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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 3rd November 2020.

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Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:39 am, 3rd November 2020

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 23 June I spoke to the Myanmar Government and raised my concerns in the strongest terms about how the Rohingya are denied citizenship and have been stripped of the right to vote.

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.