[Relevant Documents: First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, Humanitarian crises monitoring: the Rohingya, HC 259; and the Government response, HC 658 Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee, on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and the effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to serve as you chair this morning’s discussion of the Rohingya crisis. I thank Sir Peter Bottomley for supporting the application for this debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time for it.
Before I say anything more, I think we should all reflect for a moment on the terrible events in Vienna last night—the shooting and killing of people in an event based on horror and hatred, which have no place anywhere in the world.
As chair of the all-party group on British-Austrian relations, I have sent a message to His Excellency the Ambassador, Michael Zimmermann, saying that we extend our sympathy to all those who are affected. Perhaps I could add that no one should judge Muslims by what one or two people do, in the same way that we should not judge Christians by what was done in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Catholics by what the IRA has done.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I absolutely agree with him and I am pleased that, as chair of the all-party group on British-Austrian relations, he has sent that message; indeed, I sent a message to the same effect last night to the Socialists, Democrats and Greens group of the Council of Europe. He is also quite right that we should never judge people by their faith; we should judge people by what they do. And what was done last night in Vienna is absolutely disgraceful—whether it is done against Jewish people, against Muslim people, or against anybody else, such action is wrong, wherever it happens. I am sure that we are all agreed on that.
Today, 65 million people across the world are either refugees or internally displaced persons, which is the largest ever number in recorded history, and the situation is getting worse as global inequality becomes greater and the climate emergency leads to more climate refugees.
When we see what is happening in north Africa, in particular Mali and Burkina Faso, we know that the number of refugees is likely to increase in the future. We also have refugee crises in many countries, including Venezuela, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, South Sudan and Palestine. There is also the situation in Colombia, which has the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world.
We are an advanced democratic society, and we have a duty to acknowledge and highlight the plight of refugees, wherever they are. We must reach out the hand of humanity towards those who have gone through trauma in their lives that we hope we never have to go through ourselves. It should be a source of deep shame that many vulnerable people who flee from their home country experience further breaches of their human rights, either as a consequence of having to live indefinitely in refugee camps that are in very poor condition or as a consequence of being turned away at borders, which often is in contravention of international refugee law.
Human rights debates carry a danger of assuming that everything that we do is okay and that everything that everybody else does might not be. We need to be careful and at times quite self-critical. Last month, it came to light that a number of asylum seekers are being housed in an Army barracks in west Wales and that the search was on for a possible location for asylum processing centres elsewhere, off the shores of this country.
We need to reflect for a moment on what it is like to be a refugee. Indeed, I raised these matters in a letter to the Home Secretary, saying that we did not want to see a repeat of the horrors of the Windrush scandal. So, it is also worth reflecting on the number of people in our country and in our communities who started out in this country as refugees but have gone on to make the most amazing contribution to our society—in science, engineering, education, transport and so many other areas—in the same way that many black and minority ethnic workers have made an incredible contribution to our national health service, particularly during the current crisis.
I say that because I think we should set this debate about the Rohingya crisis in the context of the refugee crisis around the world. There are many refugee crises, some of which we hear more about than others. Despite their being one of the largest and fastest growing groups of refugees in the world today, the Rohingya crisis does not get the coverage or publicity that it deserves. More than 1 million Rohingya refugees have been forced to leave their country.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was colonised by Britain in 1885 and finally achieved its independence in 1948, after the second world war and slightly after India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had achieved their independence. It had to deal with the disastrous repercussions of colonialism, including extreme nationalist tendencies, which had been exacerbated and, indeed, exploited during the second world war. There were deep-rooted fears in the country that it would once again fall under non-Burmese control. As a result, foreigners residing in Myanmar today are often seen, sadly, as remnants and reminders of a colonial period. That is one of the issues that must be addressed.
In Myanmar, it is claimed that the Rohingya migrated to Rakhine state from Bengal during and after the British colonial era of 1824 to 1948. However, many experts believe that the Rohingya people have been living in Rakhine state since at least the 15th century and possibly as early as the 7th century. Claims that the Rohingya are recent immigrants from Bangladesh are simply untrue. I say that because, when we talk about the plight of the Rohingya, it is important to draw attention to two major Acts introduced by the Myanmar Government that have infringed their rights. The first is the Emergency Immigration Act 1947, which required all citizens to carry an identity card. The Rohingya were ineligible for those cards; they were eligible only for the foreign registration card, which provided limited rights and was meant for foreigners. Even then, few Rohingya were able to secure a foreign registration card. Therefore, the process of their exclusion from normal civil society speeded up.
Secondly, in 2014, the Government conducted their first census in 30 years. On the census form, there was no option to register as Rohingya. Therefore, the Rohingya had to register as Bengali, effectively forcing them to admit what the Government had claimed all along—that they were immigrants to the country, not citizens of the country. They were then allowed to register as temporary citizens and receive a white card, which provided them with very limited rights. However, the Government revoked that limited status in February 2015, which meant that the Rohingya were not able to vote in the elections in November of that year and have not been able to vote or stand for election ever since.
We have a number of very serious issues relating to the role of the military in society. After independence, there was a series of elected Governments, but in 1962 a coup placed the military in control of the Government. Although reforms have lessened their influence, the military continue to play a very prominent role in politics and life in the whole country.
Early in the morning of
According to Amnesty International, the military-led operations in the wake of
Four years after the Myanmar military unleashed a wave of violence against the Rohingya civilians, killing thousands and burning entire villages to the ground, millions of Rohingya are still displaced across the region. Anyone who has met anyone who has been in their village at night will have heard that when the army arrive, it drives people out, kills the men, rapes the women, drives those who have survived or managed to escape out of the country and then burns the village behind them.
It is now estimated that 1.2 million refugees are in Bangladesh, 100,000 in Malaysia, 200,000 in Pakistan and—the figures are disputed—between 100,000 and 200,000 in India. The scale of this humanitarian crisis is unprecedented in that part of the world. While Bangladesh is hosting 1 million refugees, sadly, the Governments of Thailand and Malaysia have been extremely hostile towards Rohingya refugees trying to find somewhere safe to survive. Every day, more vulnerable people arrive in Bangladesh with very little, if anything, and settle in overcrowded camps or extremely congested makeshift sites. It is a very difficult situation for all of them.
The Government of Bangladesh, local charities and volunteers from the UN and many non-governmental organisations, to which I pay enormous tribute, are working in overdrive to provide assistance. The UK Government have provided significant amounts of aid, which is very welcome, and I look forward to the Minister telling us what future aid and guarantees for the future will be available for the refugee camps and organisations that are helping them. However, much more is urgently needed. The efforts must be scaled up and expanded to receive and protect refugees and ensure they are provided with basic shelter and acceptable living conditions.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I hope she will get an opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make a longer contribution.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 30% of children living in the camps suffer from chronic malnutrition—one third of children suffering from malnutrition—and 11% from acute malnutrition. A whole generation of children are growing up in their most important, formative years without enough to eat, which will lead to stunted growth and development and probably a much shorter life expectancy. There is not an overall food shortage in the world; there is a problem of distributing food across the world. Again, while I am not critical of the UN or aid agencies and what they are trying to achieve, resources are needed to feed those children. Imagine being in a refugee camp and unable to get enough food. Also, sadly, there are reports of sexual abuse, human trafficking, exploitation of children and violence against women within these very overcrowded camps. Funding for education, food and to deal with gender-based violence is very important. I hope that Britain will continue to work closely with the UN to ensure an effective implementation of the joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.
All long-term problems are exacerbated by the threat of covid-19. Cases have been confirmed among the Rohingya and the International Rescue Committee has advised that the camp is particularly vulnerable to virus transmission due to an exceptionally high density—40,000 people per square kilometre are trying to survive in those refugee camps. There is very poor sanitation, limited access to health care services and a high level of malnutrition. In the monsoon season, the heavy rainfall leads to flooding and further danger of terrible diseases such as cholera breaking out as a result of inadequate sanitation.
I am sad to say that there are serious concerns about the fencing erected around the camps, as it restricts the Rohingya’s legitimate freedom of movement and access to services. The UK must urge the Bangladesh authorities to review urgently their approach to security. The issue will not be solved by putting fences around civilians or removing deported Rohingya from the camps along the border to an island in the Bay of Bengal—an island just above sea level with prison-type accommodation. The island places them further from Myanmar with no access to a regular ferry service. It would be a place they would go to and possibly never return, which is an unacceptable step. The international community must do all it can to ensure that that does not materialise.
In looking at any refugee crisis, we must look first at the humanitarian needs of desperate people, and I have tried to outline those needs, but we must also look at why they sought refuge in the first place and were forced to make the desperate and dangerous step of at least trying to get away from being murdered or raped and having their villages destroyed. The Myanmar Government must take immediate steps to address the chronic situation, including the 1982 citizenship law, and restore the Rohingya right to citizenship, a measure that was supported at the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The President of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has issued a number of decrees following the provisional measure to prevent genocide, from the International Court of Justice. The Court said that the Rohingya remained at serious risk of that. Just get that: the International Court of Justice said that the Rohingya remained at serious risk of having genocide committed against them.
It is time to translate those decrees fully into concrete actions. The fighting in Rakhine must end. Civilians must be protected. Evidence of serious violations must be preserved. I must say I find the actions and attitudes of Aung San Suu Kyi perplexing. I am one of many people who marched around London in support of her, asking that her house arrest be ended and that she be given the freedom to return to political open life, which she did. She was elected and eventually became President. So I should be grateful if the Minister would help us and say what pressure is being put on Aung San Suu Kyi, and whether the Government will consider their relationship with her in the future. It is extraordinary that someone who came to office on the basis that she was a victim of human rights abuses seems to have a blind spot where the rights of the Rohingya people are concerned, and is happy to promote a sort of supremacist attitude over them. Unless that changes, their right of return becomes a bit of a pipe dream.
I do not know how long the crisis will go on, but I do not want to say that children now being born, or living, in those refugee camps in Bangladesh have no future other than to be refugees in a camp in Bangladesh for decades to come. Therein lie illness, mental health problems and anger—and a breeding ground for the terrorists of the future because they are so angry. I hope that our Government will do all they can to bring about a peaceful solution to their plight and engage with the UN and the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, to stress the importance of including the Rohingya in all discussions for the future.
The Foreign Secretary said recently:
“The Rohingya people have faced horrific brutality and were forced to flee their homes in the worst circumstances imaginable. We have taken action against the architects of this systemic violence, including through sanctions and we will continue to hold those responsible to account.”
I look forward to the Minister telling us how many other people may be subject to sanctions in the future, depending on what happens to the Rohingya people.
I shall not be making a speech in the debate, but I hope that those who are watching it will understand that we are concerned not just about the Rohingya and Myanmar. Yesterday in the House of Lords Jammu and Kashmir was raised, as China and the Uighur have been raised. It is not targeted: we have an aim to try to have justice for people. I refer those watching the debate to the report by the United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar that came out a year ago, and the campaign material from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation, the Burma Campaign UK and Justice for the Rohingya, all of which illustrate some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. My speech is concentrating on the plight of the Rohingya people, but any other refugees should be included in the issue, because if a country is to be at peace with itself it has to be at peace with recognising the diversity—the linguistic and ethnic diversity—of all its people. If the army of the country, in this case Myanmar, attacks and drives one particular ethnic group out of the country, who is next and what happens after that? There has to be a process of reconciliation, as well as support for the right of return and for people to be able to live safely and securely in Rakhine state.
The UK Government recently imposed sanctions against two Myanmar military generals, which is an important symbolic measure, especially for the victims, but further and more meaningful action must be taken. The UK Government should, for instance, prevent British companies from trading with companies in Myanmar connected with the military in any way. I look forward to the Minister explaining what the process is on that.
If we focus on just mineral rights exploration, such as gas and oil offshore, we will find that many foreign investors are competing to stay friendly with the Myanmar Government and that the UK is among the top investors. We have to be careful here. If British companies are investing in exploiting oil, gas or any other natural resources found there, they will find, not very far away, the influence of the Myanmar military, which will be making a great deal of money out of that. They are the ones who stand accused of the attacks and of killing so many Rohingya people in Rakhine state. We should have nothing to do with that. We should be strong enough to say, “We are not prepared to be involved with a military, a Government or companies that have paid for or supported those attacks in any way.” When the Minister replies, can he explain what exactly the relationship with Myanmar’s military is at present? We need to know that we are not supplying any weapons to it or providing any training facilities for it, and that we are resolute in our determination to protect the Rohingya and other minorities from future attacks, as the hon. Member for Worthing West correctly pointed out.
It is extremely concerning and unethical that the UK has apparently obtained large quantities of personal protective equipment from Myanmar, a country where the Government are accused of ethnic cleansing by the UN and genocide by other human rights organisations. It is simply unacceptable that we purchase equipment to save lives in the UK from a country that has taken so many. We can and should find other sources of PPE. We are going to enter a second lockdown now. Can the Minister guarantee that the Government will not purchase any more PPE from Myanmar?
I close by saying that the Rohingya people were discriminated against and manipulated during the colonial era, have been brutally treated by the Myanmar military for many decades and are now desperate in refugee camps with unsanitary, unsafe and dangerous conditions. The world has to wake up. We cannot allow a million people to be forgotten in that way. The world needs to do two things: first, to provide the support necessary for those people to survive and, secondly, to apply political pressure to the Government of Myanmar so that they will allow people to return safely and to live safely and securely in the country and place of their birth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this important debate and drawing attention to the plight of Rohingya refugees. He eloquently made the case today that all of us must do more to support the Rohingya people.
People forced by wars and persecution to flee their homes frequently embark on risky journeys in many parts of the world. They should find safety and support and not be exposed to more danger and hardship. However, there are approximately 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, a country already facing significant challenges, not least during this world pandemic. Many people are still living below the poverty line and feel that they have no other choice but to go out and earn their living despite the risk of getting infected by the virus. Covid-19 has exacerbated existing problems for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including by increasing gender-based violence, and the lack of adequate sanitation and healthcare and the crowded conditions make distancing impossible.
Bangladesh should not be left alone with the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya refugees, and the international community should increase its economic support accordingly. What steps is the Minister taking to work with the Government of Bangladesh to encourage efforts to designate critical gender-based violence services as essential and to ensure that there is a continuity of gender-based violence service provision for the Rohingya throughout the covid-19 response? Given the inescapable reality that many refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years to come, what steps are the Government taking to support the expansion of educational training and support in refugee camps?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North is correct in arguing that it is critical to address the root of the problem. Three years ago a military operation in Myanmar destroyed entire Rohingya Muslim villages. UN investigators say that as many as 10,000 people were killed, and more than 730,000 Rohingya fled the massacre for Bangladesh. The UN called it “a textbook …ethnic cleansing.” According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the month after the violence broke out. About 288 villages were partially or totally destroyed by fire in the north of Rakhine state after August 2017, according to analysis of state imagery by Human Rights Watch.
Just today, an independent human rights expert called on the Government and the military in Myanmar to stop persecuting Opposition supporters, including journalists and student protestors, ahead of the elections next week. Thomas Andrews, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said:
“But this cannot happen as long as it is enforcing laws that undermine the very lifeblood of democracy, and the right to vote is denied based on race, ethnicity of religion as it is with the Rohingya.”
Canada and the Netherlands have supported the case brought to the International Court of Justice by Gambia, alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state violate various provisions of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. Can the Minister tell us any more about that and about the role that the UK could play in that regard?
In conclusion, I express my solidarity with all people around the world who are victims of political human rights abuses. Ultimately, it is the duty of all of us to do everything we can to uphold fundamental human rights, as laid out by the universal declaration of human rights.
It is a pleasure to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was surprised when I walked through the door. I had to screw up my eyes and say, “My goodness, you have come back to us.” Thank you very much. It is lovely to see you.
I thank Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Peter Bottomley for setting the scene, which was admirably done. One of the first debates the right hon. Gentleman and I had in Westminster Hall was on human rights, although not the Rohingya. He introduced the debate, and I was there to support him. It is good that we are on the same page on this issue, as we often have been and probably always will be when it comes to human rights across the world.
The suffering that the Rohingya refugees have had to endure is scarcely imaginable. Everything that right hon. and hon. Members have said, and will say after me, encapsulates the fact that the Rohingya have survived horrifying violence, been driven from their homes and been forced to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps. People could be forgiven for thinking that things could not get any worse, and yet here we are with a global pandemic, adding still more to their burden.
Our duty in this House is to speak up for those who do not have a voice. Maybe we will never meet them, but we can familiarise ourselves with their circumstances and conditions and try to help them. I look forward to the Minister’s response, as we often do, and today we have three things to ask of him.
I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, Preet Kaur Gill, in her place. She and I are good friends, and I look forward to her contribution, as well as that of Kirsten Oswald, the spokesperson for the Scottish National party.
Fortunately, data for the Rohingya refugee camps currently shows that the number of cases of covid-19 is lower than anticipated, although I question where that data came from. The restrictions put in place on humanitarian agencies by the Bangladeshi Government to isolate Rohingya refugees are having a devastating effect, and I would suggest that the data is not available, primarily because of the restrictions in place. The restrictions placed on organisations permit them to do only certain types of work or to do it only in a certain way, and they are allowed into the camps only for a set number of hours—in some cases, they are not allowed in at all. If the data cannot be collected, any data will be suspect and will not be correct.
“decreased ability to implement critical services has led to an increase in unmet needs. Many Rohingya have been unable to fortify their homes against rain and windstorms because shelter-related service restrictions meant that monsoon preparedness activities were not completed… Additionally, common coping mechanisms, such as increasing debt, borrowing assistance from family or neighbours… were reported as less effective than in previous periods, more difficult to access, or unavailable because of the changes due to COVID-19. As a result, many families feel desperate and uncertain about their future.”
The impact of these restrictions has been so great that, in July, many Rohingya perceived the impact of covid-19 containment measures as being a greater threat to their overall wellbeing than covid-19 itself. We cannot ignore that. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to alleviate some of our fears for the Rohingya people at this time and tell us where they stand.
Many acknowledge the risk of covid-19, but it is secondary to more immediate risks, such as shelters collapsing. People must also have safe and accessible toilets and be able to feed their families. These myriad issues come upon people quickly, and they are bread-and-butter issues. Those of us that have a comparatively good life here, with access to such things, may take them for granted, but these people do not, and we want to see what is happening. The Government have taken steps, and I always acknowledge that, because it is fair to give them credit for that, but perhaps the Minister can give us an idea of what, specifically, has been done for the Rohingya, in the precarious conditions and circumstances they face.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says. I am reminded that the problems of Burma, or Myanmar, did not start with the Rohingya. When John Bercow was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, he and Baroness Cox went to see what was happening to the Chin people, who faced appalling behaviour in 2007. On the point the hon. Gentleman makes about covid, others may want to look at the report by ActionAid UK on its work with women, who are carrying the major burden of the covid crisis in Myanmar and in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I thank him for his fantastic, wise words, for the debate and for his significant contribution to it. Hopefully, the Minister can take that into account as well.
The Rohingya refugees have experienced even more suffering due to covid-19, and they remain in an extremely precarious position. Yet, despite their harrowing plight, the international community and the UK Government have not done anywhere near everything in their power to support these persecuted people. I say that kindly and respectfully, because I understand that the Government are doing their best, but I urge them to perhaps do more.
I welcome the sanctions that Her Majesty’s Government have put on Burmese military leaders responsible for violence against the Rohingya, but much more needs to be done. I have three asks of the Minister. First, the British Government should immediately take action to prevent British companies from doing any form of business with the Burmese military and with companies owned and controlled by the military. I say that because, according to Burma Campaign UK, the Burmese military earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year through its vast range of military-owned companies. I always think that the best way to hurt someone is to hurt them in their pocket, because that seems to have the desired effect. I am sure the Minister will agree that no British company should be involved in business that funds genocide. I urge him and our Government to take action to prevent that.
Secondly, I acknowledge that the Bangladeshi Government have done much, but I say again that there must be careful diplomatic engagement with them about the restrictions on humanitarian assistance to refugees. Clearly, there are obstructions that should not be there. An urgent revision of the restrictions is required to allow humanitarian agencies to increase the assistance they provide, especially shelter assistance, and much-needed maintenance and repair of public facilities such as toilets must be carried out. Those are the basics, but they are really important. If we want to address covid-19, we have to do that as well. Health and safety is of course of the utmost concern, but the Bangladeshi authorities must be convinced that it is not in their interest to abandon the Rohingya refugees to the virus, because that will lead to a hotspot from which the virus can spread to other parts of the country, so, again, diplomatic engagement is needed.
Thirdly and finally, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to join the genocide case at the International Court of Justice. Gambia has brought a case at the ICJ claiming that Burma is in breach of the genocide convention. It is supported by 56 other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and by the Maldives, Canada and the Netherlands. We cannot ignore the volume of voices from those 59 countries from across the world, which are speaking up and which see a breach of the genocide convention. Why have the British Government thus far refused to join? I ask the Minister to look at that and to perhaps give us an answer today. I hope he will push for the UK to join that case, or at least explain to this House why they have refused to do so. We see the genocide against the Rohingya, and it hurts our hearts to think of these things—the powerful violence and brutality, and the conditions that those people are living in.
We cannot allow such unspeakable persecution to go unchallenged. A failure to take the actions I have outlined will only enhance the sense of impunity enjoyed by the military and will encourage it to commit further human rights abuses. If we do not do something hard about this issue, it will continue. I say this very gently: how can we, and I say “we” collectively, sleep at night knowing that we have made a few speeches—yes, it is great to make speeches—but have not done everything we could when crimes against humanity, if not genocide, have arisen during our lifetime? I urge Her Majesty’s Government to take the three actions I have outlined, and I hope the Minister will be so kind as to keep me and others informed about progress on them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. The previous speakers have been crystal clear about the urgent nature of the situation. If it was not clear to us or pressing enough previously—obviously, it should have been—the covid-19 pandemic and the terrible price that it has wrought, especially among the most vulnerable, has confirmed once and for all that life in a refugee camp should never be considered an acceptable long-term plan.
Nobody would argue that the Rohingya community is not suffering disproportionately from this terrible virus. In fact, as far as we know—Jim Shannon made a sensible point about data—the death rate from covid-19 among the Rohingya refugees is 8%, compared with 2% for the Bangladeshi host community. Their situation, even on the basis of those figures, means a huge difference in outcome, in terms of life and death.
Amnesty International has spoken about a dangerous lack of access to even basic information. Mobile and internet services for the Rohingya were restored only in late August, and blackouts remain in Rakhine state. This is a hard time for those of us who are able to communicate and seek out potentially life-saving information, but what about people who cannot?
A huge issue is the inability to practise preventive measures such as frequent hand-washing in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. We rightly place much emphasis on the importance of hand-washing, but when we do so we are supposing that it is even an option. We all keep ourselves socially distant wherever we can, but with the population density in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, for instance, social distancing is almost impossible. In fact, Relief International Cox’s Bazar programme director has described the situation there as a “ticking time bomb”.
Existing healthcare facilities are woefully inadequate to handle a severe crisis such as this: in the whole of Cox’s Bazar, there are only two ventilators. We already know that Bangladesh has one doctor for every 2,000 people, compared with one doctor for every 350 people in the UK. There is a woeful shortage of PPE, even before the other critical issues in purchasing PPE that we heard about from other Members.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister—I think; it may have been someone else—referred to 90,000 ventilators being secured for the United Kingdom, although we have used only 4,000. Does the hon. Lady think it might be a good idea to send some of those surplus ventilators to help the Rohingya?
Thinking broadly about the needs of the people in this perilous situation is vital, so I am interested in hearing the Minister’s thoughts about the practicality of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that covid-19 is deepening the marginalisation and exclusion of the Rohingya, who are already in such a perilous situation. That seems self-evident to us, but it bears reflecting upon. Once the Bangladeshi Government announced a nationwide lockdown on
Worryingly, aid groups in Bangladesh have reported a rise in anti-Rohingya hate speech and racism, and rapidly deteriorating dynamics between the two communities—a particularly difficult situation. A recent report on the gendered impact of covid-19 on Rohingya communities also reports increases in forced marriages, child marriages, gender-based violence, transphobic violence, violence against people with disabilities and violence against female sex workers as the presence of camp authorities has fallen away, so the people on the margins already are increasingly and dangerously further marginalised.
Human Rights Watch also reported that, in Rakhine state camps and villages, 70% of children are not attending school at all. To compound that—if things were not difficult enough—in May this year, more than 100,000 refugees were affected by heavy rains, monsoons and landslides because of Cyclone Amphan, which destroyed shelters, washed away crops and further increased disease. Those multifaceted threats faced by the Rohingya are not going away during the pandemic, they are getting worse. It is vital that the UK Government are aware of and focused on that and continue to provide sustained financial support. With that in mind, it is deeply concerning that the UK Government confirmed on
There is absolutely no doubt that 2020 has seen violence against the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar escalate once again. The situation has taken on an increased complexity. While the international community remains understandably hyper-focused on addressing the virus domestically and on their economic situations, the violence and persecution that the Rohingya people face has not stopped, despite the International Court of Justice ordering Myanmar’s leadership to take all measures within their power to stop the killing or harming of the Rohingya people, as set out under article 2 of the genocide convention.
More children were maimed in the first three months of this year in Myanmar than in the whole of 2019, according to Save the Children, while 19,000 Rohingya people fled their homes in the Kyauktaw township in Myanmar between the end of August and the beginning of September. Despite the International Court of Justice’s ordering the Tatmadaw not to destroy evidence of crimes, new UN satellite images show that the military has bulldozed the ruins of Kan Kya—just one example of the almost 400 Rohingya villages destroyed by the Myanmar military in 2017 as part of a wider cover-up. Overall it could not be a more dangerous situation and of course, if continued violence in Rakhine state makes repatriation less viable as time goes on, it grows more perilous.
International Rescue Committee figures show that only 4% of the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar have actually been granted refugee status and that means for almost all of them that services and employment cannot be sought in Bangladesh. It is important that in the long run, the international community makes an active and focused effort to help resettle Rohingya people permanently in Bangladesh or in third countries, as seen with other refugee groups such as the Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal.
It has been evident since the covid crisis began that there has been an increase in the number of Rohingya people moving from both Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia and other countries in south-east Asia, largely on boats that are not fit for that purpose. Myanmar must undoubtedly address the root cause of the issue of statelessness of the Rohingya if the plight of those boat people is to be resolved.
Amnesty International has warned that,
“Regional governments cannot let their seas become graveyards.”
The SNP stands by calls from Amnesty International to allow safe disembarkation and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members to urgently agree emergency measures to prevent further humanitarian crisis.
Bangladesh has built housing for 100,000 people—we have heard about this from Apsana Begum—on the remote silt island of Bhasan Char, with plans to relocate some of the Cox’s Bazar residents there. There are concerning reports emerging of Bangladeshi military officers beating refugees, including children, who are protesting their detention on the island. An Amnesty International report alleges that sexual assaults have taken place against Rohingya women on the island. It is critical that the UK Government increase international pressure to allow UN experts to conduct an independent assessment of the island to ensure that any relocation there is voluntary and that it is truly habitable, which has been questioned by the former UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. Our global mechanisms for accountability and the protection of human rights have clearly failed the Rohingya people so far, and it is essential that we have a renewed focus on not allowing that to continue.
It is disappointing that the UK Government have still not heeded the repeated calls that my colleagues have made about adopting a national strategy of atrocity prevention; that is a gaping hole in UK foreign policy that should be urgently filled. My hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) have been focused on keeping this issue on the agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East specifically pressed on this matter just weeks ago, and that echoed calls from my hon. Friend Alyn Smith. That is critical because if these cross-Whitehall prediction and prevention frameworks are left out of the upcoming integrated review, that will represent a body blow to all those who wish to see the UK Government play a greater role in ensuring that all possible steps are taken at each stage to prevent mass atrocities from happening, which is surely what we all want.
To conclude, as the Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya shows few signs of relenting, surely such a strategy could not be more pressing. I would encourage the Minister to give some thought to that as part of the bigger picture in how we support and deal with the perilous and terrible situation facing the Rohingya people.
It is a honour to serve with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to thank Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Peter Bottomley for securing this important debate. I also want to thank my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi and her staff who have been leading on this work in the shadow development team. I am sure that I echo the thoughts of the whole House when I say that we hope she is able to return to Parliament as soon as possible.
The contributions today have been thoughtful and well informed, and I thank all those who have taken part and especially the organisations who work on these issues on a daily basis and have provided vital briefings. I also want to welcome the return of debates in Westminster Hall as a vital means for us as Members of Parliament in the UK to raise issues of global importance, and I hope we find safe ways to continue them during the upcoming restrictions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North made a powerful speech reminding us of those fleeing their homes, those internally displaced, and those living in refugee camps, which have become a long-term placement for so many. He rightly says that the plight of refugees seldom gets the coverage it deserves.
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
My hon. Friend Apsana Begum talked about gender-based violence, which is so important and something that I will touch on in my speech, and Jim Shannon reminded us of the impact of covid on refugees, who are already facing very difficult and, in some cases, inhumane situations. I thank him for his contribution, for raising the ICJ case on genocide brought by The Gambia, and for challenging us all to speak out on crimes against humanity.
Since the eruption of violence in 2017, the Rohingya have faced a series of life-threatening situations; covid-19 is just the most recent. Many have faced a lifetime of discrimination, ethnic cleansing, enforced migration and years in unsanitary and overcrowded camps. I commend the UK Government for the work that they have done to provide some immediate humanitarian aid, but we all know that there is much more that could be done in both the short and long term to provide sustainable solutions.
It is a tragedy that despite its being more than three years since the mass exodus of the Rohingya, fleeing persecution and oppression in 2017, the international community is still having to provide them 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. It is estimated that there are still 600,000 Rohingya people in Rakhine state. Of those, around 130,000 are confined to arbitrary and indefinite detention in heavily restrictive camps, the inhabitants of which face significant constraints on healthcare, food and shelter, and growing restrictions on humanitarian aid and freedom of movement.
A recently published report by Human Rights Watch documented Rohingya being killed simply for breaking curfew, and where they are not in detention they face discrimination and segregation. As the covid-19 pandemic has further increased restrictions, the impact on minorities, and upcoming elections in which most Rohingya are prevented from voting or running for office, are likely to further increase tensions. Can the Minister tell us what progress he has made in lobbying the Myanmar Government to end the arbitrary detention of various ethnic minorities in what are, in effect, mass prison camps, and what steps have the Government taken to ensure that those living in the camps have access to humanitarian assistance?
For the hundreds of thousands who have fled that oppression to Bangladesh, the situation that they face is also of grave concern. Some 860,000 of those million refugees currently reside in the Cox’s Bazar district in some of the most densely inhabited land in the world. The Kutupalong refugee settlement is the largest of its kind, with more than 600,000 people living in an area of just 13 sq km. That number of refugees would be a struggle for most countries, and for Bangladesh it has been no different. The proposals to relocate the Rohingya to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island several hundred miles to the north in the Bay of Bengal, should be a wake-up call for the international community.
After being taken from a distressed vessel in May, 306 refugees were transferred to Bhasan Char, which at the time was described as a temporary measure in the light of covid-19 restrictions on the mainland. Those refugees are yet to be reunited with their families, and there have been numerous reports of maltreatment, ranging from beatings to sexual violence. I welcome the Minister’s comments in support of UN assessments, but can he confirm that it is his position that no further relocation should take place until full assessments have taken place, and will the Secretary of State push for that with his Bangladeshi counterparts?
Although temporarily lifted over the past few months, it appears that internet and communications around Cox’s Bazar remain limited and restricted. That drastically limits the ability of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to obtain crucial information about the spread of covid-19. That is combined with inadequate sanitation, which makes even basic preventative measures such as hand washing inaccessible to so many. We have also received reports that a number of humanitarian organisations are experiencing growing problems in acquiring visas and work permits for international staff. Can the Minister explain why that is the case, and what representations he has made to ensure that organisations with the relevant skills and experience are able to access the area and provide necessary support and assistance?
In such cramped conditions the spread of any virus is extremely likely and concerns have been raised about the accessibility of tests and the reliability of the covid-19 data. With community transmission clearly apparent in the refugee population, the World Health Organisation has emphasised that the highest priority must be increasing the rate of testing. What steps are the Government taking to encourage the end of internet restrictions and to support aid agencies and the Government of Bangladesh to increase the availability of tests across the region? Is UK aid funding to support the Rohingya in Bangladesh protected from any cuts to the Official Development Assistance budget both this year and next?
Looking at the wider picture and moving beyond humanitarian assistance, it is vital to ensure that we do not have a lost generation in these camps. Over 326,000 Rohingya refugee children are in dire need of education. Earlier this year UNICEF was co-ordinating work by humanitarian agencies to introduce a pilot and a new curriculum to 10,000 students. That pilot was placed on hold when education was categorised as non-life saving by the Government of Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner. That allowed learning centres to be closed to prevent the spread of the virus. More than 6,000 learning spaces in Rohingya refugee camps were closed, depriving 325,000 children of the already woefully limited learning opportunities available to them. Failing to provide children with educational rights traps them in a cycle of poverty and massively reduces any hope they may have of leading independent, fulfilled lives. What steps are the Government taking to improve educational access and quality in the refugee camps?
Trafficking, child marriage and unpaid work that women and girls are forced to take have all increased during the pandemic. Vital services, including sexual and reproductive healthcare, have been cut, with gender-based violence services deemed non-essential and either stopped or reduced at a time when the need for them is acute and growing. Intimate partners perpetrate 81% of gender-based violence in the Rohingya camps and 56% of incidents are physical. As lockdowns have left refugees confined to their homes, women have been afflicted by what the International Rescue Committee has termed “a shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.
What progress has been made in pushing the Government of Bangladesh to provide support to those suffering from gender-based violence and to empower women to take the key choices about how their communities move forward and receive aid? What specific actions is the Minister taking to ensure that tackling gender inequality remains a key priority of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and in particular can he explain what steps he is taking with regard to the Rohingya to ensure that no one is left behind?
All those issues need to be tackled now. Supporting efforts to slow the spread of covid-19 and overcome it must be only the tip of the iceberg of the support that the Government must provide to tackle the wider social and economic damage that the virus is causing and exacerbating. While a safe, secure and voluntary return to Myanmar must remain the objective, even if repatriation were to begin immediately, analysis by the United Nations Development Programme indicates that it could take between five and 13 years to achieve full repatriation.
Our Government are in a unique position to display the moral duty and global leadership required to support the Rohingya and to find ways to reach the solution of a return on the Rohingya’s terms. But that cannot be done until the Myanmar Government end the arbitrary detention of the Rohingya in camps and recognise them as full citizens. Will the Minister update us on what steps he has taken to place diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar Government on both fronts? It also requires the United Kingdom to make sure that it is not supporting actors who have supported, deliberately or otherwise, the oppression of minority groups. Earlier this year, a journalist discovered that UK aid, through the CDC, had been funding a telecoms company that censored websites under the orders of the Myanmar Government. Does the Minister believe that that is a good investment and, since then, what steps has he taken to ensure that any and all investments made with UK taxpayers’ money achieve the highest standards in protecting human rights?
Until a safe return is possible, our Government need to support local actors to mitigate the social and economic impact of covid-19. These are difficult problems, but they are not intractable and I hope to continue to work with the Minister to make real and concrete progress for the Rohingya people.
I will start, Mr Twigg, by thanking your predecessor in the Chair this morning for filling in. I am grateful to Jeremy Corbyn and my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley for securing this important debate on what is a critical issue. I am also grateful to the Opposition spokesman, Preet Kaur Gill, for the way in which we have collaborated on many issues previously. Her concluding remarks were testament to that work. I think we are all on the same page on this issue, and my door at the FCDO is very much open to right hon. and hon. Members to discuss this issue in more detail. We do not get a lot of time to dig into all the issues and respond to all the questions, but I will do my best in the time available.
In thanking the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate—it had originally suggested that we might be able to have it in the Chamber, but needs must in the circumstances—I would like to put on the record that there would have been more participation had my hon. Friend Mr Baker not been due to take part in a Westminster Hall debate later today, which I think is why he is not speaking now.
That is absolutely right. We did get advance notice that my hon. Friend Mr Baker would not be able to participate in this morning’s debate.
The UK will not sit, and has not sat, idly by. Very recently, on
A total of $600 million in new and existing funding was announced at the conference. The United Kingdom announced a further £37.5 million for the Rohingya refugees and local communities in Bangladesh. That brings the total UK commitment to the Rohingya in Bangladesh thus far close to £300 million since 2017, when they had to flee their homes in Myanmar. That makes us the second largest single donor globally in assistance for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh.
That has been very helpful and underlines the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government, which we appreciate. Is there any follow-up to monitor and regulate where that money is going, to make sure that it actually goes where it should, which is to help the people? If people are living in dilapidated shelters and do not have toilet facilities, it makes me wonder where the money is going.
It is absolutely crucial that we keep a trail and manage to do due diligence before the money is handed over. We work with third parties—non-governmental organisations—to make sure that the money does get to the correct place, where it is needed most. That is absolutely crucial when we are talking about such huge sums and we need to monitor that constantly as we deliver the cash. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that point.
The new funding announced last week will provide improved education for more than 50,000 children and young people from the refugee and surrounding local Bangladeshi community, something I know is close to the heart of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and was also mentioned by Apsana Begum. It will also provide food for 290,000 refugees for four months, and provide cash and food assistance for 10,000 of the most vulnerable members of the local economy to cope with the economic impact of the covid-19 crisis.
Jim Shannon rightly asked about humanitarian support and access to those services. Since March, we have committed £11 million to help prepare the refugees for the impact of covid-19. We have backed major deployments to Cox’s Bazar by the UK emergency medical team to offer clinical expertise and set up isolation and treatment centres. United Kingdom aid has created capacity for more than 600 beds for treating refugees and locals alike suffering from severe respiratory infections. More than 2,400 hand-washing facilities have been added to the camps and public health information has been widely shared across communities.
I had the pleasure of a virtual day visit to Myanmar, where I saw at first hand—albeit over the internet—the work that our aid is delivering. If hon. Members would like to see what the UK is doing on the ground in these camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh, I would be more than happy to facilitate access to some of that information and perhaps give a presentation. Meanwhile, we have continued to fund critical services, such as food, regular medical services, clean water, sanitation and protection.
Thankfully, the number of confirmed covid cases in the Bangladeshi camps is much lower than anticipated. The WHO and health agencies are seeking a better understanding of transmission levels and expanding the reach of community health workers in the camps.
The Minister is being generous and most gracious in giving way. My question is on the data. There is some concern among many hon. Members and non-governmental organisations that the data was perhaps not as accurate as it could be, simply because they had no access to it. Has he had a chance to look at that?
It is important that the data is accurate and I will follow that up with my team. I know that more work is being done on the ground to assess the data and ensure that the information gathered on transmission rates is as accurate as possible. Thus far, thankfully, we are seeing a relatively low infection rate. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point—collecting information and getting an in-depth, detailed analysis is crucial.
We have also continued to support local Bangladeshi communities, for example by bolstering the local economy and giving 50,000 local Bangladeshi people access to safe water. However, we know that, three years on, this is a protracted crisis and the Rohingya and local communities will need long-term support—I know that one or two colleagues have asked about that this morning. We are working with the Bangladeshi Government, the United Nations and the World Bank on a development strategy for the Cox’s Bazar district. As hon. Members will know, this was an incredibly poor area even before the influx of refugees, so we continue to encourage the Bangladeshi Government to help the Rohingya lead safe and full lives by improving education and offering access to jobs. That is crucial if we are to prevent despair setting in.
The Bangladeshi Government agreed earlier this year that Rohingya children could have access to the Myanmar curriculum. On the other side of the border, in conflict-afflicted Rakhine state in Myanmar, the UK has provided over £44 million to all communities since 2017—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston raised this point. This includes over £25 million for Rohingya communities for education, nutrition, water, health, sanitation and general livelihood support. As I saw on my virtual visit in June, our partners are doing some life-saving work. There are 128,000 Rohingya and 88,000 ethnic Rakhine in internally displaced person camps. Our priority is to reach those IDPs and the conflict-affected populations.
Covid has only exacerbated the problems. The number of covid cases is increasing across Rakhine state and testing is not widespread in those camps or villages. The Myanmar Government have implemented lockdowns and curfews, the impact of which we are closely monitoring.
We are also working closely with the Myanmar Ministry of Health on equipping facilities, protecting health workers, and reducing the cost of accessing healthcare for the most vulnerable patients. We are enabling the life-saving work that the crisis threatens to end. The importance of childhood immunisation and ensuring safe, high-quality maternal health services are also crucial, and our assistance is helping to deliver that. We are the largest donor of water, hygiene and sanitation in IDP camps and displacement sites, which also supports work on protection and livelihoods. Most of the IDP camps are based in central Rakhine, and the UK funds all of those camps. We also provide significant food support in northern Rakhine and have reached 200,000 people.
Turning to the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, we heard a thoughtful speech from the right hon. Member for Islington North, who talked about the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar. We are clear that the Rohingya who have lived in Myanmar for generations should be granted full citizenship and the associated rights. We continue to call for the reform of the 1982 citizenship law, which is deeply flawed. The Rohingya should not be excluded from Myanmar elections. On
The right hon. Member for Islington North also talked about sanctions and raised the point about companies owned by the military. The hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned sanctions. It is clear that the Myanmar military has vast and complex interests across the economy, on both an institutional and an individual level. The military economic institutions grew up under sanctions and are opaque. Thankfully, they have limited exposure to the UK economy. However, we encourage UK companies to conduct thorough due diligence, but it will not be possible for credible investors to ensure that investments have no exposure whatever to the holding companies. We have applied direct sanctions to the perpetrators of the atrocities against the Rohingya people. In total, 16 people in Myanmar have been sanctioned. We will continue to use this tool as a force for good in Myanmar. We will also continue—one or two Members have raised this—to review options for targeted actions that impact on the military but do not harm poor people in Myanmar.
The right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi. We are clear that the military are responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya. The President is the elected leader of Myanmar, and it is vital that we continue to engage with her to help Myanmar make progress on the very serious challenges that it faces. We also had a thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. In an intervention on the right hon. Member for Islington North, she mentioned the UN inspections at Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, which was also mentioned by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). The inspection should happen urgently. There are 306 refugees on the island. Full and detailed assessments are urgently needed to evaluate the situation on that island, which is something we will continually support and call for. We continue to work with the Bangladeshi Government on that issue.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston also mentioned, as did other Members, the ICJ case brought by The Gambia. We have publicly welcomed the case and the ICJ’s provisional measures, and we continue to call on the Myanmar Government to abide by this ruling.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned education, as did the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, and I agree that education and skills training are absolutely fundamental. Our latest funding of £37.5 million will support a safe return to quality education for those people. She also mentioned gender-based violence, as did the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire and for Birmingham, Edgbaston, and she was absolutely right to do so. This is a priority area, and we are prioritising the protection and safeguarding of women and girls in our humanitarian response to this crisis. The latest funding I referred to will help improve support and protection, especially for women and girls. Our aid will prevent, mitigate and respond to violence, exploitation and abuse, including gender-based violence, and will also help child survivors of abduction and trafficking, as was referred to by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Our aid has already provided lighting and padlocks for home shelters, and sanitation and infrastructure to improve women’s safety.
I appreciate that I have to allow some time for the right hon. Member for Islington North to conclude this debate, so in the time available I will say that we must work to create the conditions that will allow the Rohingya to return safely, voluntarily and with dignity to Myanmar,. The conflict between the Arakan army and the Myanmar military has made this so much harder. A commitment to civilian protection will be key to any bilateral ceasefire, and we continue to call for de-escalation and for dialogue, including at the UN Security Council. We convened the Council in September and called for a cessation of hostilities in Rakhine and Chin states.
However, this is not just about providing humanitarian assistance, essential though that is; accountability is also vital, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said. The Myanmar military has committed atrocities against the Rohingya and other minorities, yet there has been no tangible progress on accountability. We support the ICJ process and those provisional measures, and we are putting pressure on Myanmar to protect the Rohingya. The Foreign Secretary has raised the issue of impunity in the Myanmar military with Myanmar’s Minister for International Cooperation. We will not pass by on the other side. This terrible crisis demands our full attention. We will build on the recent donor conference and do everything we can to help the Rohingya, and I know the whole House and the constituents we represent want nothing less.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Twigg. I do not know whether you can give us a little latitude because we lost 10 minutes at the beginning of the debate, but we shall see what happens.
I thank all Members for their contributions to this incredibly well-informed, serious and intelligent debate. I think that we have managed to send out a message from this House around the world that we are concerned about and in solidarity with the Rohingya people in the plight they are facing. The Minister said that his door is open. I welcome that statement and look forward to going through that open door to discuss further what we can do to support the Rohingya people. In particular, I hope that he will be able to write to me on two of the questions I raised that he was unable to answer today, concerning the purchase of PPE and the relationship with the military. I will await a letter from him on those issues.
I was very pleased that Sir Peter Bottomley mentioned the good work done by John Bercow, the former Speaker of this House, who did a great deal to promote democratic development in Myanmar, and indeed he went there. I think he should be thanked and applauded for that, because he showed real courage and determination to spread democracy there.
Kirsten Oswald used a word in her speech that we never want to hear, but we have to. The word is “genocide”. We should thank the Government of The Gambia for being prepared to take that case to the International Court of Justice. The provisional judgments made are very serious indeed, and I think that they have to be given a wide circulation. I thank all those who have managed to get the word out. In particular, the very good report on al-Jazeera last night—