Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis: Covid-19 — [Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:40 am on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 9:40 am, 3rd November 2020

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 25 August 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, known as ARSA—these are a minority Muslim people from Myanmar—attacked a security post in northern Rakhine state. Nobody is condoning that attack. Following the attack, the Myanmar security forces, led by the army, attacked the Rohingya population across the whole of northern Rakhine state, driving more than 700,000 people—80% of the Rohingya who lived in the northern part of the state—into neighbouring Bangladesh. Let us just reflect on the figure there. As I said, there was an attack on a security post and nobody is condoning that. The army responded by driving the entire population out of the country.

According to Amnesty International, the military-led operations in the wake of 25 August 2017 were far from necessary or proportionate in response to the threat posed by ARSA. They amounted to an orchestrated campaign of murder, rape, torture and destruction of villages and homes that was aimed at punishing the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine state and driving them out of their country. Collective punishment is illegal in all forms of international law, but that is exactly what the Rohingya people have had to suffer.

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.