Skip to main content

Rohingya Refugees

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to address the Rohingya Refugee crisis.

My Lords, since 2017, we have provided more than £373 million in funding for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and more than £30 million for Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar. In December, at the Global Refugee Forum, we announced an additional £7 million for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and for the Myanmar humanitarian crisis. We also reiterated our commitment to finding a long-term solution to the crisis, including the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya to Myanmar when conditions there allow.

My Lords, I am grateful for all that His Majesty’s Government have been doing to support the victims of this terrible humanitarian crisis. However, UK aid to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has actually declined by about 82% since 2019-20. In the past year, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have suffered flooding, cyclones and fires, and cuts in food rations, simply because of reductions in aid. Just two weeks ago, 800 dwellings in Cox’s Bazar were destroyed by a fire. In the light of this terrible humanitarian crisis that we are observing, what other resources can His Majesty’s Government offer to try to address this dreadful problem?

The right reverend Prelate is entirely right about the scale of this crisis. There are 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh—think of the scale of that—with people often living in IDP camps and other temporary accommodation. I do not deny for a moment that the scale of funding has gone down. That is the same with many aid programmes, because of the move from 0.7% to 0.5%. Crucially, it is due also to the diversion of a lot of aid money to support refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan, which I think was entirely the right thing to do. We will be spending another £20 million next year. To put it in context, Britain’s contribution has been almost twice as much as the EU’s over the past seven years. We are playing our role to make sure that this is not the forgotten crisis.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Burma Campaign UK. All leaders of the Rohingya community associations have led calls for the British Government, as the penholder on Burma at the UN, to take action. If the British Government are not going to convene a meeting of the UN Security Council to address the failing of the Burmese military to take measures as instructed by the ICJ to prevent further ongoing genocide against the Rohingya, what action are the Government taking to ensure a level of protection for the Rohingya remaining in Myanmar?

The noble Baroness is entirely right: we are the penholder, and we take that duty very seriously. We have taken a range of action on this. Fundamentally, we are making sure that aid is going in—and I have just said what our contribution has been—and, secondly, that proper authorities are put in place to stop gender-based violence, collect evidence from the camps and make sure that people are held accountable. The third part of the strategy must be to put pressure on the Government to recognise that this country needs to have proper provision for all its ethnic minorities and parts, and to make sure that there is, effectively, a peace process and a more inclusive set of arrangements for the country, so that everyone can feel that they have a part in its future. Ultimately, no one wants the Rohingya to have to stay in Bangladesh; they should be able to go home.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary’s response to the right reverend Prelate indicated that funds have been diverted to the Ukraine resettlement scheme away from other schemes. I have asked in this Chamber, time and again, whether funds to support the Ukraine resettlement scheme in the UK have been diverted from other areas. Ministers have denied that, so can the Foreign Secretary clarify that point on the record? Secondly, the UK has been a refuge for many Rohingya who have sought asylum here under the Gateway Protection Programme. This was closed in 2020. On Friday, the Home Office’s Report on Safe and Legal Routes said that there are no safe and legal routes that the Rohingya would be able to apply for. Can the Minister assure me that, if any Rohingya is seeking refuge in the UK through a proper asylum application but is undocumented, they will not be detained and sent to Rwanda under his new scheme?

First, let me clarify the point I made. Obviously, the ODA budget qualifies to pay for refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Effectively, what happened over previous years was not only that the budget moved from 0.7% to 0.5% but that some of it was taken up, quite rightly, by ODA spending on looking after people from Ukraine and Afghanistan. We can now see that the overseas aid budget being spent overseas is actually increasing. For instance, when it comes to Africa, next year the budget will be almost doubling, to well over £1 billion. On what we want to see with the Rohingya, clearly there is a huge refugee crisis. They are being looked after in Bangladesh. Ideally, when circumstances are right, they will be able to go home. In between now and then, I think we should learn the lesson of the Syrian refugee crisis, where we did a lot to help countries such as Lebanon and particularly Jordan to make sure that people were able to stay there, work there and build livelihoods there, and then, when it is possible, go home.

My Lords, looking specifically at the point the right reverend Prelate raised about the plight of the refugees in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, will the Minister look again at what happened only last week, when 5,000 of those refugees were displaced from the shacks and tents in which they had been living as a result of a fire? The Minister invited us to look at the longer term. I reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, said about the International Court of Justice, which has imposed interim provisional measures on the Burmese military, with the support of the British Government, which is extremely welcome. Will he raise at the Security Council the failure to implement that and will he have discussions with the National Unity Government about the long-term rights of the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Karen and the other ethnic and religious minorities? That is the fundamental issue: if someone is not an equal citizen in the new Burma that will emerge after the coup, nothing will change.

Fundamentally, the noble Lord is completely right about the interim measures which have been set out by the International Court of Justice. It is incumbent on the Government of Myanmar to make sure they are put in place and to abide by them. The noble Lord made the general point that what is required is an inclusive, federal state, where every ethnicity and every nationality can feel it has a part to play in the country and that it will benefit from the country’s resources. Obviously, we have this military Government, with whom we have very limited contact, but for the long-term future of Myanmar, that is the only answer.

My Lords, following on from the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I think the Minister will understand that the House does not find his answers completely satisfactory. He has said that it is the responsibility of the Government of Myanmar, and he knows that action is not being taken. The range of actions he has outlined seem to be around data collection and putting pressure on the Government. As the penholder in the Security Council on this issue, there is a special responsibility on the British Government. Is he able to say what discussions he has had with other members of the Security Council about putting pressure on the Government? Otherwise, nobody is going to be held to account for the crisis which has emerged.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that we take our responsibilities very seriously. We have those discussions at permanent-member level of the UN Security Council. I will personally take this up with Barbara Woodward, our excellent permanent representative, to see what more can be done over the coming period. Fundamentally, we have set out what we think is necessary: the aid to go in, the accountability to be in place and the pressure for a long-term solution, and, at the same time, the Government obeying the interim measures set out by the ICJ.

My Lords, the failure of the international community to deal with the attempted genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya is just one example of the failure of the responsibility to protect norms over the course of the past decade in so many places. What are the Government doing to reinvigorate the discussion on responsibility to protect at the United Nations and ensure that there is a refreshed approach to this in place that will help protect citizens who are under attack from their own Government, legitimate or otherwise?

The issue of the responsibility to protect is one we have taken forward and discuss with allies and partners. It is developing a doctrine, as it were. When it comes to this issue, we have a role; we are making a contribution and we are, I think, doing more than many countries of our size and scale. I think that there is a lot we should do to sort support ASEAN. It has set out its five principles for dealing with Myanmar, which we support, and has a co-ordinator from Laos who we want to work with. Ultimately, we should respect the fact that, in its region, ASEAN should take the lead on this issue and we can support where we can.

My Lords, on or about 28 December, it was widely reported that Indonesia had pushed back a boat containing a significant number of Rohingya refugees out of its territorial waters. I have not been able to find any report of what has happened since to the people on that boat. Would the Minister agree that that is absolutely unacceptable behaviour, out of line with international law? Have the Government made, or will they make, any representations on this to Indonesia? Do we not have to make sure that refugees are safe?

I am not aware of that report; I will certainly go away and look into it. What we would say is that Bangladesh should be praised for the role that it is playing in taking quite so many refugees. Obviously, there are huge pressures—there are worries about conditions in the camps and whether there is enough food—but, ultimately, Bangladesh is looking after a million people, and that is why we are supporting it to the extent that we are. Every country should take its responsibilities towards refugees very seriously.