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Rohingya Community (Burma)

Volume 596: debated on Thursday 4 June 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

It is a pleasure to see you re-elected and in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. Please accept my congratulations on your re-election.

I want to bring to the House an opportunity to talk about the human rights situation in Burma/Myanmar and the migrant boat crisis that we have seen reported on in recent weeks in the media. We have seen heartbreaking coverage as thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants have remained stranded in squalor in smugglers’ boats at sea while initially Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to allow them to land.

Some estimates suggest that 88,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have taken to the seas over the past 15 months. Indeed, between January and March this year 25,000 boarded smugglers’ boats, which is double the number for the same period in 2014. It was only after media reports and international pressure that the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities allowed migrants to arrive on their shores and, in recent weeks, between 3,500 and 4,000 have been allowed into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia or have returned to Burma/Myanmar.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this extremely important issue to the House’s attention. Does he agree that the circumstances in which so many of those people are living in Burma need to be looked at, and that urgent representations need to be made to the Government of Burma—or Myanmar—on granting humanitarian access to those areas so that they can be improved radically, which is greatly needed?

I thank the hon. Lady, who hits the nail on the head with that intervention. I will come later in my remarks to the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma, which is what is driving the migrant crisis. I saw her statement a few weeks ago on behalf of the Conservative party human rights commission, which I entirely endorse. I am pleased that she has been able to put her point on the record this evening.

Throughout early May it seemed that every day brought another report of abandoned migrants found at sea: 10 May, 575 migrants were recued near Indonesia; 11 May, 1,018 migrants were found on the Malaysian coast; 11 May again, a vessel carrying 400 migrants was intercepted by the Indonesian navy; 13 May, a boat carrying 300 migrants was turned away from Langkawi island near Malaysia; 13 May again, another boat carrying 500 migrants was turned away from Penang island near Malaysia; 14 May, a boat carrying 300 migrants left the Thai shore, having been given food and water but refused refuge; 15 May, 700 migrants were rescued by a fishing boat after their vessel sank near Indonesia; and last week more than 700 refugees were brought ashore in Burma/Myanmar, having been found drifting in the Andaman sea in an overloaded fishing boat that was taking in water.

The coverage we have seen—I pay tribute to the BBC and al-Jazeera, in particular, for their reporting—has shown desperate scenes of dehydrated refugees and emaciated, starving children. On the boats women endure rape and other sexual violence, and many are forced into marriage with the men who pay for their journey.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that no preconditions were set before the British Army started training the Burmese military, despite allegations of continued sexual violence? Given that Burma has now been included in the initiative on preventing sexual violence, will he join me in asking the Minister to look into what is being done about that?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. I hope that the Minister will reflect upon that and perhaps say something when he responds to the debate.

The people traffickers had abandoned those boats, leaving those on board with no food or water. The migrants were then refused sanctuary by the countries to which they were trying to escape. The Rohingya people are often described as the most persecuted in the world. Those men, women and children were fleeing Burma/Myanmar to escape what have been described as apartheid-like conditions, hoping to reach predominantly Muslim counties such as Malaysia via the jungles of southern Thailand. Yet many meet certain death; if they are not swallowed up by the south-east Asian seas, they are slung into mass graves when they eventually reach the Thai-Malaysian borders.

One migrant, Ziaur Rahamn, spoke to the Financial Times. He escaped from Burma/Myanmar to Bangladesh, but he was then kidnapped and trafficked to Thailand before being sold on and making it to Malaysia. He said:

“I have an ambition to help my mother and help my nation…Everywhere is dying for the Rohingya. Everywhere is killing and beating and trafficking, everywhere.”

Today it is not clear how many migrants remain at sea in boats abandoned by the people traffickers; search and rescue vessels from Malaysia and Indonesia have not yet located any more migrant ships. So many of the boats have been abandoned as a tragic consequence of Thailand’s seeking—for entirely the right reasons, I emphasise—to stamp out its appalling record on people trafficking in the region. As a result, many of the smugglers, no longer able to bring people ashore, have resorted to abandoning boats or dumping their human cargo on islands near the coastline—essentially, they have killed some of their human cargo. The circumstances are tragic. The Thai authorities have found graves with 150 bodies along the Thai-Malaysian border, many thought to belong to Rohingya migrants.

The US and EU have criticised the authorities for failing to deal adequately with people trafficking. In recent months, the Thai authorities have arrested several Government officials, from army colonels to town mayors, thought to have been involved in people trafficking. Indeed, in the past 24 hours there have been reports of a senior major-general’s involvement in trafficking the Rohingya.

The problem is that no single Government in the region is prepared to show any leadership or take any real responsibility; it is no wonder that the UN has described the situation as a “massive humanitarian crisis”. Yes, there was a conference in Bangkok on 29 May to respond to the crisis. Yes, it is welcome that the countries attending agreed to intensify search and rescue operations and that the Indonesians and Malaysians agreed to offer shelter to migrants—albeit temporarily and in the expectation that the international community will resettle them within a year. Yes, there was a welcome agreement to tackle the causes of migration through job creation and the promotion of

“full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services, such as housing, education and health care”.

Those commitments are all welcome; I will be interested in the Minister’s assessment of them. However, was it not hugely disappointing that the conference refused even to utter the word “Rohingya” publicly? It refused to recognise that driving this issue is the persecution of the Rohingya people in Burma/Myanmar and the fact that to this day Burma/Myanmar refuses to recognise the citizenship of the Rohingya.

Like many Members here tonight, I have spoken before in the House about the citizenship issue and I will reiterate some of the points in a moment. Before that, let me say a brief word about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. I hope the Minister will agree that the crisis has become a major test of the association. If those nations want to launch a single economic market by the end of the year, as is their plan, does that not imply rules on movement of labour—and not trafficked labour with smugglers’ networks in which it seems Government officials are complicit? The single economic market that ASEAN wants to create by the end of the year needs to face up to the human rights abuses of the Rohingya in Burma.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I want to follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who went to Burma with Mr Speaker and me two years ago. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a classic case for the involvement of the United Nations? Should not the Secretary-General take personal control of this enormous and overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the work she did in the last Parliament, and I know she will continue to do in this Parliament, on raising the issue of Burma. She has been a strong and persuasive voice. I am pleased that she has got her point, which I agree with and will come to, on the record.

The Minister has my appreciation for having been the first western Minister to visit Rakhine state. Some 1.1 million Rohingya in western Burma, particularly in Rakhine state, are denied citizenship and access to jobs and basic services. Indeed, he knows, after the brutal sectarian violence in 2012, many of the Rohingya were forced out into some of the worst camps ever seen, according to the UN.

In the past year, conditions have worsened for the Rohingya. They have been denied voting rights unless they are prepared to register themselves as Bengali, and they do not recognise themselves as Bengali, as the Minister is well aware. He will also be aware that the violence in Rakhine a few years ago when Rohingya were driven from their homes often occurred with the complicity of local officials, if not national Burmese officials. Certainly, local officials appeared to turn their back on some of the communal violence. Is it not an absolute disgrace that when the UN adopts resolutions, as it did in December 2014, urging the Myanmar Government to grant the Rohingya full citizenship and calling for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be opened in Myanmar without delay, the response of the Myanmar-Burmese regime is still to refuse even to acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic group, and then to say that reports of Muslim persecution are a “fabrication”? I agree with the President of the United States when he says, rightly, that Burma/Myanmar should end this discrimination against the Rohingya.

There are going to be elections later this year. Given the migrant boat crisis over the past few weeks, should not the British Government take the view that it is time for all Burmese political leaders now to speak up and do what they can for the Rohingya and say that Rohingya citizenship should be recognised? The Minister will be aware that there is one particular prominent leader who many of us are keen to see speak up and say that Rohingya citizenship should be recognised. According to reports, US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard said recently in Jakarta that while the US was not considering imposing more sanctions, they remain “in the diplomatic toolbox”. What is the Minister’s view of sanctions given the migrant crisis we have seen over the past few weeks?

I recall that in our previous parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall in January the Minister rightly told us of the Government’s commitment of £12 million in aid for Rakhine state. Of course, I support that. However, given that we are set for a rollercoaster ride in the future projections of public expenditure, can he indicate the Government’s future thinking on aid and humanitarian assistance for Rakhine and in the region more generally? Picking up on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), does he agree that now is the time for the UN Secretary-General to be given personal responsibility for negotiating unrestricted international humanitarian access to Rakhine state? What representations has he made at the UN level on that matter?

On the boat crisis, will the Minister update the House on the discussions that he and the FCO have had with the ASEAN nations in recent days? Is there any more support that we can offer to Thailand, for example, in dealing with people-trafficking in the region? Will he agree to lobby the ASEAN nations to ensure that genuinely life-saving measures are set up to offer support on search and rescue operations so that when migrants disembark from ships they are given appropriate access to humanitarian assistance? Will he raise particularly the issue of children? Many of the children coming off these boats are unaccompanied. Will he undertake to lobby for the provision of child-friendly spaces and learning spaces in the shelters and camps in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere so that they are protected and have access to education?

I am very grateful for this opportunity to put some of these points on the record so early in the Parliament. I look forward to a full response from the Minister, because whether it is the migrant crisis in the south Asia seas or the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, we simply cannot walk by on the other side.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on his re-election and on securing this debate—his second on this important subject within six months. I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions.

The fact that this debate comes so soon after the House’s return demonstrates the importance that Parliament rightly places on the situation of the Rohingya and on the recent humanitarian crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman sea. The crisis has been made even more alarming by the discovery of mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia, and by boats either avoiding landing or being prevented from doing so.

With conditions at sea becoming increasingly desperate, we welcome the 20 May decision by the Foreign Ministers of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to provide vital humanitarian assistance. Clearly, tackling this issue requires a strong and co-ordinated regional response. I am glad that Thailand called last Friday’s regional co-ordination meeting in Bangkok, at which our ambassador represented the United Kingdom. I welcome the agreement of the countries involved to meet again soon.

Those discussions were a positive step, but much more remains to be done. South-east Asian countries must continue to work together to tackle the appalling trade in human lives and its root causes, and, in particular, to press Burma to address the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. With that, I can associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about ASEAN and its future.

According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 130,000 Rohingya left by sea between 2012 and 2014. However, the numbers this year are something new, with a further 25,000 leaving in the first three months of 2015—nearly double the numbers during the same period last year. I share the hon. Gentleman’s deep concern about the many issues they face. The fact that so many are willing to risk this highly dangerous journey speaks of increasing desperation within the community. It is a community where, three years since the ethnic violence of 2012, over 140,000 remain displaced in “temporary” camps, where humanitarian conditions—as I saw at first hand during my visit in 2012—are, quite frankly, dreadful. The February decision to cancel the temporary identity cards held by many Rohingya looks set to disfranchise the community and leave them open to further restrictions, intimidation and abuse.

As the crisis emerged last month, I took action in calling the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign Office in order to express our concern and press Burma to take urgent steps to deal with the humanitarian implications of the crisis, as well as the underlying causes in Rakhine.

I met the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary in London on 20 May and urged Bangladesh to work within the region to address people trafficking and irregular migration in the Bay of Bengal.

My father was born in Burma, so I take a great interest in these issues. What is going on there is horrific, so I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) on securing this debate. As he and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) have said, Ban Ki-moon should take a personal interest in the matter. Burma Campaign UK, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a number of other organisations have also called for such action. I would be grateful if the Minister informed us what the UK Government are doing in that regard.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and the fact that we now have somebody interested in these matters who perhaps has closer Burmese connections than any of the rest of us. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Burmese President Thein Sein on 20 May to discuss Rakhine and Burma’s response to the migration crisis. With our support, the issue of Rakhine was also discussed at a briefing of the UN Security Council on 28 May. My hon. Friend may be unaware of this, but in the past few years we have had a Friends of Myanmar—Friends of Burma—meeting at the General Assembly in New York, and we will be pressing for just such a meeting again this autumn.

In Rangoon, our ambassador joined EU and US colleagues in delivering a joint démarche to Burmese Ministers. Through our network of missions, we lobbied extensively throughout the region and co-ordinated regular discussion with like-minded states, non-governmental organisations and international organisations, including the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who has taken a very close interest in this issue, raised the wider issue of Rakhine itself. We will continue to raise the problems in Rakhine at every opportunity. In particular, we continue to press the Burmese authorities for progress in a number of vital areas: improved humanitarian access, greater security and accountability, the protection of civil and political rights for everyone in Burma, and a sustainable solution on citizenship.

The hon. Member for Leicester South spoke about the vast amount of money the British taxpayer gives to Burma. I confirm that as part of our continuing commitment to support progress in Burma, we will continue with our funding, which increased to £82 million this financial year.

I will make progress, if I may.

In Rakhine state, we are one of the largest bilateral humanitarian donors. We have given it over £18 million in humanitarian support since 2012. I am pleased to say that an additional £6.2 million was recently announced for 2015-16.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) raised our training of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military. It remains a key force in Burma and we believe that it is right to continue to engage with it. It is not true to say that we have not consulted; we have consulted extensively with members of ethnic groups, civil society and the political Opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is supportive of this approach. We cannot ignore the fact that it still has a bloc in Parliament, and it needs to be taught to behave like a responsible military in a democratic country in the 21st century. It is key to repeat that we provide only non-combat education and training, and we will continue to do so.

In addition to our other bilateral work, we continue to operate through the UN and the EU. The Secretary-General has called Burmese President Thein Sein, as I said, and the UN Security Council discussed Rakhine on 28 May. The UK has been instrumental in securing strong UN resolutions on Burma, including the Human Rights Council resolution in March, which extended the mandate of the special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Professor Yanghee Lee, who has done so much to shine a spotlight on the plight of the Rohingya.

We have made our concerns extremely clear to the Burmese Government, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to work with the Burmese and our international partners for progress. The hon. Member for Leicester South asked about the other people—he said I would know who he was speaking about, and indeed I do. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a remarkable record of defending human rights and democracy, and we encourage all parties in Burma to work together to improve the humanitarian conditions and ensure that there is respect for the human rights of all communities in Rakhine. Ultimately, of course, it is the Burmese Government that have the executive power.

Does the Minister have any indication of the number or proportion of refugees who might be making their way to these islands? What support are the British Government prepared to offer any of them who do end up here?

As far as we can ascertain, this is a regional issue that needs to be addressed by the countries that I have mentioned. It is an ASEAN problem. Where the majority of these people are coming from is quite uncertain. It is our assessment that it is a combination of people coming from Rakhine itself, possibly some people getting on boats and coming across the Bay of Bengal, and others coming down. It is pretty mixed. The key thing is the immediate humanitarian alleviation, such as getting them off the boats and getting them watered and fed. At the same time, on a parallel track, we need to get Burma and Bangladesh to play their part. As far as we know, there are no people heading here. That is not to say that we are not interested or that we do not care. We care passionately about the situation, but at the moment it is for the countries in the neighbourhood to deal with it.

The Minister says that this is a regional issue, but is it not an international issue? There are grave international precedents of community groups and ethnic groups effectively being pushed out and cleansed, and being left to find their own way on boats. Surely we must recognise that this is an international issue that demands an international and United Nations response.

I hoped to demonstrate our interest and that of the international community—I have obviously failed—by mentioning the fact that we have been pressing for the meeting that took place. I have discussed the matter with the Burmese ambassador and the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, and we have been pushing in the UN and will do so again in the autumn. The international aspect of the matter is about Burma’s future transition to a democratic country with democratic values and tolerance of people’s ethnicity, religion, sex and so on, which we take for granted. It is also about the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. However, the immediate issue is local. It is happening on the borders of the countries to which I have alluded, and it is for them to deal with it at first hand. That does not mean that the international community is turning its back on the situation—quite the reverse.

We have repeatedly made our concerns extremely clear to the Burmese Government, and we will continue to work with the Burmese and our international partners to make progress. Some have criticised our continuing engagement with the Burmese Government, whether with the military or through our aid programme. However, we believe, in consultation with our international partners, that the best way to help Burma achieve real progress is to engage with all parties, including the Rakhine community itself, about their concerns.

It is important that the international community demonstrates that it is listening to all sides, so that the arguments do not become more polarised than they already are, particularly in the run-up to the forthcoming election. That is the way to help embed reform and encourage the transition towards peaceful and democratic government for the benefit of all Burma’s people. With elections set for November, and in the light of the situation that we have seen in the Bay of Bengal, that need is more starkly apparent than ever.

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester South for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position once again. I very much welcome the involvement in the debate of Members in all parts of the House, and I am particularly pleased that the shadow Foreign Secretary is on the Front Bench to listen to it. I particularly welcome my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has close genealogical connections with a country that we all care passionately about. We want to see it transition from an extraordinarily difficult, dark period. We can expect to see more challenges, and we will maintain our levels of interest and support, but not at the cost of turning our back on an appalling humanitarian situation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.