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Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the sinking of a boat carrying Rohingya refugees in the Bay of Bengal, what steps they are taking to assist Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

My Lords, I was deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life following the recent capsizing of a boat in the Bay of Bengal. We are monitoring the situation closely. The UK is a leading donor to the Rohingya crisis response in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. In Bangladesh, our assistance includes the provision of food, healthcare, shelter, counselling and care for sexual violence survivors, and protection for vulnerable groups, including women and children. Our support has reached more than 1 million refugees and host community members.

I thank the Minister for that response. I certainly agree that DfID’s commitment to the Rohingya in Bangladesh has been tremendous. On Tuesday, along with the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, I met postgraduate students from Oxford who did a study on hepatitis C in Cox’s Bazar. The conditions they portrayed were stunning. How much of the Government’s £87 million funding package will be directed toward reproductive and sexual health services, as well as targeting high rates of hepatitis C among the refugees? Will the Government also commit to a whole-society approach to longer-term investment for not only refugees but the host community?

My Lords, the long-term plan must be that the Rohingya are able to return home, but those returns must be voluntary, safe and dignified. In line with the UN, we do not believe that the conditions are currently in place, not least because of the recent terrible fighting in Rakhine state. The noble Lord highlights the case of hep C; I look forward to reading the report that he referred to. We are supporting healthcare in the camps. More than 500,000 medical consultations have been provided for refugees and host community members, including on reproductive health for women and girls, but as the crisis becomes more protracted, we need to ensure that we remain one of the leading donors and work with the Government of Bangladesh to come up with longer-term planning for the whole of the Cox’s Bazar district. The local communities have been very generous in hosting so many refugees; we must ensure that our help goes to those communities too.

Does my noble friend appreciate that this tragedy—and, indeed, this Question—reminds us of the enormous burden falling on the nation of Bangladesh? Does she appreciate that it is now one of the most dynamic, fastest-growing and highest-technology economies in the world, rising from a very low base? Will she urge her colleagues to undertake to raise to a much higher level our co-operation with and support—of all kinds—for the nation of Bangladesh in its challenges and its efforts to advance?

I agree completely with my noble friend on the importance of ensuring a strong relationship between the UK and Bangladesh. Extreme poverty has declined there from nearly 35% to less than 15%, and Bangladesh is graduating from least-developed country status. However, it is one of the most climate-vulnerable and densely populated countries in the world. We are the second-biggest donor to the Rohingya crisis. We are ensuring that we provide support and expertise to tackle poverty and climate shocks across the country.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, with an unprecedented and staggering 70 million people displaced or refugees globally, driven out by conflict or persecution—1 million of whom are Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing—this requires a systematic and long-term global campaign to hold those responsible to account? Following the International Court of Justice’s recent preliminary ruling requiring Burma to protect Rohingya, what have we said to Burma’s Government about implementing the steps required of them, ending impunity for crimes against humanity and reinstating the Rohingya’s rights of citizenship?

My Lords, we welcome the International Court of Justice’s consideration of whether Myanmar has breached the genocide convention. We have consistently expressed our profound concern at the terrible events in Rakhine state. We welcome the ICJ’s decision on provisional measures. The court was clear that Myanmar must do more to protect the Rohingya. We have urged Myanmar to comply with the measures in full and are exploring with partners how best to ensure that it implements the decision of the ICJ, including through our place at the UN Security Council.

My Lords, my question is also about the case that the Gambia brought to the ICJ in The Hague and follows on neatly from that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It is to do with the response of the de facto ruler of Myanmar, the quite extraordinary insistence by Aung San Suu Kyi that efforts to bring stability and progress to Rakhine state have been hampered by international condemnation. Does the Minister agree with that statement and, if not, have we responded to her assertion in the strongest possible terms?

My Lords, the UN fact-finding mission has concluded that ethnic cleansing has occurred against ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya in Rakhine state. I indeed saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s evidence. We want a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Myanmar with the military under full civilian control. We will work with the civilian Government to help achieve this but, of course, we must continue to work with our international allies to see the Government of Myanmar deliver it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Bangladesh is to be not only commended but continuously supported for its sterling efforts to manage this global humanitarian crisis? The Minister may be aware that a large delegation of parliamentarians from both Houses recently went to the refugee camps to see the work going on, particularly the impact of the work of DfID, the International Rescue Committee and others on women and children. Will she meet some of us so that we might update her on the current situation, which is dire? Perhaps other Members of the House would be interested in attending with her and her officials.

My Lords, I also visited the camps in October last year—I think it was just after the parliamentary delegation. The conditions there are indeed terrible. We have seen some welcome improvements. We have invested heavily in the camps. The Bangladesh Government have recently accepted that the Myanmar curriculum can be studied, which is a significant step forward. We are investing in shelter there as well as in women-friendly space. I would be delighted to meet the noble Baroness and others who have visited to understand what they have seen.