[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the International Development Committee, Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis, HC 504, and the Government Response, HC 919; Third Report of the International Development Committee, Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis – monsoon preparedness in Cox’s Bazar, HC 904; Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 20 March 2018, HC 504; First Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2017–19, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, HC 435, and the Government Response, HC 868.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 200224 and 200371, and public petitions P002061, P002064, P002078 and P002104, relating to Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Burma is a tragedy that shames all of us. Their current situation stands as a reproach to the international community, which has proved either unable or unwilling to act as the Burmese Government have violated every international norm of right behaviour. It has tarnished for ever the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once a beacon for those who believe in democracy and human rights. It has led to Bangladesh, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, having to take in a huge number of refugees. Bangladesh accepted more refugees in three weeks than the whole of mainland Europe took from the Mediterranean in a year. That perhaps puts some of our problems into perspective.
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have fled their homes, but the roots of the tragedy were there for a long time for anyone who wished to see. For years, violence has been growing in Rakhine state. By 2013, Human Rights Watch was warning of what it called the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya. In 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Early Warning Project listed the Rohingya as being at risk of genocide, yet it seems that various Governments of the world continue to give the wrong signal to the Burmese Government and military.
We relied too much on the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi. We indicated through our actions, if not our words, that the plight of the Rohingya and their human rights were not something we were terribly concerned about. To give one example, the UK Government funded the 2014 census in Burma to the tune of £10 million. The then Select Committee on International Development expressed its concerns that the Rohingya would not be allowed to take part.
Will my hon. Friend also note that, although representations were made to the UK Government and the United Nations about the census, they accepted the requirement to define Rohingya people as Bengali as part of the census? Our Government failed to take action and withdraw funding from that census.
My hon. Friend brings me on to my next point, which is that the UK Government continued funding even when the Burmese Government were not allowing the Rohingya to be defined as citizens of their own country.
We provided training for the Burmese military in democracy and human rights. Opinions differ on whether that was a good thing, but when I see that 67% of that funding came from the aid budget—money that should go to the poorest people in the poorest countries—it gives me pause. That training continued even as villages were being burned and looted and people were being killed in Rakhine. In fact, it did not cease until September last year. That told the Burmese military and the Burmese Government that we were not that concerned about human rights in their country and that we would do nothing to enforce those rights.
We were not the only ones at fault. In fact, while those villages were being attacked, the head of the Burmese military came to Brussels to give a speech. He toured arms factories in Europe, which again sent the wrong signal. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police outposts and killed 12 soldiers in August last year, the reprisals were swift and brutal. The estimate of the number killed varies between 9,000 and more than 13,000, but there can be no true figures because there is no real humanitarian access to the area.
It is understandable that there will be a reaction to a terrorist act—no one would condone terrorist attacks, particularly given the effect they have on civilians—but a basic principle of military law is proportionality. Has not the response of the military been grossly disproportionate? Along with the involvement of militias, does that indicate a degree of significant state planning waiting for an incident to provide an opportunity and an excuse?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, because the Burmese Government and the Burmese military have been ratcheting up tensions in Rakhine for years, sending more and more troops there. Their response was indeed disproportionate. Some 620,000 people fled their homes, and more are coming every day. There is clear evidence of the use of landmines, rape and the burning of villages. Indeed, we could all see the burned villages on our television screens. Most of those people are now in camps in Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh was very generous in opening its borders, it does not classify the Rohingya as refugees, meaning that they are denied some of their rights under international law, including the right to request resettlement in a third country. As the International Development Committee said in its very moving report, those camps are now at risk from cyclones and the monsoons. The camps are in an area prone to cyclones, but there are no evacuation procedures or shelters. The area around the camps has been deforested for fuel, weakening the ground. The camps are built of very flimsy materials. When the monsoons come, they are likely to overwhelm the sanitation systems in the camps. Sewage will flood the area, causing a health emergency. As the Committee baldly put it, people will die. That is why it is very important that the Government redouble their effort to convince the international community to give more immediate aid to stop that health disaster.
At the same time, we must be clear with the Government of Bangladesh that these people deserve to be recognised as refugees, for that is what they are. Bangladesh is building a new camp—an island camp, which those who saw it on “Channel 4 News” will agree looks much more like a prison camp—with the help of the Chinese. The fear is that they want to make conditions so appalling that the Rohingya will have no alternative but to return home, whether it is safe or not. It is clear that the Bangladeshi Government’s aim is to ensure that the Rohingya are repatriated. That may be a laudable ambition in the long term, but the Rohingya cannot return while violence continues in Rakhine, while they are not recognised as citizens of their own country and while there is no humanitarian access to monitor their return.
The Bangladeshi Government have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Burmese Government about the return of the Rohingya, but no one knows what it contains. While the British Government have rightly said that any return must be “safe, voluntary and dignified”, we need to persuade the whole international community to stick to that, because frankly the Burmese Government’s record on dealing with returnees is appalling. The Rohingya who were displaced earlier are still in camps that are in reality prison camps, which the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs said display
“a level of human suffering…that I have personally never seen before”.
The Burmese Government are now building a new camp with money diverted, it is said, from World Bank aid. It, too, will be a prison camp. Last week, the Bangladeshi Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about returnees, including the right of humanitarian access, but Burma has not signed up to anything like that and there is no indication that it will change its mind.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That will entail the things I have listed: cessation of violence, recognition of citizenship and the right of humanitarian access.
The gender-based violence that has been used by the Burmese military also needs to be dealt with. They use rape as a weapon of war. There have been credible reports of girls as young as five being gang raped; of pregnant women being attacked and the babies cut from them; and of other women seeing their children thrown into a well or into a fire before they too are led away to be gang raped. That is a level of barbarity that the world cannot and must not tolerate. Such barbarity can happen only when other people are seen as less than human. It is not, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s website said, “fake rape”. It is happening. It is a war crime and must be treated as a crime against humanity.
Not only does there seem to be little effort to collect evidence to prosecute those responsible for such crimes, but the health services on offer to the women involved are inadequate. Many of the services are situated in the middle of the camps in public view and are run by men, so women are reluctant to go to them. Few people there speak the women’s language. If we think how difficult it would be to describe a rape even in our own language, it must be much harder to try to describe it to someone who does not speak the same language. The UK rightly funds 13 women’s centres, giving help to more than 10,000 women and girls, but nearly half a million are in need of help, and a greater effort from our partners is needed to meet that need.
There are reports of gender-based violence within the camps and of women and girls being trafficked. It is significant that when Cardinal Bo from Burma and Cardinal D’Rozario from Bangladesh recently came here, they met our anti-slavery commissioner, because they are fully aware of what is going on in the camps. There are also reports of child marriages, sometimes driven by families in such absolute poverty that they can no longer care for their children, and sometimes by a system that gives food aid to family groups rather than to individuals. That piles tragedy upon tragedy for the people involved, and yet we seem to be reluctant to collect evidence of what has happened.
The UK sent two civilians to Bangladesh to advise on how to collect evidence of sexual violence, but where is the rest of the world? Time after time when such things happen, Governments shake their heads and say, “Never again”, but that is not good enough. We said it after Bosnia and after Rwanda. We keep saying it. Neither is it good enough to ask the Burmese military to investigate themselves. They have cleared the army of any crimes, even those we can see on our screens. In the end, the only way to deal with such crimes is to ensure that evidence is collected and that those responsible are brought before a court, because that is the only way to deter people in future.
It seems the world wills the ends but is reluctant to will the means. That is true of crimes against women and girls and also true of the aid given to those in the camps. Only about 34% of the $434 million required has so far been collected. That means that those in the camps are in conditions much worse than what the world generally recognises as suitable for refugees. They are there in high densities with less than 15 square meters a person. By last December a third of the latrines had failed and 90% of domestic water is contaminated with E. coli. There have been campaigns to vaccinate against cholera and measles, for which I am grateful, but diphtheria is now rife in the camps. When the monsoon comes the health crisis will be made worse because people are so closely packed together.
I am proud that this country pledged £47 million at the Geneva pledging conference and then added a further £12 million. People complain about aid, but I am hugely proud of my country when it makes such donations because it recognises common humanity. We must work to ensure that other countries step up. Since the attack in Salisbury we have shown that it is possible to use diplomacy to get our friends and allies to act together. The Government must turn their attention to ensuring that the wealthier countries in the world, those who came to the world humanitarian summit and members of the UN, step up to the plate to avert a tragedy in the camps. The UN must ensure that its agencies work together to provide services.
Indeed, they should; my right hon. Friend is right. One of the things this tragedy teaches us, particularly when we are today talking about Syria, is that there are consequences to acting, but also consequences to doing nothing, and we ought to remember that. We now need to put pressure on Burma to accept an independent investigation into what has gone on in Rakhine. That is urgent because there are already reports that the military are bulldozing villages and destroying the evidence. The International Development Committee has suggested that that could be led by the International Commission on Missing Persons, and that is a good idea. I do not mind who does it, but it has to be done.
How do we put the pressure on? First, I hope that the UK Government will say clearly that it is right that the UN refers Burma to the International Criminal Court. I know it is argued that such a motion would be vetoed by Russia and China, but we need to be unequivocal about our position and we need to build support for it. Secondly, although the EU has imposed an arms embargo, there is no world embargo on selling arms to Burma, which is what we need to work for as a matter of urgency. We also need to take action by imposing sanctions on the Burmese military and members of the Burmese Government. Simply freezing their assets will not cut it, I am afraid; they do not have many assets here. However, making sure that firms could not work with firms controlled by the Burmese military would help. We need to do that along with saying that there will be no return for the Rohingya until conditions are safe, and until the recommendations of the Annan advisory commission have been implemented and there is full humanitarian access for the UN and other organisations.
In the longer term, the world needs to learn the lessons of this conflict. It is very easy to say, “Never intervene—never do anything”, but, as I said, there are consequences to doing nothing. If we watch while a particular ethnic group is targeted and violence increases, and we do nothing, we become complicit in that violence.
I end by explaining why we should be concerned about people half a world away: because they are human, as we are. As Cardinal Bo said:
“They are among the most marginalised, dehumanised and persecuted people in the world. They are treated worse than animals. Stripped of their citizenship, rejected by the neighbouring countries, they are rendered stateless. No human being deserves to be treated this way”.
They do not, and if we believe in common humanity, we should continue to do our bit to ensure that those responsible are brought to account, and make every effort to persuade our allies around the world to do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, and on her powerful advocacy, which I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated. She went through so many of the important aspects of this terrible situation.
It is a shame that more people are not here today— I know they would have been ordinarily, because every time this subject is raised in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber lots of people want to speak, get involved, share their views and keep the pressure on the Burmese Government. However, we all understand the situation in Syria at the moment. It is absolutely right that that terrible situation is being debated in the Chamber.
The situation faced by the Rohingya has been going on for many years. Kutupalong camp is the biggest camp in Bangladesh. It is now effectively Bangladesh’s fourth biggest city, because of how the camps have come together and how many people are there. It has been there for 30 years. My first question when I was elected to this place was about the Rohingya community. At that point, they were being pushed out into the sea and were making terrible boat trips.
In September last year, after the latest escalation, I was one of the first Members to go to the Kutupalong camp. I remember coming back and wanting to share the voices of the people I had met, and tell their stories, because I knew that world events would overtake what is going on in a part of the world that is relatively unknown to the west. I remember thinking at the time that something else was bound to happen in Syria that would take the world’s attention away from Burma and the Rohingya community, and indeed that is exactly what we risk letting happen. This is therefore a really opportune, important debate. Despite the fact that few of us are here, I know that the contributions will be well received by those who have been campaigning for so long for those people whose voices we cannot hear—the 680,000 people who are languishing in terrible conditions in Bangladesh, and the few who are left in Burma.
I have spoken in this place about what I saw in September 2017. The Burmese Government have called these people terrorists, but I have spoken at length about the 60-year-old woman I met who was dead behind the eyes after telling me about how her son-in-law had been stabbed and dragged away. Her 12-year-old grandson had been beheaded in front of her. Others had their genitals chopped off and their villages burned. People had gun wounds in the backs of their legs. People were describing how helicopters had been chasing them, and firing just behind them to push them across the border.
The hon. Member for Warrington North mentioned landmines. We saw videos of the landmines that had been planted, and we could track exactly where they were, because in the video that was shown to us we could see where we were standing. A lady had had her leg blown off just four days before. This is really gruesome stuff and one of the toughest things I have had to see, listen to and speak about. These people have suffered in ways that I, frankly, cannot imagine, but I must press on, as we all must, to share these stories.
As the hon. Lady said, in Kutupalong camp the people have found the one part of Bangladesh that has some hills. Bangladesh is a low-lying country, but because of its forestland the camp is on sloping ground. It has all been deforested. Effectively, a population the size of Liverpool is on an area 5 km by 5 km. The trees that were there have all been taken away; the land is just a series of mudbanks. When I was there, we spent an hour and a half walking through the camp, but we did not get anywhere near the end of it. We could not see the end, the camp is that big.
The rainy season is nearly upon us again, so we have gone full cycle. When I was in the camp recently with the International Development Committee, things had improved. There is now a registration camp with proper UN canvas tents where people can settle in, register, tell their story, be documented and get the vaccinations that they need. However, they then move over to the bigger camp, where there is still plastic sheeting, bamboo sheets and such things. The risk is of further landslides that will take their homes away from them.
Roads had also been built. Bricks had been broken up and hardcore laid. What had taken me 20 or 30 minutes to walk through now took me only five minutes, because the roads had improved that much. However, again, the person who was in charge of building the roads told us at length that when the rain comes it will all be washed away. All the work that has happened over the last six months is at risk of being undone by just one or two monsoons. That is before we even get to the cyclones. If the cyclones come, there will be severe devastation. Save the Children reckons that about 120,000 to 200,000 people will be affected. Many lives will be lost, and it is not a matter of if lives will be lost, but of when and how many. Unfortunately, this is now about mitigation, not elimination.
I am full of admiration for the Bangladeshi Government for what they have taken on. This is a country of 180 million people. During the Bangladeshi war of independence, just 47 years ago, so many of them were in refugee camps. It was Bangladeshi independence day just a few weeks ago. I could see how raw the emotion was for them as they told the story of their war of independence and the suffering that they went through. It is no surprise that they are so welcoming and so open to people going through the same process.
We need to work with the Bangladeshi Government to do more. The area that the Rohingya are in at the moment is far too small. We need to work out how we can encourage the Bangladeshi Government to disperse people. As the hon. Member for Warrington North said, if the Rohingya were treated as refugees they would have a right to stay and would be able to disperse through the country. The Bangladeshi Government are not too keen on that, because they expect to come to an agreement with the Rohingya people, and for them to move back to their homeland.
Originally, that is what many of the Rohingya I met wanted to do. However, the second time I went, I got a sense that there was a hardening of opinion among the people in the camps. Previously, they were really hoping that the world was coming to their aid, and that we might be able to reach a solution. As long as it was safe, they would go back to Myanmar and build a new life for themselves. I got that sense from the people I spoke to the second time around of a hardening of opinion, and, unfortunately, they do not see a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Burmese Government have started to change and make some moves under public pressure, but that is clearly nowhere near enough and they are failing to tackle the underlying issues. The Rohingya need surety; they must have the sense that they can stay. When they get back to Myanmar, they need freedom of movement, access to work and the ability to make a livelihood. Bear in mind that their villages and homes have all been destroyed, and I dare say that there has also been some land grabbing—other people have moved in and taken the best of what was theirs. The personal safety of the Rohingya must absolutely be guaranteed, but I get the sense that they feel it is drifting further away. To get all those things, they need a pathway to citizenship.
When I first went to Burma in February 2016, I went through the country, including states other than Rakhine, talking about religious freedom and ethnic conflict. Many of the people I met had been in prison—it was a self-selecting audience, I suppose—and it seemed that there was a flat rate of 14 years for political sentencing. The shortest sentence I came across was seven years, and the only reason that woman—an amazing lady called Wai Wai Nu—had been in prison for seven years was that she was only 29. She is a Rohingya, and her father had been a Member of Parliament in Burma.
Imagine that—we are all Members of Parliament in this place, but within just a few years, that man was not only not a Member of Parliament, but was not able to stand for election. He cannot even vote or secure the basic rights to health and education for his family. His whole family was put in prison. What a change in a country in which we had—and I hope still have, although this is in the far distance at the moment—such high hopes. I have talked many times in this place about my Burmese heritage. My father was born there, so I am half-Burmese, and it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on in that wonderful country.
Will the Minister talk about his sense of what the Burmese Government are doing, even if it is in name only, to open up the visits that are allowed at the moment? In a recent speech, the new President, U Win Myint, talked about the rule of law and ethnic conflict, but he did not get anywhere near getting to grips with this situation.
I know this is a controversial issue; I talk about it here and in many other places. The week before last, I was lecturing at the Britain-Burma Society, an institution made up of expat Burmese—the Burmese diaspora here—including a lot of experts and academics. The issue is controversial with the Burmese diaspora here, never mind the people who are living to the parochial, closed news cycle in Burma, which transmits the hate speech of Wirathu, the nationalist Buddhist monk who heads Ma Ba Tha—a particularly pernicious group of Buddhists, which started a popular uprising.
People in Burma are largely behind pushing the Rohingya out, and as far as they are concerned, the Rohingya are not Burmese; they are Bangladeshis or Bengalis. People use disparaging names, calling them Bengalis and refusing to accept the fact that the Rohingya are a discrete community. I do not believe for a minute that they appreciate, know about or accept our description of the violence, mutilations, rapes and killings or the burning of villages that we report on. They say it is just western propaganda, but it is well documented. The Minister has been to Cox’s Bazar and spoken to people, and I have seen and smelled the smoke of the burning villages.
Is the hon. Gentleman also concerned about how social media has been used for years, but especially last year? A recent report in The Guardian, based on analysis by Raymond Serrato, showed that the level of incitement to violence and hate on platforms such as Facebook is unprecedented.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government need to take a broader international approach to how we monitor the activities of social media platforms, both in the UK and elsewhere, to prevent extremist groups from promoting acts of genocide and violence?
I totally agree with the hon. Lady about the use of social media, which whips things up so quickly. I will leave it to the Minister to comment on what more the Government can do about the wider issue she raises. I am fortunate that I do not get anywhere near the level of abuse that other Members get on social media—especially female MPs—but I do get it every now and again from Burmese nationalists, and from Sri Lankans when I talk about Sri Lankan human rights. It is interesting that we get it from the other side of the world. As the hon. Lady says, the speed with which these things flow on social media is incredible, so it is difficult to tackle them.
I talked earlier about what the Burmese Government are doing. Also, seven Burmese soldiers were found guilty of murdering 10 Rohingya and got 10 years’ hard labour, but that is an imperfect approach. The two Reuters journalists who discovered the massacre that relates to the sentence have themselves been arrested. They have been in custody for four months so far and they face a full trial, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. How can it be that while the Burmese Government are carrying out show trials and putting a few people in prison—we are all desperate for them to open up transparency—two people who are just doing their job incredibly well and bravely are held up to the Burmese people as enemies of the state? That cannot be right. Effectively, the crime of those 10 soldiers was not murdering people; it was getting caught.
One of the petitions talks about the need to have hard-hitting financial sanctions. I must declare an interest: I am trade envoy to Burma. I think we need targeted sanctions. We must look at the military, because the commander-in-chief could stop this tomorrow if he so decided—if he called off the dogs and appreciated that the Rohingya are human beings with a right to stay in the place they have called home for decades, if not hundreds of years. We must target our sanctions carefully on the military and military-owned organisations, but an overall sanctions regime targeted on Burma would risk impoverishing people in other parts of the country, such as Kachin state and northern Shan state, where there is the risk of ethnic conflict opening up again. There have recently been air strikes in those states, so other people are suffering. None the less, the international community must come down as a whole on the escalation in violence in Rakhine state.
I am also trade envoy to Thailand and Brunei. I can go to those countries to further economic interests, and we can talk about what we can sell and buy, but there is no way we can do that in Burma at the moment. We need to talk about economic development, which is one of the pathways to showing Burma what it means to be a true part of the international community. Let us not have that country yet again close in on itself and go back to being reliant on China for its economy. In 2016, when I spoke to members of the Government and to civil society, they knew that relying on the Chinese economy was a very short-term view: it is soft loans, it is all about the money and there is no lasting interest in the country. Britain and other countries tend to have a lasting legacy: knowledge transfer and the building of secondary industries, which create jobs and prosperity. Hopefully, such moves can help the country—it is about the carrot, not the stick.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government need to be very clear about who we trade with? By all means, our businesses can trade, but they need to trade in an environment that respects human rights and is ethical, and they must not do business with the military. The military has huge interests in companies in that country. Does he agree that the Minister should look at whether there is such trade going on with our businesses in Burma and that, where there is, we need to take action to make sure that we are not complicit? For too long, our Government have bent over backwards, been willing to relinquish sanctions and did not use our leverage when we had those sanctions back in 2012. We need to make sure that that does not happen again.
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more about the need to target properly and to make sure that those businesses are not trading with military-owned companies. That is the big difference between economic development and trade. A Burmese trade delegation came here—funnily enough, on the day that I returned from Bangladesh. I went to see them and I said to them, “This is what I have just seen.” The people in this country who might want to invest over in Burma know only two things about Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi and Rohingya Muslims. That is all they ever hear about in the press. There is no diaspora of any size over here that will champion Burmese interests, to tell them the other side of the story. Burmese businesspeople and Burmese Ministers—be they the Minister for commerce, construction or whatever—all have a vested interest in human rights in the rebuilding of their country, way before we even get to the point of asking, “Are you human yourself? Are you complicit in the suffering of 680,000 people who have been driven across the border into Bangladesh?” There are lots of practical reasons—it comes back to the carrot and the stick.
We need to take an holistic view of Burma, looking at each ethnic state and its economic development. We need to call upon the international community to do everything it can and make sure that the Burmese Government are continuingly put under pressure. I get the idea that they are starting to realise who will be held responsible when the rainy season starts and we start getting reports of deaths. Now is the time for us to redouble our efforts and make sure that they are doing something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening the debate and for comprehensively summarising the issues faced by the Rohingya people and what our Government need to do. I thank the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for his contribution. We have been working closely together to make sure that our Government provide support in the refugee crisis and to make representations at international level for more concerted action.
The Minister started his brief within days of the attacks that led to the displacement of more than 600,000 people. I am grateful to him for his time and effort in making sure that our Government’s response is stepped up. No disrespect to his predecessors, but since he has been in post, he has taken much more time in the House to report to and work with us, and to continue to highlight the plight of the Rohingya people who have been displaced internally and into Bangladesh.
As the co-chair of the all-party group, for years I have been aware of the systematic mistreatment and discrimination that the Rohingya people have endured for decades. One of the first things I came across when I was elected in 2010 was a representation from a campaign group in my constituency highlighting the persecution of the Rohingya population in Rakhine state. Many campaigning organisations, from Burma Campaign to Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, Oxfam and others have campaigned for years to highlight the treatment of the Rohingya population and of other minorities in Myanmar, ahead of the transition towards democracy. In the rush to the transition towards democracy that we all wanted, they warned our Government and the international community not to remove all sanctions outright and end up with little leverage over what we all knew would be a Government in which the Burmese military still had a dominant hand. Sadly, that warning went unheeded.
As campaigners across the House working together, we found that our Government and other Governments took too long to take the issue seriously and to make representations to prevent what happened both in 2013 and last year. In total, 1 million people have been displaced and have sought refuge in Bangladesh. It is not that our Government and other Governments could not see what was coming, but that they were too slow to see the warning signs and to listen to organisations working on the ground, trying to ensure that the warnings were taken seriously.
It is deeply saddening that it takes genocide and the ethnic cleansing of the scale that we have seen before our Government step up to the plate and take an international leadership role. Although I am grateful, like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, that our Government have given international aid to help those who have been displaced internally and into Bangladesh, we need to do much more. We need to make sure that this crisis is not forgotten in the context of the refugee crises faced by millions of people around the world, not least the Syrian crisis—there are more than a million people in Lebanon, more than a million people in Turkey and also in Jordan, which I have visited.
The international community is under huge pressure. Historically, our Government have had a proud record of leading the way and making sure that we support the efforts of countries that have to host refugees. Bangladesh is an emerging economy with some of the highest poverty levels in the world, which requires support from our aid project, and has to host a million refugees. That is of an unimaginable scale that our country would struggle to cope with—Europe struggled to cope with it—yet countries such as Bangladesh, Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan have to.
It is right that we continue to support our aid budget. If we do not resist the temptation to succumb to certain wings of the British media that are trying to undermine our aid efforts, our capacity to help those countries to cope with the refugee crises would be even more limited.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady on the aid budget. It is important that we recognise that not all projects we give aid to will necessarily provide full value, whatever that may or may not mean. There is inevitably risk involved in any aid package. Aid is not a business, but we need to recognise that aspects of the business world apply to it. In other words, politicians sometimes need to take risks. I have no problem standing here or in the main Chamber and saying that we will take risks and that some aid money will not derive the benefits we hoped for at the outset. That should not dissuade us from doing the right thing.
I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention. I hope that other Ministers, particularly in the Department for International Development, are absolutely confident and resolute in defending the aid budget, because it saves lives. Our contributions have saved millions of lives, lifted millions of people out of poverty and helped post-conflict societies to grow into thriving economies.
Of course—I will come to that and the role our Government can continue to play. Although our Government have made generous contributions, we need other countries to do the same. In total, around $1 billion is required to support just the 1 million affected people in Bangladesh. We cannot expect a developing country to cope with that huge cost. There needs to be international support, and I hope Britain continues to play an international leadership role to ensure that that happens.
Others spoke about the important role that the people and the Government of Bangladesh have played in hosting close to 1 million people who have been forced out of Myanmar into Bangladesh in appalling circumstances. More than 600,000 were displaced last September, and hundreds of thousands were displaced following previous attacks led by the Burmese military. I echo the point that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made about the response of the Bangladeshi population. I am of Bangladeshi heritage. I am acutely aware that the Bangladeshi public’s reaction has been positive because they have direct experience of seeking refuge in India during the 1971 war of independence. Many have experience of being internally displaced. Many of my constituents, and people across the country in other Members’ constituencies, also raise money to help, because that connection is well felt. However, this is not a sustainable situation for an emerging economy that itself has a high level of poverty, which is why it is so important that we step up and take urgent humanitarian action.
As Members have pointed out, the monsoon season is imminent. Leaving aside the refugee crisis, Bangladesh often faces huge floods, during which half and sometimes two thirds of the country is underwater. It copes relatively well, but it is not able to cope with 1 million refugees who are not in decent accommodation. Its systems are not geared up to cope. The international community therefore must work hard to ensure that the Government of Bangladesh is open to help from international non-governmental organisations as well as domestic ones to scale up support, which is urgently required, and that in return Bangladesh gets the humanitarian assistance and funding that it requires. The situation is urgent. Lives will be lost—there will be a double catastrophe—if we do not act quickly to ensure that the Government of Bangladesh, with the support of international partners, are prepared for the monsoon season.
This week we host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Although Burma is not a member of the Commonwealth, Bangladesh is, and other countries in the region have a vested interest in solving this crisis and ensuring that the situation does not get worse. I therefore hope the Minister can explain what representations our Government will make and what they will do to facilitate discussion not just with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh but with other Commonwealth Governments that can help to achieve a more positive result than the one we have now.
I could not agree more. I hope the Minister will tell us what discussions he has had—and what discussions the Foreign Secretary has had, if he has had any—and the outcomes of those discussions. I hope the Minister will also explain what practical outcomes he and fellow Ministers have got from the European Council. He reported back to the all-party group, but some of the things that were reported were disappointing. I hope that he has persevered since that discussion, and that he has something more positive to tell us, particularly in relation to the arms embargo.
Although we have an EU arms embargo, our Government have not pushed for an international UN-mandated embargo. Will the Minister explain why not, and what he will do to try to get an international agreement? A number of countries—China, Russia, India, Ukraine and, until the end of last year, Israel—continue to sell arms to the Burmese Government, and there are reports that they did so even during the period of the attacks that displaced so many people. I hope the Minister recognises the urgent need to prevent the sale of arms, given that the military does not respect human rights despite Burma’s transition, albeit imperfect, to democracy. The international community continues to allow arms to be sold.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described what is happening to the Rohingya people as a military campaign in which
“you cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed”.
The UN team stated:
“Brutal attacks against Rohingya…have been well-organised, coordinated and systematic”.
It added that the violence by the Burmese military has been perpetrated
“with the intent of not only driving the population out of Myanmar but preventing them from returning to their homes”.
A February 2017 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed the serious human rights violations committed by Burma’s security forces, including mass gang rape, killings, including of babies and young children, and brutal beatings and disappearances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said:
“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable—what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her”.
We must arrest and prosecute not just those who perpetrated that horrific violence but those who gave the orders.
It is encouraging that Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, has asked for a ruling on whether the mass deportations constitute a crime against humanity. The International Criminal Court should rule in favour of an investigation and begin proceedings. I call on the UK Government to do all they can for that to happen.
I hope the Minister addresses the recent development of the forced exclusion—deportation—of the Rohingya population into Bangladesh. As I stated earlier, we must ensure that the Burmese military Government are put under significant pressure, with both sanctions on the military and targeted economic sanctions on their interests as well as a UN-mandated arms embargo.
I hope the Minister heeds the warnings of over 100 parliamentarians who wrote to the Foreign Secretary calling on the UK Government to make a referral to the International Criminal Court. I recognise what he said on the act of making a referral, as other countries have done—because Burma is not a signatory, it needs to self-refer—but given the UK’s position and historical and unique responsibility to Myanmar as a former colonial power, we have a leadership role to play and we should hold the Burmese military to account for committing crimes against humanity, and certainly for committing ethnic cleansing and genocide, according to the United Nations.
I appeal to the Minister to continue the effort to ensure that the Burmese military are held to account and that the International Criminal Court referral takes place in whichever way is possible. Frankly, it is not good enough to revert to saying, “It is not possible for these reasons.” I want to know how he will make it possible. When the Burmese military are put under pressure —to ensure that action was taken, we put them under pressure through that correspondence with our Foreign Secretary, the Government and other Governments on the referral, and they had negative publicity—they finally feel the heat and start to pay attention.
I hope the Government start to take action on those grounds to hold the Burmese military to account. Otherwise, once again, the international community, including our Government, will have allowed them to get away with ethnic cleansing and genocide, and that is not acceptable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on opening this debate and her excellent contribution. The ongoing situation of the Rohingya is devastating, to say the least. For almost all of my life I have been hearing about Rohingya refugees. When I was a child in Pakistan in the ’60s, I heard about tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees coming to Karachi. When I served in the European Parliament, again there was the same situation, and resolutions were passed in that Parliament. Now, as I serve here as a Member of Parliament, again we see horrific suffering. The scale of the violence is unprecedented. It has rightly been said that it is genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Sadly, the world’s response has not matched the gravity of the situation. The Burmese Government must cease human rights violations and forced displacement of the Rohingya. If they do not, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s December report sets out sensible proposals for the British Government to scale up their actions.
The UK has a historical relationship with Burma, and we owe it to them to step up and lead on this. The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting gets under way in London today, so will the Minister provide urgent assurances that the British Government will step up their efforts to galvanise international support for a robust regime of sanctions on the Burmese? We rightly applaud financial aid for refugee camps in Bangladesh, but that will bring little comfort as refugees face the prospect of monsoon floods endangering encampments and worsening camp conditions.
The Government have supported a UN advisory committee investigating atrocities committed against the Rohingya, but they have not supported referring the Rohingya crisis to the International Criminal Court. They insisted that
“there is no consensus in support of an ICC referral within the UN Security Council”
but that should not prevent them from leading the charge to build and secure a consensus. They can start by building momentum among UN Assembly members at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this week.
I apologise for joining the debate late; I have been in the Chamber for the statement on Syria. However, I wanted to contribute— as you will know, Mr Hanson, I presented one of the petitions here for debate on behalf of my constituents. I must tell the House that there is strong feeling in my constituency about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and that my constituents, across all communities and all faiths, have been keen to present their concerns. They will be appreciative of the decision to hold this debate.
I want to make a few points of particular concern on behalf of my constituents. First, I support my hon. Friends in urging the Government to do all they can to bring these matters to the attention of the International Criminal Court and international mechanisms for judgment and justice. It is not enough to say that because Burma will not wish to do that and is not a signatory, we cannot find a mechanism to ensure that those who perpetrate such appalling war crimes are held to account.
Secondly, the situation that obtains in the camps is of considerable concern. My constituents are aware of the appalling conditions that the refugees are living in and of the violence—in particular, the threat of sexual violence —and trafficking taking place in the camps. The horror for those refugees of being forced to flee their land has been compounded by the vulnerability and atrocities they experience there.
While the Government of Bangladesh are to be commended for welcoming and accommodating people fleeing the abhorrent atrocities in Myanmar, they must do more to facilitate international aid agencies to come into the camps to offer support to those there. It is also not right that we should leave the Bangladesh Government in a position where they now seek either to repatriate or to place elsewhere some of those refugees in conditions that would be no more humane or safe for them. We as an international community have a particular obligation to provide support to the Bangladesh Government properly to look after those refugees in Bangladesh on the understanding that it is not in any way possible for them to be repatriated to Myanmar in the circumstances that obtain now and that, as far as we can see, will do so for a long period to come.
My hon. Friends have talked of the appalling atrocities that have been suffered: the massacre—genocide, as many seek to characterise it—experienced by the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As has been mentioned, they are appalled and outraged by the treatment of babies and children who have been tortured and murdered, and the horror as parents have been forced to stand by and watch the slaughter of their children. They call on Parliament, at the very least, to continue to bear witness and speak out to condemn such atrocities and to ensure that, in an appalling, complicated world where we are dealing with more and more challenging conflicts, the one we are considering is not forgotten and lost. There is a fear that that is what may happen.
I apologise for arriving late to the debate and for being able to make only a brief speech on behalf of my constituents, who, I know, regard the situation as extremely distressing and appalling, and who have strong fellow feeling for the Rohingya Muslims; but I am grateful for the opportunity to bring their concerns before the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as ever, Mr Hanson. I begin by thanking those who initiated and signed the petitions that have brought this hugely important issue to Parliament today, and thanking the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her eloquent and informative speech. From what I have heard today, all of us in this Chamber feel very moved, and we are passionate about continuing to campaign on the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and, now, in Bangladesh.
As I stand here, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh, and 700,000 of them have done so since August—in a period of only eight months. Those people have arrived with virtually nothing, and they have fled unspeakable levels of violence. They continue to arrive. What they have witnessed is truly horrific. We have already heard about Government soldiers stabbing babies and throwing them into fires in the middle of villages, and gang-raping girls. We have heard about infants being beaten to death with spades, and about soldiers burning entire families to death in their homes and rounding up dozens of unarmed male villagers and summarily executing them. We have also heard that those fortunate enough to flee the villages face landmines at the border, as they seek to get away from what they have experienced and to reach Bangladesh.
The UN branded the Burmese Government’s actions “textbook” ethnic cleansing, but that was polite, to say the least. Many of us, in the Chamber and outside it, are beginning to see it clearly as genocide. Five hundred people a week are still fleeing and making the journey to Bangladesh. Almost eight months on from the start of the Rohingya crisis, Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military—the commander in chief—has still paid no price for overseeing the atrocities that are taking place.
If we look at the history, there is growing evidence that the Burmese army did not simply respond, as it claimed, to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks in August 2017, but that it had been preparing for a brutal and disproportionate assault on the Rohingya during the months beforehand—for example, by mobilising and arming local Buddhist vigilante groups. That comes as no surprise to many, because for decades successive regimes and Governments in Burma have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan state. Stripped of their Burmese citizenship in 1982 and subjected to shockingly discriminatory laws and practices, the minority Muslim Rohingya community in Burma has been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Under the Government of President Thein Sein from 2011 to 2016, human rights violations against the Rohingya sharply escalated, as he attempted to use Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim prejudice in the country to win public support.
The current Government of Burma, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, continue to implement laws and policies that discriminate against the Rohingya and are designed to drive them out of the country, including starvation, harassment, and intimidation. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly failed to condemn the violence against the Rohingya Muslims. In fact she can barely bring the word “Rohingya” to her lips. I welcome the news that the military has taken some action against some for their role in the massacre. Seven soldiers have, as we heard earlier, been sentenced to
“10 years in prison with hard labour in a remote area”
for participating in a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men. However, journalists are being prosecuted for investigating actions with longer sentences. Two Reuters journalists investigating the massacre were arrested in December and are behind bars awaiting trial. In January there were also clashes between the security forces and Buddhist Rakhine protesters opposed to improving Rohingya rights. Allegations of human rights abuses continue and the situation in Rakhine state remains highly volatile. To date, the Burmese authorities have refused to co-operate with UN human rights officials trying to conduct investigations, refusing them permission to enter the country.
In Bangladesh, the crisis is on an enormous scale. The speed and number of refugee arrivals—the fastest refugee displacement since Rwanda—would test the capacity of any nation. Bangladesh has shown generosity in opening its borders to the Rohingya and its response to the crisis should be commended. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned that conditions in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state
“are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns”
of refugees, and many Rohingya refugees worry that if they are repatriated from Bangladesh, they will be held in the camps with no rights or citizenship, and under constant threat of renewed military attack. In the camps the misery continues—not directly from the Burmese military but from malnutrition, cholera and other diseases.
The need for collective action is made even more acute by the impending monsoon season, without which the situation has the potential to spiral out of control. When I say it is impending, I mean in the next few weeks. I and some colleagues from the International Development Committee visited Cox’s Bazar six weeks ago and saw the conditions in which Rohingya refugees live. Despite the best efforts of NGOs and the Government of Bangladesh, refugees still live in makeshift shelters built only of bamboo and tarpaulins. Many of the shelters are precariously positioned on land carved into sandy, deforested hillsides. Basic services including clean water, sanitation and healthcare remain inadequate.
As outlined in the Committee’s latest report, before the monsoon season the conditions were dangerous. Now they provide the ingredients for a potential catastrophe. Rain will produce mudslides and flooding in the camps in Cox’s Bazar. An estimated 100,000 people are at risk—more than the total population of my constituency —and those people need to be relocated to safer ground. Efforts are under way to move some people to higher ground, but currently they are inadequate. Basic services are also at risk. A third of health facilities and nutrition centres could be lost, which will increase outbreaks of disease, and particularly water-borne diseases: cholera, typhoid, malaria and gastroenteritis, to name a few. It will put the lives of the 60,000 women reported to be pregnant, and their babies, at risk. We must ensure that emergency action is taken to prevent a further humanitarian disaster during the monsoon season, otherwise many people will die.
The UK has been and continues to be a leading figure in the response in Bangladesh, having given £59 million to the global response. All of us in this Chamber welcome that, but money alone will not solve the immediate crisis. The UK should urge the Government of Burma to allow unhindered access to all parts of Rakhine state, as well as Kachin and Shan states, for international humanitarian aid, human rights monitors and media, and to co-operate fully with the fact-finding mission established by the Human Rights Council, allowing its investigators unrestricted access to all areas in the country.
It is imperative that the UK Government exercise every means available to stop the persecution of Rohingya by the Myanmar military and Government. The decisions by the United Kingdom to suspend training programmes for the military, and by the EU to suspend visits by senior military personnel from Burma to Europe, are welcome. The UK should now put pressure on the UN Security Council to explore all avenues to bring the perpetrators of heinous crimes under international law to justice, and to seek a resolution imposing a global arms embargo on the Burmese army, with targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—particularly a global arms embargo. Carefully targeted sanctions against the military will send a powerful message.
The UK Government must act alongside the wider international community and continue to call on the Government of Myanmar to stop the violence immediately and to take robust action against hate speech, discrimination and incitement. There must be a clear message to all stakeholders—civil society, ethnic nationalities, religious communities and the military—to come together, put aside past hatreds, seek political dialogue, recognise and defend the basic human rights and dignity of all, and seek genuine peace with justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I commend the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who clearly set out the issues—the history and the main matters that need to be addressed. She reminded us all of the terrible situation faced by the Rohingya and the great urgency of the need to tackle it, both the immediate humanitarian crisis and the underlying political issues. It is significant that we have six petitions from the public that have triggered today’s debate, showing that the British people are extremely concerned about the fate of the Rohingya and that they will not be forgotten.
Colleagues have said that the monsoon is coming. My understanding is that the United Nations and non-governmental organisations last month issued a new call for a larger aid programme of $951 million. I would be grateful if the Minister reported on how that appeal is going and how much of that money has been raised.
Many of us are concerned about the proposal to put some of the refugees on the island of Bhashan Char. Will the Minister also give an update on that and tell us what representations he has made to the Bangladeshis about it? Of course, we all appreciate that the Bangladeshis are in an extremely difficult situation. Bangladesh is a very poor country, in receipt of aid itself, and it has had an overwhelming number of refugees to deal with, but the international community must look at whether this is the best way to deal with the immediate crisis.
The hon. Gentleman is extremely well informed and makes a useful contribution to the debate and our understanding of this matter. I am grateful to him for that intervention.
Hon. Members have spoken about gender-based violence and the rape and abuse of women and children. It is clear that that is part of the Myanmar military’s strategy. Its strategy has been to kill the men from the villages and then rape the women and children. That is not some soldiers who are out of control; it is clearly a thought-through approach to terrorise the Rohingya people. We have debated that over the last eight months and we have repeatedly asked Ministers how many of our experts in dealing with sexual violence and trauma have been sent to Cox’s Bazar. I think I have asked the Minister about it four times now. He wrote me a long, very informative letter on 27 March, but he still has not told us how many of our experts have been sent to support the victims.
When the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, announced that Foreign Office initiative, everyone was extremely pleased that we would have the capacity to deal with that kind of violence as crises arose. We have 70 people who can do that work, but the latest number the Minister gave us was that two people are there. I would like to have from the Minister today an update on that number.
If I may, I will give the number now, not least because the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) also pointed it out. We have now deployed four members of the UK Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative response team of experts directly to Cox’s Bazar, most recently the additional two members in March who are delivering training in evidence-gathering for local partners on the ground. I appreciate that, compared to the large number of 70, not all of whom are specialist experts in the field, that seems like a small number. We are trying to get some more training on the ground with other NGOs and the like. At the moment, we regard this as a reasonable level; obviously, we would like to be able to deploy more and we will deploy as many as we feel is appropriate in this particular case. One of the issues at stake, which the hon. Lady raised earlier, is trying to get as much testimony as possible to hold people to account.
I am sorry, but I do not think it is acceptable to send four people. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North pointed out that 13 women’s centres have been set out and that the British effort can help 10,000 people. We have that resource for a purpose; let us now deploy it in significant numbers, because it will make a significant difference not just in helping people to cope with this trauma, but in bringing to justice those who perpetrated the crimes and those who ordered them. It is central to that. My hon. Friend said that we should learn the lessons, but we will not get people in other wars to learn the lessons unless, on previous occasions, those responsible have been brought to book. We can bring them to book only by putting in the resource to secure the testimony. I could not urge the Minister more strongly than I do now to increase that resource.
One of the lessons of previous conflicts is the very long-tail implications for people’s mental health. The trauma does not end with the crisis, but sits with them for decades afterwards. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful to know whether our Government can help to train partners on the ground to provide that long-term mental health and psychotherapeutic support as well?
I think that is what the Government are doing, but given that we have the resource, we should deploy it on a much greater scale.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) spoke about the CHOGM conference this week. CHOGM is an opportunity for Ministers to do two things: encourage our Commonwealth partners to put money toward the $951 million and build support for stronger action in the UN. I would like to know what is going to happen at CHOGM this week to strengthen that process.
Last week, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I went to New York and had some meetings at the UN. We saw the person on the Myanmar desk, and I understood from her that the UN Security Council itself intends a visit to the region. That should be useful, because it should be an opportunity to build, among a wider group of nations, some sense of the enormity and seriousness of the crisis and the reasons we want it to go up the UN agenda. The UN secretariat also explained to us that the UN is trying to appoint a special envoy.
One block to progress has been the fact that the Chinese have regarded this as an internal matter in Myanmar, not an international crisis. That seems somewhat incredible to me, when almost 1 million people have been forced over the border into Bangladesh. I hope the British Government are challenging the Chinese at both ministerial and official level on that interpretation of what is going on. It is not really a credible posture.
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Another opportunity for multilateral action is represented by the European Union. My understanding is that, while we are having this debate, there is a meeting of European Union Foreign Ministers in Brussels. I do not know which of the Minister’s colleagues is in Brussels, but it would be interesting to know whether this matter is on the agenda and what progress he anticipates in strengthening the will to take action among European colleagues. Of course, Europe has imposed sanctions, but we need the support of our European colleagues in the United Nations to raise this to a new level.
Turning to what else we can do multilaterally with our colleagues, we have debated the use of sanctions. My hon. Friend the Member for Tower Hamlets—
I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon. How could I make that mistake?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) has been pressing the case for stronger sanctions for some time. There are three elements to this, which I hope the Foreign Office will carry forward. The first is the Magnitsky sanctions, which are sanctions on individuals for gross human rights abuses. We debated them before Easter when considering the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. When we began considering that Bill, the Government’s position was that they did not want to go down the Magnitsky route. After consideration in Committee, I had fruitful discussions with the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, and the Prime Minister later said that Magnitsky-style sanctions will be implemented through the Bill. The Americans already have such sanctions available, which has enabled them to sanction Maung Maung Soe, who is one of the people in Myanmar responsible for those gross human rights abuses.
In fact, the Criminal Finances Act 2017 already gives us the power to impose sanctions on individuals for gross human rights abuses, by freezing their assets and preventing them from putting money through London. Ministers could do that, and I really do not know why they have not been doing it for some of the people we have heard about. Min Aung Hlaing is another candidate for these financial sanctions.
If we had the sanctions available that we want to have in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, we could put travel bans on those people as well. I do not know why, having agreed between those on the two Front Benches to implement the sanction powers, Ministers did not come back and get consideration on Report done before Easter. We could have done it. We are ready to do it. We are ready to help the Government. We want to crack on with this, but we still do not know when we will consider the Bill on Report. Those measures would be an important additional tool in our box.
The second element, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, is extending the financial sanctions to that part of the economy controlled by the military. That has been the Opposition’s position for some time now, and Ministers should look at it. The third is extending the arms embargo from Europe to the rest of the world.
Ministers might say that they could not get such a resolution through the UN Security Council. I do not know whether that is true, but in the past week we have seen Ministers supporting other draft Security Council resolutions that had a much lower chance of getting through than that resolution would have, so I cannot see that the risk of it not working is a good reason not to support it. Britain is the penholder on Myanmar, and as soon as the UN Security Council permanent representatives come back would be an opportune moment for the British Government to give a new push to this piece of work and to get something more to happen. I urge the Minister to do that.
One thing the petitioners want is to stop the genocide. We all understand that we do not want to validate the exodus of the Rohingya; we want their safe, dignified and voluntary return to Rakhine state. That means UN oversight, but it also means, as other hon. Members have said, the implementation of the recommendations on citizenship that were put forward in the Annan commission report. That must be the basis for the long- term settlement.
Finally, I will talk about the International Criminal Court and what might happen there. The ICC is important in bringing these people to book, but also important in deterring future such crimes in other places and in other conflicts. I understand that Myanmar has not signed up to the ICC, but I note that, last Monday, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the Court’s judges to rule on whether the ICC could exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
This is essentially an attempt to assert jurisdiction over deportation, which is one of the well-documented crimes, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out. It is based on the ICC’s ability to assert jurisdiction if the “conduct in question” for a deportation was committed in the territory of a member state. It looks as if the ICC is beefing up its approach. I would like to hear the Minister’s interpretation of what is going on there and also how he is going to support that important measure.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate. I pay tribute to her industry and—at times, I am sure—patience as Chair of the Petitions Committee.
The debate was inspired by six public and e-petitions that attracted some hundreds of thousands of signatures, and that demonstrate the British public’s heartfelt concern for the desperate plight of the Rohingya. Hon. Members will reflect that the overall lack of contributions—quantity rather than quality—does not reflect the strength of feeling of the House. Everyone will realise that the debate on Syria that is going on has unfortunately resulted in a clash. I very much hope that those hundreds of thousands of British citizens who signed these petitions will not believe in any disparaging way that there are not strong feelings.
Some motion and energy has taken place, and I am happy that I will spend much of my speech reporting the progress we have made. I will be honest: any progress that we make diplomatically and politically is not enough, which is a great frustration. I very much agree with the kind words from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) about my involvement. This takes up a considerable amount of my time, not just in the House but wherever I go abroad. I will come to that in a moment or two.
Only last month, I saw for myself the intensity of the domestic concern—I ought to make an apology while I am here, because that happened in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. I met representatives from a network of British Rohingya communities and the British Bangladeshi community at an exhibition of photographs from the refugee camps held in Spitalfields. Some of those present had family in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and were able to pass on day-to-day details. Others had been brought up here in the UK as refugees from previous waves of Rohingya flight over the decades. They were understandably very close to despair.
What was hopeful was the sense of a network of people together. The network is promoted in part by the Home Office to try to ensure that there is a constructive approach towards their work—not just their campaigning, but their work within that community. We do not want an approach that could in any way lead to the militancy that many have been very concerned about ever since this crisis reached a new point on 25 August last year. I reassured them on that night and I reassure Parliament again today that the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development will not ever forget their plight.
I shall set out what action we have taken so far in response to the crisis, on which many contributions have been made today, and what we plan to do. Understandably, many of the petitions have called first and foremost for an end to the violence. Needless to say, we would like that too. In so far as there has been a reduction in violence in recent weeks and months, I fear that it is only because there are fewer people in Burma to whom violence can be meted out. As I have said, we keep a very close eye on the sexual violence taking place across the Bangladeshi border.
I share the sense of horror felt by many hon. Members at the accounts from survivors of what they have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military in Rakhine state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) pointed out, that unspeakable violence includes rape and savage assault. It is appalling, and all hon. Members call for it to end. I wish we could do more than just express words, but words sometimes matter. One pledge I will make to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is that I will do all I can to try to discover in my Department whether there is any way in which more resource can usefully be implemented by the sexual violence team. One of the most important aspects of our work is training other people on the ground—non-governmental organisations—because of my Department’s expertise. I understand that on paper it looks as though the resource for specialists in this field does not seem anything like enough to take account of the day-to-day problems that continue to occur in Cox’s Bazar, albeit that it has doubled in the last month or so. The hon. Lady’s words and those of the hon. Member for Warrington North have not fallen on deaf ears: I will do all I can in the Foreign Office to try to find out more about exactly what is happening and whether we can, as a matter of urgency, put some more resource in place.
It is obvious that while the violence continues, there can be no hope of reassuring the Rohingya that they would be able to return safely, voluntarily and with dignity. As I said in my statement to the House last month, the violence that broke out in August 2017 was only the latest episode in a long-running cycle of persecution suffered by the Rohingya in Rakhine. As the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) pointed out, in many ways it existed even pre-1982. The truth is that, from the moment the Burmese state came into being, the Rohingya were regarded at best as second-class citizens or non-citizens, as the case may be. The 1982 issue only brought into sharper focus the way in which that sense of statelessness was underpinned.
We have urged the civilian Government of Burma to take action to stop the situation deteriorating since they took office two years ago, and we will continue to do so. The UN estimates that since last August more than 680,000 people have fled from Rakhine into Bangladesh. Our Government have repeatedly condemned the violence, as have this Parliament and the British people. We shall and must continue to work tirelessly with our international partners to seek a lasting solution to this terrible situation.
Last September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs convened in New York a meeting of Foreign Ministers, calling on the Burmese authorities to end the violence. In November, the UK proposed and secured a UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma, which called on the Burmese authorities urgently to stop the violence, to create the necessary conditions for refugee returns and to hold to account those responsible for acts of violence.
I continue actively to address this crisis with counterparts across Asia. Last week, I was in Malaysia and Japan. A number of hon Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, pointed out that there is potentially a role for ASEAN. He knows, and hon. Members will understand, the tensions and conflicts within ASEAN. It rightly does not like to wash its laundry in public. On the one hand, Malaysia has been one of the strongest supporters, and Brunei has worked well and perhaps more quietly behind the scenes with some of the aid it passes into the area. On the other hand, there are countries such as Thailand, which is fundamentally a Buddhist state.
One of the broadest concerns I have about the region is the sense in which so much is becoming atomised. Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka are predominantly Buddhist nations, and concerns have been raised by some about Hindu nationalism in parts of India and elsewhere. There is a dangerous sense—dare I say it?—that that will lead to a backlash from predominantly Muslim nations in the area. It is a very dangerous state of affairs. I will say a little more about social media in the concluding part of my speech.
Tomorrow, the Foreign Secretary will co-chair a meeting on the Rohingya crisis with fellow Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. We will urgently explore how to support Bangladesh and how to ensure that Burma responds to international concerns. I have had to deputise for the Foreign Secretary—he is the relevant Minister but was in Brussels and had to rush back and go straight into the main Chamber—in a number of meetings at CHOGM, including a very fruitful meeting with my counterpart the Foreign Minister of Brunei. We talked at length and in constructive terms about the progress being made behind the scenes. Unfortunately, as a result, I did not have a chance to speak to David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, who had wanted to speak with me. He has a letter in the Evening Standard today, setting out what I suspect he wanted to talk to me about. He rightly says that there is an opportunity at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting
“to mobilise much needed support for the Rohingya crisis. Economic and cultural ties between Commonwealth countries should be the basis for increased international solidarity with Bangladesh”.
As we know, it is currently hosting almost 1 million Rohingya in various ways. David Miliband has a plan afoot. I hope to speak to him later in the week and will pass on the comments made in this debate. There will be continued meetings. I make this pledge: I will do all I can at every meeting with any Foreign Ministers from that region and ASEAN to make the case that the international community needs to hold together.
To be frank, one difficulty is that too few of the Rohingya are entrepreneurial enough to have a similar situation to the one that applied to Syrian refugees in Jordan, where businesses that were already up and running and had existing supply chains were able to keep going. I do not despair. There is more we can do to develop economic connections.
The Foreign Secretary will discuss the crisis at Sunday’s G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, which I expect will send a strong and united message to the Burmese authorities. At the end of this month, the UK will be co-leading the visit of the UN Security Council to Burma and Bangladesh, which has been referred to. We are confident that the very act of visiting the camps in Bangladesh and seeing the situation in Rakhine will further strengthen council members’ resolve to find a solution to the crisis. I have not been able to get out to the frontline in Bangladesh, although a number of other Ministers have, but going to Rakhine was a salutary lesson. Some camps had been up and running for five or six years, and what struck me was the thought that the conditions there are as good as it gets for any Rohingya who return anytime soon. Things were barely acceptable. It was a guarded camp. The education and health situation was dire. It opened one’s eyes to the magnitude of the problem.
I hope that the visit from the leading lights in the UN Security Council will prompt the Burmese authorities to accelerate the implementation of the presidential statement’s call for urgent action. There are not too many European nations other than ourselves and France. I believe that the Dutch, at the moment, are a member of the Security Council, but there are a number of—
Sorry; the hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Swedes have actually been some of the most active members. I barely seem to go anywhere without bumping into Margot Wallström, and she always laments the fact that she has only one other Minister in her Department rather than the array we have in the Foreign Office.
A number of the e-petitions refer to the violence as genocide. The UK Government have recognised that there has been ethnic cleansing and that what has occurred may amount to genocide, or at least crimes against humanity. I have to say to the House again that genocide has a legal definition that can be declared only by a court of law, not by politicians or Governments.
I will go into some detail. As Burma is not a party to the Rome statute, the ICC would be able to consider a case of genocide only if Burma were to refer itself to the ICC, or if the UN Security Council refers Burma to the ICC. I am not suggesting for a minute that we will not go down the path that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has suggested, but I am afraid that the reality is that our calculation is that a Security Council resolution application would certainly be vetoed by China and perhaps by Russia. The UK and its EU partners will continue to call upon Burma to refer itself to the ICC, but so far it has not.
I can report today, however, that there has been some movement on accountability, as was referred to earlier. I recognise the frustrations of a number of hon. Members.
We do not expect Burma to agree. I am just trying to go through the process. Bangladesh has ratified the Rome statute and, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, that could be the trigger for the ICC prosecutor asking the court to rule on whether it would therefore have jurisdiction over the forced displacement of Rohingya into Bangladesh which, if proven, would constitute crimes against humanity. We await the International Criminal Court’s ruling with keen interest and are very supportive of that move. Ultimately, it is a legal matter until we know. The UK stands ready actively to support the ICC should it decide that it has that jurisdiction.
Last week, the Burmese military announced the conviction of seven of its soldiers, who were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. I do not regard that as a show trial. That is an important lesson, not necessarily just in this theatre but elsewhere. I will come on to the plight of the journalists in a moment. We know that the Burmese military have not had a particularly good record of prosecuting and convicting their own soldiers, so I believe that that is a sign, albeit small, that the international pressure for accountability is having some effect.
We have been clear with the Burmese authorities that they must do much more. The international community needs to see a full, independent and transparent investigation into all the human rights violations in Rakhine. The UK will play its part in trying to amass that evidence, but ultimately it will be more powerful if it has UN and international community support. In the meantime, we will continue to support those efforts to collect and collate evidence that may be useful in any future prosecution. I have continued to press at umpteen meetings across the region for the immediate release of the two Burmese Reuters journalists facing trial for investigation into the Inn Din massacre. We will also try to make the case to our counterparts elsewhere that they should raise pressure internationally and whenever they have any dealings with Burma.
Ultimately, we want the Rohingya to return to their homes in the voluntary, safe and dignified manner to which I have referred. The Foreign Secretary raised that issue strongly with the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, when he visited Burma in February. He subsequently wrote a personal note to set out what needed to happen for the international community to sit up and listen. He called on Burma to allow the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in this important process.
I can report further progress since then. The Burmese Government have proposed a memorandum of understanding to agree how the UNHCR will be involved. The UNHCR is preparing its response. If and when that is finalised, the UK will push for transparency of the full form of that agreement. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow was rightly concerned that we would like to see exactly what the memorandum of understanding contains. More importantly, we would like to see the swift implementation of any practical agreement once it has been finalised.
Can the Minister explain how the UNHCR’s oversight of any form of so-called safe and voluntary repatriation will prevent the kind of treatment that he has witnessed in Rakhine state in the internally displaced persons’ camps? He and others have mentioned that the Burmese Government are trying to construct new camps. How can he believe that the people in those camps will be treated any differently from the people who have been internally displaced over recent years, who are living in appalling conditions?
I accept those deep concerns. Again, many people from the UN will watch this. This has been an episode, over recent years—from 2012, and indeed before that, when large numbers of Rohingya were being put into camps—that the world did not know very much about. I hope that the conditions will be made apparent and therefore the UNHCR will be in a position, if a memorandum of understanding is agreed, to insist at the outset on much higher standards for the individuals concerned. If we can keep a lot of this work under the auspices of the UN and other non-governmental organisations, as opposed to it simply being for the Burmese authorities—the Burmese military—to control any future returnees, we can push for much higher standards. However, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow makes a valid point. It is not enough for there to be a memorandum, and for the memorandum to be agreed. It is important that this is properly policed for many years to come.
We will be examining in detail how we can support the longer-term change in Burma that the Rohingya and other persecuted minorities so desperately need. The hon. Member for Dundee West rightly pointed out that although the Rohingya are, by a long way, the largest and most long-standing of the persecuted minorities, other groups have equally fallen foul of the Burmese military and their existence has been perilous.
I am overseeing a review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s conflict, stability and security fund for Burma. We are preparing to launch new pilot projects this year to help to catalyse the democratic transition and strengthen the laws and protections that the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma so urgently require. That work is in progress, as I am sure the House understands. We will, no doubt, speak more about it in future statements.
The issue of sanctions was raised in several of the e-petitions. To date, we have not advocated sanctions on particular sectors or entities in the Burmese economy and its financial system. It can be difficult to predict or control the effect of financial sanctions on other parts of the economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam made some wise points. There is a danger that the targeting of companies and sectors will lead to a greater isolation of the Burmese economy. Doing so would strengthen the relative power of the military and, potentially, of its one reliable world neighbour, China. I think that would be counterproductive, in the circumstances. Although I understand the concerns that have been expressed, the notion rests uneasy with me. I know that in his trade role, my hon. Friend has focused more attention on Thailand and Brunei than on Burma. I cannot imagine that many existing international companies in Burma see it as a market that they wish to exploit to any greater extent at the moment. We will continue to work in that regard.
I understand that. I do not think that a huge amount of work has been on done on that yet. We have been looking at the targeting of military figures and at sanctions in that regard. I should perhaps report that EU sanctions are under way, and we hope that they will be adopted within the next couple of months. The UK has led that work. In so far as it is a relatively straightforward process, I undertake that we will try to glean some more detail along the lines of what the hon. Lady has said. That will be a valuable next step, and I suspect that we can make some practical difference, working with our EU partners. As a number of people have mentioned, it is probably going to be difficult. Although in an ideal world we would like a global sanctions regime, we will need to do that at an EU level first and then make the moral and ethical case.
At the heart of the question of sanctions is the fact that we want to avoid inadvertently making the lives of ordinary Burmese people ever more difficult. They have a terrible enough time as it is. That is not to suggest that we will rule out sanctions. Far from it—we have been, and will continue to be, proactive in advocating sanctions that restrict the finances and freedom of movement of senior military commanders who were directly involved in atrocities in Rakhine last August and September. We have secured agreement on that from all other EU member states, and we expect full implementation in the next month or two.
We should remember that this crisis is, above all, a human catastrophe. I commend the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh in providing refuge for so many people who are in desperate need, as several Members mentioned. The UK is, and will remain, a leading donor to the humanitarian effort in Bangladesh. We have already discussed the £59 million that has been committed, including the £5 million of match funding for public donations—individuals making small donations at a personal level—to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
As virtually every Member in this Chamber has made clear, the monsoon and cyclone season is almost upon us. We are doing everything we can practically do to support Bangladesh’s efforts to improve its disaster preparedness and to protect the refugees. Last month, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for International Development wrote to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, to reiterate the UK’s offer to help, and to call on her, as a matter of urgency, to prioritise the release of more land for refugees.
The UK alone is supplying reinforced shelter and sandbags for 158,000 people, safe water for a quarter of a million people and 5,000 toilets. Obviously, one hopes that other members of the international community are contributing as well. We continue to have an active dialogue with the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that aid can get through during the rainy season. We have already made efforts to improve drainage, maintain access to roads and reinforce embankments and walkways. I recognise the deep concern that a severe monsoon season will potentially make this catastrophe far worse. We continue to work with a range of UN and other agencies to make site improvements to the refugee camps in preparation for the heavy rainfall that we all anticipate.
We also actively engage in vaccination campaigns against cholera, measles and diphtheria, and UK aid is training healthcare workers to vaccinate as many children as possible before the rainy season. As everyone knows, if there is going to be an inoculation programme, it needs to be a full one. It is pointless to do it for 20% or 30%, because the problem becomes fairly acute.
I want to touch on two points made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is considering the UK’s response on humanitarian funding. We will remain the leading single donor to the relief effort. There has not been a clamour for another pledging conference—I wish I could give the hon. Lady more reason why—like the one in Geneva in November that I attended on behalf of the Government. That large pledging conference got us through, more or less, to this time. From my conversations with my right hon. Friend, I know that she recognises that the UK stands ready to donate a considerably larger sum in the coming year than we already have done.
On Bhasan Char, we have made it clear to Bangladesh that any alternative accommodation of refugees has to be safe. We share many of the concerns that have been raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam rightly pointed out, it was a sandbank. It also has all the makings of an Alcatraz-type situation—an imprisonment camp on an island that is quite a way away from the mainland. The other issue is that it does not have the necessary capacity—we are talking about a capacity of only around 200,000—so it does not solve any of the major problems. We share a lot of those concerns, as do many in the international community. It is by no means just the UK; others are deeply concerned.
I appreciate that I am spending a long time speaking, and I know that Members want to go off and do other things. We could talk a lot about social media, which is worthy of a major debate. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow asked whether we would take the issue up with Facebook and others. I am sure that there is ongoing debate, and that it is not restricted to the way in which social media is abused to whip up passions. That by no means exclusively relates to Burma, Bangladesh and the Rohingya. On one level, like a lot of us here, I am very wary of having legislation. I am not saying that there are not aspects where one should legislate, but one would hope that the global internet service providers would have a sense of responsibility. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head; I have also been fairly sceptical, and I have written a number of things about the issue. I do not think the appearance of Facebook’s chief executive in front of the US Congress last week gave us a lot of succour, although I wonder whether attitudes are beginning to change to a degree.
The single most worrying thing is how atomised everything is. If one felt that individuals were engaging with social media across the board to get a balanced view, that would be one thing, but the actual situation is the worst of all worlds. Young people, in particular, are getting very active on social media, but they are reading only one set of websites to get one totally partisan view. However, I think we should tread very carefully when it comes to legislating to try to prevent that.
To put things into context, the Rwandan genocide was, in part, instigated by propaganda that was spread through the use of radio. It is important to recognise that although social media can play an incredibly important and positive role across societies, the negatives need to be understood and addressed, because social media is much more powerful. Often people are breaking the law, whether in our country or other countries. It is about enforcing the law online, as well as looking at what needs to be done pre-emptively to prevent very powerful media from being misused to create unrest in societies and leading to the atomisation of which the Minister speaks. That is why it is important that he speaks to his counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about how we can ensure that social media is used properly and appropriately for benefit, rather than harm.
I understand that. In a way, the issue is worthy of a much broader debate. We will need collectively, as a Parliament, to debate the issues and look at whether we need legislation or global protocols. I am also very aware that it is easy for us to criticise fake news, but when our Russian counterparts or President Trump do so, people are derisive. One person’s fake news is another person’s valuable contribution to public debate. I am not trying to trivialise the issue; it is much more important than we can recognise in this debate. Even in a developing country such as Burma, the malicious use of social media has made a massive difference. Social media has accentuated not only the problem, but a lot of the terrible divisions that have been laid bare within Burmese society.
To conclude, the petitions that we are debating have demonstrated the depth and strength of the British people’s feelings about the plight of the Rohingya. I hope that the debate and my response provide some reassurance to the petitioners that their MPs, their Parliament and this Government feel equally strongly about these matters. We are doing all we can to keep refugees safe in the camps, but in the longer term—I do not dismiss the humanitarian aspect—the important thing is to keep up the pressure on the Burmese authorities to hold the perpetrators to account and to enable a safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to their home. I cannot deny that the progress we have made is much, much slower than any of us would like, but the British public and the Burmese authorities should be in no doubt about our determination to stay the course.
In many ways, this debate has been difficult to listen to—the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people are so appalling—but we need to confront them. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has a wide knowledge, and his co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).
I hope the Minister has heard clearly what has been said. I am grateful for his personal interest and for his work so far, but hon. Members have been clear that they want stronger action against the Burmese military and Government. We want a referral to the International Criminal Court and we need an arms embargo on Burma.
Those things will be difficult to negotiate and to achieve, but the Minister has gone part way along that road. After listening to the debate, I hope he will take on board the almost unanimous view of hon. Members and go further. In doing so, he will have our support and, I am sure, the support of all those who signed the petitions to show how deeply they feel about what is happening to the Rohingya people.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 200224 and 200371, and public petitions P002061, P002064, P002078 and P002104, relating to Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.