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Select Committee on International Development

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 18 January 2018

Select Committee statement

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me time, on behalf of the International Development Committee, to speak to the House today about our second report of this parliamentary Session, “Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya Crisis”.

The scale and depth of the suffering of the Rohingya has rightly given rise to substantial activity in this House. As well as inquiries by my Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, we have had an urgent question, debates both on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, and a significant number of parliamentary questions. The International Development Committee is examining DFID’s work in Bangladesh and Burma, and this report is our first output.

The dire circumstances of the Rohingya are of course ongoing. In addition to the £59 million that DFID has allocated to humanitarian aid for the Rohingya, there will doubtless be calls for further emergency relief as this crisis continues. Additionally, DFID’s budget for more conventional, longer-term development aid in Burma and Bangladesh next year will total about £170 million. We are examining that in the next stage of our inquiry.

I pay tribute to the people and the Government of Bangladesh and to the many organisations and individuals who have been working in Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere to assist the Rohingya people. The Rohingya have been devastated by decades of marginalisation and abuse, leading to the events of the past six months, which the United Nations has rightly described as a

“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”

perpetrated by the Burmese security forces. This week we have heard deeply disturbing reports of a possible agreement between the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma to repatriate displaced Rohingya. The potential return of over 100,000 Rohingya to Burma without any clear understanding of their legal status or knowing anything about their final destination is of course of very grave concern.

Early in the conflict, the Government presented a five-point plan to help galvanise the international community into action. The plan involves the cessation of violence by the Burmese; guaranteed humanitarian access to the affected parts of Burma; repatriation, but only on a voluntary basis, with safety guaranteed; full implementation of the Annan advisory committee’s recommendations; and, crucially, full, unimpeded access for, and co-operation with, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission. Our evidence is unequivocal that none of those strands of the plan are anywhere near being realised today.

Our report looked at the previous periods of displacement of the Rohingya and, indeed, other minority groups over the past two decades. In no instance was the outcome satisfactory, and the Committee has little confidence that it will be any better this time. The idea that the Rohingya could be returned to live in internment camps controlled by the Burmese military is surely completely unacceptable.

We welcome the £59 million commitment that the United Kingdom Government have made to respond to the crisis, and, in particular, the swiftness with which that was pledged. However, the Government of Bangladesh have told us that they expect the cost of effective provision of basic services for the displaced Rohingya eventually to total more than £1 billion. The Geneva conference in October secured commitments to provide about a quarter of that sum—£266 million. There is clearly still a huge funding gap, and other donors need to rise to the challenge in the way that the UK Government, to their credit, have done.

We expressed particular concern about large-scale gender-based violence committed by the Burmese military. This is not something new. Predecessor International Development Committees have reported on this, in 2006 and 2014. The Governments of the time, in their responses to those reports, agreed with the Committees’ harrowing assessment about the Burmese army using rape as a weapon of war. Our own evidence heard that this situation is, if anything, worse than ever. ActionAid stated in its evidence to us:

“Girls as young as 5 years of age have been reported to have been raped by multiple uniformed actors, often in front of their relatives. There are reports of rapes being widespread, extremely violent, and accompanied by mutilation. There are reports of pregnant women being attacked and their foetuses removed from their bodies.”

We were very disappointed that the Government seem reluctant to commit their full specialist sexual violence team to the region. This flies in the face of the commitment made by the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague to give a big focus in UK policy to this issue. In conflicts where rape, sexual violence and torture are used, it is essential that official, contemporary, reliable evidence-gathering by forensic professionals occurs as quickly as possible. The Burmese Government’s claim that they have investigated and that their investigation clears their armed forces of wrongdoing are, in the words of our own Government, “simply not credible”.

There are also issues arising in the camps in Bangladesh. Poor lighting, the lack of privacy around toilets and washing facilities, and the absence of any security for women and girls who work outside the camps have created an environment that is fundamentally unsafe, particularly for women and girls. As we were told in evidence, women and girls are therefore more likely to be victims of trafficking, and more likely to find themselves forced into early—including childhood—marriages.

The most effective way to deal with any crisis is of course to prevent it from happening in the first place. There is nothing new about this situation with the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch has been reporting on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and asking for action by the international community since at least 2013. Since 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s early warning project has identified the Rohingya as one of the world’s vulnerable populations most at risk of genocide. The disparity between what the international community was saying about the conflict and what we were told by these civil society organisations is very stark. Its effect is that there has not been the quick, effective response from the international community that might have prevented this from happening.

In fact, our evidence suggests that in some ways the opposite has happened. The continued engagement by the United Kingdom and other countries with the Burmese authorities seems to have been interpreted by their military as tacit acceptance of their treatment of the Rohingya people. We also note that there has been considerable over-optimism about the speed and breadth of democratic reforms in Burma.

In conclusion, the Rohingya crisis provided the international community with an immediate test case for the 2016 consensus reached at both the world humanitarian summit and the New York declaration on displaced people, including refugees. It is clear that the commitments made in 2016 have been tested to destruction by this crisis. It is vital that the United Kingdom continues our commendable commitment to humanitarian aid. The five-point plan is welcome, but it would be totally unacceptable for repatriation even to be considered until we see fundamental change in Burma itself. Surely we owe it to the Rohingya refugees and to the Rohingya who still remain in Burma to continue to give the House’s attention to the crisis. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the House for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue today.

I know there is a problem with UN peacekeeping in the region, but what is the feeling about the Security Council coming to an agreement to put in peacekeepers? There is a dire need for them.

That is a very important question. It falls a little outside the remit of our inquiry, so it is not a matter on which we took a lot of evidence or reached conclusions in the report. The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important point, and it may be an issue on which our Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee can work together. Ultimately, if there is to be a point at which the Rohingya feel they can go back, they will need guarantees, and I personally think he is right that peacekeepers could form part of the solution.

I thank the Chair and all members of the International Development Committee for an informative report that goes further than previous reports. Does my hon. Friend agree that there continue to be serious concerns regarding the terms and conditions of repatriation? Where will refugees return to when all their houses and villages have been burned? What human rights protections will people be afforded once they return, and what stops genocide happening again? Surely the British Government must now change their stance, which is more focused on the rights of the Rohingya as opposed to the transition to democracy. The Rohingya must have a voice at the table if we are to achieve democracy.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passionate advocacy of the Rohingya cause. I know that his constituency contains a significant Rohingya diaspora community, on whose behalf he speaks. I agree that the Government’s approach needs to place greater emphasis on the protection of the Rohingya, and indeed other minorities in Burma—that was what we alluded to when we said that there was “over-optimism” about the pace of democratic reform in that country. I also agree that conditions simply are not yet there, and—to put it bluntly—are unlikely to be there in the foreseeable future, to allow any significant voluntary return of the Rohingya to Burma.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s report—he is a good friend—and I thank him for continuing the work that many of us have taken up on the Rohingya cause and for the work of his Committee in broadening out into various different areas. Does he agree that there are a series of problems in Burma, not least the multiple insurgencies involving different ethnic groups? Focusing on the Rohingya is essential not just because it speaks to Burma, but because it speaks to the wider problem of diaspora and refugee populations. Getting this right is essential, not just for solving the problems in Burma, but for addressing many of the other problems that arise in refugee situations around the world.

I thank my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman who Chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I pay tribute to that Committee for the report it published late last year. We sought to develop and supplement that report, rather than repeat it, and the work of that Committee in describing this crisis as a crime against humanity was an important contribution to the debate. He is right: this crisis is important in its own right, but there are enormous lessons for situations in other parts of the world, including in parts of Africa where there is a massive displacement of people, and the world seems incapable of getting its solutions right.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the powerful way he introduced the Committee’s report. Does he agree that one of the most tragic things for many Rohingya who have fled Burma is the fact that their relatives have simply disappeared? Paragraph 138 of the report suggests that the International Commission on Missing Persons should get involved in Burma and Bangladesh and use their data-matching techniques to try to identify the remains of those who have disappeared, and—hopefully down the line—to ensure proper accountability for these crimes.

My hon. Friend is an active and valued member of the International Development Committee, which he rejoined having previously served on it in a predecessor Parliament, and he is right to draw attention to our recommendation on that important issue. Understandably, in a crisis that has moved so quickly and at such scale, there has been a focus on immediate humanitarian relief, but it is vital that those questions of justice and accountability are also addressed. The report by the Foreign Affairs Committee addressed those issues in some detail. Our report contains an important addition, and I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that.

I served with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on the International Development Committee for—if memory serves me correctly—four and a half years, and I can testify to the truth and accuracy of what has been said by way of a tribute to his work and his passion for the issues raised.

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and his Committee, for their remarkable work. Aung San Suu Kyi was a previous heroine of mine. Has this report analysed why there has been no action from her, and why she has been so unusually disappointing in the tragedy that has occurred?

Like the right hon. Gentleman, everyone on the Committee felt a huge sense of disappointment at the lack of words from Aung San Suu Kyi. It was not the main focus of our inquiry, but we did take evidence on it, as is reflected in the report. Even at this stage, she has an opportunity to speak out and provide leadership. The evidence that we and the Foreign Affairs Committee took from Mark Farmaner, from Burma Campaign UK, was clear that her voice could make a real difference. Of course, we are also saying that in the end it is the military in Burma who hold the reins of power and that it is for them to change, but if she spoke up, I think it would be more likely that they would change their position.

The report is clear in highlighting where the UK Government have been slow to act. I hope they have been listening and, in particular, will now allow these 70 experts in gender-based violence to get out there as soon as possible. Does the Chair agree, however, that particular attention must be given to a clear and decisive plan for repatriation, not just on security and safety but on the legal status of every Rohingya who voluntarily goes back to Burma, and that the international development agencies need to have oversight at each and every stage?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. He is a new member of the Committee, having joined after last year’s election, and serves with distinction. He is absolutely right that if there is to be any sort of process of repatriation we need assurances about the legal status made available to any returning refugees. There is a particular issue about babies born in refugee camps and what status they might have if they return. We say in the report that as well as the Governments of these two countries, we need to listen to the Rohingya themselves, and we need the community leaders in the camps to be heard and to have their say on behalf of the Rohingya if there is to be any possibility of voluntary repatriation.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his Committee for its report. It says that 870,000 Rohingya have fled Burma to Bangladesh since 2012 and that 660,000 of them have done so only since last August. The largest camp, Kutupalong, which I visited with other MPs in November, is now equivalent in size to Bristol but does not have a hospital, has inadequate schools and not enough roads, is one of the most densely populated refugee camps in the whole world and is very vulnerable to an outbreak of disease. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, whether the Rohingya are in Burma or Bangladesh, the fundamental problem is that they are stateless and that until that issue is resolved, their rights will never be properly protected?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is one of the most fundamental issues we need to address. The position of those who are displaced and, as he rightly says, the status of those Rohingya in Burma—those who have not fled or who have returned—need to be resolved. The international community needs to take this issue seriously and engage with the Burmese Government on it. He is right to remind the House about the sheer scale of this displacement over a very short period. That is partly why I pay tribute to the Bangladeshi people and Government. In reality, the vast majority will be there for some time, so there is a big job of work to do to ensure that services such as health and education are made available to refugees who—let us face it—are likely to be in Bangladesh for years.

This is an excellent report, and my hon. Friend rightly praises the Government of Bangladesh for their efforts, but it needs to be recognised that they need not validate the actions of the Burmese army in recognising the permanent status of the Rohingya. That is important if we are to move to the next stage of giving support to the 50,000 women who will give birth this year after being raped and providing more permanent shelter before the cyclone season. This is an excellent report, but we have to move to that next stage and give support to the Bangladeshi Government and people.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No two situations are the same, but we can learn lessons from other countries that have taken large numbers of refugees. One of the proposals that was made to us, and which we highlight in the report, was for the creation of a special development zone in Bangladesh, similar to what has happened in Jordan, to enable job opportunities for both the Rohingya and, crucially, the host population, the local Bangladeshi population.

All of us who visited the Kutupalong site had an experience that was overwhelming and heartbreaking. We heard at first hand the terror of the refugees at the possibility of repatriation, and the only possible practical way to achieve that is with support from the United Nations or the British Army. We have a wonderful record of peacekeeping in these impossible circumstances. Is that not the best way, although a very difficult way, to go forward and to ensure there can be a long-term solution?

I thank my hon. Friend. In a sense, that question takes us back to the question from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) at the beginning. I absolutely agree. One of the dangers with these crises is that they hit the headlines for a time, and then the attention of the media and the political world moves on. It is vital that we do not allow that to happen. This is about addressing the crisis now but also being there to support long-term solutions, and a potential role for UK peacekeepers is part of that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and the Committee for this important report. He and other colleagues have talked about the trauma that has been suffered by victims of sexual and gender-based violence and by those who have lost relatives without knowing whether they will ever know where their remains are buried. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the immediate need for humanitarian and medical aid, there will be a real need to give priority to long-term psychotherapeutic services for the victims in Bangladesh and for those who return to Burma?

I very much agree. [Interruption.] Welcome to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I raised this issue yesterday at Department for International Development questions, in the context of Yemen. The excellent organisation War Child has made the suggestion that at least 1% of all humanitarian aid should be spent on mental health and psychosocial support. For anyone who has been through this sort of conflict, and for children in particular, it is vital that they get that support.

I do not have a question, but following agreement with Mr Speaker a moment ago, I just want to say thank you to the Chair of the Select Committee for his work and to the members of the Committee and those who have spoken today. There will be a response from the Government in due course in the usual manner, but, of course, the matter will be a subject for discussion for some time to come.

The Committee has rightly put a spotlight on a situation that is unlikely to ease soon—a desperate situation. I want to assure the House that it is a matter of focus every single day for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID. That is true of not only the plight of the Rohingya at the moment—I was in Geneva last week to speak to international organisations about that—but the need for a solution for them, and that remains a priority for the Government. I thank the hon. Gentleman and colleagues again for the report.