[Hywel Williams in the Chair] — Rohingya Communities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:32 am on 11th September 2012.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:32 am, 11th September 2012

It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Williams.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworthon securing the debate. I, too, have been contacted by constituents who are concerned, particularly by what they saw on the Channel 4 programme about the plight of the Rohingya community. Everyone who has spoken today has done an excellent job in conveying to the Chamber some of the problems faced by the community and some of the human rights abuses being committed against it. I welcome the Minister to his new role. I suspect that we will be spending quite a lot of time in Westminster Hall together in such debates in the coming months.

I was fortunate to visit Burma in July, with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to see the progress that has undoubtedly been made by the regime, and to discuss the need for continuing reforms if Burma is to be a true democracy where political freedoms and human rights are respected, where the rule of law is firmly established, and where communities are not torn apart by conflict. It is important to note how far Burma has come in a very short space of time. There was a feeling of optimism from everyone I spoke to, particularly when I met Aung San Suu Kyi and other newly elected MPs who had won by-elections earlier this year. There is a sense that the genie is out of the bottle and that there will be no return to the former repression, but obviously there is a very long way to go and further progress to be made.

The problems faced by ethnic minority communities were a key issue we discussed. I think I am right in saying that approximately 43% of the population in Burma comes from a minority community. Conflicts in some states, such as Kachin, Karen and, of course, Rakhine, are a graphic reminder that there is still a long way to go in Burma.

I wish to give as much time as possible for the Minister’s winding-up speech so that other hon. Members have the chance to intervene, so I will not go through the problems faced by the Rohingya community again. As hon. Members have said, villages have been destroyed by fire, and we have heard about rapes and the brutal murders of children. The World Food Programme estimates that 90,000 people have been displaced by the violence. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said that up to 100,000 had been displaced. There is clearly a humanitarian crisis and I hope the Minister will tell us what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are taking to ensure that victims are receiving the humanitarian assistance they clearly need, what access there is to the camps, and how much aid the British Government are prepared to contribute.

Much of the blame for the violence against the Rohingya community has been attributed to other ethnic groups within Rakhine, but disturbing evidence suggests that the Burmese border security force, army and police are also involved and culpable. Human Rights Watch has condemned the authorities for standing by and watching, indifferent to what is going on. Amnesty International reports that

“Hundreds of mostly men and boys have been detained, with nearly all held incommunicado, and some subject to ill-treatment.”

It describes the arrests as “arbitrary and discriminatory”. Worryingly, it seems that political prisoner numbers are once again on the rise.

As part of the package of reform in Burma, we have seen the release of political prisoners and a relaxation of press censorship. In Rakhine, however, a different picture seems to be emerging. During my visit the plight of the Rohingya was raised at virtually every meeting, but there is a lack of support for the community across the board. Although we talk about this as being a Muslim issue—certainly the British Muslim community has done a lot to bring it to people’s attention—we were told that it was an issue of what was deemed to be illegal immigration, and not that the Rohingya community is a Muslim community. I am sure that that would be disputed by many within the Rohingya community, but it comes down to the basic issue of what country they belong to and their disputed legal status in Burma.

I had a positive and informative discussion with representatives of the Rohingya community. One question I posed to them was whether they would qualify for protection under the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. They have not passed that hurdle yet, and it is debatable whether they would. Some would say that the 1982 citizenship law was passed by the military government specifically to exclude the Rohingya population from Burmese citizenship.

I do not think that anyone else has gone into any detail about that law. It categorises people into three groups. Full citizens are those who belong to one of the eight specified national races, or whose ancestors settled before the British occupation in 1823. Obviously, the Rohingya do not come into that category. Associate citizens who applied before the 1982 Act came into effect qualify under the previous 1948 law. For the most part, the Rohingya would not meet that criterion either. Finally, naturalised citizens are required to provide conclusive evidence that they or their parents’ residency in Burma predates independence in 1948. Some of the Rohingya community that I met have generations who go back that far, but a lot more have arrived more recently. Those who have at least one parent qualifying under one of those categories can become naturalised citizens if they are at least 18 years old and speak one of the national languages. That does not include the dialect spoken by the Rohingya, so even if they manage to prove that they meet one of those other categories, the language criterion excludes them. That means that the Rohingya are, in effect, left stateless or classed as resident foreigners without any legal status. Many of them have little formal documentation, so even if their roots in Burma go back pre-1948, it will be difficult for them to prove that.

Human Rights Watch, in its report, “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, suggests that many of those who had any paperwork would have lost it in the fires earlier this summer. That organisation has received reports from some Rohingya that the authorities confiscated their ID. Clearly, the Rohingya people are in a Catch-22 situation now. There is no way that they can prove that they meet the citizenship requirements under the current law. They are, in effect, stateless; they cannot prove that they have the right to be citizens of any other country. I will mention Bangladesh in a moment.

Will the Minister say what discussions there have been with the Burmese Government regarding the 1982 law and, given that Rohingya children born in Burma are denied citizenship of any nation, what representations have been made regarding article 7 of the convention on the rights of the child?