to assist the Bangladeshi authorities in supporting the refugees; and in the long-term, pressure on the military regime to stop their campaign of crimes against humanity and war crimes, action to hold the military accountable for their crimes, and pressure on the democracy movement to ensure that, in any future democratic transition in Myanmar—when it happens—the Rohingya people’s right to citizenship and basic human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, are respected, protected and upheld.
In closing, I welcome the Government’s provision of £350 million in aid to Rohingya refugees since 2017 and of £15 million in 2022-23 alone, but there is a need to do more. Will Ministers commit to reviewing the needs of the Rohingya refugees and ensuring an increase in aid this year and in the years ahead? Will they commit to working with like-minded countries to ensure that no Rohingyas are repatriated to Myanmar against their will? Will it be a priority for this Government to do everything possible to protect the Rohingyas’ dignity, their rights and the better future that they deserve and that they have, for far too long, been so tragically denied?
It is a pleasure to be called in this hugely important debate on support for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I thank Mohammad Yasin for securing this debate and the hon. Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for their contributions to it.
In particular, I single out the contribution by the hon. Member for Rotherham, the Chair of the International Development Committee, highlighting the stark reality of what is happening to a group of people who are widely recognised as being the most persecuted minority in the world. When the United Kingdom Government slash their foreign aid budget overnight, she also highlighted just what happens when people are left without hope.
As we have heard many times in this debate, the Rohingya people are not in Bangladesh because they want to be. They are there, suffering some of the worst living conditions on the planet, because they are fleeing what the United Nations has described as an “ongoing genocide” at the hands of the Myanmar military. They are there because the dire humanitarian conditions, the squalor, the constant risk of fire and the incredible overcrowding of those camps are still better than that from which they are fleeing.
Right now, those refugee camps are also safer than what the Rohingya would face had they to return. The threat of displacement, gender-based sexual violence and murder is every bit as real now as it was in 2017, when up to 1 million fled to the relative safety of Bangladesh. I remember five years ago that the journalist and documentary filmmaker Simon Reeve, who visited one of the camps, said it was,
“like nothing I have seen anywhere on Planet Earth. This speaks of a Biblical exodus of an entire people terrorised into fleeing.”
As colleagues from both sides of the House have testified all too often this evening, he was sadly correct.
What we witnessed in 2017 was the deliberate attempt at religious and ethnic cleansing on behalf of the Myanmar military. It had been building for 60-odd years, as the Bamar-dominated military launched successive efforts to Burmanise the country. They began with excluding ethnic minorities from the political process, limiting social and economic development among ethnic minority groups and curtailing their cultural and religious freedoms. Burmanisation says that the only true Myanmar citizen is someone who is both Burman and Buddhist.
That is what is behind the build-up over the decades and the appalling treatment we have seen, because the Rohingya people are non-Bamar and, of course, they are Muslim. Sadly, that mindset has not changed one iota, as we can see by the continued persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese military. In 2019, the United Nations described sexual-based gender violence as “a hallmark” of the Burmese military’s operations in the country.
That is why, no matter how much they may want to escape the hell of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, any Rohingya daring to return to Myanmar right now would be in the gravest danger. Anyone remotely suggesting a forced return over the border is advocating for sending refugees back to Myanmar at a time of increased military activity, authoritarianism, violence and ethnic persecution. That would be an act devoid of any humanity and indeed of any common sense. I agree wholeheartedly with colleagues, and indeed those at Human Rights Watch, who have said that voluntary safe and dignified return is not possible while the military is carrying out massacres around the country. The Rohingya will be able to return only when rights-respecting rule is re-established. Unfortunately, that seems a long way off.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to what the Bangladeshis have done since 2017 in opening their doors and borders to the Rohingya people fleeing that genocide. They have provided an invaluable and crucial lifeline, and I shudder to think what would have happened had they not done so. Of course, we also recognise the pressure that the Bangladeshi Government are under. Theirs is one of the poorest nations in the world, facing its own serious economic problems, widespread poverty and, as we have heard, the climate crisis. Having to deal with a mass influx of 1 million impoverished refugees fleeing genocide adds to that crisis. As the hon. Member for Bedford said, it is little wonder that there is an increasing host fatigue when there appears to be no end in sight as the world turns its attention elsewhere.
That said, we are extremely concerned about the Bangladeshi Government’s joint response plan for this humanitarian crisis. It hints strongly at repatriation efforts, which, at the moment, are voluntary. How long that continues to be a voluntary arrangement remains to be seen. Let us be clear and unequivocal: no one can return to Myanmar until all ethnic minorities are safe from the threat of persecution. Right now, that is a long way off. As the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow and for Congleton said, Bangladesh needs to be supported in what it is doing for its own people and for the Rohingya. That is why it beggars belief that with all the economic challenges currently facing Bangladesh, the UK Government decided to slash overseas aid to that country by 62%.
Just how could the Government think it appropriate, justified or humane to pull two thirds of that funding from a poor nation that is caught up in alleviating a humanitarian disaster on its doorstep by providing shelter to 1 million people fleeing genocide? Did no one around the Cabinet table suggest that cutting foreign aid to Bangladesh—one of the poorest countries in the world, as we have heard—was, in these circumstances, a terrible idea that would only hasten further humanitarian crisis? Was no impact assessment done on what would happen to Bangladesh, and on the knock-on effect for the Rohingya refugees, if that money was taken out? Did no one ask what would happen to that strategic partnership, and what it would mean for the 360,000 girls who relied on it for education or the 12 million infants who benefited from nutritional support? Did no one ever stop to ask about the knock-on effect that taking away that amount of money would have on the 1 million impoverished refugees?
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington was right to say that the UK and the wider international community cannot allow the Rohingya refugees to be forced back into the hands of an oppressive state military whose hallmark is human rights abuses, sexual violence, torture and killings. We cannot allow that to happen because we simply did not support the host nation and allowed it to do all the heavy lifting and pick up the cost. That is why the UK must, at the very least, restore the original ODA funding to Bangladesh. As the hon. Member for Bedford said, not to do so would be short-sighted at best. We and the international community have to deliver, because this is not a Rohingya problem or a Bangladeshi problem but a global problem. We all have a responsibility for putting it right.
I thank my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin for securing this important debate and for his excellent contribution. I also thank my hon. Friend Catherine West in the shadow FCDO team for her work on Myanmar and my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for her tireless work to keep the plight of the Rohingya on the agenda through her work on the all-party parliamentary groups on Bangladesh and the rights of the Rohingya.
It is nearly six years since that fateful morning in the early hours of
In the last two years, what little attention has been paid to Myanmar has focused on the military’s coup and attempts to crush civilian resistance. Military attacks on the civilian population are up nearly 400%. Over 600 villages have been torched by the junta’s troops. A staggering 17.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. However, the suffering of the Rohingya began decades ago, as we have heard from many Members, and continues to this day outside Rakhine state and in south-eastern Bangladesh. As António Guterres has said, the Rohingya are
“one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world”.
Whether in Rakhine state or Cox’s Bazar, the Rohingya people are currently without a future. It is important that we confront that reality today.
I used the word “humbling” a little earlier in this speech, and I think it is appropriate, as, having spoken in several debates on this matter over recent years, I am saddened that we are still talking about it and that our hopes for the Rohingya people look, if anything, further away. In 2020, I spoke for the Opposition in a debate on this matter and said
“It is a tragedy that…the international community is still having to provide them”— the Rohingya—
“with immediate life-saving humanitarian support. That is the situation that we need to take a long, hard look at, to learn from mistakes and rectify them so that we are not here next year and the year after having the same debate.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 683, c. 55WH.]
And yet, following the coup in February 2021, the prospect of a durable political solution that allows Rohingya refugees and forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals to return safely and voluntarily to their homes looks more distant than ever.
I commend much of the work that the Government are doing to sanction the abhorrent military regime in Myanmar and support the ICJ case to bring the perpetrators of atrocities to justice, although there is certainly more that they can do, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised the other week—for example, on banning aviation fuel, and the role of maritime insurance companies based here in Britain in the shipping of aviation fuel to Myanmar’s military. However, in the meantime, some 1 million Rohingya refugees are languishing in south-eastern Bangladesh with no meaningful prospect of a future, and we cannot ignore that either.
The hon. Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton), and the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, all made excellent contributions, and some spoke of the conditions in the camps at Cox’s Bazar, which we know are poor. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in settlements only a few kilometres wide, in tents and huts made of bamboo and thin plastic sheeting. We can only imagine what it is like living in those conditions during the monsoon and cyclone seasons, when hailstorms, wind, rain and lightning hammer down on these homes.
In March this year, we were served a powerful reminder of the conditions in these camps when we saw images of a towering fire tearing through these huts. That inferno impacted around 15,000 refugees, destroying something like 2,800 shelters and key infrastructure networks including schools, medical clinics and service points. It also displaced 50,000 people. That is only one of some estimated 222 fire incidents between January 2021 and December 2022. According to a Bangladesh Ministry of Defence report, those fires included 60 cases of arson. For the many families living in those camps, it must seem as if wherever they go, they are not safe.
I recognise that the Government responded to the March incident with £1 million pledged through the UNHCR for pressure cookers, to replace the use of liquefied petroleum gas, but does the Minister recognise that restrictions on the materials used to construct the huts and the fact that barbed fencing restricts movement increase the risk of tragedies as well? The camp’s residents are reportedly not allowed to build permanent structures. Bricks are banned—only bamboo and tarpaulin may be used—leaving them at the mercy of the elements. Has the Minister raised this issue with her counterparts in Bangladesh?
Meanwhile, basic human needs in those camps are going unmet. Food assistance to the refugees, who have been left reliant on humanitarian aid, is dwindling: we have already heard that the World Food Programme says that it needs £103 million just to avoid further ration cuts in a community where malnutrition is already rife. In February, for the first time in five years, the World Food Programme had to cut food rations to refugees by 17% across the board due to a lack of funding. In response, the UK has offered £4 million for this year. According to the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tom Andrews, 45% of all Rohingya families in the camps are living with insufficient diets; some 51% of Rohingya children and 41% of pregnant and breastfeeding women are anaemic; and 40% of children are suffering from stunted growth because of a lack of nutrition. As we have heard from Members across the House, half of the people living in those camps are children. This is a tragedy unfolding in real time, day by day for these people, yet we are cutting our support to the bone.
This year’s commitments represent an 82% decrease on 2020. Asked about this issue recently, the Minister said that
“we do not look at the issue of restoring the money, we look at the issue of need.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 731, c. 134WH.]
So I ask whether she can publish what possible assessment could conclude that need has declined by 82%. I know she will say that fiscal constraints—the result of her party’s dire economic record—mean that we have to keep ODA at 0.5%, but what she does not acknowledge is that within those constraints there are clear political choices to be made, including the blank cheque that the Minister has signed off to the Home Secretary for asylum hotels and the half a billion pounds going to British International Investment over this year and last.
In his speech at Chatham House last week, aptly titled “Can rhetoric match reality?” the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Mr Mitchell, stated that food insecurity would be one of his priorities. Can the Minister explain how these cuts to food assistance to the Rohingya assist that? Likewise, can she explain how the Rohingya crisis remains one of the Government’s top priorities, as the Europe Minister claimed in October?
Of course, the Rohingya need not only food, but a future. As such, I welcome the focus on skills outlined in the 2023 joint response plan: education and development of livelihood skills are essential among the young and deprived populations that are living in these camps. It was therefore disappointing to see the UK permanent representative speak at the conference on the joint response plan in support of those provisions, yet announce not a single penny of support. This is becoming an increasing habit, so will the Minister revisit this issue and set out what support the United Kingdom is providing to the response plan this year?
The urgency of the crisis in Cox’s Bazar is starkly demonstrated by the number of Rohingya who are now attempting dangerous sea crossings. The numbers trying to get to Malaysia or Indonesia increased fivefold last year to more than 3,500, at the cost of hundreds of lives. It is again a reminder of why our humanitarian and development work is essential to tackling the causes of displacement and irregular migration, and why it is essential that we do not leave Bangladesh to shoulder the burden alone. Most countries would struggle to manage an influx of 1 million refugees—it certainly puts our own country’s struggle with just a fraction of those numbers into perspective. To do so in a country where GDP per capita is only $2,500 is remarkable, so we have to pay thanks to the Government of Bangladesh for what they are doing—I note that the high commissioner is here, listening to this debate. They are stepping up and taking a share of responsibility that we would not expect of such a relatively poor country; it is doing so brilliantly in terms of development.
We remain hopeful that, one day, the Rohingya can return to Myanmar. We recognise that that is where the ultimate solution of this crisis lies, but we must also confront the reality that that prospect has gotten further away, not closer, in recent years. Fading international attention to the crisis in Bangladesh is making matters worse. As such, does the Minister agree that we must learn lessons about our assistance to refugees displaced for many years, including prioritising local engagement from the outset, shifting from emergency assistance over time, and tipping the scales from short-term humanitarian work to development for longer-term needs? Can she say whether assessments have been made as to where investment now can generate greater returns or reduce need in the long run?
Moreover, can the Minister speak to the need for conflict and atrocity prevention in the first place? Atrocities do not happen overnight, as we have heard from Members across the House—they are years in the making—yet it was notable that the Minister of State did not mention conflict and atrocity prevention in his speech at Chatham House last week. What lessons have the Government learned about atrocity prevention, and will they be looking to take up the International Development Committee’s recommendations laid out in its important recent report on atrocity prevention?
Finally, can the Minister say something on how the Government will help to support the women and girls who continue to bear the brunt of this crisis, including the many bearing the physical and psychological scars of sexual violence? It is imperative that Britain plays its full part in the response to the Rohingya crisis to secure the decent future that they deserve. As international attention dwindles, the Government must reflect on their role and ask what will become of those million refugees—stateless, fenced in, increasingly hungry and at the mercy of people traffickers. That question is not just for Bangladesh, but for all of us who desire a humane solution to one of the world’s most harrowing crises.
I am grateful to Mohammad Yasin for securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am also grateful for the passionate, informed contributions from so many hon. and right hon. Members today. I will do my best to respond to the points raised, although some, particularly those from the shadow Minister, Preet Kaur Gill, are ones that the Minister for Development, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, will need to answer in more detail. I will make sure that his officials pick up the questions from Hansard as quickly as possible.
This subject absolutely needs to be spoken about, and doing so here today will have an important impact. We should never forget how much the voices of Parliament are heard, listened to and respected not only within our own borders, but across the world. I thank all colleagues for taking the time to spend this evening here sharing their expertise.
The Rohingya, one of the largest stateless populations in the world, have endured, as colleagues have said, decades of systematic marginalisation, discrimination and persecution. During my visit to Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh in March, I saw first-hand the difficulties the Rohingya face and the immense challenges confronting the humanitarian response. My visit afforded me the opportunity to meet NGOs delivering food aid, education and healthcare alongside a number of Government officials working to find solutions both short and longer term.
I had the opportunity to meet groups of Rohingya mothers who described fleeing the brutal violence of the Myanmar military. They told me about their fears for their children’s future. I met them alongside new mums whose children will only know Cox’s Bazar for now and teenage girls empowered to teach new skills throughout their generation of young women. They were an impressive group of young women who gave me hope that they are neither going to give up nor give way to the depression that could otherwise come. They are a really empowering group.
There are close to 1 million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, the majority of whom, as we have heard from colleagues, fled Myanmar and the military-led ethnic cleansing of their people in 2017. I say this when I am talking to people in my constituency to help get our heads around the size of these camps, but Newcastle upon Tyne metro area, which is my nearest big city, is about 800,000 people over a very large area. The million people in those camps are in a very cramped area. That is an enormous number of people, and it is important to stop and think about what that looks like. Each of us, whether MPs in a city or who have a nearby city, should just contemplate for a moment what we are talking about when we try to understand the challenges that we face in trying to help tackle this situation.
As many colleagues have said—it is lovely to have the high commissioner here with us for the debate—we all genuinely want to thank and commend the Bangladeshi Government and all those who live in and around Cox’s Bazar for their generosity in hosting the Rohingya for more than five years in these huge camps. We continue to be steadfast in our support to the Rohingya population and the Government of Bangladesh. It was an honour for me to spend an hour with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina discussing not only the generosity, but the resilient and patient care that the Bangladeshi Government provide the Rohingya refugees. We will continue to support that response until conditions are right for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya to their homeland.
The UK has provided £350 million to the response in Bangladesh since 2017. That funding has paid for life-saving food, water, sanitation, healthcare and shelter, and it also supports protection work for those vulnerable women and girls. We continue to be a major global donor to the UN’s humanitarian agencies and the Central Emergency Response Fund, providing £160 million this year supporting it in responding to this crisis. The UK Government’s portfolio of support makes us overall the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor to the Rohingya response since 2017. To maintain the much-needed delivery, we are ensuring our aid is used strategically and deploying our combined development, humanitarian and diplomatic expertise on the response. With humanitarian need across the world increasing all the time, global funding is under unprecedented strain and this, sadly, is unlikely to change in the short term.
I am grateful for the visit the Minister has done, because she has been able to see the need herself at first hand. The International Organisation for Migration provides Rohingya refugees with materials and services to build and repair their shelters. In the absence of this support, close to half a million refugees will be exposed to the adverse effects of flooding, monsoon and cyclone, as well as of landslides and fire; this country has these occurrences regularly. That will leave them without safe shelter, so the cuts will have a direct effect on the good work that has been done by the Government of Bangladesh and agencies. How can she possibly not address that issue? These agencies are telling us that there is a major issue with this funding cut.
The hon. Lady continues to raise—with deep eloquence, experience and expertise—some of the many challenges we face. That is why I will continue to work with donors, both traditional and other, to both raise more international funding and ensure that, as many colleagues have said, this is not a forgotten situation. We need to ensure that the NGOs delivering food, energy and multiple aid for healthcare, education and safety, day in and day out, for those living in these camps can be resourced for the medium term. So we are going to continue working very closely with other donors and partners to help move towards a response that is less reliant only on humanitarian aid and thinking about more resilience for the future. There is a number of areas there that I would be very happy to pick up with colleagues offline.
I really appreciate the Minister, because I know she genuinely understands this. This is a spoiler alert to the Chamber, but the International Development Committee will shortly be publishing a report on long-term refugees. When we think about the Palestinian refugees, we are talking about nearly 75 years. As Paul Bristow said, everybody wants to be at home and everybody wants to go home. So rather than dealing with the consequences of usually politically unstable and fragile states, what are the Government going to do to try to make sure that people can go home? That is the lasting solution that everybody wants, not keeping on paying taxpayers’ money to deal with the problem. They want to go home.
I think we all look forward to reading the hon. Lady’s report, which will, as ever, be insightful and full of opportunities for all of us to consider what some of those long-term solutions might be. As we work on responses that work towards future resilience, we will also be exploring alternative funding options and promoting the positive role that development finance can play in the wider context, because of course the self -sufficiency of the Rohingya is vital to create a sustainable response to this crisis. Access to substantial livelihood opportunities would contribute towards that and help enormously to mitigate the worsening security situation in the camps. This was an area of discussion I had with all those I met on my March visit, including the Prime Minister. We will continue to advocate for progress in those areas with the Government of Bangladesh, but these actions alone will not of course bring an end to the crisis. So we must continue to use all the levers we have to improve conditions in Myanmar, exactly as the hon. Lady says, because people want to go home.
The Myanmar military of course continues its brutal attack on its population, and many of the attacks bear the same hallmarks of atrocities committed against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017. We now see 17 million people in need across the country, and more than five years on from the crisis, the regime is yet to be held fully accountable. Of course, accountability is crucial to ending that cycle of violence and the misery faced by the Rohingya people. That is why, last August, we announced our intention to intervene in the ICC case brought by the Gambia regarding Myanmar’s obligations under the genocide convention. It is a case we have supported since its inception, and one that I know colleagues will be pleased to hear we are working closely on with other intervening states to ensure a co-ordinated approach.
We also support the securing of criminal accountability and attempts to bring these issues before the International Criminal Court. Within the international sphere, the UK uses our penholder role in the UN Security Council to keep the spotlight on the crisis. Between 2017 and 2021 we have convened the Security Council 19 times to discuss the situation in Myanmar. Last year we passed resolution 2669 on Myanmar, holding the regime to account for its atrocities and urging an end to all violence. This resolution was the first of its kind in over 74 years. We will continue to use our role at the UNSC and in other international spaces to press for justice and accountability and to ensure the crisis is not forgotten. Domestically, we will continue to use our sanctions regime to maintain pressure on the Myanmar armed forces.
I really do see all that the Government have done and I really do think it is right to focus on the Rohingya going home safely; however, a colleague mentioned a child spending five years growing up there and knowing nothing else but that camp, but what happens when that becomes eight or nine years? Does my right hon. Friend agree that there may come a point where we have to think about something that ends this horror but that may not, sadly, involve them going home safely?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that we are cognisant of, but in the shorter term we are seeing whether the international community can work together to make going home a possibility, so we are continuing to use our sanctions in co-ordination with the US, Canada, the EU and Australia, among some of our key international partners. We have so far sanctioned 20 individuals and 29 entities, and as sanctions Minister I will be continuing to work on further sanctions that we might be able to deliver to target the junta’s access to revenue, arms and equipment. Just a few weeks ago we sanctioned four individuals and two entities selling arms and aviation fuel to the Myanmar military; we will continue to find ways to reduce its ability to deliver its appalling violence to its citizens.
I am grateful for those sanctions on the junta, but is the right hon. Lady also aware of the influence of both China and Russia in Myanmar, and is she doing more to get them around the table to try to come up with a solution?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we do not discuss future sanctions, but we raise these issues regularly in our role as the penholder and in international forums where we meet other countries—perhaps not Russia at the moment, as it is not participating in any international discussions, but more widely other countries including neighbours of Myanmar.
I shall conclude by saying that the Rohingya people have shown the most extraordinary courage and resilience in the face of incredible hardship that no one should have to suffer. I am genuinely in awe of the spirit they continue to display day by day as they struggle in the camps, with an unbroken spirit, hoping and believing that a better life lies ahead. The UK is committed to continued support for the Rohingya in Bangladesh alongside the 600,000 who remain in Myanmar.
I have two points to make. First, the right hon. Lady mentioned that she is working with international partners: can she say a bit more about when her Government will convene a meeting of the UNSC to discuss how the Burmese military are ignoring the provisional measures ordered to prevent the ongoing genocide?
Closer to home, the right hon. Lady mentioned sanctions, and I welcome the sanctions already introduced. She could look at a step related to aviation fuel raised in a recent Westminster Hall debate. Some UK insurance companies are insuring vessels that provide aviation fuel, and the Burmese military are then using the aviation to attack their own people. Some of our companies are literally complicit in providing the fuel and fuelling the airstrikes; will the right hon. Lady look at that, to build on the sanctions introduced already?
As the hon. Lady and others who work closely with us on this will know, we welcome all evidence, and the sanctions team will always be pleased to look at it and discuss these issues. We do not ever discuss in anticipation where we might impose sanctions, as that might reduce their effectiveness, but I would be pleased to sit down with the hon. Lady or her sources to continue working on where we can use our sanctions powers, with our international partners, to have an impactful effect on reducing the junta’s ability to deliver violence against its own people.
Humanitarian aid will of course continue to play a large role in the short term. As colleagues highlighted, we can see no immediate solution to the crisis, but ultimately the solution is a political one of refugees being able to have a safe return to Myanmar or to find resettlement in other countries. I note that a number of colleagues raised constituency family asks, and I will ensure that those are picked up in due course, with relevant parts of Government working together on them.
We will continue to advocate for better conditions for the Rohingyas in Bangladesh in the short term, and for them to have the important opportunity to work and develop skills and greater self-sufficiency. We will also continue to use all available tools across our international networks to help improve conditions in Rakhine state so that the Rohingya people have a chance to return home voluntarily, safely and with documented rights, which, as colleagues have expressed so eloquently, is the outcome that these refugees hope for.
I hope that colleagues know how important this part of my portfolio is to me. I often say jokingly that I have dozens of countries in my portfolio, and I obviously have no favourites, but, if I am allowed to have areas on which I intend to—and do—spend a lot of my time, I will continue to use all the tools in the FCDO armoury to make progress so that every young woman and child in Cox’s Bazar knows that we are fighting alongside them. I promised the young women I met who called me mama that I would do all that I could, and I thank all colleagues for helping us to do that.
I thank all 15 colleagues from both sides of the House for their contributions and interventions, which made this such an important debate. Once again, I thank the Bangladesh Government for their generosity and all the NGOs for their tireless work to help people living in such poor conditions.
It is clear that Members on both sides of the House are united on how we must continue to keep the plight of the Rohingya at the forefront of our minds. We all care deeply about the humanitarian crisis, and as parliamentarians we will work together to ensure that we do all we can to improve their lives and ensure that they are not forgotten.
We all agree that Bangladesh, as the host of the largest refugee camp in the world, must be supported. It is not easy, but we must follow our words with actions, and actions cost money. The needs of the Rohingya refugees are greater than ever before. Now is not the time to cut aid. I hope that the debate has made the case for increasing UK aid here and elsewhere to the most desperate people around the world.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.