I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth on securing the debate about this ongoing tragedy. As he said, we are here today to speak about an issue that many people in Britain may be unaware of but that deserves our attention—the treatment of the Rohingya communities in Burma and Bangladesh. It affects many thousands of people and it goes to the heart of our belief in ourselves in Britain as strong advocates of respect for human rights, who speak up for those who do not have a voice and support those in need.
Britain has a long history of being an advocate for change in Burma and, as colleagues have said, we have seen substantial progress in Burma in the past few years. Pro-democracy candidates such as Aung San Suu Kyi have been elected to Parliament. That is progress, even if there are still serious concerns about the validity of elections in which a quarter of seats are reserved for the military. As hon. Members know, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, media restrictions have been eased and the process of political reconciliation with many ethnic minorities has begun.
Those reforms have encouraged the international community, including our own country, to strengthen its ties with a country that was previously one of the most isolated in the world. That process has included the suspension of sanctions. However, the continuing suspension of sanctions must be conditional on how much progress is made in respect of human rights and the transition to democracy, which has been slow and difficult.
From a development perspective, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with widespread poverty and a vulnerability to shocks or crises. Much of the population lack the means to meet their basic needs and deal with their major health problems. In addition, there remain concerns about the extent of the power that the military still exerts. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in prison and, of course, there is the continuing conflict with some ethnic minority communities.
As my hon. Friend Mr Ward have already pointed out, civilians in provinces such as Kachin and Arakan talk about systematic human rights abuses, including forced labour and displacement, torture and extra-judicial killings. There are approximately 800,000 to 1 million Rohingya living in the province of Arakan, where many of them have lived for generations. However, they have faced a long history of marginalisation and discrimination. As my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman also said, that marginalisation and discrimination was made concrete in law in the form of the 1982 citizenship law, which rendered Rohingya in Burma non-citizens and virtually stateless.
When violence erupted between the Rohingya Muslim community and the Buddhist Rakhine community in June, both sides committed atrocious acts of violence and abuse. The Burmese Government interceded, but they did not simply put an end to the violence; instead, they helped perpetuate a cycle of sectarian and state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya.
As has been said, there are serious allegations against the Burmese Government forces—of killings, torture, rape, mass arrests and forced displacement—from both local people and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The UN special rapporteur on human rights visited the province of Arakan in August and reported seeing burned villages, which meant that many people had been left without homes or shelter. Estimates place the number of people who were displaced at around 100,000, the majority of whom were Rohingya. The conflict has left many people without homes to return to, or made them too scared even to return home.
According to some of the few aid agencies that have managed to see those people, those who have been displaced or have fled have often been forced into camps that are little better than prisons. The camps are in squalid places with little or no access to basic services such as health care, sanitation, food and education. However, instead of seeking peace and reconciliation, the Burmese Government have asked the UN for assistance in trying to remove all Rohingya from Burma and place them in third countries. If they are serious about reform, they should instead eliminate the discriminatory laws that validate that kind of violence.
The violence and persecution by the Burmese Government has forced many aid workers to flee and has made it difficult to deliver aid. Tens of thousands of people are in need of support, but getting to them is still difficult. So that the disaster does not worsen, the Burmese Government need to allow immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access, not just to the camps, but to all areas of Arakan state, where the violence has impacted on everyone’s lives, whether they be Muslim or Buddhist, Rohingya or Rakhine.
Alongside immediate access, there needs to be a truly independent and impartial inquiry—as has already been mentioned—to look closely at the human rights abuses, and punishment must be applied to the perpetrators. It must be an inquiry that can establish the truth and start the process of reconciliation, hopefully to avoid this happening again. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South mentioned, the British Government should continue to use all the public and private levers they have to ensure that that happens, and encourage our international partners to do the same. As we continue to strengthen our relationship with the Burmese Government, including through the suspension of sanctions, we must expect progress on reform, particularly regarding such human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence.
I want to turn to the situation in Bangladesh. Violence has been an all-too-common feature in the life of Rohingya communities in Burma, and in the ’80s and ’90s it forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. Many ended up along Bangladesh’s border with Burma, where they have been stuck in camps for a long time. Since 1992, however, Bangladesh has refused to allow them to be registered as refugees, leaving them yet again without rights and support. All but 30,000 are denied refugee status, leaving 200,000 without access to refugee rights, or help such as food rations from the World Food Programme or health care and education provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Alongside that, the Government of Bangladesh have a policy of reducing the so-called attractiveness of the camps, refusing help to improve the squalid and overcrowded conditions. That is likely to cause a further humanitarian disaster, and it is in direct contravention of international law, which requires the Government to recognise the human rights of everyone within their borders. At the very least, that must mean allowing organisations such as the UN to provide basic humanitarian support. As the situation worsens, with reports that at least 1,300 Rohingya, including children, trying to flee the violence were turned back at the border, with many international organisations estimating that the numbers could be higher, we need to act immediately.
In early 2011, during the visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to the UK, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party and I raised directly with her the plight of Rohingya refugees in her country. It is incredibly disappointing that the position of the Government of Bangladesh has not changed. Bangladesh benefited from the generosity of its neighbours during the 1971 war of independence, when hundreds of thousands of people—potentially more—were made refugees. I call on the Government of Bangladesh to reconsider the issue, and I hope that the Minister will put pressure on them to act humanely and step up to their responsibilities.
The international community should follow the lead of the US Government in shining a light on the decisions that the Government of Bangladesh make and pushing for them to live up to their moral and legal responsibilities. As the largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh, it is crucial that the UK Government apply further pressure on the
Government of Bangladesh to fulfil their responsibilities to the Rohingya communities that have sought refuge in that country.
The level of violence in Arakan state has fallen, but there remains a serious humanitarian crisis that needs urgent attention if we are to stem the cycle of violence and killing. We have a chance right now, while there are opportunities in Burma, to help encourage the kinds of changes that are needed to see the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma flourish. That is essential if we are to ensure the protection not just of the Rohingya community in Burma, but of the many other communities that still face oppression and discrimination. The UK is building strong links with the Government of Burma, but we must use those links to put pressure on the Government to respect human rights and to ensure that they are serious about the issues, particularly when lives are being lost and violence is being perpetrated, and that the state genuinely is not taking sides but acting as a neutral, honest broker. The British Government must publicly hold the Government of Burma to account for how they relate to the sanctions, and we must work with our international partners to exert pressure in requiring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said, an independent inquiry into what has happened in Arakan state.
This is an important time for Burma to show the world that it is serious about human rights and democracy. The situation in Arakan state, and the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in particular, highlights that there is much further to go. As a country that cares about continued developments and wants to see progress in Burma, it is vital that we act as a critical friend who will support the Government to make that transition but will be firm about the need to respect the rights of minorities and those who continue to suffer at the hands of perpetrators of violence and hate. We will hold the Government to account, and I call on the Minister to exert pressure on the Government to act now.