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Burma: Humanitarian Situation

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018

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

It is delightful to be given this Adjournment debate and to follow such a stimulating debate about proxy voting and enabling women to take part in politics more fully.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) will say a few words and I hope that others will join in. Although it is a short-ish debate, I hope that we can have cross-party contributions.

Mr Speaker, I acknowledge your long-standing support for the people of Burma and their journey towards democracy. I also declare an interest as one of the Patrons of Justice for Rohingya Minority. I pay tribute to their work on this matter, most recently at a policy roundtable chaired by the journalist and producer Peter Oborne, where we heard in more detail about the humanitarian situation in Burma, particularly the states of Kachin, Shan and Rakhine. It is beyond dire.

It is appropriate that Mr Oborne chaired that event because two journalists were imprisoned in Burma in the past couple of weeks for uncovering the terrible situation there. It is right in this debate to put on record all the work that journalists do in the difficult parts of the world. Obviously, we have quite a lot to do with the lobby here, and that has its ups and downs for each of us, but we sometimes forget the important role that journalists play in giving us the information we need in order to have these sorts of debates. I know that the Minister, who, with his brief, gets to go to the most interesting parts of the world, will be aware of the importance of high-quality journalism, correct information, accuracy and professionalism among journalists. I hope that we can all pay tribute to them for the work that they do.

Civil rights, freedom of the press and strengthening democratic processes are key areas of concern within Burma, and other Members may wish to bring those aspects into their contributions, but I will focus my comments specifically on the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya minority. We know that the community has faced historical persecution that has intensified over the past two years and has now reached a level such that the UN recognises the actions of the Burmese military as

“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

On 27 August 2018, the United Nations fact-finding mission published its interim report, which concluded that genocide has been committed against the Rohingya, and that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in the states of Kachin and Shan. The UN Security Council’s report of March 2018 estimates that over 25,000 people have been killed, with a further 700,000 displaced in Bangladesh. Those numbers are horrendous, given that it has happened over such a short period of time. I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that we have not seen the outcry that we would have seen with regard to other parts of the world. I hope that through this debate we can continue to highlight what we can do in the international community to ensure that human rights are respected in that part of the world.

We have all heard the chilling accounts of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people by the Burmese army: arbitrary killings, the raping of women, torture, the beating of children, villages burned to the ground, the forced displacement of people, and the targeting of civilians. Such crimes have characterised the nature of this regime in recent times. But perhaps the most harrowing account I have heard is the story of Rajuma Begum, who was attacked and gang-raped by army officers while her home burned to the ground. Following this utterly revolting sexual attack, her baby Sadiq was torn from her arms and thrown into the fire.

The 20th century has witnessed, time and again, assaults on the human race and communities, from the holocaust, to Rwanda, to Cambodia, to Srebrenica, to Halabja in Iraq—an attack against the Kurds. The next chapter of that woeful saga is unfolding in front of our very eyes, in a country that was globally looked on with such hope as Burma held its first openly contested election since 1990. It feels like only yesterday that I had my first moment as a shadow Minister, at that crucial time in 2015, talking about the right to vote for the Rohingya, when we pressed the government to give the right to vote, the right of citizenship, and the right to play a full role in society—yet it now feels as though we have gone backwards. I hope that through our contributions today, we can put a spotlight on the complete injustice and murder that is still taking place.

I have a couple of points for the Minister that I would like to get right to the heart of. Can we all agree that bringing an immediate end to the bloodshed and massacre must be the No. 1 priority—that is, safety for human beings? The UK Government are the penholder for Burma at the UN Security Council. If the international community is to act effectively, we need resolutions to be drafted that go beyond requesting Burma to take responsibility for the crisis and allow investigations into the atrocities to take place. Have the Government considered lobbying their Security Council partners to widen the jurisdiction of the crimes to Bangladesh, as Bangladesh has ratified the Rome statute, which facilitates referrals to the International Criminal Court, while Burma has not? On targeting suspected war criminals, perhaps the Government should consider introducing travel bans. We need to be exploring every political avenue open to us to help to secure our shared objectives in the region. I would also be grateful if the Minister updated the House on what progress has been made at UN level on securing a political solution to the crisis, and specifically whether the Government are considering a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Another question for the Government is on sanctions. I will be honest: I am not sure of the evidence base for the effectiveness of sanctions in this instance. Could the Minister enlighten us on the thinking in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as to whether that would be helpful at this moment?

Could the Minister provide an update on what discussions he has had with Aung San Suu Kyi and her team about this situation? Is there any way that she could use her standing internationally, which gives her a unique opportunity to begin to put right this terrible situation?

I realise that the issue of emergency aid and assistance straddles the Minister’s joint brief with the Department for International Development, but it would be helpful to receive the most recent update on what resources are being allocated to health, housing and civil protection for the affected communities in Burma and those already displaced in Bangladesh.

I would like briefly to pay tribute to the truly heroic work of our aid workers and medical professionals, such as my constituent Michelle Tonge, an intensive care nurse at an NHS hospital in London who volunteers in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and my friend and colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who is currently preparing for another tour of duty as a doctor in Cox’s Bazar. We are all tremendously pleased that she can be our messenger, as it were, as a Member of Parliament and also a doctor.

To conclude, history has shown that for most nations, the road to democracy is rarely a path free from obstacles, and it is more than fair to say that Burma has faced a great number of such obstacles. As the one-year anniversary passes of the Burmese military’s most deadly attack on the Rohingya, let us resolve to redouble our efforts to secure sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and amplify our calls for international partners to secure an end to the bloodshed in Burma.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this very important and timely Adjournment debate on Burma.

Over the last year, Burma, Bangladesh and the Rohingya crisis has been a priority area of work for the International Development Committee. In fact, the Minister gave evidence to us yesterday on the Rohingya crisis. We also took evidence from Save the Children, one of the fine non-governmental organisations working on the ground in Bangladesh and Burma, and from Tun Khin of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, which is a voice for the Rohingya diaspora who live in this country. One thing that has struck me over the last year is the importance of hearing the Rohingya voice. There is a lot of discussion about the Rohingya by different parts of the United Nations and agreements being reached between Governments. All that is, of course, essential, but it is vital that the Rohingya themselves have a voice in discussions about their own future.

Our Committee has published three reports on this over the past year. My friend the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) is our Committee rapporteur on Burma, Bangladesh and the Rohingya. I pay tribute to the work he does for us. We went to Bangladesh earlier this year, as many colleagues on both sides of the House have done. We went to Cox’s Bazar, and one of the things that is incredibly striking about it is the sheer scale of the place. I went with Oxfam to Zaatari refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and the population there is around 80,000. Cox’s Bazar is 10 times the size of Zaatari. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, I pay tribute to the amazing volunteers, the aid organisations, the UN and others for the work they are doing to try to provide services for people on the ground.

Of course, what we all want is to reach the point where the refugees can safely and confidently return to Burma. I do not think we are very near that at the moment, because of the challenges. The Minister rightly said in his evidence yesterday that the two challenges are safety on return and identity. At the heart of this crisis is the question of the Rohingya identity and the view in Burma—let’s face it, it is not just the view of the military and the civilian Government, but of most people who live in Burma—that denies that basic identity and therefore denies their citizenship. That is the core policy issue that will have to be addressed if the Rohingya are going to return with any confidence.

A very specific issue about which I am keen to hear from the Minister—we addressed this with him yesterday—is the crucial importance of good education for the Rohingya children in the camp. We know that increasing numbers of children around the world are spending their entire childhood in refugee camps or as displaced people in other forms. Ensuring that they get the same kind of access to education that other children can expect is a huge challenge, but one I really think we have a duty to rise to as a country and as the world community.

On education, does my hon. Friend agree that part of the reason why it is so important is that, I think, three quarters of the refugees in the camp are children? It is doubly important, because it is about the future generally.

Absolutely right. A similar statistic that we were given yesterday by Save the Children, and which the Minister and the Foreign Office officials confirmed, is that probably only about one in four of the children are getting any kind of education. In a sense, it is understandable that initially, as the refugees arrive, the priority is shelter, food and so forth. Now, however, a lot of them have been there for a year, and it is time for education and learning to be given a higher priority.

Let me finish by saying something about the crucial question of justice for the Rohingya. As is so often the case, we as a country can be very proud of our support for humanitarian relief for the refugees and of many of the development programmes that we fund in both Bangladesh and Burma, but there is the crucial question of justice. I know that the Foreign Secretary is visiting Burma soon. It would be very positive to hear from the Minister his thinking, so far as he can share it with us today, about that visit, but I certainly urge the Foreign Secretary and the Government to take this opportunity to make the case for justice.

My own view, which I know is shared by many colleagues, is that the military leaders responsible for this campaign should be before the International Criminal Court. I know that there are huge challenges in getting there. My hon. Friend mentioned the interesting option of going via the Bangladesh route, because Bangladesh is a signatory, which might circumvent the danger of a Chinese or a Russian veto at the Security Council. I realise there are complications with that, but, in principle, we should be saying as a country that there should be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Ultimately, I think we all want a Burma that can be a genuinely democratic, multi-ethnic country, with support for people of all faiths and of none. Sadly, we are a very long way away from that vision, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to address this important issue today.

It is a pleasure to be able to reply to the debate, as well as to two eminent colleagues who know their business very well, and in front of you, Mr Speaker, who also knows the issue very well through long engagement with it.

I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—I spent many happy years some time ago in her constituency with the Young Conservatives—for securing the debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who grilled me for an hour yesterday on this very subject—fortunately, because a lot of the stuff is still in my mind. As the hon. Lady said, this would normally be the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific. He is busy attending to other duties, so forgive me for taking his place. Of course, my DFID responsibilities absolutely lead into the Rohingya crisis, and I can also speak to that.

I want to talk a bit about Burma and what is happening there now, then about the Rohingya in Bangladesh and the issues affecting that, and I will then come on to the questions the hon. Lady raised at the end. I will start by picking up on her thanks to two groups of people. The first is journalists—and absolutely. Every now and again, we get a little message saying that another journalist has been killed or wounded, and every year there is a commemoration of those who give their lives to bring information and news to all of us. We are well aware of the risks that they run. Yes, we have our issues with journalists here, but we must never forget the job they are required to do. Sometimes they are the only people able to bring us first-hand accounts of really dreadful places, and the hon. Lady is right to remember those who run risks for us in every circumstance.

On behalf of the Government I am happy to pay tribute to and thank those journalists for what they do. Such people not only show bravery in difficult places, but in my experience—I have had the good fortune to be in my role for quite a while—really good commentators know what they are talking about. They have got into a state; they have understood it and spoken to all sides, and they maintain a constant interest over many years. Therefore they are a memory bank and a fund of knowledge about a place, and the very best commentators play an important role in informing me, other Ministers and our officials about what is going on—such people are even more vital than we sometimes realise.

I join the hon. Lady in thanking aid workers for what they do under difficult circumstances. We are proud of those who work for DFID and the partner agencies that it supports. I wish particularly to recall those involved in medicine. Last Christmas we sent an emergency team to Cox’s Bazar to combat a diphtheria outbreak, which they successfully dealt with. That team was drawn from NHS workers all over the country, and other specialists, and they did a remarkable job. By and large, those teams are composed of people such as the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) who use their skills in such circumstances. It was entirely appropriate for the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green to mention her hon. Friend, and we wish her well in continuing her work. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) also does remarkable work, particularly in Gaza, and we are lucky to have colleagues who do such remarkable things.

As we know, Burma is struggling to emerge from 50 years of military rule. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned the appalling nature of some of the atrocities committed in Rakhine State, which amount at the very least to ethnic cleansing. That and the ongoing conflicts in Kachin, northern Shan and other ethnic areas highlight the enormous scale of continued suffering among Burma’s marginalised and most vulnerable communities.

We have looked closely at the UK’s support to Burma to ensure that the needs of those communities are at the centre of what we do. We are working to ensure that UK programmes build resilience and can rapidly respond to meet urgent humanitarian needs. We are increasing support for access to education and livelihoods to meet the longer-term needs of vulnerable populations and displaced people. The UK will continue to press for and support a more hopeful and peaceful future for all people in Burma, including leading work at the UN’s Security and Human Rights Council to shine a light on Burma’s atrocities and accountability. Only through peace, inclusive democracy, and a fairer economy will the longer-term safety, dignity and prosperity of all Burma’s people be secured. We are under no illusions. As the hon. Lady said, the pathway to democracy is rarely linear. This is a long and difficult road.

UK-funded humanitarian and development assistance supports vulnerable and displaced people in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan. In some of those areas—for example in parts of Kachin that are not controlled by the Government—we are the largest provider of assistance, reaching parts of Burma that neither the Government nor the UN can access. We increasingly focus our humanitarian and development assistance in those areas to support better prospects for displaced people through better health, education, skills and livelihood opportunities.

We will do more. We have changed the way we operate in Burma following the atrocities in Rakhine, and continued instability and violence in other areas. DFID’s entire portfolio has been adapted so that all programmes focus on inclusion, social cohesion and equity. We are also placing a greater focus on supporting internally displaced people and refugees. Burma’s internal conflicts have persisted since the 1940s—the recent focus on the Rohingya must not obscure the other conflicts and issues that are going on—and together, they constitute the world’s longest running civil war. Of 21 active ethnic armed organisations, only 10 have signed the Government’s nationwide ceasefire agreement to date. We will continue to support Burma’s peace process, but it is an enormous and difficult undertaking. Progress will be slow and fitful, but we and our partners remain committed to supporting peace.

The hon. Lady focused a great deal on the Rohingya in both Bangladesh and Burma. Let me first respond in relation to what we are doing to support the Rohingya in Rakhine itself. We are working in northern Rakhine, through the United Nations and development partners, to meet immediate humanitarian needs. Since 2017, we have funded over £3.5 million to the few organisations that have been able to get access. The International Committee of the Red Cross has distributed over 350,000 litres of water to affected communities; over 8,000 people have received sanitation services; and 119,000 have received food distributions. The World Food Programme has provided emergency food assistance for some 118,000 people, including 24,000 children under the age of five. Lobbying by the UK and others led to the Burmese Government allowing the World Food Programme to operate again in northern Rakhine. We continue to push for safe access for all aid actors across Burma.

The UK remains one of the largest donors in Rakhine. Humanitarian and development assistance is provided to all communities. We continue to operate in central Rakhine. DFID has provided more than 100,000 people with emergency food, safe water and sanitation services. Our support has provided antenatal care visits for pregnant women, birth deliveries by skilled birth attendants, and the refurbished Sittwent General Hospital.

Of the pressing needs for the Rohingya community remaining in Rakhine—it is important to note that not everyone has been forcibly evicted; some still live in Rakhine —the violence has subsided to a degree but there is still, obviously, a climate of fear and great trepidation. We estimate that some 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine: up to 250,000 in northern Rakhine and the remainder in central Rakhine. Some 128,000 have been living in camps since the intercommunal violence in 2012. Restrictions to movement prevent them from accessing health services, their livelihoods, markets and other basic services. Poverty and food insecurity are among the highest in Burma.

The rule of law and protection against intimidation and violence for remaining civilian populations is a priority. Reconstruction of homes and villages, support for livelihoods, access to basic services, psychological trauma support, guarantees on security and basic rights, and work on reconciliation and intercommunity relations are needed. In the longer term, the Rakhine advisory commission’s recommendations provide a pathway to progress. They have been accepted by the Government, but are yet to be meaningfully managed. We will remain very engaged with that process in Rakhine, as well as in Bangladesh.

Let me turn now to Bangladesh. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby knows, I was there recently in order to be able to report more accurately to the House. The overall impression I gave to the Select Committee yesterday was that the immediate needs of the 750,000 who fled last August are, extraordinarily, being met in the camp. We must always pay tribute the Government of Bangladesh and the local community for their work. I think we know what the reaction would be in the United Kingdom if 750,000 people suddenly appeared here. It is remarkable to host that group of people and to help the agencies to provide for them. The UNHCR now operates very effectively in the camps and works with the agencies. The work cannot be done by any one single group. DFID has supplied and supported the agencies working there.

The evidence we see on the ground is of health clinics and primary care services being provided. Reproductive health services are incredibly important and are being very well used. The child-friendly spaces are terribly important. Many children came with appalling memories and visions of what they had experienced. It takes time to work that through. As the International Development Committee knows from its time there a few months’ ago, they were still seeing children working through experiences of trauma. Some few months later, I saw children who were, with their extraordinary resilience, clearly adapting. The pictures that they were drawing were of much happier scenes. They were benefiting from DFID’s support for these child-friendly spaces, of which there were some 30 around the camp. When I say spaces, I mean halls where children could meet, be taught and spend some time with people. That is progressing.

The issue now for the Rohingya in the camps is what happens next. As the protests on the anniversary demonstrated, they have had 365 days of tears, and now they are angry and want to know what will happen to them next. Their immediate needs having been provided for, the focus is now on dealing with the things that they fear in the camps. Domestic violence is, sadly, perhaps the No. 1 concern of the agencies, and the second is trafficking—people are being taken out of the camps for all sorts of purposes. The third is idleness—what are people to do now? There is only a certain amount of work available. Because the community are now living together in a way that they were not allowed to in Rakhine state, when their movements and everything else were controlled, there will be a build-up of expectation and activity.

The fourth concern is education, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned. It is one thing to help children to recover from trauma, and to give them the counselling and encouragement that they need, but they are going to need education. People are not going to leave quickly, so those children’s education needs must be met. The process is not easy. People will come in from outside and some teachers will need to be recruited locally, but that creates local issues because the agencies may well pay more for teachers than they might be paid in the local community.

Now that we have dealt with the immediate emergency, other issues need to be considered. That is where we are now. I pay a huge tribute to all who have worked in Kutupalong camp and the area of Cox’s Bazar. They have done a remarkable job over the past year. I am very proud of the DFID team and its work. Jane Edmondson, who has just left the post of director there, and Jim McIntyre, who has also been involved, have done a great job. We can be proud of that and proud of the British people, who have contributed £129 million of taxpayer support for that emergency. We play a leading part as donors.

Let me deal with some of the questions that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked. First, I turn to the issues surrounding the UN. I spoke to the permanent representative yesterday before I spoke to the Committee. The view is taken that passing a resolution is not a simple process. We want to do something that ensures accountability, and we are looking at options for what happens next. We have been very active. We led the recent visit to Burma and Bangladesh by permanent representatives from the UN, and we played a leading part in EU sanctions in relation to other individuals. There may still be more to do, but the fact that there has not been a resolution does not mean that other work is not going on.

The recent fact-finding mission confirmed the appalling human rights violations that many have suffered. UK Ministers have long stated that the Burmese military is primarily to blame for the atrocities, which include the widespread rape and murder of Rohingya. We believe that the gravity of the report warrants the attention of the UN Human Rights Council and Security Council. We are discussing options with other Security Council members, and we intend to do so in a couple of weeks at the UN General Assembly, at which I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will be present. Of course, we have to consider bringing the full report to the Security Council once the fact-finding mission has made its final presentation to the Human Rights Council on 18 September.

I now need to wrap up—[Interruption.] Oh, can I carry on? I have only got a small amount to say.

Order. The 5 o’clock motion will have to be moved at 5 o’clock, but it is not incumbent on the right hon. Gentleman to finish his speech by then.

I am relatively new here, Mr Speaker—[Laughter.] I do not have all the procedure fully to hand, but I am grateful for the guidance from both you and the Whip. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) reminds me that I was actually a Member of Parliament before he was born, but there is something that one can learn every moment, and in a second Mr Whip will do his job to allow us the extra few minutes that I need in order to deal properly with the questions asked by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Let me return to the UN issues. To date, we have judged that pushing for a UN Security Council resolution that includes a referral to the International Criminal Court would not be productive as part of our efforts to ensure accountability and persuade the Burmese authorities to make progress on conditions for safe returns, and nor would it have received sufficient support among Security Council members. When the Security Council considers the final UK fact-finding mission report, which is yet to be seen, we will have an opportunity to discuss all options to ensure accountability, including ICC referral, while also pushing for accelerated progress on conditions for refugee returns.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned the ruling on 6 September by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court. The Court has jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh, and we acknowledge that as a very important decision. We will support the Court’s efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

The Minister is being very generous in his fulsome reply. I simply want to put this on record. Does he agree that other Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), would be making the same points if they were here? Indeed, over the summer, as the reports have been coming out and as we have seen the seriousness of the situation, they too have been making representations.

Absolutely. There is no doubt that we all want to see justice applied in this case. If the world cannot respond to this, what can it respond to? Names are being named, and we expect to see more in the final report. That will, of course, lead to an increased interest in sanctions and the like.

I take the hon. Lady’s point about the efficacy of sanctions. They are an easy tool to go for, but they do not always do the job. In this case, we need the sort of accountability that can ultimately be achieved only through a judicial process, as the world has recently seen at The Hague in a number of different instances. We must ensure that we have the right process to get the right answer. The current process involves taking a bit of time to talk to partners about what is in the best interests of justice, and I hope that the House will not mind that. Sanctions have already been applied, and the United Kingdom has worked with partners in the EU to ensure that they are effective.

The House is aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will pay a visit to Burma shortly, because he wants to observe for himself the different issues affecting it. We spoke about the process of democracy, and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi is, of course, of fundamental importance in relation to that. There is disappointment and concern that a position that she might have taken has not been clearly heard but, equally, the differences between the civilian and military parts of the Government need to be known and understood, because they are not straightforward. The Foreign Secretary will have an opportunity to explore that himself, and he will do so. He will return to let the House know of his deliberations, and that will feed into other conversations that he will have during the week of the United Nations General Assembly.

I thank the hon. Lady again. I think I have dealt with the questions raised, although this is a matter that we will all be returning to. One cannot go and see this extraordinary camp and the exodus that produced it without being incredibly touched but also angry at what is happening and the realisation that the world has again been presented with another “never again” situation. We have to find a way through this crisis that can add to a sense of a global order in which the perpetrators of such violence and atrocities realise they can no longer be tolerated. Bearing in mind what we face in other parts of the world, however, particularly in the region I am fortunate enough to cover, I fear that we will rather too often have to deal with the consequences of actions that should have been stopped long ago and to work through them to find the next phase.

On this matter, the commitment of the House, through the Select Committee and individual Members, and through questions to both DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is remarkable. We will continue to give this matter our every attention. The Foreign Secretary, who will raise the issue of the Reuters journalists with the Burmese authorities when he is there, is committed to doing all that he can to reflect the attention and concern that this House has consistently shown for Burma and the Rohingya, and their issues, over a good period of time.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.