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Burma: Rohingya

Volume 762: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what emergency support they have provided in response to the flight of Rohingya refugees from Burma.

My Lords, at over £18 million since 2012, DfID is one of the largest humanitarian donors in Rakhine, providing over 126,000 displaced and conflict-affected people with water and sanitation and reducing malnutrition and gender-based violence. We are also working on community dialogue and reconciliation and are one of the largest donors to a major rural livelihoods programme in Rakhine.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House commends the Government for their consistent efforts in this tragedy. However, does my noble friend also understand the sentiments of Abdul Hashim, a Rohingya refugee now in the United Kingdom, who said last week:

“We don’t need food, we don’t need shelter, we don’t need education. We need rights”?

Could she detail the latest discussions that have taken place with the Burmese Government on what human rights groups have now defined as “systematic ethnic cleansing” and a “state policy of persecution” of Rohingyas by Burma?

My noble friend is absolutely right that there are some real, complex concerns and issues that need to be addressed. As she rightly pointed out with reference to one individual’s case—and there are many such cases—of course there is a great need for the Burmese to do a lot more and to be more inclusive of all communities in Burma. My noble friend will know from her own experience in her past role in the Foreign Office that the Government are very much involved in talking to the Burmese Government and in looking at how we can empower civil society organisations to work much closer within Burma. So a number of issues need to be addressed, but I think the Government are right in their position of working closely with Burma while being a critical friend and highlighting areas where we need to work much better.

My Lords, the Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, had to summon the Burmese ambassador in April to complain about lack of access and protection for humanitarian aid workers in Rakhine. Can my noble friend say whether that had any effect, and how much of the generous aid which the Government are giving to succour the victims of persecution in Rakhine is getting through to those victims? Can she also say what is happening about the 7,000 people at sea and whether ASEAN is mounting any sort of rescue operation to prevent them from losing their lives?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to raise the issue of those people who are taking to the seas. There has to be much greater regional co-operation in that area. My right honourable friend Hugo Swire was right to call in the Burmese ambassador to speak to him on issues that concern the rights of people within Burma and what we need to do to address them. As the noble Lord is aware—I know that he also takes a very keen interest in this area—these discussions are ongoing, but we need to continually push hard to ensure that progress is being made. However, he is also right to highlight that the amount of aid we are giving in that country is there to help support a change in approach to helping people in Rakhine and to ensure that their rights are fully recognised.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that forcing desperate people into fleeing by sea is only the latest in a series of ethnic cleansing efforts against the Rohingya people in Burma? When the independent evidence of systematic genocidal cruelty which we heard about earlier is so clear, why do not our Government do what President Obama has done and restore sanctions to at least the level recently renewed by the United States?

My Lords, our priority remains to address the immediate humanitarian situation and human rights abuses that are occurring, while we develop more broadly with other partners a comprehensive plan that seeks to address the challenges that are facing that state. It is our responsibility to deliver that, and that is what we are focusing on at the moment.

My Lords, what is the evidence that the aid that is intended for those groups is getting to them? When discrimination operates at the kind of level when a whole part of society is regarded as being non-people, there is no way that humanitarian rights and entitlements can be bestowed on them without having some kind of control over the Government.

The noble Baroness is right to address that particular area of concern, but we are working very closely with civil society groups there and DfID is present there, so we are doing a lot on the ground. However, the overall problem needs to be addressed, and we must make sure that there is a collective response in addressing that particular serious issue.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to the Front Bench and to her new responsibilities. Can she tell us what discussions the Government have had with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia regarding the safety of the Rohingya fleeing Burma?

First, I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. The issue is absolutely about getting those neighbouring countries to be better supported. We are trying to make more progress on that through our work in DfID and through our dialogue with those countries. It is right and proper that the neighbouring countries take greater responsibility for the refugees fleeing there, and we need to have a dialogue with nations such as Thailand and Malaysia and others in order to be able to respond with the assistance that is desperately needed. By providing food and shelter, we are assisting the refugees in their camps, and we are trying to be as supportive as we can be in this situation, which is becoming dire. Of course, we need to work much harder, and we need to get the neighbouring countries to work harder, towards the comprehensive plan that is so desperately needed.