I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Rohingya crisis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I visited the Kutupalong refugee camp earlier this month, as part of a cross-party delegation to Bangladesh organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I thank both organisations for organising that visit, which gave me and others the opportunity to speak to non-governmental organisations working on the ground and to the Rohingya themselves about their most urgent needs, which they identified as food, shelter, education, clothes, water and sanitation. That is complemented by the UNHCR’s assessment that there is
“an urgent need for…more space for shelters and infrastructure…including water points, latrines, bathing areas, distribution points, child safe…spaces, safe spaces for women and girls”
and community centres.
Although stories about the crisis are familiar, my visit brought home the vastness of the camps. The UNHCR’s head of emergency planning told our group of parliamentarians that the camps needed to house the new refugees are the equivalent of a city larger than Manchester being established almost overnight, with no infrastructure, housing, water, sanitation or any of the tools needed for self-subsistence. The scale of the need is truly vast. The International Rescue Committee estimates that nearly 300,000 people need food security assistance and more than 400,000 people need healthcare. Only a fraction of the 453,000 Rohingya children at camps receive education. The young people we met were desperate for education—particularly higher education.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She alludes to the issues facing young people. Does she agree that, in addition to the horrendous conditions she outlines, the news that emerged yesterday that organised gangs are taking advantage of women—particularly vulnerable young women, but also older women—is another complicating factor? That needs to be resolved in addition to the humanitarian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman makes a really relevant point, which I will come to later.
The school that we visited was doing a valiant job of teaching children in shifts, but that is really a drop in the ocean. Much more education and schools are needed in the camps.
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this important debate. It is of course incredibly important that we deal with the current acute situation, but does she recognise that, the current crisis aside, most Rohingya people are not actually recognised? They are not entitled to state education or healthcare, and many cannot even access employment. We need to address that.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. I was coming to the lack of citizenship that underpins most of the problems that the Rohingya people face. They have suffered persecution in Myanmar for decades. The 1982 citizenship law denies them citizenship. They are deprived of the right to vote and unable to access higher education or travel freely. Their lack of official citizenship, which is underpinned by ethnic conflict, is at the root of all those problems. Even before this year, 212,000 Rohingyas had fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, but the latest wave of forced displacement is one of the largest population movements in living memory. More than 640,000 people fled Myanmar in the wake of the August attacks, and the camps are now estimated to be home to more than 836,000 Rohingyas.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that a basic step towards resolving the terrible tragedy that she describes would be the repeal of the 1982 citizenship law?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. I will ask the Minister how we can apply international pressure, particularly on the military in Myanmar, to ensure that that is achieved.
The horrific violence over the summer in Rakhine state, in which more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed by the Burmese security forces and other militia groups, was described by the UN as
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Reading reports of mass executions, gang rapes, the burning of villages and the killing of children is harrowing, but it does not compare with hearing first-hand reports of violence from people in the camps. As if that violence were not enough, the Rohingya face horrific journeys when fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh. They must trek for days through the countryside in Rakhine state to reach the border crossing, which has been planted with landmines. Some have paid fisherman to take them across the Naf river in fishing boats, but many have drowned trying to make it across.
Despite the deal signed on 23 November between Myanmar and Bangladesh to return the Rohingya to Myanmar, there is understandably widespread aversion among the displaced Rohingya to returning to their home state at present.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the supposed agreement between the Bangladeshis and the Burmese about return is deeply problematic, given the state of camps in Rakhine and the way the Rohingya are being treated? I visited Burma twice. Our Government need to ensure that security arrangements are in place and that the Rohingyas’ protection is guaranteed before any such process takes place.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely pertinent point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—she is being very generous with her time—and thank her for raising this topic. The repatriation deal requires that refugees produce a load of documentation, including names of family members, previous addresses, birth dates and a statement of voluntary return. Does she agree that, given the systematic denial of citizenship rights, that will be incredibly difficult for them?
I absolutely agree.
Human Rights Watch has provided evidence of at least 288 villages in northern Rakhine state being partly or completely burned since 25 August. The International Rescue Committee described the deal as “at best, premature,” noting that Rohingya refugees are still fleeing Rakhine state and arriving in Bangladesh. The IRC describes ongoing violent clearance of villages and mining of the border by the Myanmar military, and states that
“it is clear that the conditions for safe, voluntary and informed returns are not being met.”
The IRC also states that 81% of the Rohingyas it interviewed do not wish to return to Myanmar at present.
The UK Government and our representatives in the international community must do all they can to press all sides to ensure the safety, livelihoods and, crucially, citizenship rights of the Rohingya if they return. The Burmese Government also need to address the widespread and credible reports of horrific human rights violations in Myanmar, and to stop anti-Rohingya propaganda, which has spread across the country.
Amid the tragedy, the response by the Department for International Development and British NGOs in the camps should be commended. I am pleased that the UK has committed £47 million to meet urgent humanitarian needs in the camps, including £5 million to match the generous donations of the UK public to the Disasters Emergency Committee. The UK is the largest bilateral donor to the crisis and has given more than one third of the overall money donated by the international community. In addition, our existing work in the region means that, when the crisis hit, we were already in a position to provide lifesaving support. Without DFID’s existing networks, that aid would have taken longer to reach those in need.
British NGOs, including Oxfam, ActionAid, the Red Cross and Save the Children, are also doing an incredible job, alongside others, in very difficult conditions. Oxfam alone has reached more than 185,000 people, providing clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. I could give many examples of the amazing work being done by our NGOs in the camps, including setting up emergency health units and providing clothing and emergency kits for people arriving at the camp. We should also pay tribute to the international organisations such as UNHCR, the International Rescue Committee and Médecins sans Frontières, which have been vital in providing frontline support in the camps and have already saved thousands of lives.
The British public, too, have played a remarkable role with their donations. UK aid has provided emergency food for 174,000 people and lifesaving nutritional support to more than 60,000 children under five.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a great deal of that aid needs to be directed in particular toward women and children suffering violence?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will come to in a minute.
UK aid has provided safe drinking water and latrines to 138,000 people. It has also provided counselling and psychological support for over 10,000 women suffering from the traumas of war and sexual violence. I witnessed that service myself in the transit camps, where newly arrived refugees, traumatised by their experiences, have their medical and personal needs assessed before moving to the camp. That showed the difference international efforts are making on the ground, particularly the support being given to women and children. It was also heartening to see the generosity of so many of the ordinary people of Bangladesh, who though poor themselves have given a lot to the refugees and welcomed them into their country. Nevertheless, the UNHCR has estimated that there is a shortfall of £247 million in the funding needed from the international community to meet the needs in the camps.
Turning to the response from the international community, while Britain and France initially put forward a Security Council resolution on Myanmar in late October, China and Russia refused to co-operate, meaning that it is now only a statement passed by the Security Council and does not carry the weight of a resolution. The statement said that the Security Council
“strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State, Myanmar,”
“further expresses grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State, including by the Myanmar security forces”.
It has therefore been up to individual Governments to take action to try to resolve the crisis. As a number of hon. Members in this room will know, much more work needs to be done to come to an international solution. Many critics noted with surprise that the Rohingya crisis was barely mentioned at the most recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which took place earlier in November. The UK and EU should be using our relationship with ASEAN to push it to make the crisis a higher priority for the whole region.
What should the UK Government’s priorities be? The UK Government must do all they can to ensure that any deal reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh to return the refugees ensures that return is safe, voluntary and informed. For as long as the Rohingyas are living in the camps, the UK and international community must have four urgent priorities. First, international aid is essential in ensuring that the Rohingyas’ basic needs are met and that camp life can improve. The donors’ meeting in February, where more aid is being requested, will be critical in that respect. Secondly, the camps need more space, so it is urgent that Bangladesh determines as soon as possible how that can be achieved. Thirdly, staff and volunteers from UNHCR and NGOs are doing an amazing job servicing the camps and supporting the Rohingyas. They do not seek recognition for their efforts, but their brilliant work in difficult circumstances should be acknowledged.
Fourthly, the underlying problem of the Rohingya is not only the violence and persecution they face in Myanmar, but their lack of citizenship. I will never forget the young man, aged 25, who we met at our first meeting at the camp. He had been born at the camp, as his parents had fled Myanmar in an earlier displacement. Despite facing huge challenges with regard to shelter and food, he told us the most important thing he wanted was citizenship, because then he could make his own way in the world. At present, that will not be easily achieved. The military in Myanmar have refused citizenship, and Bangladesh is reluctant to give permanent residency to so many people in a very poor area of a low-income country.
International pressure to solve the crisis is of the utmost urgency, and I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government are going to do to try to step up the amount of aid delivered not only by the UK Government but by other partners, and how they will press for a longer-term international solution to the problem.
Order. I will call Mr Philip Hollobone to speak next, but there is obviously considerable interest in the debate. As a result, in order to give sufficient time to the Front-Bench spokespersons of the Labour and Scottish National parties and the Government, I am cutting the time immediately to three minutes per speech.
It is an honour to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and a huge pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on her excellent speech. I had the privilege of going on the same CPA visit to see the Rohingyas as the hon. Lady, and it seemed to me that two responses were required from Her Majesty’s Government, who are so ably represented here by my right hon. Friend the Minister.
The first is the diplomatic response to the grossest example of ethnic cleansing that one could come up with. It is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple, and must be 100% condemned through all diplomatic channels available to us. I appreciate the sensitivities of the nascent democracy in Burma, but we must make it clear that the generals are responsible for this ethnic cleansing and that the international community will not put up with it. When it comes to the potential return of Rohingya refugees, returning stateless people to remain stateless in their country of origin is not good enough. These people require their nationhood to be given to them.
The second response required from Her Majesty’s Government is humanitarian assistance. Britain has a good record of providing financial assistance directly to the camps, but more will obviously be required. We must stimulate further contributions from other countries, particularly Muslim countries, because we are dealing with a Muslim population and there are lots of rich Muslim countries in the world that, frankly, should be stepping up to the plate rather more.
On the CPA visit to the refugee camp, we had the privilege of meeting some truly inspirational aid workers from the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee. It was a privilege to meet them and see the fantastic work that they do.
Reflecting on what my hon. Friend just said, it would be very dangerous for this to be seen as only a Muslim issue. It is a global humanitarian catastrophe, and while I accept what he says—that we want to see all nations contributing—to try to frame it in an ethnic way would be the wrong way forward.
The point I am making is absolutely right: yes, it is an international emergency, but the Rohingya are being expelled because they are Muslim. We must not ignore that fact. We also have to accept that there are very rich Muslim nations in the world that can step up to the plate. I do not think that the Minister and I disagree; help is great, wherever it comes from.
The international aid workers we met, many of whom have been international aid workers for a long time, told us that the Kutupalong camp, which we visited and which had more than 400,000 people in it, is the most congested refugee camp they have ever experienced. That is a huge problem because, as was certainly made clear to us, the outbreak of disease is a really big concern. When we asked what the solution is, they said they will simply have to create more, smaller camps in that part of Bangladesh, which will minimise the risk of a disease outbreak. If we can encourage the Bangladeshi Government to do that—they have been very generous—that would be good.
The aid workers made the point that we need to think about the medium term. There has been a rush of refugees into Bangladesh, but those people will not go back in a hurry and they will not go back in numbers, so we need to think five or 10 years ahead. The aid workers also told us that in absolutely no way should those people be returned to any unsafe situation, and that there must be an informed, safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return, or no return at all.
The Bangladeshis need to speed up the entry clearance process for refugee aid workers. Some of the pre-registration processes for refugee organisations are, frankly, taking too long; they can take six to 12 months. I am sure the Minister is on the case and will listen carefully to the debate.
The UK has a proud history of being courageous, compassionate and generous, and of leading the way on humanitarian rights in the international community. I am here to say that we must act to protect the Rohingya people.
Last week, I returned from the camps, where I was not just visiting but working as a doctor. I visited all the camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and also went to the checkpoints. I promised the people I met that I would tell their stories. People had to choose between returning to the fires and picking their three children who were burning alive, or picking the two children who were still alive and running with a shirt over their back, making the treacherous journey over the border into Bangladesh. I held those charred babies in my arms and made a promise to tell their story.
I say on the record, as I have all week, that this is not ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is not a crime in humanitarian law. This is genocide—the systematic dehumanisation of a population of people—and we have to call it out. We are proud to be British and all that stands for. Our standing in the world is to be applauded. The amount we give to humanitarian efforts is absolutely wonderful, but it is tantamount to putting a sticking plaster on a gunshot wound and allowing the shooter to roam free. We cannot be bystanders to this genocide.
I met an imam who managed to escape into the bushes as the military arrived in his village and started shooting everybody. He described, through his tears, all the men being mutilated and killed as their wives were forced to watch; women being dragged backwards by their hair and gang raped repeatedly as their children were forced to watch; and their children, as they ran away screaming, being dragged back and thrown into the fires. I know that that is hard to hear, but I promised I would tell their stories.
We cannot be bystanders to a genocide in which a group of people really believe that throwing living babies into fire is just. What does that say about what we will allow to happen in our world? What does it say about the world that we are raising our families in? I met a four-year-old girl—the same age as my eldest daughter—who was absolutely mute because of the injuries she had sustained and the journey she had made, without her parents, into Bangladesh. She was able to say only, “They killed them all,” before being unable to speak again.
We are a full member of the UN Security Council, we have leverage and we can make changes. We cannot stand by and let this happen. I am calling for an independent ministerial delegation to go to Myanmar, into the Rakhine province, and to call this what it is.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). I, too, visited the camps, and like her I made that promise. It still feels as raw today as when I went there.
I will make a few points in the short time I have. I agree with the Minister that this is not only a Muslim problem; we were told of Hindus who had been expelled because they are Rohingya. The very fact that the Pope may have been advised—I would not wish to give His Holiness advice—not to use the word “Rohingya” is very wrong. All of us should be free to describe the Rohingya for who they are and what they are. Apparently, a delegation from Burma came over a year or so back at the invitation of the Bangladeshi Government. They went into the camps and said they did not see any Rohingya, only Bangladeshis. That is the problem.
If the Myanmar Government deny people who they are, sending them back there will make no difference. There is a cultural problem here—tacit agreement with the process that has happened. The local people in Myanmar are “not unhappy” that these people have been driven out in the most horrific manner. That needs to be addressed. Otherwise, sending the Rohingya back will only send them back into a scenario in which they are permanently under threat, despised and robbed of their rights. I put it very clearly on the record that we must not accept any pressure to not use the terminology of their race. They are Rohingya and should be respected as such, and the fundamental flaw in this is that Myanmar does not recognise that.
I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said about permits, and I, too, am concerned that valuable groups such as Islamic Relief UK and Restless Beings want to work in the camps but cannot get access. If this is a legitimate aid process, as much as help as possible should be accepted.
I am also concerned about the estimated 285,000 people outside the camps. The camps are one part of the problem, but there are also huge numbers of people lost in the system. I respect the hon. Member for Tooting saying that this is genocide. I am not sure whether it meets the criteria for that—it looked that way to me—but it is certainly at least ethnic cleansing, and we must not pussyfoot around calling it what it is.
When we talk only about numbers of people and moving them around, we are denying those people their identity and their human rights. Therefore, to me, if nothing else comes out of the debate, we must at least put Myanmar, its Government and its military on notice that the world has noted what they have done. Simply allowing people back in—Bangladesh is under pressure and I see why it wants that repatriation—does not forgive the crime that has happened. That crime needs to be examined and taken to the highest level, and if it is a crime against humanity, which it looks like to me, people should be held accountable and there should be trials. I would welcome that and be proud if my own Government led the calls for it to happen.
My speech will be very short because everybody will more or less say the same thing that I will. I was one of the delegates who went to Myanmar as part of the CPA group. I also went into that camp, and what I saw has left a mark on me. I am a nurse and have seen many things, but that is the worst of people’s humanity I have ever seen. How people can treat others like that is beyond me.
All we are asking is for this to be recognised as what it is: the dehumanisation of people going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very poor country—what are we expecting it to do? It cannot cope with what is happening. We have been told that by December, which is only a couple of days away, 1 million people from Myanmar will be on its borders. We have to do something. I am here to support my colleagues across parties in saying to the Minister that we have to do something. Please listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I want to say from the outset that there is a court in The Hague where the people who have been perpetrating these murderous activities will end up, and it is for this Parliament and this Government to work internationally to make sure that they are brought to justice.
By coincidence, my researcher worked in what was then Burma, long before the new golden leadership, when the generals were in charge. There is nothing new about what has been going on there. Colleagues who went to the camps saw people born there not 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but in excess of 25 years ago. It is a crying shame that the camps are still in that condition. The longevity of the camps is very important. I had the honour and privilege of visiting our troops in South Sudan—another place in the world where we should all be ashamed of what is going on—and the camps there had fresh water, sanitation and some longevity, so that when the rains came, the people there were protected.
At the same time, we need to think of the people of Bangladesh. These camps are on the side of the river, on some of the most fertile land that these people, who are subsistence farmers, have. That land has been taken away from them for generations now, and more will be taken away. The right sort of compensation needs to be directed to them, through either our aid budget or the international community.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I want everybody to be able to speak. That is very important.
I am very worried that we might be encouraging people to go back to Myanmar with the so-called deal between Bangladesh and the Myanmar Government. People are being asked up to give up really quite personal details that could be easily used against them when they return to this place—I am conscious of not talking about a country, because it is not a country. These people have no rights. It is illegal under international law to make someone have no citizenship at all, yet that is exactly what has happened there for generation after generation.
My view, which may be different from colleagues’ views, is that we must not be part of any deal that encourages people to go back to watch their daughters being raped—they are not of my daughters’ age, of 26 or 27; girls of 11, 10 or younger are being raped—and their sons castrated in front of them. That is what is going on. That is the sort of thing that, if we are not careful, we will condone.
There is no change in the country. The generals are still in control, and they feel they can do this to these people because nothing will happen to them. We must make sure that something does happen to them and that they go to the international court in The Hague, so that we protect these people.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate.
It is imperative that we all make the effort to continue raising the plight of the Rohingyan people—those displaced and those still living in Myanmar—who face the continued threat of persecution and violence. That includes a woman having her unborn baby cut out from her and killed, babies snatched from their mothers and thrown into fires and burned alive, children beaten to death with shovels, children forced to watch as family members are tortured, raped and killed and mass rape of girls as young as five.
If we stop to contemplate those atrocities even for a moment, we can be in no doubt that what has taken place is ethnic cleansing and genocide. The US and the UN have both said that. The British Government are yet to recognise it. I have said it before and I will say it again: 640,000 people have been deliberately driven from their homes, with many killed or tortured. I fear that the international community is failing these people, who are stateless within their own country and do not have the necessary level of aid and support as refugees.
The thing I want to focus on and that I am deeply concerned about, like my colleagues, is the Rohingyan refugees’ potential return to Myanmar. A proposed return without secured political and human rights may create a perception of progress while in reality abandoning the Rohingya people to a life of normalised terror. With the current situation and the animosity, this is no time to be talking about simply returning the Rohingya to Myanmar. If return is on the table, what exactly are they returning to? Without rights and acceptance, what difference will it make? How can we expect people to return when they are dehumanised and persecuted daily?
It is far too early to be returning people to uncertainty. Early surveys indicate that only 10% would wish to return at this point anyway. The 1951 UN refugee convention is absolutely clear about the forced return of refugees and the conditions of safe return that would be required. That is an absolute principle within international law, and any forcible repatriation must be rejected by the entire international community.
Last time I spoke on this subject, I pleaded with the Government to look seriously at more targeted sanctions against the Burmese military and to convince the Burmese military—not just the leadership—to accept what is going on and change the status quo. So far, all we have done within Europe and the UN is to stop our military training and deny visas to military personnel. That is simply not enough.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK Government should look at the business interests of the Burmese generals who have been prosecuting these acts of violence and terror and sanction them? Will the Minister address that point today?
I absolutely agree. I said it previously, but it must be reiterated: unless we sanction the military and carry out these investigations, we are not telling the world that we are serious about this issue.
The Myanmar military and leadership need to understand that actions have consequences and repercussions, and that we as an international community will not stand by and allow this to continue. They need to understand that Great Britain and those who have spoken today have been heard and listened to and that these people’s stories are reaching our shores. They are the stories of tears that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) spoke about, of women who are homeless and of children who will know no certainty for years to come and have no future. They have come out of the chip pan and into the fire, and they are still burning—literally. This is not something we can accept or stand by and watch. We must be doing more.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate on the most serious humanitarian crisis facing the world today.
On visiting the camps with the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh in September, I witnessed some of the most horrific scenes imaginable. I know that several hon. Members across the Chamber have also visited. We saw makeshift camps as far as the eye can see and poor sanitation, and it is mostly women and children there, because husbands have been killed. We saw women fleeing with their children—largely daughters—because their houses had been burned, walking for five days with just the clothes on their back, clutching their children. In every case, when we spoke to people, it was the Myanmar military that had conducted those atrocities and horrific attacks.
I have to say, I am immensely proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played in terms of aid. We visited the Kutupalong camp and a camp right on the border with Myanmar—so close that we could see the smoke over the border—and were shown images of landmines and heard horrific tales. I was really proud to see the Union flag from the British people and that aid was going there. I think we are the largest bilateral donor, having given some £47 million. I was pleased to see the Secretary of State for International Development there this weekend, committing a further £12 million. I am pleased that we are playing our part, but that is only half of this issue. We have to provide the aid, but the second half is the diplomatic efforts.
I am also proud of what Bangladesh has done. It has a population of 160 million, and Sheikh Hasina has welcomed these people and said, “If we can feed 160 million, we can feed another 500,000 Rohingya.” That is an incredibly noble thing to do, and I applaud the Bangladeshi Government. However, I draw the line at the deal with Myanmar, because I have serious concerns about sending people back to a state—Rakhine state—in which they are not welcome, are persecuted and will have all sorts of untold violence inflicted upon them.
On our visit, we saw people with nothing, as I am sure other hon. Members did. There is no way they would have the documentation necessary. Even if there were some sort of rules about documentation, the majority of people will not fulfil those criteria.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Stateless people will not have rights or protections, which is a serious concern. All the refugees we spoke to in the camps said they wanted to go back to Rakhine province, but only when it was safe and their security was guaranteed. Before we talk about, endorse, sanction or support any deals between the Myanmar Government and Bangladesh, it is important that security and protection is guaranteed and that we see the humanitarian charities and NGOs in there to protect those people’s rights.
Several hon. Members have talked about what the UK is doing. I am proud of what the Minister has done so far. There is always more that we can do, but we need to talk about tangible measures that the British Government can take. As we know, measures at the UN have been blocked by both China and Russia. China is key. I met the Foreign Secretary only last week. We have to put pressure on China, which has a border with Myanmar, because it also has concerns about humanitarian crises in Myanmar spreading and refugees potentially entering into China. We have to stress the point that China is key, and diplomatic efforts should be directed that way.
I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude. I know the Minister is as passionate about solving the issue as the rest of us. I implore him to do as much as he can to help to resolve it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for securing this important debate. It is good to see so many colleagues here, particularly from the CPA delegation, of which I was a member a couple of weeks ago. I have a substantial British Bangladeshi diaspora in my constituency. As the Rohingya crisis has developed at such speed and at such scale during the past couple of months, I have received lots of representations and a lot of concern has been expressed about what was going on, so I felt privileged to take part in the delegation to go and see for myself what was happening. I wanted to understand the nature of the crisis and also the role that the Bangladeshi Government and their people have played in the humanitarian effort, but most importantly what I, we and the Government can and should do in terms of humanitarian support and political international solutions.
I want to reiterate the praise that we have heard today for the Bangladeshi Government, for the Bangladeshi host families in Cox’s Bazar, the NGOs and the generous fund-raising efforts of the British public. On that last point, I want to mention my local councillor, Ali Ahmed and the Bangladesh Association Cardiff, who so far have raised £30,000 for the international relief effort.
What I saw and what I heard directly at the Kutupalong camp will stay with me for a very long time. I saw a mass of humanity, literally as far as the horizon, and that was not the entire camp; it was only a small proportion. There was no space, no water and no sanitation. People were picking up shelter packs. I do not know where they were going to walk to so as to erect these pieces of tarpaulin and bamboo shoots to make some sort of shelter. There was literally no space. As we approach the cyclone season, I really worry that if a cyclone hits that camp, we will see the destruction and death of hundreds of thousands of people.
I have three questions for the Minister. I want to thank him for a frank discussion at the all-party group on Bangladesh last week. I know he visited Myanmar last week. What representations were made and to whom? Can he tell us a little more about the response that he got? What can he tell us about the agreement between Burma and Bangladesh on the return of the Rohingya to Burma, which disturbs me and obviously several other Members greatly? Finally, to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester about China, what diplomatic efforts are being made with the Chinese, who clearly have significant leverage to make the Burmese regime deal with the situation in some way? So far they have done nothing and have been complicit in what I agree has been genocide.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate and giving us all a chance to participate. I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on freedom of religious belief, which speaks out for the right of everybody to hold their own religion and belief and to practise that. The case of the Rohingyas is one that I have spoken on numerous times in this place. Indeed, the last time we had a debate here in Westminster Hall, I spoke on them specifically, along with others. Like others, I am not afraid to stand and speak up. I do what I can to raise awareness and possibly help to bring about a change in the horrendous situation.
On Thursday 23 November, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate the Rohingya refugees. Ever mindful that the monsoon season is on the way, the Bangladeshi Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that a joint working group would be set up within these three weeks to manage the process, and the return of the refugees would start within two months. Human rights groups have raised several concerns about the agreement, and I must agree with their concerns. The first is that the military generals could still obstruct the process, and it is unclear where the Rohingya will be resettled, given that many villages have been razed.
Let us be clear about the scale of the crisis: 624,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh since the Burmese military launched its ethnic cleansing and its genocidal, brutal, bloody, murder of innocents. The sheer volume of refugees indicates that fleeting statements cannot be made with no plan in place. These people need assurances that they can return home—indeed, that there is a place for them to return to. They need to know that they are back for good and welcome for good, and that they need not be concerned about having to uproot their lives and their children in the near future. Without a guarantee of citizenship, the Rohingya will be vulnerable to the same discrimination and violence that they have experienced for decades. That is not acceptable. They need their guarantee of citizenship.
China has indicated a wish to try to do something. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, but there is not enough light to make the path home safe, and more needs to be done. I thank the Minister for all the hard work that he does. I know he is very compassionate and has a personal interest in this matter. I look to him to provide an update of what steps we are taking to help this nation of people who are so desperately in need of international aid and support. We must do something right now.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for securing this important debate and for bringing our attention to her visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. If we watch the TV and follow these stories, it is bad enough. My hon. Friend should be thanked for her efforts in bringing the reality that she has experienced at first hand to this House.
The UN refugee agency said that what it is doing was like establishing a city the size of Manchester overnight, but one with no infrastructure, housing, water, sanitation or tools for survival. However, that is better than the alternative. We have all heard the most horrific stories of brutality. It is difficult to comprehend the suffering. The Prime Minister has called the Rohingya crisis heartbreaking and has pledged to deepen partnerships with Asian countries in a move to combat such problems. The Foreign Secretary is looking for more analysis. That is not enough. The massacre of the Rohingya is genocide. We cannot keep denying the truth against the weight of evidence, and we cannot keep talking about how shocking the human suffering is without acting.
The UK is well placed to influence stakeholders in Myanmar and across the region, and at the United Nations. Last week, Burma and Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate refugees, although Burma gave no details of how many would be allowed to return home. Repatriations are expected to begin in the next month or two, but the Myanmar Government’s continued denial of a well-evidenced campaign of ethnic cleansing is astonishing.
Can we really believe that the Rohingyas’ home, or what is left of it, is safe to return to? Repatriations must not happen prematurely and without assurances that there is a genuine solution in place. I ask the Government to do everything in their power to bring about lasting peace and to ensure that no Rohingya will be returned to a place where they will not be safe. It should be recognised that the people of Bangladesh have opened their borders and their hearts to people in desperate need. If Bangladesh is to deliver a progressive refugee policy under such strain, the international community must step up its support. It is right that we continue to talk about the atrocities, but we also need to see proper recognition of the scale of the issue from the international community, and we need action to stop the horror.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this timely debate and bringing further attention to such an important issue. I also echo many of the comments that have been made in the debate today. It is utterly heartbreaking to read and hear reports about the devastation in Rakhine state and of the desperate situation that many are facing in Bangladesh. We have a responsibility to speak out against those atrocities and do all we can to stop them, and having listened to colleagues from across the House speak in this debate today, it is clear that that is something on which we all agree.
More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August, and more than 340,000 of those are children, many travelling unaccompanied. That is the largest displacement of people in a short period since the Rwandan genocide. Two hundred and eighty-four Rohingya villages have been torched; tens of thousands of people have been victims of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual assault; thousands more people have been violently attacked, and many of those have tragically lost their lives. We must be prepared to call this what it is: a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
I commend the steps that the Government have taken so far in an effort to tackle this crisis. Unfortunately, however, as we all know, in reality that action is not enough. We have been speaking for long enough, and the situation continues to worsen. I call on the Government to lead the way in organising an immediate co-ordinated and effective international response to the crisis, and to urge the other members of the United Nations Security Council to come together and use their collective power to help this persecuted minority. The Burmese Government must be held to account, and the war crimes that have been committed by the Burmese military must be investigated in an international court. The Rohingya people need justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate. Many of my constituents have been, and remain, extremely concerned about the situation in Rakhine state. It was the subject of the first wide-scale correspondence campaign that I received as a Member of Parliament, and it remains one of the biggest. Like me, my constituents were appalled about the extreme violence inflicted on the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which has been going on for years.
It is difficult to imagine the scale of the exodus: more than 600,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh since the end of August. No wonder UN officials described the situation as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Will the Minister confirm whether our Government have officially classified the situation as such? More to the point, has it been classified as a genocide? That is what I feel it actually is.
Yes, we have made it clear that it is ethnic cleansing. The question of whether it is genocide is a legal issue and not something that Governments can decide. There has to be a legal process through the international community. The ethnic cleansing point has been made—I have made it on the Floor of the House, and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development have also made it very clear that this seems like a case of ethnic cleansing.
I thank the Minister for his response, but he will be the first to acknowledge that that does not mean that these events have been classified as a crime against humanity. Hopefully we will pursue the Myanmar Government on that.
It is to the credit of Bangladesh and other nations that they have attempted to accommodate and assist the Rohingya refugees. While a repatriation agreement has been made, help and resources to deal with the humanitarian crisis are still urgently needed. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 820,000 Rohingya need urgent support to survive—food, water and medicine. The UN and international aid agencies must be allowed to reach displaced families, and the Foreign Office must maintain pressure on the Burmese authorities to ensure that humanitarian aid gets to Rohingya communities.
This is a human rights crisis as well as a humanitarian crisis, and concerns about rising levels of intolerance in Myanmar remain. I spoke previously in Parliament about the enormous respect that was accorded to the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, by this country during her own struggle for democracy—she of all people should respect the rights of all, especially minorities. It is therefore understandable that human rights groups remain concerned over the repatriation agreement signed last week. Because the Rohingya are not regarded as Burmese citizens by the military, there remains a distinct and serious concern that the generals could still obstruct the repatriation. Kofi Annan’s Rakhine commission recommended that the Rohingya be granted citizenship and freedom of movement. Mr Annan stated:
“This is a critical step for Rakhines and Muslims alike. Only in this way can they break out of the hostility that leads to the violence and despair that has blighted their lives for so long.”
Without citizenship, the Rohingya may still be vulnerable to the discrimination and violence that has been ongoing for decades.
I hope that our Government will take a global lead in finding long-term solutions to achieve lasting peace once violence has ceased and humanitarian access has been put in place, and that they will work with the authorities on the implementation of Kofi Annan’s Rakhine commission recommendations. Before I sit down, let me record the enormous gratitude and respect that I and no doubt all hon. Members feel towards the aid workers and organisations, including the superb humanitarian charity, Khalsa Aid, whose founder, Ravi Singh, lives in my constituency. We are in their debt as they undertake such efforts in circumstances that we can hardly imagine.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate and on her leadership role as a senior member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I thank her for her great kindness and support for me and all other members of the delegation who visited the camp in Kutupalong. It was a lifetime experience—certainly the worst sight that I have ever seen in my life, and I have visited many refugee camps over the years.
There is a feeling of desperation and impotence when we see the scale of this problem—when we look, human being to human being, at a young child carrying an even younger child who is hopelessly paralysed, and when we imagine the depth of suffering of people who have gone through the worst experiences that life has to offer. We cannot see ourselves as having any facile solution to this issue; it is not easy. There is no future in Bangladesh for a million people. We cannot allow the camp to continue, let alone grow, yet that is one of the alternatives. Another alternative—all alternatives are unpalatable—is for people to return to Myanmar. Can that be done? I believe that we should not dismiss it, but we have seen in the eyes of people in the refugee camp their fear about going back. Who could not understand that?
I believe we have a record with our services of brilliant work in creating, defending and protecting peace. That work has been going on for decades. If people do go back, and that is the only practical solution to this crisis, we must guarantee support and be generous enough to provide resources in great quantities, so as to solve this enormous series of tragedies.
What sticks in the mind is not just the individuals, but standing on a high point in the camp and looking out over hills into the distance, and as far as the eye can see, it is all refugee camps. All that many of the refugees have is a piece of tarpaulin and a stick to protect themselves. The horrors are there. This country deserves great credit for the aid that we have given, but despite all the heroic, herculean tasks that we have performed, it is inadequate—pitiful—given the scale of the problem. There is not enough food. The water is contaminated. There is no serious police service there. The dangers of fire and of disease breaking out are ever present.
Although the status quo is intolerable and offends humanity, we must look with intelligence and care towards practical solutions. I am afraid that means considering the return of the Rohingyas, if they wish to return and if we can provide adequate protection for them—
Order. I must call the first Opposition spokesperson, Hannah Bardell.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Please excuse my voice; the cold has reached Livingston, but I will do my best to get through my speech and be heard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate and on a really powerful speech. We were able to hear from all those in the Chamber who have visited Myanmar and seen at first hand the tragedy that is unfolding. It struck me during the hon. Lady’s speech that some of the things being denied to the Rohingya people—food, education, sanitation, water and citizenship—are the very basic needs of human beings, and that we should be and are joining together proudly to stand against what is and appears to be genocide. I appreciate the Minister’s point about the legal language in relation to that and the definitions, but I urge him to look for every avenue possible, to use the utmost imagination and every channel available to him and the Government, to stand up to the regime on behalf of the Rohingya people.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that His Holiness the Pope made a speech in Burma today, yet still could not bring himself to mention the word “Rohingya”? It is not just our Government but the whole world that needs to do more.
Although the hon. Lady and I are in different parties, I agree with her words and sentiments, because language is very important in these situations. However, although our words and our support are very important, we will be judged on our actions. I think that this place is at its best when we are in agreement, and we are in agreement today across all parties and, indeed, all Governments. The Scottish Government pledged in September £120,000 from their humanitarian emergency fund for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for the Rohingya people.
We have seen images of what is unfolding and heard the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) talk about going to the area as a doctor to use her skills to provide support. We are very fortunate that people come to this place with professional skills that they can then use in their role as parliamentarians. I cannot imagine what that is like; I have not been myself, but those who have visited have spoken powerfully about their experiences at first hand. I commend the hon. Lady for the work that she did in her own time to support those who are suffering so terribly.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) spoke about military sanctions and what the Government can do to crack down in that regard. Watching the news recently, we have seen the reporter Alex Crawford, who managed to gain access to a camp. As the world rolls on and Brexit rolls on, some of these stories, some of these issues, fall away into the background. Sadly, we often see only through the lens of our media what is happening, and it is a huge challenge for them to report on it. Some of the experiences captured in the images—of people’s houses being burned and so on—are some of the worst experiences that human beings can possibly have. It is just devastating, so we must pull together and look at all the options available to us.
The return of people to their state will be hugely challenging, but I ask the Minister what practically we can do when we are talking about timescales of five or 10 years. That seems truly incredible. In a world and in countries of plenty such as ours, can we not find solutions and shorten that time? These are such long timescales for people living in such terribly tragic situations.
I know that there are huge challenges in looking to resettle people, which has been considered. I think that Canada has been looking at resettlement options, but are there avenues for the countries in the United Kingdom to give more support in that regard? I would be very interested to hear from the Minister on that front. I know that many other people wish to speak, and my voice is failing me, but I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and I again call on the Government to do everything they possibly can to support the Rohingya people.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) on securing this very important and timely debate. I thank her not just for making her speech, but for taking the time to go to Bangladesh to see the situation of the Rohingya people. I also thank, for giving their time and bringing back their testimony, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Their words have been heard today in the House. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for their excellent speeches.
The humanitarian situation, as the Minister knows better than I do, is extremely serious. He will have heard the many terrible stories about sexual violence. We therefore want to know that the Foreign Office is continuing the excellent initiative of the previous Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in deploying the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict team. I suggest to the Minister that perhaps that needs more resources than it has at the moment.
I am hugely concerned about the unaccompanied children now in the camps. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that those children, living in the dreadful conditions that we have heard about today, are ripe for exploitation by people traffickers? We need to be in there, ensuring that that is not happening.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The risks to the people in the camps, whether of disease or violence, are very significant. The British people have done a great thing in mobilising a lot of resources, and the Government have responded well to that.
I welcome the acknowledgement by the United Nations and the United States Government that this is a case of ethnic cleansing. I am pleased that the Minister has moved on from saying that it looks like ethnic cleansing to saying that it is ethnic cleansing. Clearly we need to look into the legal situation. That means we must have people going into the camps and to Myanmar to find out about the situation. I am talking about qualified, legal experts from the UN. As many hon. Members have said, on both sides of the Chamber, it is extremely important that the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are brought to justice, and the first step is securing the evidence. The Myanmar military continue to deny their responsibility and to deny access, and that must be one of the things that we now make a priority.
Everyone in the Chamber recognises the fantastic generosity of the Bangladeshi people. Notwithstanding that, there are clearly a lot of questions about the proposal to repatriate people from Bangladesh to Myanmar. These are people; they are not cattle to be shunted backwards and forwards across the border. We need to make that absolutely clear. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the conditions in northern Rakhine state are not suitable at the moment for “safe and sustainable returns”.
Hon. Members have spoken about the problems of putting together documentation. It is also vital, if this is to be done in the right way, that it is voluntary repatriation and that people are not forced, with the fear of yet more violence, back across the border. Obviously that means that the UN and the international community need to put resources in to facilitate that situation, probably on both sides of the border, because at the moment the situation is clearly not safe.
The fundamental issue, of course, is that the Rohingya people are not equal under the law in Myanmar and their citizenship is not recognised. Like the hon. Member for St Albans, I think it is regrettable that the Pope was advised that he would inflame the situation if he said that these were Rohingya people. It is basic to people’s identity that they determine that identity themselves and everybody else acknowledges it. I am pleased that Ministers have been calling on the Myanmar Government to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, because only those will give us a sustainable solution and secure the legal status of the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, which has the highest number of stateless people anywhere in the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke about the importance of changing the 1982 citizenship law. That is obviously a crucial part of building a new, safe situation and returning the law in that country to international norms.
Great Britain has an important role to play here. We have an historic involvement with these countries and we have shown our generosity by giving aid, but we have also been the pen-holder at the United Nations in the diplomacy through which the Government have been trying to secure an international consensus on the need for change. If it helps the Minister, I will say on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition that China and Russia should be supporting the British Government’s diplomatic efforts, because it is clear that the UN cannot move on substantively without their agreement. I think that they need to acknowledge their international responsibilities.
Getting the Myanmar Government to acknowledge the rights of the Rohingya people will require a change to the Myanmar constitution. That means it must go through their Parliament with 75% of the vote. That is only going to happen if they feel that they need to do this. We can help them to understand that they do need to do it. This is where the issue of sanctions comes in. I ask the Minister to consider a few further points on sanctions, in line with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). Will the Government join the United States in considering targeted sanctions? Will the Government confirm whether it supports a UN-mandated global arms embargo against Myanmar, comprehensive visa restrictions against the military and their families and associates, and, significantly, halting investment in business with companies owned by the Myanmar military?
This is an extremely difficult situation. I know that the Minister is committed to tackling it as well as is possible. He has been in the region twice. I just want to assure him of our support in facilitating a resolution to this crisis, in both the short and the long term.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me to speak. Having visited Burma last week, for the second time in seven weeks, I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the heartbreakingly appalling situation facing the Rohingya people of Rakhine state and the active work of the UK Government to address it in both Burman and Bangladesh, and in the UN and the international community.
I thank all colleagues for their powerful contributions and testimony, particularly the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). They should rest assured that their words will be heard not just across the road in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but around the globe, as we make the case about what is happening. I am well aware that in Burma people actively listen to what is happening in the UK Parliament, so these are words that will be listened to far afield.
Since military operations began in Rakhine state on 25 August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Many have given heart-wrenching accounts, which I know many have heard, about the human rights abuses, including unspeakable sexual violence, which has been suffered or witnessed in Rakhine. Up to 1,000 people are still crossing that border each and every day. This is a movement of people on a colossal scale, with few parallels in recent times. I accept the point, made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), that this issue with the Rohingya goes back to the formation of the Burmese state, but the sheer scale of it over the past three months has been remarkable.
I pay tribute again to the Government of Bangladesh for the support they have offered the Rohingya. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to open the border and allow the refugees to enter has without doubt saved countless lives. Last Thursday, as has been pointed out, Bangladesh and Burma signed a memorandum of understanding on the return of refugees to Rakhine. We understand that a joint working group will be set up within three weeks, with the aim of commencing the processing of returns within two months.
I want to touch on the UK Government’s position, because I know that there are concerns across the House. We will press for quick progress on the implementation of this bilateral agreement, but we will be absolutely clear that any returns must be safe, voluntary and dignified, and there must be appropriate international oversight. In my view, which I think is shared by many Members here, it is too early even to talk about voluntary returns at this stage. The Rohingya have rightly addressed legitimate concerns about their personal security. The severe restrictions that Amnesty International has described persist. Access to livelihood and humanitarian aid remains insufficient. That was evident to me from the other side of the border when, on my first visit to Burma, I went to a camp in Sittwe that had been set up in 2012, during one of the more recent times of strife.
It is not a life for the people living in that camp; it is barely a subsistence living. They are able to live and eat, they have healthcare and UK aid is able to provide fairly significantly, but it is not a life that anyone can recognise. It was heartbreaking to chat to Rohingya people there who had had businesses and professions, and who were left in limbo for five years, and potentially for many years to come. That option is not satisfactory. It would get people across the border, but the notion of setting up similar sorts of camps for the future for many years to come has to be a non-starter.
The Minister just said that the working group and implementation would start within two months, and that any scheme must be “safe, voluntary and dignified,” but then I think he said that clearly people are not going to return voluntarily. Will he clarify that point?
I am making the point that we want to see people return. I will move on to the important point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) a moment ago. Although the Government are not directly criticising the agreement, our position is that we should be telling both Governments that substantial progress on the ground will be necessary, as well as proper engagement with both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya—if needed—if any Rohingya are to return. We want to see the momentum on this issue. The reason for that—I think it was alluded to earlier—is that if the Rohingya do not return, ruthlessly the Burmese military will have got their way; they will have got what they wanted. That is why, although I accept that we should not dream of forcing Rohingya to return, nor should we do this with such swiftness that they are not secure on the ground.
Equally—this is the slight concern I have with the contribution from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who spoke for the Scottish National party—even to talk about resettlement at this stage plays into the hands of the Burmese military, and I think it is something we should avoid. I understand that she is doing it for the best of humanitarian motives, but realistically at the moment we must try to insist that the Rohingya return to their rightful homeland.
Perhaps the Minister will allude to this shortly, but will there be an international presence? Will we be pushing for an independent security presence to protect them, because otherwise we are expecting the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing to be the ones managing this process?
Absolutely. We will. I am also wary of the idea of having a long-term presence there, rather like what has happened in the middle east where one has an unsustainable position for the longer term, but in the short term we need to have an independent international presence to police this matter.
The UK Government have concluded that the inexcusable violence perpetrated on the Rohingya by the Burmese military and ethnic Rakhine militia appears to be ethnic cleansing—or is ethnic cleansing. The UK has been leading the international response diplomatically, politically and in terms of humanitarian support.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Lady will excuse me, I am wary that I am running out of time and I want to touch on sanctions and other issues that have been raised.
On 6 November we proposed, and secured with unanimous support, the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma in a decade. With this the Security Council made clear its expectations of the Burmese authorities: no further excessive military force; immediate UN humanitarian access; mechanisms to allow voluntary return; and an investigation into human rights violations, including allegations of sexual violence.
Elsewhere in the UN, we are co-sponsoring a UN General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Burma. I note the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) about the importance of China in this situation. Please rest assured that a huge amount of work is going on at the UN to try to bring China on board. I think it would be wrong to overstate China’s leverage on these matters, and there are issues on the Chinese-Burmese border that are nothing to do with the Rohingya, but hon. Members are correct that China has an important role to play. The resolution we are proposing has received the support of 135 member states at the Third Committee. The strong international support for this resolution and the Security Council’s presidential statement send a powerful signal to the Burmese authorities about the military’s conduct and the lasting damage it will do to their international reputation.
May I touch on sanctions, which the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned? We impose our sanctions through the EU, but we must secure the consensus of all member states. At the October EU Foreign Affairs Council, the Foreign Secretary secured agreement to consider additional measures if the situation did not improve. Evidently, it has not. If the Burmese authorities do not heed the call of the 6 November UNSC presidential statement, we will be returning to EU partners to press for agreement on further measures, which could include targeted sanctions along the lines that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred to. But we would want to be clear about what impact they were having on the military’s conduct, as indeed would our EU partners. I pledge to the House that we will be giving very serious consideration to trying to work out the appropriateness of such sanctions, including to try to discover whether there is any property or companies owned by the Burmese military.
I attended the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers meeting in Naypyidaw last Monday and Tuesday and had meetings with the Minister of Defence, Sein Win, the Deputy Foreign Minister, Kyaw Tin, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief of staff, Kyaw Tint Swe. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) will, I hope, be pleased to learn that I did not pussyfoot about. I referred on each occasion to “Rohingya” and got a lecture for my pains in doing so, but we will continue to do so on that basis.
I very much appreciate the Minister giving way. Although I acknowledge that the geopolitics of the region might make it difficult for our Government to speak out against Myanmar, and I appreciate that he was there last week at the same time I was, does he not agree that we stood by and blinked while the Rwandan genocide happened and, given the nature of the crimes against humanity that are currently being committed, while we play around with semantics we risk being bystanders to yet another genocide?
The hon. Lady will be aware that I think of this a great deal. I am very much aware, as we should all be in the international community, that we are faced with a set of problems, and one could argue that they are not dissimilar to what happened in Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Srebrenica, and at various other times. The international community needs to be able to come together, but it needs to do that in a united way, and the only way to do that is through the United Nations, which is why we continue to work tirelessly in that regard.
Any long-term resolution needs to address the issue of citizenship in Burma, as has been said. The report of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State remains central to this, and I welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent establishment of an international advisory board, including Lord Darzi and other respected international political figures, to ensure its implementation. She has publicly committed to implementing the commission’s recommendations, which include reviewing the controversial 1982 citizenship law and making progress on citizenship through the existing legal framework.
The main current impetus continues to be the urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees. The UK is the single largest bilateral donor to the crisis. We have now contributed £59 million, as has been stated, and we are making a material difference. We are providing food for over 170,000 people, 140,000 people with safe water and sanitation, and emergency nutritional support to more than 60,000 vulnerable children under the age of five. On 23 October I represented the UK at an UN-organised pledging conference in Geneva, where through our leadership we were able to get more money. But the reality is that, as has been pointed out, that will take us through only to February, when we will need to go through that process again. More will be needed from us and others, and we will sustain the international leadership role on the humanitarian response to ensure that it happens.
I want to touch on sexual violence. I have already mentioned the horrifying accounts provided by some Rohingya refugees about sexual and gender-based violence. Earlier this month the UN’s special representative on sexual violence visited Bangladesh and heard consistent and harrowing reports of the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, both in the past on the Burmese side of the border and now in the Bangladeshi camps. That clearly needs to stop. The extremely serious conclusions have meant that the UK Government have deployed two civilian experts to Bangladesh. We will obviously review that and whether to increase it to look at the current levels of investigation and documentation of these abhorrent crimes. They will provide us with advice on where the UK can continue to support this vital work. We are committed to ensuring that there is full support for victims and witnesses of these crimes. We need to have accountability, and we are determined that those who have committed human rights violations will be brought properly to account.
I want to thank everyone here for all that they have said. Please rest assured that my door remains open, as the Minister with responsibility in this area. Please feel free to get in touch at any stage if you are able to pass on either more evidence or the strength of the views of many of your constituents. I know that the hon. Member for City of Durham will want to say a few words, so I will sum up.
The UK Government will do our best to maintain a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts, leading the international community’s response to this ongoing catastrophe and pressing Burma to meet urgently the expectations set out in the UN Security Council’s presidential statement. I know that diplomacy has a bad name sometimes, and it is something we have to be very determined to try to work together on. Please be assured that we are doing as much as we can. I wish that we could do more. I wish that this situation could be resolved. I wish that there was more goodwill in that part of the world. The Foreign Office will remain steadfastly determined to ensure, as far as we can, the safe return of the Rohingya people, to ensure access for humanitarian aid and to hold to account those who are responsible for these harrowing crimes.
I want to start by thanking Members from all parties for their powerful and moving contributions this afternoon. Those of us who visited the camps made a commitment to the Rohingya people that we would not just walk away from what we had seen, and that when we came back we would raise the situation that they face and ask for two things: that the humanitarian aid would continue and be stepped up so that their conditions in the camps are made more tolerable; and that we use our role as MPs to put pressure on our own Government and the international community to come to an agreement with Myanmar and solve this problem for the longer term, so that they would be given safe return to Myanmar, that that would be overseen by the international community and, critically, that they would be given citizenship, because that is what they need in the longer term to be able to lead their lives. I thank the Minister for his comments, and we will continue to work with him.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]