Rohingya: Monsoon Season — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 1:17 pm on 8th May 2018.

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[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central 1:30 pm, 8th May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the monsoon season on the Rohingya.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. The desperate situation facing the Rohingya people is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of recent times. It is a deliberate crisis—a man-made crisis—and one now set to be compounded by nature as the monsoon season hits Bangladesh. Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled Burma are in camps in Bangladesh. During August last year, nearly 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children fled, following unspeakable violence and systematic abuse, including torture, rape and murder, by the Burmese military.

The monsoons look set to exacerbate an already dire situation. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 36% of the Rohingya in the camps already do not have access to safe water. Nearly one quarter are suffering from acute malnutrition. Communicable diseases thrive in those conditions; 81% of water samples collected from Rohingya refugee households in December last year held E. coli. The World Health Organisation’s report on the situation in the camps makes for grim reading. Diphtheria, acute jaundice, respiratory infections and watery diarrhoea stalk the camps. To mitigate those problems, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put out a plea for $950 million to meet the refugees’ immediate needs, but less than 20% of that money has been raised.

I visited the largest of those camps, at Kutupalong, with parliamentary colleagues in November last year. I saw sights, and heard testimony, so shocking that they will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her speech. I had the privilege of going on that visit with her. It was difficult to get around Kutupalong when the roads were dry and the sun was out; if it is pouring with rain, those roads will be simply impassable and treacherous, especially to the young children in the camps.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is hard to imagine how anyone will be able to move. When the monsoons hit, not only will shelters collapse, but it will be almost impossible away.

When we were at Kutupalong last November, I met a young, very frail woman, who beckoned me inside her tarpaulin shelter and pointed at a little bundle of dirty rags on the plastic sheeting on the ground. I did not know what she was pointing at, but she slowly lifted the rags and underneath was her days-old baby. She held the baby up with such pride and with tears in her eyes, but I thought, “What a beginning to life for that child.” It is a squalid existence, but undoubtedly a safer one than if that young, heavily pregnant woman had been unable to get out of Burma.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I apologise that I cannot stay for the whole debate, but there are a number of things that need to be considered. There are 102,000 people at risk of being directly affected by landslides. Of those in flood and landslide-prone areas, 54% are children and 33% have vulnerable people under their control. Some 46% of water pumps are at risk from flooding and landslides, as are 38% of women-friendly services, and 36% of people are without access to clean and safe water. Only 1% of the 3,500 in need of legal and counselling services for sexual violence and trafficking have been reached. If we wanted seven good reasons why the Government should respond, which encapsulate the debate, those would be the reasons. Does the hon. Lady agree?

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I could not have put it better myself. What was most shocking about Kutupalong was the number of children there. I have never seen anything like it, and I hope never to again.

It is now nearly nine months since the August 2017 slaughter and rape by the Burmese military. One shocking statistic is that an estimated 60,000 Rohingya women are pregnant in Kutupalong and other refugee camps along the southern Bangladeshi border. Many of those women are victims of brutal sexual violence, used by Burmese soldiers as a weapon of genocide. Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence, has described it as

“a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group”.

Aid agencies are preparing for a surge of births and abandoned babies at the camps, and it is reported that Bangladeshi social services have already taken in many refugee children whose parents have been murdered, have got lost or disappeared among the hundreds of thousands of people in the camps, or are unable to care for and support their children, having lost everything they owned in the flight from Burma. There is deep concern that many more children will be abandoned in the coming weeks by mothers who are victims of rape and cannot bear to keep their babies.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Does the hon. Lady share my concern that in the memorandum of understanding there was a discussion about the status of those children, who will potentially be taken in by the Bangladeshi Government and not given any recognition of their vulnerability?

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

The hon. Lady is right. Not only do the Rohingya have no citizenship from where they came; they are now in a sort of no man’s land in Bangladesh, and children are obviously particularly vulnerable.

A new generation of victims of this terrible and evolving crisis is about to develop, and these desperate people now face a further tragedy as the monsoon season hits and threatens to wipe out even more lives. We know that Bangladesh can be hit by some of the most severe monsoons in the world, with 80% of Bangladesh’s annual rainfall occurring between May and September. Severe cyclones have killed thousands of people there within living memory, and those victims were not living in flimsy shelters in refugee camps.

In Kutupalong, we saw the shelters that people were living in, some of which consisted of just a piece of tarpaulin tied to a tree or wall and pegged to the dry, dirty ground. Others consisted of a few bamboo sticks and a bit of plastic sheeting on steep hillsides. They were crammed next to each other, with little space for people to live. In Cox’s Bazar, more than 102,000 people are in areas at risk of being directly affected by flooding and landslides in the event of heavy rain.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I think the point the hon. Lady is making is that the biggest risk is the type of land on which people have been settled. Will she join me in calling for the British Government to work with the Bangladeshi Government to try to find risk-free land where these people can settle?

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I entirely agree that it is about the topography, but it is also about the flimsiness of the available shelters —and not everyone has a shelter. The Bangladeshi Government have done wonders, given the limitations they have.

As Jim Shannon mentioned in his intervention, 33% of the 102,000 people in Cox’s Bazar are classed as vulnerable—including single mothers, children, the elderly and the ill—and at particular risk of being killed in a natural disaster. However, the risks are not confined to the initial effects. For example, the rains will adversely affect mobility around the camps, which is already very restricted, turning steep dirt pathways into mud and making roads impassable. That could severely restrict access to more than half a million people, worsening the malnutrition rate. More than 91% of people are reliant on food supplies. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has made it clear that the shelter packs that I saw being handed out in Kutupalong in November by hard-working UNICEF aid workers will not survive monsoon rains. That will inevitably lead to harm and displacement as shelters collapse.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It has been reported that half of the refugee population do not have access to sanitation facilities. Some 13% do not have access to latrines. The latrines are not gender-segregated or fully functional. Does the hon. Lady share my concern, and that of many in this House, that disease and contamination will be critical at this time of year, during the monsoons?

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I would use a terrible analogy, which is that it is a perfect storm. Conditions are terrible, and communicable diseases will be rife where there is a lack of sanitation. That is why the situation is so bleak. There is an urgent need for international action.

Shelters will collapse. At best, that will lead to overcrowding, but the obvious outcome is far, far worse. The latest round of oral cholera vaccinations will bring the number of locally vaccinated people up to 1 million. That is welcome, but a population of 1.3 million people are affected, so 300,000 are left unvaccinated, which is a desperate situation. We know that unsanitary conditions and malnutrition make people more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases. The World Health Organisation has been clear that the risk of disease, more than the initial flooding itself, could lead to a massive loss of life. The UN estimates that up to 200,000 people could perish.

Some preparations have been made for the monsoon season. I have seen the details of the upgraded shelter kits that are being made available to vulnerable families in the camps, but they consist of tarpaulin, rope, bamboo, wire and sandbags—no real protection against winds, severe rain and flooding. I am afraid that hundreds of thousands of refugees are effectively sitting targets for the monsoon, and that could be catastrophic.

What can be done? A crisis does not stop because the headlines have moved on elsewhere. I obviously welcome this weekend’s announcement of the additional financial support from the Government. That additional £70 million is good news, as it will help to fund some sanitation, healthcare and vaccination programmes for the most vulnerable refugees. The British public have shown remarkable generosity, raising nearly £26 million for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. In my constituency, the British-Bangladeshi community has raised more than £30,000 through the Cardiff Bangladesh Association, spearheaded by my Labour colleague, Councillor Ali Ahmed.

We need to recognise, however, that trying to protect a million people living in squalor on open hillsides is not a long-term solution. Will the Minister tell us what conversations he has had with other Governments about encouraging more international financial support to meet the overall funding shortfall? Access to the camps for the UN and other aid agencies is being held up by red tape. I have repeated conversations with aid agencies about that long-standing problem. I have also discussed it with the Bangladeshi high commissioner, and it does not seem to be getting any better.

We must work with the Government of Bangladesh to see an increase in the speedy registration of international organisations to work and deliver services in the camps. That will allow technical experts to support the incredible Bangladeshi response so far. Without that expertise, almost half a million people will continue to be unable to access services such as health, food, support and education. Will the Minister ask the Bangladeshi Government to streamline the FD-7 approval system by ensuring that applications are processed within the stated 48-hour window, to provide extended windows of at least six months for programme delivery, and to allow for appropriate visas for international emergency personnel?

The Rohingya have an inalienable right to return to Burma, and that right must be protected. It is vital that steps are taken to address the conditions that have forced and continue to force people to flee. The findings of the Annan commission on Rakhine state provide a nationally and internationally endorsed framework designed to address the marginalisation of the Rohingya—although I wanted it to go much further and recommend immediate and full citizenship for the Rohingya. It is vital that the UK, in partnership with regional actors and partners, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, supports the progressive implementation of those findings by the Burmese Government, but progress on ensuring Rohingya citizenship must be an essential condition for return.

In the longer term, the international community must work with the Government of Bangladesh to define, agree and finance a response to the crisis that supports refugees’ self-reliance, as well as contributing to improved conditions for host communities and Bangladesh’s own development objectives.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

The picture that my hon. Friend is painting accords absolutely with what the Select Committee on International Development saw when we visited Cox’s Bazar in March. However, I want to take her back to the monsoon and the action that needs to be taken now. She has already made the point that strengthening the shelters and shacks will simply not be enough to protect them against the monsoon. This goes back to the point made by John Howell, but Bangladesh has said that it has been looking for other land to which Rohingya in the camps can be moved in an emergency. Does my hon. Friend have any information on whether progress has been made on that? If she cannot answer, perhaps the Minister will say something about that when he sums up.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I do have some information. An island has been identified as a potential space for refugees to move to. I am concerned about it because, as I understand it, the island is like a floodplain, so people would not be in a better position were they to be moved there. I hope that the Minister can give us more information about that, if he has been discussing it with the Bangladeshi Government.

Agreements have been reached with other refugee-hosting nations, including Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, which provides an indication of what can be achieved with the right package of support, combined with strong partnerships. In my view, strong partnerships and political leadership on the rights of the Rohingya, and action against Burma for its gross violations of international law, must go hand in hand. I want our Government to take a lead.

In January, I wrote to the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, at the Foreign Office to ask the Government to support a referral to the International Criminal Court. In February, I was one of 100 parliamentarians who wrote to the Foreign Secretary in exactly the same terms. What was the response of the Burmese Government? It was to ban individual members of the International Development Committee from visiting Burma. The Minister will say that a UN Security Council resolution on a referral might be vetoed by Russia and China, but that is exactly why we in the UK must start to support a referral, building global support—from the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and other countries—to overcome such opposition. Our Government can hardly ask other countries to support a referral when they do not even call for one themselves.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

My hon. Friend is making a very important point. Will she consider suggesting, first, that the Minister also look at freezing the assets of the Burmese Government and of people who are connected to that Government? Secondly, because the ICC covers citizens of signed-up countries, the Government should be clear that any UK citizens, or those with joint citizenship, could be referred to the ICC if or when any incidents occur.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Government should take every possible measure to show the horror we feel about what I believe to be a genocide in Burma. We should be taking the political lead, and everything that can be done should be done. As Edmund Burke, a former Member of Parliament, said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. This humanitarian and human rights disaster is about to be compounded by a natural disaster, which was entirely avoidable. It cannot be allowed to happen again. Burma cannot be allowed to operate with impunity and to set an international precedent for the unpunished genocide of a minority population.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans 1:49 pm, 8th May 2018

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.

This is an enormously important debate. We have heard the statistics about the amount of rainfall, so I shall not rehearse them, save that the north-eastern part of Bangladesh receives the greatest average precipitation of some 4,000 mm per year. By the end of the monsoon season, as the Minister knows because he has been there so often, a third of the country is under water. As other right hon. and hon. Members have seen, and as I saw when flying down from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar in September, the landscape is vast and watery, barely above sea level. Many areas of Bangladesh are treacherous and cut off in the monsoon season, which was absolutely visible. There are already huge pressures on the population as a whole—not just the Rohingya—as a result of global warming and the rains. When those rains come, communities can be accessed only by boat, houses are damaged, crops and livestock are lost and, importantly, the rice harvest is often lost, which impacts the population’s future.

In the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons, there are access constraints on the mud roads to which Jo Stevens referred. They become impassable, footpaths become slippery, and earthen stairs and slopes become dangerous and may collapse. Members who have been to the camps will know that they are like something from Mars or the moon, and will have seen the deforestation that has gone on to create mounds of earth. Where hills and mountains were covered in greenery, there are now barren, muddy landscapes with little to hold the soil together. Shelters and facilities will be flooded and damaged, prompting displacement and overcrowding in even more of the camp.

This issue is not new—as the Minister knows, it goes back 20 years—but Rohingya camps have never existed on such a scale, and never before have so many people been confined in such a small, cramped and inhospitable place, so there is no direct experience to indicate how that number of people will survive the monsoon. They have withstood monsoons in the past, but not in such numbers.

When I visited in September, I saw vast deforestation. An elephant rampaged through the camp, killed someone and was shot. People thought that was terrible, but to be fair to the elephants, every single bit of their habitat is gone. As far as the eye could see, the landscape was totally barren and vulnerable to landslips and shelter collapse. We were there for several days, and we actually witnessed 100 small, pitiful homes of the sort the hon. Lady described that had been washed away overnight. I felt utterly guilty to be listening to the heavy rain in my hotel in Cox’s Bazar. As we have all seen, many of the Rohingya in camps do not have shelters at all—some simply shelter under plastic bags and other small pieces of plastic, which they hold over their heads. It is pitiful. After several nights of heavy rain, the gullies that people had been easily fording turned into death traps, and we saw an individual who had drowned while trying to access food for his family being pulled out of a flooded gully.

I am appalled that, to resolve the overcrowding that no doubt exists in the camps, 100,000 individuals from that very camp may be relocated to Bhasan Char island, which the hon. Lady mentioned. That island—a misnomer if ever there was one—is basically a large mudflat. It is a shifting bank of sand that did not even exist 20 years ago. It is not an island but an accumulation of sediment formed by the Meghna river. It changes shape radically. If anyone has not looked at it, it is possible to go online and see its changing contours. Sometimes it is totally submerged under floodwater. It is not a suitable place to create a haven for the Rohingya.

I wrote to the Secretary of State and pointed out that the topography of the island makes it extremely vulnerable to flooding and cyclones, and that it regularly disappears underwater. I also mentioned the increasing concerns about the adequacy of resources such as food, water and additional facilities, and about humanitarian access to the island. I wrote that I am worried that the planned settlement—the media are trying to look at what is going on on Bhasan Char island, but it is being planned in quite a secretive manner—would, in effect, act as a prison camp. It would allow the refugees to be resettled, but I am concerned that the island would not be a safe haven for the Rohingya.

The Minister has stated that the Government have

“concerns that the island may not provide safe accommodation for Rohingya refugees and we have shared these concerns with the Government of Bangladesh.”

Given that building is going on apace, and that plans are going on apace to relocate 100,000 people to Bhasan Char island, I want to know what progress if any has been made with stopping that relocation. A huge amount of building is going on. The designs for the island show that there will be cyclone shelters, which look amazingly like prison blocks. They are absolutely tiny. The Rohingya who are there are already traumatised. I question what the value of those cyclone shelters will be, if they are imprisoned on a featureless mudflat in the bay of Bengal, cut off from the current aid groups that are in the camps on the mainland.

The flooding of contaminated water has already been referred to. Camp sanitation is bleak—I know because I have used it. I am not surprised that there are outbreaks of E. coli and other faecal matter diseases, given the overflowing latrines. We do not know what facilities will be on Bhasan Char island. I would like to know if the Minister plans to visit Bhasan Char island to reassure us.

The UK has just generously pledged £70 million more. That is £129 million pledged on behalf of the British taxpayer. Many of my constituents are fundraising for the Rohingya. I do not think many of them are aware that there is a potential Alcatraz—as I refer to it—in the bay of Bengal. I would like to know whether the British Government plan to visit given the amount of development that has already happened there.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

When the International Development Committee visited, we were told that NGOs had identified significant amounts of other land that would be safe for the Rohingya to be put into. Does the hon. Lady agree that the British Government need to use all their powers to get the Bangladeshis to release the land that the aid agencies have identified, and focus less on putting them on to an island?

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. We cannot dictate, however, to other countries that have opened their arms and done a very big job in taking nearly 1 million people. Far be it for me to tell the Bangladeshi Government which bits of land they should give away. That would not be appropriate. I do have concerns, however, about the pieces of land that have been identified. To be fair—hon. Members have been there and seen them—other areas are barely above sea level, but the island is particularly vulnerable. With the cyclone coming on, a cyclone shelter just does not cut it.

I would like the Minister to have plenty of time to answer these questions, so I will not carry on much longer. The hon. Lady mentioned the pregnant women in the camp. I am concerned that women and children will be located on this island, many of whom are pregnant as a result of rape by the Burmese militia. We should call that out. I am absolutely appalled that we do not have any formal international recognition of the atrocities that the Burmese army are committing in order to call them out for what they are, which I believe is genocide and war crimes that should be held accountable.

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central for bringing this debate and allowing me to speak in it. The British Government have been enormously generous. The Bangladeshi Government have opened their arms, but they have an election coming up and the Rohingya are not a vote-winning issue, as there are already pressures on the Government to sort out the problem with disease in the camp and some of the unfortunate practices that are being associated with the camp, which the local population are not happy with. My main point is that Bhasan Char island is not an acceptable place to send people who are already traumatised. Following the response I have had from the Government on sharing my concerns, I would like to know that the Minister has asked for a visit.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Climate Justice) 1:58 pm, 8th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank Jo Stevens for bringing this important and timely debate. I also thank the many hon. Members who have been to see first-hand Cox’s Bazar and to hear the accounts of the Rohingya refugees who are there at the moment.

Today, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Most of them arrived in the last year. These people have arrived with virtually nothing and have fled unspeakable levels of violence after decades of persecution accelerated rapidly over the last nine months. After fleeing horrific and barbaric violence, Rohingya refugees now face potentially life-threatening monsoon rains and cyclones this summer. As we have heard, the situation has the potential to spiral out of control and the need for collective action is more critical than ever before. Cox’s Bazar is already one of the most frequently flooded regions of one of the most flood-prone countries on Earth. To put that in perspective, monsoon and cyclone season brings more than 2.5 metres of rainfall in three months alone—more than four and a half times the average annual rainfall of my Dundee constituency, a region not unaccustomed to rainfall.

Pre-monsoon rains have already started in Cox’s Bazar, and the storms have damaged shelters. UNICEF has reported that many children have been sitting on top of their family shelters in an attempt to keep the plastic rooftops from blowing away. The Bangladesh Government and aid groups estimate that as many as 200,000 refugees are at direct risk due to landslides or floods and require urgent evacuation, but they have nowhere else to go. Basic services, including clean water, sanitation and healthcare, remain inadequate, and the spread of disease will be worsened by flooding and stagnant water. In addition, one third of health facilities and nutrition centres, and more than 200 educational facilities, could be lost, putting at risk the lives of the 60,000 pregnant women and their babies—many of whom are born of systematic rape which, as we have heard today, is used as a weapon of war. To make it worse, it is highly likely that aid provision will be disrupted because the roads into the camps are made of clay and may become impassable after heavy rain.

When I visited Cox’s Bazar only two months ago with the International Development Committee, including some hon. Members who have spoken, I saw for myself the condition in which the Rohingya refugees are living. Nothing could have prepared us for the enormity of this humanitarian emergency. We saw, for example, that refugees are making a living in makeshift, flimsy shelters, built only of bamboo and tarpaulins, which are precariously positioned on land or carved into sandy, deforested hillsides, and are easily swept away when the monsoon season arrives. Let us be clear: the conditions were already dangerous before the monsoon season began. Now there is—dare I say it?—the perfect storm for a catastrophe. The heads of NGOs I had a chance to speak to were deeply fearful and could not emphasise strongly enough that our inaction would result in needless destruction, disease and death.

As our Committee’s report outlined last month, more funding and resources must be made available immediately to save lives and improve living conditions during the monsoon season. I therefore join others in welcoming yesterday’s news that the UK has pledged an additional £70 million of humanitarian support for the crisis. Alongside providing more funding, the UK Government must urgently step up their efforts with other donor nations and international agencies, and encourage and work with the Bangladesh Government. There is an immediate need for NGO staff to be allowed into the camps. Without technical expertise and the ability to deliver basic programmes, almost half a million people will continue to be unable to access essential services. Although I acknowledge Bangladesh’s generosity in taking in the Rohingya refuges, the UK Government must put more pressure on it to allow aid agencies to operate more freely.

There is no time left. This has been neglected until the eleventh hour, and there is nowhere to turn and no other options. We cannot hide from this deadly issue, so it falls on us to do all we can to help. Urgent action is needed now so that we, as elected Members of Parliament, are not forced to stand up in this House in the months to come and admit we could have done more for the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi communities that host them. On a humanitarian and human rights front, the UK Government should be operating on the principle that everything that can be done should be done. I look forward to hearing how the £70 million will be spent, for what purpose it will be used and, most importantly, how soon it will be made available.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (International Development) 2:03 pm, 8th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jo Stevens on securing this important debate. Her testimony about her recent visit to Cox’s Bazar was deeply harrowing and real. Other hon. Members also made excellent contributions. We have heard from Jim Shannon, my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), and the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for St Albans (Mrs Main), who raised concerns about the relocation of the Rohingya. Chris Law echoed the concerns raised by the Members who spoke before him.

The plight of the Rohingya people is clearly one of the greatest human tragedies of this century. Forced by violence to flee their homes, more than 1 million refugees have sought haven in Bangladesh—the majority in Cox’s Bazar. That speed of displacement has not been witnessed since the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994. More than half a million Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh within a month.

Cox’s Bazar is one of the most flood-prone areas of Bangladesh and has an average of 2.5 metres of rainfall during June, July and August. To put that in perspective, in Britain, where we are far from blessed with glorious sunshine, we receive less than 1 metre of rain in the entire year. Time is clearly of the essence. The pre-monsoon rains have already begun, and the situation is critical. On 26 April, a storm damaged shelters and affected several families in the camps. Last week a mudslide was reported in camp 4 in Cox’s Bazar, and there were reports of at least one fatality. The scale of the potential humanitarian disaster is truly horrifying, and more than 100,000 people, more than half of whom are children, are at risk of being directly affected by landslides and floods. That is only a conservative estimate, because that figure could double, should the rains be particularly heavy.

It is not just that there is a direct threat to life from the rains and mudslides. We have heard today that sanitation conditions are expected to deteriorate significantly, leading to reduced access to safe drinking water. As of December, water samples collected from households showed that 81% were already contaminated with E. coli, and the situation will only get worse in the coming months. It is highly likely that there will be increases in water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea and hepatitis and in diphtheria, malaria and dengue fever. According to the International Rescue Committee, 36% of people are already living without access to clean, safe water—a figure compounded by the fact that 46% of the functioning water pumps in the area are at risk from flooding or landslides. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK emergency medical team is in position to respond, much as it did between late December and early February, to an upsurge in disease in the camps?

The window of opportunity for moving refugees to more secure locations is rapidly closing. As of 23 April only 12,400 refugees had been relocated to safer sites. I recognise that the United Kingdom is playing a leading role in the humanitarian response, and I welcome its overall humanitarian work—especially the announcement yesterday of an additional £70 million towards preparing for the monsoon. Will the Minister provide assurances that that leading role includes encouraging others to increase their contributions to the effort, and will he outline what steps are being taken to achieve that?

I welcome the Department for International Development’s direct humanitarian work, but it is clear that the issues of humanitarian access, safe, voluntary, dignified returns, and dealing with the long-term persecution faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar can be addressed only with a political solution. For that purpose I urge the Government to keep their eye on the ball and to step up the political will and the focus that they are devoting to finding such solutions.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Does the hon. Lady share my concern at the lack—particularly when the memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and Burma was being agreed—of a voice for the Rohingya at the table? There is no identified leader and no person who can speak out for what the community would like to happen in the negotiations.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (International Development)

I absolutely agree, and I will come on to that point.

The Government of Bangladesh have rightly been praised for their initial response, but as we move into a dangerous new phase of the crisis it is imperative to address operational barriers that hinder the work of aid agencies. International donors have granted $14 million of funding, which cannot be utilised at present because of restrictions on which organisations can deliver aid programmes in Cox’s Bazar. That has led to the utterly perverse situation of badly needed aid money being returned to donors.

In response to a written question that I tabled on 13 April, the Minister recognised:

“International non-governmental organisations face ongoing challenges with securing and renewing visas and permits”.

He stated:

“UK Ministers and officials continue to liaise with their Government of Bangladesh counterparts on this issue.”

With that in mind, will the Minister provide an update on discussions between the UK and Bangladesh Governments on the process of issuing FD-7 visas so that international aid organisations can implement humanitarian projects, and will he confirm that the UK Government are pressing for the duration of the authorisation to be increased?

Owing to further administrative procedures, up to 90% of aid staff currently have to use short-term tourist or business visas to enter the country. Will the Minister assure me that his Department is doing all it can to ensure that the Government of Bangladesh agree FD-6 agreements with agencies, so that their staff are able to apply for the appropriate visas necessary to plan and implement their work?

Secondly, at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, a roundtable on the Rohingya crisis was co-hosted by the UK and Canada, with the Foreign Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh in attendance. That meeting represented a chance to discuss the crisis at the top level of Government. Will the Minister say whether preparations for the monsoon season were specifically discussed at that meeting?

Thirdly, although the immediate priority must of course be the impending monsoon, the only permanent solution to the crisis is for the security situation in Rakhine state to be such that the Rohingya are able to return safely and voluntarily to their home. Although in January an agreement was reached between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate 156,000 Rohingya over the next few years, in reality neither the security situation nor the stipulations placed on returning Rohingya, such as identity documents, are conducive to such a move.

I met the Myanmar ambassador to raise my concerns about the ongoing treatment of the Rohingya, but I do not believe that blaming the failure of Rohingya repatriations on administrative errors by the Bangladeshi authorities indicates a serious desire on the part of the Myanmar Government to solve this crisis. The UK Government must maintain pressure on the Myanmar authorities to engage seriously with the issues faced by the Rohingya, not least those of security and citizenship. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Myanmar Government and General Min Aung Hlaing are properly brought to account for the atrocities they have committed? Does the Minister agree that the Myanmar Government cannot be trusted to protect the Rohingya until they truly feel the heat of international pressure and accountability for what has happened?

I welcome the UK continuing to fund humanitarian work in Cox’s Bazar as monsoon season approaches, but I hope that that terrible threat will act as a spur to renew the UK’s political will and to solve some of the longer term political problems. Only then will we finally see an end to the suffering of the Rohingya people.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 2:11 pm, 8th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank Jo Stevens for securing this debate and all colleagues for taking part.

I will begin with some general remarks, and then turn to the substance of the debate. As we know, this is an immensely complex issue, but the moment that people moved in August last year, it was perfectly obvious that the monsoon season would come round again. Colleagues can therefore be reassured that preparation for this event has been long in the planning, although there is only so much that can be done on the piece of land that colleagues have, in many cases, seen and described accurately. With such flimsy conditions underneath, only so much can be done to prepare and strengthen shelters. At the same time, handling the crises of people who are already there, and the multifaceted difficulties that they bring, has been exceptional.

Colleagues are right to question the responsibility of the host Government, but we must be sensible about this. Bangladesh has taken on an enormous responsibility. It is supported by the rest of the world community, but there are limits to telling a sovereign Government who they should admit to their country, who must work there, under what terms, and everything they can do. We must understand the limitations that we are working with, but equally we must accept that from the moment so many people moved last August, people have been aware of what was going to happen, and have been making appropriate preparations as best they can. That sets the background to this debate.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I absolutely accept the Minister’s point about aid and outside agencies and countries directing the Bangladesh Government, but does he agree that, if millions of pounds of funding is being given to help, the Government have leverage to sort out these difficulties? There are practical difficulties of aid workers not being able to get into the camps to help.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

We entirely agree. We constantly raise these issues directly with the Bangladesh Government, and have letters from agencies that have been helped and supported thanking us for the work we have done in company with others. There is no point in aid being available if it cannot be distributed, but the Bangladeshi Government have issues with who comes in and why. These are big camps, and there is a lot of scope for things to go wrong. They must have the responsibility themselves, but easing administrative difficulties is a key part of what supportive Governments do on behalf of the various agencies.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Climate Justice)

We are in the second week of May and the monsoon starts in a month. I accept the Minister’s point that we have known that the monsoon was coming since August last year, but just eight weeks ago when I and colleagues from the International Development Committee were there on the ground we heard from NGOs that nothing is getting done—or that what is getting done is far too late. Given that we had all that information and we know that there are monsoons in the region year on year, why are we only now at this critical stage putting funding towards monsoon relief, and with little or no plan for what we will spend it on?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

That takes me comfortably to the second part of what I want to say. Let me answer that, because it is a perfectly fair challenge. I pay tribute to the Government of Bangladesh and the communities in Cox’s Bazar for the extraordinary generosity they have shown in welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing despicable persecution in Burma—persecution that amounts at the very least to ethnic cleansing, and possibly more. More than 680,000 have fled since the latest violence in August 2017, and they join about 300,000 fleeing waves of violence in previous years, bringing the total Rohingya population in Bangladesh to almost 1 million.

One camp alone in the Kutupalong area of Cox’s Bazar, which my hon. Friend Mrs Main referred to, contains almost 600,000 people, giving it the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest refugee camp. Conditions in such camps are almost unimaginably hard, as colleagues who have visited have made clear. As my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary saw when she visited Bangladesh last November, many are makeshift, built piecemeal and without proper planning or foundations. Those fragile structures are extremely vulnerable to the heavy rains of the current monsoon season, which could soon be compounded by high winds and storm surges if a cyclone hits the area. The Bangladeshi Government have an excellent track record in saving lives in extreme weather events, and we call on them to use their expertise to help support those currently at risk.

As far as preparedness is concerned, UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs, with support from the UK, are working tirelessly on measures to improve conditions in the camps and prepare for extreme weather. The UK has led the way in terms of the scale and speed of our response to the crisis, pledging £59 million in humanitarian response. As colleagues mentioned—I am grateful to them for welcoming this—my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced yesterday a further £70 million of UK support for the crisis, which will help to protect vulnerable people during this volatile rainy season, improving structures and infrastructure such as roads and latrines, and help to clear newly allocated land. It will also provide urgently needed humanitarian support such as food, medicines, shelter and psycho-social support to many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and the communities so generously hosting them.

Let me spell out a few more details. That support is expected to try to help 200,000 people with much-needed materials to strengthen their shelters and 300,000 people with food assistance and clean water. The aim is also to provide emergency nutrition for 30,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women, plus 120,000 children younger than five. Another aim is to get access to midwifery care for 50,000 women, including many who may give birth during the rainy season, and to provide access to bathing cubicles for nearly 53,000 women and girls. It is hoped that another 50,000 people will be helped in getting access to healthcare services.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

I thank Jo Stevens for bringing forward the debate. I have written to the Minister about the potential for a serious malaria epidemic in the area. As he well knows, there is the issue of drug-resistant malaria coming up from Burma, which may impact on the area. What preparation is being made to prevent a devastating outbreak, which could transmit drug-resistant malaria further afield through Bangladesh and into India and beyond?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

On receipt of my hon. Friend’s letter, I took advice from the agencies on the ground about their concerns. Their concerns were not quite as acute as his information, but they were aware of the risk and were taking precautions against them.

Preet Kaur Gill mentioned the emergency medical team. It is not permanently out there but it is always on stand-by to respond, just as it responded to the cholera and diphtheria epidemic around Christmas time. Many people saw that work. That emergency medical team remains on standby. I am conscious of what my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy said about malaria —we keep an anxious check on that.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Unfortunately, many people die in the camps. Funeral arrangements in the camps are very difficult. Families who I spoke to said that burying the dead and having decent funerary rites was a real issue. Will the Minister say whether there is any progress on that?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I try always to be honest with the House when I do not know something. I do not have any information on that. My hon. Friend knows full well that the quality of the ground makes washing, digging foundations and shelter difficult enough. Latrines are far too close to services, so burying people must be even more dreadful than it would ordinarily be. I will find out the answer to her question and supply information.

UK aid already ensures that more than 250,000 people will continue to have access to safe drinking water during the rainy season. The latrines issue is vital: more than 7,000 latrines have been constructed and strategically placed throughout the camps, and more than 6,700 new latrines will be decommissioned or re-sited. There is an understanding of the importance of that. UK-supported cholera, measles and diphtheria vaccination campaigns have been carried out in readiness. They will provide protection against some of the most common diseases in the camps, which are expected to be more widespread during the rainy season. Preparation for that is being done. More than 391,000 children under the age of seven have been vaccinated to date. Healthcare workers are being trained to prevent, identify and treat common illnesses expected during the rainy season and to manage higher case loads.

Some 450,000 people have benefited from support to make their shelters more resilient to rain and heavy winds. Site improvements such as drainage, protecting pathways and stabilising steps and bridges to enable access are already being undertaken. Everyone with knowledge of the camp knows that there is limit to what can be done, not only with the flimsy shelters but the foundations on which they are built. We are advised that the best protection possible is trying to be devised and put in place.

We are funding efforts to relocate or accommodate up to 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees. We welcome the fact that the Government of Bangladesh have made an additional 800 acres of land available close to the existing camps, and we are supporting the work of the UN to make this land suitable for the safe relocation of refugees.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans mentioned Bhashan Char island. I will be happy to go and see that when I get the opportunity. She made clear that we have had our own reservations about that particular piece of land. We have made clear to the Government of Bangladesh that any relocation of refugees must be safe, voluntary, dignified, and in accordance with international humanitarian standards, principles and laws. We have shared with the Government of Bangladesh our concerns that the island may not provide safe accommodation for Rohingya refugees. We have requested that the UN be given the opportunity to conduct a technical assessment of plans for the island. We have had no involvement in developing plans for the proposed relocation—we are very conscious of the pressures on land in the whole area, but that is the role that we intend to take in relation to Bhashan Char island. The sheer scale and availability of alternative lands makes things so much more difficult.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central spoke of sexual violence and pregnancy. Accountability for crime is very important, and the assessment of what happened to people is vital, but supporting them now is equally important. We believe we have led the way in supporting a range of organisations, providing specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh. That includes 30 child-friendly spaces to support children with protective services and psycho-social and psychological support and 19 women’s centres that will offer a safe space and activities to women. Case management is being provided for just over 2,000 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Thirteen sexual and reproductive health clinics will provide access to sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal care. More than 53,500 women will be provided with midwifery care. Medical services counselling and psychological support will be provided to Rohingya refugees who have either witnessed or are survivors of sexual violence. With DFID support, UNFPA and partners have developed guidelines on how to support women and girls who have been raped and are pregnant, which includes the training of caseworkers and those who will support them through pregnancy and beyond.

This is a desperately serious issue and Members are right that the births that will take place in the next few months will be among the most difficult that could be witnessed, but we have done all that we can, alongside various other agencies, to try to prepare for these circumstances.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I welcome all of that. It is very welcome, but it is small in comparison with the size of the problem. The Minister has not addressed the question of Burma’s impunity for those crimes and for the murder and torture of other Rohingya. I hope he will address that point and tell us what the Government are doing to seek a referral.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

Let me turn to the issue of Burma—the hon. Lady was right to anticipate this point. We do not and should not forget that it was the actions of the Burmese military that drove Rohingya from their homes, leading to the current extremely precarious situation in which they find themselves. Although it is of course vital and right that we provide immediate, life-saving humanitarian support to Rohingya in Bangladesh, we continue to call upon the Burmese authorities to create the conditions for them to be able to return home safely, voluntarily and with dignity, under a process overseen by the UN. In particular, Burma should fully implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, beginning with full, unfettered access for agencies to northern Rakhine.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle mentioned the referral and access to justice. Other countries know the UK’s commitment to justice. It was the UK that secured a UN presidential statement in November calling for accountability for what happened in Rakhine. The UK was instrumental in getting a recent UN Security Council visit and the Security Council is now considering Burma’s statement made during last week’s visit that it was ready to conduct an investigation. We will press for that first. We also await with interest the decision of the International Criminal Court as to whether it has jurisdiction regarding forced deportation into Bangladesh, which it has just announced it is examining. Calling on the Security Council to refer Burma to the ICC will remain an option.

The UK has sought to lead the way in a variety of different ways—in responding with aid; in using the UN to call for the presidential statement and getting other states involved; in securing sanctions against named individuals who have been responsible; and in continuing the work and efforts in preparation for the monsoon season. As I said at the beginning, this is a very complex issue and we will discuss it again, but the United Kingdom, with other agencies, is doing as much as it can to do what we can. We will not desist from that and recognise that there will be much more to do in the future.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central 2:28 pm, 8th May 2018

I thank the Minister for his remarks and everyone who has participated in the debate. It is most important that we do not forget the children, women and men in those camps. I welcome what the Government have done so far. I hope they continue to put international pressure on Burma and build a coalition against it so that we can see justice for the 1 million people who have suffered this terrible atrocity.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the effect of the monsoon season on the Rohingya.

Sitting adjourned.