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Rohingya Refugees

Volume 794: debated on Monday 17 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the situation of Rohingya refugees and the likelihood of their safe return to Burma.

My Lords, conditions in the camps in Bangladesh have improved but remain difficult for the Rohingya community. The United Kingdom has provided £129 million of assistance since August 2017. We welcome Bangladesh’s continuing generosity in hosting the Rohingya community and its commitment to the principle of voluntariness on repatriations. I agree with the UN Refugee Agency’s assessment that conditions are not in place for safe and sustainable returns, and I assure the noble Lord that the UK will continue to press for independent monitoring by all UN agencies.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he join me in thanking the Department for International Development for providing support to the most oppressed people in the world? Is he aware that last Thursday the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution, by 394 votes to one, identifying crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar as genocide? Will Her Majesty’s Government support the indictment of the Burmese generals and civilian leaders responsible for this genocide in the International Criminal Court?

My Lords, on the earlier point, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. It is true that we can all be proud of the role that the Department for International Development has played over many years on behalf of those people who are suffering the worst crises, including humanitarian crises and the ethnic cleansing that we have seen of the Rohingya community in Burma. On the issue of Congress, I am aware of that vote—but, as the noble Lord will know, it is a long-standing position that we regard attributing genocide as an issue for judicial authorities. However, the United Kingdom is playing a key role in gathering evidence to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes can be brought to justice.

My Lords, 700,000 Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh and there are reports of villages being burned and horrific human rights violations including the burning of homes, schools and mosques; the deliberate burning of people to death inside their homes; mass rape; torture; execution without trial; the blocking of aid; and similar offences being conducted against the Shan and the Kachin as well. So is the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, not right to call for this, regardless of the vote in the American Congress, to be referred to the International Criminal Court? Why is the United Kingdom not laying a resolution before the Security Council calling for a global arms embargo on the Burmese Army, with targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and calling for Daw Suu, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out forcefully against these horrific offences?

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised various issues. First, he is quite right to point out that, as your Lordships’ House may be aware, there has not yet been a UN resolution. However, I assure him that we are speaking to all international partners, including those on the Security Council, to find a way forward on this. He will be aware that there are particular perspectives, most notably from the Chinese, which would, in our view, result in any ICC referral being blocked. We believe in the institution of the International Criminal Court and in its reforms, but any referral to it should carry full support. Looking at what has been debated and agreed in the Security Council over the last 12 months, thus far we have kept unanimity. That remains a primary objective, but I assure the noble Lord that we keep in mind the issue of all persecuted minorities—in Kachin and Shan provinces as well. We will ensure that evidence is collected and the perpetrators ultimately brought to justice in a local or international court.

My Lords, there seems to be no prospect of the safe return of Rohingya refugees to Burma. This will remain so until we accept the full findings and recommendations of the United Nations fact-finding mission. Why are we so reluctant to do so? Does the Minister accept that two issues need to be resolved? The first and central issue is citizenship being denied to Rohingya refugees. Their citizenship is objected to by Aung San Suu Kyi, who should know better. The second is the attempt to secure referral to the International Criminal Court, which has so far stalled. Surely we cannot accept refugees being returned to Burma until those who have perpetrated such vile crimes against them are brought to justice.

I totally agree with the noble Lord. On the issue of the fact-finding mission, he will know that we were one of the co-sponsors of that resolution in March 2017, and we agree with many of the mission’s findings. On the issue of safe return, I assure the noble Lord that there was talk of an agreement having been reached between Burma and Bangladesh in November this year for returns to start. However, we are very clear that they cannot start until certain conditions are met. First and foremost, they must be voluntary. The safety and security of the refugees is paramount. We have raised that, and I met with the Information Minister of Bangladesh on Thursday and again gained that very reassurance.

Does the Minister agree that, given the extreme unlikelihood of all the world’s 62 million refugees and IDPs being able to return home, once the United Kingdom has left the European Union we will be in a far better position to decide who to have here? I ask particularly that some of the Rohingya refugees, as well as some others globally, should be given entry into the United Kingdom once we are in in a better position to make our own decisions.

My Lords, the history of the United Kingdom as a place which grants support to refugees from all over the world predates our membership of the European Union and will remain after Brexit. I pride myself on being in the Government of a country which over the years has stood up in support of refugees, internationally and in the UK. This continues today and will continue tomorrow.

My Lords, the diocese of Winchester has had a link with Burma/Myanmar since the late 19th century. This gateway state to Asia is therefore of great interest to the praying Christians of the diocese. Will the Minister confirm what action Her Majesty’s Government have taken to ensure the guaranteed security of existing internally displaced persons in Rakhine state and of any refugees who voluntarily return to Myanmar?

The right reverend Prelate raises an important issue about ensuring the security and safety of those who are in Burma. We continue to raise this directly with the civilian and military authorities. He will be aware that one of the first visits that the Foreign Secretary made on his appointment was to Burma to raise the very concerns that the right reverend Prelate highlighted.

On the safe return of refugees, I made it clear in answer to the previous question that the United Kingdom stands by the Rohingya community and supports their needs in Bangladesh. They should not return until we can guarantee their safety and security—and, above all, their return should be voluntary.