[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair] — Rakhine and Kachin State (Human Rights)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 12th June 2013.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (International Development) 10:05 am, 12th June 2013

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi on securing this important debate. As she knows, I recently visited Rakhine state, courtesy of Refugees International and Burma Campaign UK. I had the opportunity to visit Rohingya, Kaman and Rakhine camps. I went because I wanted to see first hand the humanitarian challenges faced by those communities, and particularly by the Rohingya Muslims, whose situation I, like other hon. Members, want to highlight. Many constituents have come to me to raise concerns about what is happening in Burma and about the treatment of the Rohingya community, not to mention the many other minorities that form 40% of the Burmese population.

Since inter-communal violence erupted a year ago almost this month, Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state have been forced into segregated settlements and camps, and many have been cut off from life-saving aid. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine state is dire. Tens of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps, where they lack food, water, sanitation, adequate shelter and access to health care.

The violence has caused not only massive internal displacement, but loss of life, livelihoods and property. Many have seen their homes and villages burned to the ground. I witnessed places where there was row after row of cut-down trees and nothing else. Such places used to be people’s homes, where Rohingya lived side by side with Rakhine neighbours. Muslim and Buddhist communities that had previously been able to live together, albeit not necessarily in full harmony, remain deeply divided, and the violence is spreading around the country. It is directed particularly against the 9% of Burma’s population that is Muslim. As Andrew Stunell said, Christian minorities are also likely to be affected.

During my visit, I met displaced Rohingya who were forced to flee to remote areas of the countryside completely unsuitable for displacement camps. I also saw informal camps, which were not registered, or allowed to be registered, by the UN, and which therefore had no access to humanitarian assistance. They had to rely on the good will of local people and Muslim charities, whose access to the camps is also extremely limited. Those camps need to be registered, but the UK Government and other Governments have been unable to get state authorities and the national Government to agree to register them. By any standards, these camps should be a high priority for registration and should be recognised as being desperately in need of help. They are adjacent to the registered camps.

One camp I visited, in Pauk Taw township, was accessible only by means of a two-hour boat journey. Non-governmental organisations had to bring drinking water in on boats, and primary health care was provided just one morning a week. The shores adjacent to the camp were covered in faeces, and dead rats floated in the water just metres from children who were bathing to keep cool in the scorching heat. Their home is a camp on a beach; I was there for only two hours, and that was long enough for me and the delegation I went with. I recommend that the Minister and his ministerial colleagues from the Department for International Development visit that camp. It is only when we see the desperate situation those children and families face that we can truly understand the plight of Burma’s internally displaced people.

Most of the shelters I saw were made of tarpaulins and rice bags, which cannot withstand even moderate rains. One Rohingya man told me that displaced people—particularly those living near the coast—were growing increasingly frightened of the rains. With the start of the rainy season there are serious concerns that flooding will exacerbate the humanitarian situation and increase the risk of waterborne diseases.

I visited a hospital that was set up with state assistance. A couple of charities were allowed to provide some additional funding, but the only people able to help there were untrained nurses. Doctors were not allowed in, even though international NGOs had offered to provide doctors. The only other place where people can get emergency care is the local Rakhine hospital, where there is a unit of 12 to 14 segregated beds for the whole population of 140,000 people. What I saw was shocking. A man was waiting for an operation. I did not see any sign of anaesthetics, and the hygiene was appalling, yet doctors could go in there if they were allowed access by the state and national Governments.

We need the British Government, and particularly the Foreign Office, to apply pressure on the state government and national Government to provide unfettered humanitarian access. There is no shortage of good will from international NGOs and foreign Governments or of willingness from UN agencies to provide help. The World Health Organisation needs to step up and apply pressure for access, so that emergency care can be brought to people. I heard stories of many people—particularly women—dying unnecessarily because of the lack of health care. That experience—observing hospitals turning people away in life-and-death situations because of their ethnicity and the fact that they are not recognised—echoed, to me, apartheid. I do not use that term lightly. Being forced into camps and not allowed out is the equivalent of being a prisoner in one’s own country.

Will the Minister reassure the House that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to help to improve the conditions I have talked about? Given that there are flood-prone areas, the need for shelter should be dealt with urgently. It is likely that the existing crisis will turn into a catastrophe if we do not act immediately.

The Burmese Government recently evacuated 120,000 people in Rakhine state, ahead of cyclone Mahasen. However, the lack of safe evacuation sites remains a key concern during the monsoon season. The Foreign Office has significant influence over the Burmese authorities, so in making representations, what pressure is it using, with DFID colleagues, for people to have the security to return voluntarily and safely to the places they came from, or places nearby? At the moment there is little hope that they will be able to return. Many people said to me that they had pretty good relationships with their neighbours. It was not those neighbours who caused the violence, but Buddhist extremists, who came and stirred up tension and conflict. Now, people are too frightened to go back, as are the Rakhine refugees who were caught in the violence. These are ordinary civilians, who were getting on with their lives. Both sides need security so that they can return. However, there is concern that the state government’s agenda is not to allow that, but to keep people in the camps. That is not sustainable.

The movement of the Muslim community in Rakhine state has been heavily restricted, as I have said. The story is one of segregation and desperation—a humanitarian catastrophe that cannot be dissociated from the fact that the Rohingya population do not have the right to Burmese citizenship, or, therefore, any further consequential rights, including access to humanitarian assistance, freedom of movement, or connecting with their Rakhine neighbours to trade with them.

One of the things that I experienced was trying to get to one of the few Rohingya villages that are left in the part of Rakhine I visited. Half way through the journey the Rakhine driver had to stop. He was too frightened to go beyond the point where he saw the military. He would not go further, and we had to find a Rohingya driver to take us further. On the way back we had to do the same thing. Likewise, we had an interpreter who was supposed to go to Pauk Taw with us. However, we were refused passage in the boat, because we were going to visit Rohingya Muslims in the camp, which was two hours away by boat, so we came close to not having access. The Rohingya interpreter was not allowed to go in with us to interpret, and we had to find another one. Rakhine interpreters were not prepared to go with us. One person agreed in the end, subject to anonymity. That gives an idea of the scale of the problem, and it is why we need to act fast. We need to ensure that what little good will remains between people—it is being annihilated by the understandable fear in the different communities—does not become overwhelmed, with little room left for reconciliation and reintegration with security.

I mentioned that the Muslim community’s movement is restricted. The critical point is that its members cannot do anything: they cannot do business, or trade, and supplies to those that still trade are blocked. They are therefore increasingly vulnerable, and the only route by which they can get food, shelter and help is through international agencies. The displaced Rohingya and Kaman told me they would never be allowed to return home because, in their words, the local authorities were trying to create Muslim-free zones. As the recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what happened was well orchestrated and backed by the state government. At best the national Government turned a blind eye, and at worst they were complicit.

A recurring theme that came up in my discussions with internally displaced people was the threat to their security and safety, which often prevented them from returning to their place of origin, even if they were allowed to. Will the UK Government use their position and influence to exert pressure on the Burmese national Government and state government in Rakhine, to ensure that security forces on the ground provide adequate protection to all ethnic communities, and particularly the Rohingya community? There are concerns—and this has been documented—that police who were present during the violence tended to stand by. There seems to be much more confidence in the security forces, and that must be encouraging. However, it would be helpful to know what the Minister thinks the UK Government can do to encourage the authorities both to help people to return home, and to resettle them with the protection they need to avoid further similar events: I am thinking of what happened in the key events of June and October last year, and March this year, in Meiktila.

At the heart of the humanitarian crisis, as hon. Members have already said, lies the question of citizenship. The Rohingya have been described by the UN, as my hon. Friend has said, as the

“most persecuted minority in the world”.

When I visited camps, where malnutrition rates are dangerously near emergency levels and where people are forced to live in segregated areas cut off from their livelihoods and are struggling to survive, I did not expect citizenship and identity to top the list of issues that people wanted to talk about. However, every group of Rohingya men and women, including children, to whom I spoke told me that their priority was recognition of their Rohingya identity and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship rights, which were taken away from them in the 1980s. Many Rohingyas were keen to insist that ethnic Rohingya Muslims had been in Burma for centuries, yet the national and state Governments deny them their Burmese citizenship and their ethnic Rohingya identity, instead claiming that they are “Kala,” a racist derogatory term, or Bengali migrants from Bangladesh.

One woman lost her entire family—I met a group of women, many of whom had similar stories—and she told me, “If, after having lost everything, including my whole family, because we are Rohingya Muslims, the Government still don’t recognise me as Rohingya in my own country, then I might as well be dead.”

During my visit, the authorities were conducting a “verification exercise” in displacement camps, trying to force Rohingyas to sign forms admitting that they were Bengalis. Citizenship is key to the rights of freedom of movement, work, marriage and much more. The displaced Rohingyas are effectively living the lives of prisoners in the camps with no right to get out.

The authorities in Rakhine state recently issued a directive placing a two-child limit on Rohingya couples in predominantly Muslim townships in the region, which is a chilling development and a gross violation of their human rights. Will the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to prevent the Burmese Government from applying such discriminatory practices?

An urgent resolution is needed to the question of Rohingya human rights and citizenship. The future of Burma and its reform process can be assured only if the question of citizenship for the Rohingya minority is properly addressed. The UK Government need to act urgently to end the segregation and human rights violations in the region. I hope the Minister will work with his counterparts to apply pressure, and I echo the points raised by my hon. Friend about the need for international inquiries into what happened and into how we can move towards reconciliation and the protection of all minorities, including the Rohingya minority, in Burma.

I hope the Minister takes on board my hon. Friend’s point about the need for the Foreign Secretary to include Burma in his anti-sexual violence initiatives. Will the Minister explain, given that the EU has lifted sanctions, what leverage he thinks the UK Government and the EU still have to exert influence on the Burmese authorities to get the results that we need on this important issue? Why does the US have a different position? What does he make of that? How can we work with our US allies on this matter?

This is a critical issue for Burma’s transition to democracy. We all welcome the changes and improvements that have been made overall, but if people’s human rights are not secured—some 40% of the Burmese population come from minority backgrounds—Burma’s transition to democracy could be at risk. I hope the UK Government will not put trade alone at the top of their agenda. Trade is important, but human rights are integral to our discussions on trade and investment. The Minister should not overlook this vital and important issue, which is critical to Burma’s advancement over the coming decades.