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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 10:28 am, 3rd November 2020

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.