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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:17 am on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion), SNP Deputy Leader 10:17 am, 3rd November 2020

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 25 March, every aid agency worker was required to vacate Cox’s Bazar, which has had far-reaching impacts, further reducing access to education, safeguarding and mental health support. We have already heard about the vulnerability of children to exploitation, trafficking and abuse increasing because of this. Save the Children reports that almost 45% of the refugee population are not getting enough daily nutrition, which of course puts children at higher risk of worse outcomes from covid-19.

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 23 July this year that they will slash international aid spending by £2.9 billion across the board, reportedly reallocating fund towards countries with which we have future trading prospects.

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.