I beg to move,
That this House is deeply concerned by the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing Rohingya refugees; agrees with the findings of the UN fact-finding mission that genocide and war crimes have been carried out against the Rohingya by senior Myanmar military figures; calls on the Government to pursue an ICC referral for Myanmar through the UN Security Council; and further calls on the Government to put pressure on the United Nations to prevent the repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh to unsafe conditions in Myanmar and continue to provide assistance to Rohingya refugees.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and to my co-sponsor, the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya. I want to also extend my gratitude to my co-chair of the APPG on democracy in Burma, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), and to all Members of Parliament who supported the application for this important debate.
We are deeply concerned about the horrific ongoing crisis affecting Rohingya people in Burma and Bangladesh. We are close to Christmas, and I know that many colleagues would have liked to be here to support this motion if not for family or constituency commitments. The proximity to Christmas should remind us all of our duty to refugees. The Christmas story reminds us of the plight of those displaced from their homes.
I thank my hon. Friend for getting this important topic debated in Parliament, because many people out there will think that the British public and its Parliament have forgotten the desperate plight of the Rohingya. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we commend the Bangladeshi Government for their incredible generosity in dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees, we must compel our own Government to do a lot more to assist them and to hold to account Aung San Suu Kyi and her regime for the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya people?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on what action the Government are taking, because we depend on the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office Ministers to take a leadership role.
Spending time in our warm homes this Christmas will remind us of the conditions in which people are living in the camps in both Burma and Bangladesh. Being with friends and family will remind us of those separated from their loved ones, some forever. At a time of peace and good will, we should recall the fate of the Rohingya people and other refugees around the world who are subject to war, rape, execution and mutilation, their villages burnt and their lives destroyed.
This is not the first time that the House has debated the Rohingya refugee crisis, and it will not be the last. This is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. The United Nations fact-finding mission concluded that the Burmese military were responsible for
“consistent patterns of serious human rights violations and abuses…in addition to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”
It made concrete recommendations that the Burmese military
“should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
And yet so little has been done in practical terms to solve the crisis, provide safety and security for the Rohingya people and bring those responsible to justice.
How did we get here? We know from the history books that human beings only behave like this towards one another after a process of dehumanisation. From Cambodia to Srebrenica, massacres are carried out when communities have been isolated, demonised and presented as subhuman and worthy only of extinction. The Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma have been the subject of decades of systematic segregation and racial discrimination. Much of the forced segregation stems from the citizenship law of 1982, under which full citizenship in Burma is based on membership of one of the national races—a category awarded only to those considered to have settled in Burma prior to 1824, the date of the first occupation by the British. In Burma’s national census, the Muslim minority group was initially allowed to self-identify as Rohingya, but the Government later reversed that freedom and deemed that they could be identified only as Bengali, which they do not accept because they are not Bengali.
Over the past few years, the Rohingya have been indiscriminately targeted by the Burmese military. The August 2017 attacks were the most systematic and the largest in scale, but they were not the first. Attacks in 2012 and 2016 led to the internal displacement of more than 124,000 Rohingya people, who were forced to live in what are effectively prison camps in Rakhine state, with extremely limited access to food, healthcare and shelter. I visited those camps in Rakhine state twice, and the conditions have not got any better. People are arbitrarily deprived of liberty and forced to live in conditions described by the UN deputy relief chief as
“beyond the dignity of any people”.
There are echoes of apartheid in Rakhine, with one racial group separated, corralled and delegitimised. There are echoes too of previous genocides, with civilians sent to camps, villages burnt and human rights trampled under military boots. But this is not the 1930s, the ’40s, the ’70s or the ’90s. It is happening in this day and age, as we sit here in the Chamber this Christmas.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the violence and stand up to the military has been deeply disappointing. While power over security operations constitutionally resides with the military and her power to halt the military offensive is limited, her ability to speak out in defence of the Rohingya is not. She spoke out for democracy and human rights from house arrest and liberated her country, and yet she failed to speak out for the rights of the Rohingya people when a genocide took place.
The 2017 attacks by the Burmese military came after a lengthy campaign initiated by those in power to demonise the Rohingya people using online platforms. Hidden behind fake accounts, military officers exploited the wide reach of social media to promote their divisive rhetoric and create a culture of suspicion and anger. They created fake news and sent it into the battle against the Rohingya. Of course, incidents of mass violence have happened before, catalysed by other forms of media. In Rwanda in 1994, local radio stations incited Hutus to kill Tutsis. Within 100 days, 800,000 people were dead. While social media platforms cannot be wholly blamed, the UN fact-finding mission singled out Facebook as a tool used to disseminate hate speech and concluded that it played a “determining role” in inciting violence against the Rohingya.
Social media can also be a force for good, as it was in the Arab spring in 2010-11. It is highly influential and can play a positive role. However, it is important that we recognise its capacity to foment division and incite violence—and, in this case, murder. Social media companies have a responsibility to ensure that malicious posts and dehumanising material are removed from their sites without delay. We must ensure that there are regulations and controls to prevent these abuses from happening again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on her outstanding advocacy of all that is best in the determination of this country to drive a human rights agenda internationally. I visited Myanmar three years ago. It was a beautiful country of immense potential, emerging—we thought—out of an era of authoritarianism, but it is now scarred and shamed by the treatment of the Rohingya. Does she agree that an unambiguous message needs to be sent today that the Government of Myanmar will forever be a pariah state until they end the shameful war crimes against this noble people, the Rohingya?
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. The Government need to make it absolutely clear to the Burmese military and the Burmese Government that if they continue to carry on like this without progress on this very important issue, they will continue to be seen in a very negative light and as a pariah state. They will face difficulty doing trade, quite rightly, and challenges from the wider international community. If they want to make the transition towards democracy, and want to make sure that human rights are protected, they have to take action to get their country in order to protect people’s rights, including the rights of the Rohingya minority—and other minorities, because the military have been attacking others too.
There are now over 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Over half the refugees are children, 160,000 of whom are under the age of four. Following the 2017 attacks orchestrated by the Burmese military, some 700,000 Rohingya refugees joined hundreds of thousands who had already fled there following previous periods of targeted attacks, notably in 2012 and 2016. The border pathways are particularly dangerous. Last year, Amnesty International accused the Burmese Government of having laid landmines in the path of fleeing women and children.
In July 2018, I visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh with the International Rescue Committee to see for myself the situation of the Rohingya refugees, and to hear about their lives in the camps and how they got there. The overwhelming, immediate impression is the scale of the disaster. Almost 1 million people are now packed densely into only five square miles. During my visit, I heard terrifying stories of the brutal violence and persecution that the Rohingya faced at the hands of the military during last year’s attacks. The people I met were traumatised, unable to sleep or eat. Daughters were raped in front of their mothers; children were burnt to death in front of their parents. Women and men were separated into different rooms and slaughtered. A father painfully told me of his son and how he had been burnt to death in front of him. As I left, he added, “We want justice.”
I met non-governmental organisation relief workers. Local and international agencies are doing incredible work in very difficult circumstances. Some 30,000 NGO workers of Bangladeshi nationality are working in camps with international NGOs. But the NGOs tell me that the lack of long-term funding is making it very difficult for them to plan ahead and scale up their work, not to mention the restricted access and bureaucracy in trying to work in the camps. Although the situation is marginally better than in Rakhine, there are major challenges, and only two thirds of the UN appeal for funding has been fulfilled. That is not enough, and our Government need to do more to ensure that the outstanding funding is committed by the international community.
Last year, the response from the authorities and the people of Bangladesh was incredible. They demonstrated immense generosity to the refugees, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, with millions of people living below the poverty line and facing the greatest risks from climate change. Over recent years, when thousands were killed by the Burmese military and hundreds of thousands sought refuge, Bangladesh kept its borders open and provided them with sanctuary. But the international community and other neighbouring states must do more to support that country in the humanitarian crisis. We know from our experience in Europe that absorbing so many people is a massive challenge even for this continent, which is among the wealthiest in the world. The end result must be the peaceful return of the Rohingya to their homes, but that must happen only when it is safe and when the Rohingya believe that the danger has passed.
These are particularly turbulent times for the Rohingya people, as only a few weeks ago, in the run-up to the planned repatriation date, there were reports of an increased military presence in the camps. This, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, has caused a state of terror and panic. All the families placed on the list for repatriation refused to return to Burma as they were too afraid of the current conditions. It is imperative that any return is safe, dignified, and, crucially, voluntary. It is vital that we keep up international pressure on the Burmese Government. They need to know that the world is watching.
I welcome the contributions by Nobel peace prize winners Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire, who implored Aung San Suu Kyi to “wake up” to the atrocities after they visited Cox’s Bazar. Nobel laureates such as Malala Yusufzai, Muhammad Yunus and Desmond Tutu, among others, have also spoken out. I welcome the legal voices who have spoken out in favour of human rights and justice—Amal Clooney and Ben Emmerson QC, among others. I welcome the interventions made by Cate Blanchett, who visited the camps in her role as a UN good will ambassador, and by Angelina Jolie as a special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Others have supported the humanitarian fundraising effort by visiting the camps to raise awareness and keep the media interested and engaged in what is happening. They include Ashley Judd, Mindy Kaling, Freida Pinto, Priyanka Chopra, and many others.
Most of all, I am incredibly grateful to, and commend, my colleagues in this House and the other House who have visited Burma and Bangladesh and publicly campaigned and voiced their concerns. The fact is that the more attention we generate, the brighter the light we shine, and the more noise we make, the less likely that further murders and atrocities will occur. Scrutiny and activism from campaigners, the media and the wider international community is literally the only line of defence for the Rohingya people against the Burmese military and its might.
I commend my hon. Friend for the fantastic campaigning that she personally has done, as well as all the other people she listed. One of the main difficulties is that at the United Nations, there are two Governments, one in the Security Council and one in the General Assembly—China and India—who have been supporting the Government in Myanmar. The Chinese, in particular, have massive investments in Rakhine province, and, as a result, they have not been prepared to take the action that should be required internationally. Does she agree?
I could not agree more. I will come on to that. I very much hope that the Government will build the alliance that is needed to get support at the United Nations.
The United Kingdom has a unique responsibility towards Burma. We must use all our relationships, forged over many centuries, to argue for a peaceful settlement to the crisis. We are also the pen holder in the United Nations for Burma. We must apply all the pressure that we can. However, as hon. Friends and others have pointed out, it is not just about our humanitarian response to the 1 million refugees, nor the prevention of future violence, nor even the return of the Rohingya to their homes; ultimately, it is about justice.
Here in the UK, many Members of Parliament have consistently campaigned against the persecution of Rohingya people. On many occasions, we have pleaded with the Prime Minister and successive Foreign Secretaries. We have held parliamentary debates. We have used our platforms publicly to denounce the atrocities. While there have been welcome changes in tone from the Foreign Secretary, and a more critical and proactive stance is being taken, including by his Ministers, this is yet to translate into a stronger policy.
Over the years, there has been little concrete action from the UK Government to solve this issue. In 2017, we warned the Government of increasing tensions in Rakhine state weeks before the brutal military campaign, but little was done to prevent it. When asked in a parliamentary debate last year, the Minister said that if the United Nations determined genocide, then
“of course the UK Government will be the first to be supportive of taking these matters to the International Criminal Court.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 780.]
Twelve months later, there has still been very little progress. Last November, the Prime Minister called explicitly for more action and said that the humanitarian crisis
“is something for which the Burmese authorities—and especially the military—must take full responsibility.”
She went on to pledge that Britain would
“continue to play a leading role in bringing the international community together…to do everything possible to stop this appalling and inhuman destruction of the Rohingya people.”
The sad reality is that our Government, while strong on providing humanitarian assistance, have not come close to putting real pressure on the Burmese Government and their military leaders. It should not have taken more deaths and displacement to make the international community take notice. This crisis happened on our watch. The UK Government should publicly press the Burmese Government to immediately stop all abuses, remove restrictions on freedom of movement, improve conditions for all Rohingya in Rakhine state, and grant unfettered access to Rakhine state to humanitarian agencies and rights monitors. The UK Government should insist that no repatriation of Rohingya refugees takes place until it is safe to do so. The UK and concerned Governments should call on the Bangladeshi Government to halt their plans to relocate refugees to Bhasan Char and encourage them, instead, to consider alternative, safer and more feasible options for relocating those who are vulnerable in the current camps.
The UK Government must press the Burmese authorities to take steps to address the culture of marginalisation and discrimination of the Rohingya community in Burma and to reform the 1982 citizenship law, which renders the Rohingya stateless and denies them basic human rights. The UK Government must accept the full findings and recommendations of the United Nations fact-finding mission, and they should play a leadership role in pressing the United Nation Security Council to urgently refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court so that all crimes, not just the crimes of deportation, can be considered.
The international community must not allow the Burmese military to get away with the slaughter, rape, torture and displacement of the Rohingya people on such a scale that it constitutes genocide. I ask the Minister to address head on the issues of getting the International Criminal Court to bring the criminals to justice. That is vital not only in this instance of genocide but in the prevention of future genocides.
After the holocaust we said “never again.” After the killing fields of Cambodia we said “never again.” After Srebrenica we said “never again.” And after 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days in Rwanda we said “never again.” It is time we pledged to end genocide, to work for peace and to bring perpetrators to justice, because genocide continues to occur. This time let us say “never again” and mean it. Let us bring the war criminals to court and give the Rohingya people the justice they deserve.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and I do not disagree with a word she said. I completely agree that it is up to us to keep this as a hot topic.
Yesterday, there was some Punch and Judy, some pantomime—call it what you like—in the House, and the coverage took up acres of press space. It is on the front page of every paper and every freesheet today, yet this hugely important debate probably will not get a column inch tomorrow. The Press Gallery is empty, and sadly this debate will not be watched by many people on telly. This is not a bit of theatre or a bit of entertainment; it is the most crucial issue affecting us as a country today. This is about our values and who we are. I say to any of the press who are listening remotely: if I do not see this covered tomorrow, be judged by your own standards when you judge us in here, because there are those of us in here who are interested in the important topics. I know there are not many people in the Chamber today, but that is not because we do not care.
In our defence, when the hon. Lady and I went to the Backbench Business Committee, it recognised how important and time-sensitive this topic is, but we were not allocated a date. We were given the possibility of a date and that date has shifted three times. However, because we feel this topic is so crucial, so important, we were prepared to take any date we could. Today is the thinnest date on the calendar for many Members because they will have made alternative arrangements. Because the date shifted all the time, it was hard for many Members to make it here today, but colleagues have told me that they feel acutely about this topic, too. Only a few Members are here, but those who are here are very knowledgeable, they care and they have a burning desire to see justice for the Rohingya.
As the hon. Lady said, an election is looming in Bangladesh—hopefully it will be a well-contested election —at the end of the month, which is why we wanted to make sure we had the debate now. The Secretary of State came to give a presentation to the all-party parliamentary groups on Burma and on the rights of the Rohingya. Whoever is in charge of Bangladesh in 2019, and we take no sides, the problem will last for a very long time and a handover is required to ensure continuity of care for those involved. If there is any change of regime, I want to be sure that the Secretary of State will be straight on the phone to keep up the pressure on the new regime to do the right thing by the Rohingya in these camps.
As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, most non-governmental organisations now estimate that up to 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in southern Bangladesh. Kutupalong is the largest refugee camp in the world, with a population of over 700,000. It is the same size as the city of Glasgow and 50% bigger than the city of Manchester. Other hon. Members and I saw the vast tide of suffering when we visited last September, and the crossings continue even now. The UNHCR has said that 100,000 people have crossed the border in 2018 alone.
In our debate in the House last October, it was widely accepted that ethnic cleansing was taking place. The stories coming out of the camps now point to war crimes and even genocide, which is why we felt it timely to have another debate. I challenge the House, as the hon. Lady did, to join the call for the actions of the Myanmar Government and militia to be referred to the ICC.
I tried to intervene on the hon. Lady, but she was in full flow. The one thing I would say is that Aung San Suu Kyi has not just turned a blind eye but has actually been complicit. She has said that she does not see these things happening. She sent officials over to the camps, and they said that they did not see Rohingya but saw only Bangladeshis. As the hon. Lady said, they are not Bangladeshis; they are Rohingya.
The fact-finding mission report of 24 October 2018 said that this is an “ongoing genocide.” The word “ongoing” should fill us with horror. This is not an event that has finished, hence the need for this debate. The investigators told the UN that the atrocities continue. They are happening now, as we sit here.
In response to a letter from the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya, which the hon. Lady and I both signed, the Secretary of State said in early November that he had told Aung San Suu Kyi that there must be accountability. I would say that is putting it mildly. I accept that the Secretary of State is using his best endeavours, but could he pep them up somewhat next year?
The Secretary of State also said that the Government are not naive about the Burmese commission of inquiry, which he said needs to be strengthened to have credibility and to be a path to justice. Will the Minister tell us how that is going to happen? Good words butter no parsnips, particularly at Christmas. I am not sure that, without any root, we will be any the wiser. The Secretary of State said that he does not think this can be immediately dismissed and that he intends to press the Government of Myanmar to ensure that the concerns are addressed. Again, I would like the Minister to give us some information on how that will come about.
Sadly, the Secretary of State does not think we have the votes for an ICC referral at present, and he believes that a referral to the UNSC would be vetoed. I do not know at what point we will ever test that. If we can keep this situation in the media, and if we can show that the world cares, the countries that might exercise those vetoes, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said, may feel so shamed, or so pressed by businesses, that they threaten to withdraw any supplies they give to Myanmar or think about sanctions. We might then be successful, so I hope we will try at some point.
The persecution of the Rohingya is a tragedy that should stain the consciences and plague the souls of those who might exercise that veto and, if the feeling increases in Myanmar that it can act with impunity because a referral will not happen, at what point will we call the bluff? We are on the edge of a precipice. Myanmar is certainly not stopping this. It is an ongoing genocide. The Burmese Government do not care that the world hates them, so we need to call them out and test their resolve.
I welcome that the United Nations Human Rights Council mechanism has been established to collect and analyse evidence in order to bring about criminal proceedings against those who have committed international crimes. It is worth reminding the House of the definition of genocide, because I would be surprised if anyone here, or anyone who may or may not be listening, would say that this is not genocide. The mens rea is the
“intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
The actus reus, the means of bringing that about, is killing members of that group.
I thank the hon. Lady for her leadership in helping to secure this debate, and I fully agree with her comments condemning genocide. Does she agree that our Government must publicly condemn the Myanmar Government for practices and policies that promote racism and segregation, and that the 1982 citizenship law must be repealed or brought into line with international standards?
I am not sure how that law could be repealed, although I completely agree, and the fact that those people do not exist in law means that they will never have legal protection. I join the hon. Gentleman’s call for our Government to do more. I am aware that these things are difficult and that the soft voice of diplomacy must be exercised, but sometimes there needs to be an end.
As I was saying, I do not think anyone can dispute that this is genocide. Perhaps it is just me and I do not understand the legal terms of this, but the actus reus includes killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and imposing measures that are intended to prevent births within the group. All those things are happening, but who is being held accountable? I say again: let us try to bring that charge of genocide; let us shame the world and those people who would exercise their veto. Oxfam has said that it agrees with the findings in the UN fact-finding mission’s report. There are no independent and impartial courts in Burma, and with the military treated as above the law, the international community should step in to ensure justice and accountability for the systematic rape, torture and murder of Rohingya refugees.
These are the worst crimes. The 1998 Rome statute of the International Criminal Court defines crimes again humanity, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian populations, as any of the following acts: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, grave forms of sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance of persons, and the crime of apartheid—all things that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred to today. She has seen them happening, I have seen them happening, Members across the House have seen them happening—there is no dispute. These are crimes against humanity. This is a genocide. Today on this, the quietest day of the year, although we are not standing up and saying “this House commands whoever is in charge to try to make a charge of genocide” I would love there to be a vote. But we are not voting and there are not enough of us here to do that anyway. But I think the sentiment of the House says exactly that.
The Rohingya are crossing because they are being driven out and fear for their lives. They are crossing while being shot in the back and legs to drive them faster across in their flight. They are crossing because they are being persecuted, denied citizenship and, as the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) pointed out, they have no recognition in law. They are being denied land and livelihood. They are crossing dangerous borders strewn with landmines to escape from burnt homes, abductions, brutal beatings, mutilation, murder and rape. They are crossing because they are fearful of being obliterated, erased because of who they are and what they believe. Because they are Muslims and they are Rohingya they have no safe place in Myanmar, and it is no surprise that none of them wants to go back.
A year on there has been a terrible harvest in the camps as a result of those atrocities. That harvest is babies, born as a result of rape and violence. It has been estimated—I was talking to the new high commissioner in this country—that an average of 60 babies a day are being born in those camps. Most reports acknowledge that we do not know how many babies have been born as a result of rape, due to secrecy and the desire to hide what people see as the shameful stigma of violation. When we visited the camp, it was estimated that up to 50% of all women there were pregnant, although most reports acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to know how many thousands of pregnant women there are. Aid workers have been searching the camps for young pregnant Rohingya girls, some barely in their teens.
Reports say that only one in five births in the camps are delivered in health centres. That is not because there are no health centres, difficult though such facilities are to access; there is regular reporting of hidden births and self-conducted abortions. Those who have visited the camps have seen the ankle-deep mud and the conditions, and young girls who have been brutalised and raped are experiencing self-induced abortions, because of the shame of carrying a child that will be forever a burden on their family. For those who have not gone down that route, pregnancies due to rape have also led to reports of baby abandonment.
Aid agencies are working to provide care and support for young pregnant women and abandoned newborn babies. As I said to the high commissioner, I want to know what is happening to those children who are born in the no-man’s land of being stateless. They are born vulnerable to exploitation, being sent into prostitution and sexual exploitation, they are disappearing and even being sent to a dreadful death in those camps as a result of people not knowing they exist. We need to push for the crimes against those babies, and their mothers, to be punished, and that is why we must make a stand on the world stage. The mothers and those babies are victims. Some 55% of Rohingya refugees are children, and 160,000 people in the camps are four years old or younger. Many families told us that they had lost key male relatives to murder and enforced disappearances after the militia swooped on homes and carted the men and boys away.
As the hon. Lady said, Bangladesh has been commended by many NGOs for its generosity to the Rohingya, and praised by groups for its constructive engagement with Myanmar. However, Myanmar is yet to deliver safe, voluntary and dignified conditions. It has not guaranteed citizenship rights for those who return, and the Rohingya are rightly fearful of return. Indeed, some have returned—some are boomerang Rohingya, if that is the right way of putting it. They have gone back, trusted in warm words, only to find the same thing happening again. No trust is left at all.
UNHCR and the United Nations Development Programme are yet to be granted full access to Rakhine state to see the conditions, and people cannot and must not go back to conditions that in effect will be an isolated internment camp. That is not sanctuary; that is imprisonment. However, the international community does not always step up. The UN joint response plan for the Rohingya is still seriously underfunded—at present, it is 70% funded, and about $250 million short of what is needed. The USA has contributed 40% of the fund, which is $277 million. As the hon. Lady said, this country has sent a generous contribution of $84 million, but the European Commission has provided only 7% of the fund at $49 million. The European Union should examine its conscience and provide a fair share of funding to help to shoulder the enormous burden that is afflicting Bangladesh.
We cannot just sit by and allow this issue to be shuffled off into two column inches tomorrow. The House will speak today. It may not have as loud a voice as it did yesterday, but its intent is far stronger and its commitment to justice will not go away. If next year we are here again, we should hold our heads in shame and silence for all those who will have died in the time that it has taken us to make our minds up and to act.
It is a pleasure and privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). They make a powerful cross-party team in leading this debate, and in their excellent and ongoing efforts to ensure that the cause of the Rohingya remains firmly on our agenda in the House and the public debate.
The International Development Committee has followed closely the ongoing humanitarian crisis—the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) is our rapporteur on the issue—and over the past year we have published three reports relating to Burma, Bangladesh and the Rohingya. The first report, from January, focused on the issues that both hon. Members spoke about, including the culmination of decades of marginalisation, persecution and abuse that the Rohingya people have faced in Burma.
We then looked more widely at the work of the UK Government in general, and DFID in particular, in Bangladesh and Burma. Like others, the Committee visited the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, and we heard the voices of the Rohingya people and saw the huge challenges of life in the camps for those families. The scale and complexity of this humanitarian crisis is best experienced at first hand if at all possible. We also sought to visit Burma and to ask difficult questions about what is happening, but we were refused visas by the Burmese Government.
In our final report, we joined the call, already set out so eloquently today, on the UK Government to gather support for the UN Security Council to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court and to apply targeted financial sanctions against identifiable key figures with responsibility for what is happening. I am pleased again today to echo those calls for the UK to pursue such an ICC referral, but I will focus my remarks on the other issues raised in the motion, about repatriation and some of the broader humanitarian concerns.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem does not relate only to the Rohingya? The Kachin and Shan people have a long history of subjugation by the Burmese authorities. It is an absolute tragedy that the regime picks on those groups without any real comeback from the international community. Does he agree that that is part and parcel of the whole problem in Myanmar?
I agree entirely and wholeheartedly; in fact, my hon. Friend has anticipated something I was going to mention later in my speech. A number of highly respected advocacy groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Watch, have documented appalling human rights abuses by the Burmese military in both Kachin and Shan states. There is a broader set of questions about the protection of minorities in Burma; the Rohingya example is perhaps the most potent and large-scale, but my hon. Friend is right to remind us of the Kachin and Shan peoples as well.
Let me address the issue of repatriation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, last month there was an attempted repatriation of refugees following the announcement by the repatriation joint working group of the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma that repatriation would begin then. When that was announced, many of the refugees fled and hid in the surrounding forest. There was at least one reported suicide—someone so fearful of what returning to Burma would entail that they took their own life. As the buses arrived at the camp in Cox’s Bazar, a number of refugees were offered the opportunity to return. There were anecdotal reports that they were offered food in return for boarding the buses. As my hon. Friend said, no refugee agreed to return, and the buses left the camp empty. That clearly showed the refugees’ fear about any suggestion of returning in the current situation.
Why is there that fear? As Marzuki Darusman, the chair of the UN fact-finding mission, reported in October, and as the hon. Member for St Albans emphasised so powerfully, the genocide against the Rohingya is ongoing in Burma. Why on earth would the Rohingya seek to return? We have a responsibility to hold both the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments accountable on their stated commitments that repatriation will happen only when it is safe, voluntary and dignified.
I urge the Minister to commit again to ensuring that the important principle of non-refoulement is upheld—that people are not returned against their will and that the Government will continue to speak out clearly and publicly against any refugee returns that are premature, non-voluntary or in any way dangerous. It is pretty clear that the current lack of any sign of political will from the Government of Burma to address the conditions that led to this refugee displacement suggests, sadly, that conditions conducive to return are unlikely for quite some long time.
The protracted nature of the displacement crisis means that we have to think more about the short to medium-term needs of both the refugee community in Bangladesh and the local host Bangladeshi population. We need action to address the barriers to Rohingya self-reliance, including employment and access to services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees are living in Cox’s Bazar, and barely 4% of them have any form of legal status.
We can learn lessons from other protracted displacement crises. The International Development Committee was in east Africa last month, looking at some of the consequences of displacement from South Sudan, Sudan, Congo and Eritrea, and at how in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda there are now sustained attempts to set up programmes that provide hope to not only refugees and internally displaced people but the often very poor local communities. We can learn from that example.
However, the best example that we can learn from is what has been done in Jordan for Syrian refugees. The Jordan compact is an agreement between the Government of Jordan, the World Bank, the European Union and others to support Syrian refugees to access employment. Under the agreement, Jordan reduced its regulatory barriers on refugees’ right to work. Two years on, the compact has led to considerable improvements in labour market access for Syrian refugees and education.
If we fail to provide comparable opportunities in Bangladesh, for both the Rohingya and the often very poor local Bangladeshi population, we know what the risks are. We are aware of the boredom that comes from living in a refugee camp and what relying on humanitarian assistance does for the dignity and sense of self-worth of refugees and their families. Policy changes are needed to create opportunities for the Rohingya to enjoy wellbeing and self-sufficiency so that they do not have to rely so much on aid in future and can maximise their own potential.
As has rightly been said, the Bangladeshi people and their Government deserve praise for welcoming about 1 million Rohingya refugees. We pay tribute to them and rightly congratulate our own Government on DFID’s substantial contribution to the humanitarian effort in both Bangladesh and Burma. We must not lose sight of the global responsibility that Bangladesh has taken on. We now need to address some of the long-term issues. Will the Minister set out how the Government will mobilise the other donors, the United Nations and partners to build support for the long-term measures that I have talked about—in particular, the idea of a jobs compact? As the hon. Member for St Albans reminded us, the Bangladeshi people will vote in their general election later this month. What discussions have the Government had with the Opposition parties in Bangladesh? It is important that there is continued support for the Rohingya whichever party or alliance of parties forms the next Bangladeshi Government.
I turn to education. We know from other protracted crises, particularly those involving large refugee flows, that education has often not been given the priority that it deserves. There is a real risk of a lost generation of refugee children. I urge the Government, and DFID in particular, to give much higher priority to education in our aid for the Rohingya. In July, Save the Children reported that more than 70% of Rohingya children in the camps were not in school. They are being deprived of the chance of a proper education. UNICEF has warned that children living in refugee camps face a bleak future:
“If we don’t make the investment in education now, we face the very real danger of seeing a ‘lost generation’ of Rohingya”.
One of the central aims of the UN’s global goals is to “leave no one behind”; a substantial increase in finance for, access to and quality of education in Cox’s Bazar is required to achieve that for Rohingya children. As both my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and the hon. Member for St Albans said so powerfully, humanitarian finance suffers from being short-term and unpredictable. The underfunding in this case is in line with pretty much all the funds for comparable humanitarian crises around the world. If education provision does not get priority and is ignored, the future of the children caught up in these crises through no fault of their own is at great risk.
In our report last year on education, the IDC recommended that the Government should establish a long-term strategy for education in emergencies. The reality is that, tragically, larger numbers of children are now living in these emergency situations—refugee crises often caused by conflict, ethnic cleansing and genocide and sometimes by climate change. The mechanisms to ensure that they get the education they deserve need to be in place; that is not happening at the moment. Support for programmes such as education cannot wait. That is now working, which is very welcome, but we need more of it.
We also need practical steps to minimise some of the risks that Rohingya people face in their day-to-day lives—basic but important things such as the quality of lighting, the lack of privacy in toilets and bathroom facilities and the absence of security for women and girls who have to leave the camps for whatever reason. All of that has come together to create, as the hon. Member for St Albans said, an environment that is incredibly unsafe, particularly for women and children, who form at least 70% of the Rohingya refugee population. Many arrived in Bangladesh having reported alarming gender-based violence by the Burmese military. Now that they are in Bangladesh, supposedly in safety, they still face enormous risks, with numerous examples of incidents of gender-based violence in the camps.
The International Rescue Committee says that despite that, there remains a significant gap in services that are targeted particularly at women and girls. I join the IRC in urging our Government to work with the Government of Bangladesh and other donors to secure a significant increase in support for programmes that relate specifically to the needs of women and girls, and especially to those of either sex who face gender-based sexual violence.
Finally, more needs to be done to ensure that we are ready for the monsoon season. When we visited in February, we heard a lot of concern about the 2018 monsoon season, and how ready the camp and its administration was for heavy rainfall. The Select Committee warned, in its second report, that without decisions and actions being taken very quickly, for example to enable relocation to begin and to facilitate other mitigations, people were going to die. When the downpours finally came, they did bring a lot of misery for the Rohingya—thousands of shelters and other structures collapsed, hundreds were injured and, tragically, some did die. However, the impact of the monsoon in 2018 was actually not as bad as our worst fears. I hope the Minister can perhaps say something about the Government’s analysis of why that was the case. Was it that we were better prepared and lessons had been learned, or were we more fortunate with the scale of the weather conditions, meaning that we could possibly face much bigger challenges in 2019? Decisions and actions need to be taken more quickly to mitigate the impact of landslides and floods that could come with the forthcoming monsoon season. In particular, there is the challenge of ensuring there is enough suitable land to enable the immediate relocation of the most exposed and vulnerable refugees, so that that can be done effectively and efficiently.
Let us remember that we face huge immediate humanitarian challenges on shelter, water, food, security, health and education if we are to provide at least some dignity and hope. We know that this is a protracted crisis. It is incumbent on the international community to work together to address it. There are three big challenges. I have chosen to focus, in my remarks, on investment in humanitarian and development support, and the crucial significance of staying for the long term. Alongside that, we must address the key challenges of politics and justice that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and the hon. Member for St Albans set out so powerfully.
In the end, we all have a responsibility to protect the refugees and to invest in humanitarian support and long-term development aid, but they have a right to go home, and that is what they want. That will happen only when there is true justice and when the Government of Burma—and, frankly, the people of Burma—address the need to make fundamental changes to their own laws and attitudes to the Rohingya, so that we can have in Burma a country that truly respects and protects the rights of all its people. That feels like a distant hope at the moment, but this debate at least gives us an opportunity, on a cross-party basis, to send a clear message that we will not forget the minorities of Burma. In this debate in particular, we continue to stand in solidarity with the Rohingya people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) on securing the debate. Yes, the debate has been delayed, but it is always timely and it is always important to ensure that we raise our voices for the Rohingya people. I commend her powerful speech and the powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). We have attended Cox’s Bazar and we have seen the camps together—more on that in a second. I also commend the very measured and sensible approach, as always, of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs the International Development Committee. It is a pleasure and honour to serve alongside him.
Why is it important that we talk about this issue now and keep on talking about it? As I have said many times, it only takes something to flare up in Syria or the news we had this week in Yemen—never mind the pantomime we had in this place yesterday—to take the focus off what is such a huge humanitarian crisis in such a small part of the world. It is a niche area that many people, especially in this country, simply do not understand or appreciate. Burma was closed for 70 years, so there has not been the opportunity for people to find out much about it. If we ask people in this country outside this place what they know about Burma, they will say two things: Aung San Suu Kyi and Rohingya Muslims. That is about all.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans talked about the definition of genocide. Burma has form on this. For a number of years, since before I was elected, I have been going to meetings of the all-party group on Burma. I remember the days when Mr Speaker chaired the group. We had a chap—it must be nearly a decade ago—called Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer, then of DLA Piper. Before Burma opened up into the fledging transitional democracy that we sort of see struggling at the moment, he made the case that of the seven or eight conditions that one can ascribe to genocide, Burma was the only conflict post-war that matched every single one. Rwanda and Srebrenica matched some of them, but Burma matched every single one. Now we can see the past masters of this heinous crime are using all those instruments time and time again. It is time that we acted.
I want to set out the context of why we have got to where we are. I am half-Burmese and my first question, when I was elected to this place, was on what we then described as the Rohingya boat people. In 2015, people were being pushed out into the seas in fear of their lives, trying to find a safe haven. It was cyclone season and there was a horrendous number of deaths. If we fast forward to 2017, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans joined me and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) as, I think, the first Members into the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar just weeks after the latest exodus. At the time “only” 400,000 people had crossed the border. By the time we left, a week later, there were 500,000 people. We are now at 700,000+ people who have joined those already there.
The Kutupalong camp is the biggest refugee camp in the world. It has been there for 30 years, expanding and expanding significantly. We went to the Gundam border crossing where, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans said, we spoke to people who had been driven across the border chased by helicopters shooting at their ankles and the backs of their legs to hurry them towards the landmine-strewn border. We saw video and photo evidence of people who had had their legs blown off by landmines just four days before we got there. They were being searched by Burmese guards using drones, which were looking at the no-man’s land area where there were 5,000 people in a tiny little area on a curve of a river—they did not want to go to the refugee camps in Bangladesh because at that time they did not know or trust what would happen to them.
We saw people who were dead behind the eyes. These were the people, let us not forget, that the Burmese Government had accused of being terrorists. I saw a 60-year-old lady, who had seen her children genitally mutilated and her son-in-law slaughtered in front of her, and whose house was then burned down. To accuse her of being a terrorist was just fantasyland. As we sat there in Cox’s Bazar airport, Aung San Suu Kyi was on telly saying that nothing else was happening—that there were no fresh attacks. Fast forward a couple of hours and we were back on the Gundam border, and we smelled and saw the smoke from burning villages. It is no surprise that the intransigence we are seeing now is a continuation of the denial—the “hear no evil, say no evil, see no evil” —that we observed then.
Because the Burmese people are largely in favour of the exodus of the Rohingya, and because of the whipping up of the nationalist interests of those people, the military in particular are able to hide behind the populist uprising and say, “We have been accused of acts of terror, but that is just western propaganda.” We must cut through that very clearly. We must say, “Look, we will always help you when it comes to democratic support. We will continue the support that we have given in this place over the last few years to enable you to build up the rule of law and democratic structures in your Hluttaw”—the Burmese Parliament—“and we will not tell you how to run your country. But we will always call you out when you are breaking, in every sense, every international norm relating to human rights.”
Along with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I went back to Cox’s Bazar six months after that first trip. It was rewarding to see some of the improvements that had been made thanks to UK Aid, DFID funding and a number of other countries that had come together—and, indeed, thanks to members of the public in this country, who had raised £27 million through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. Worshippers in mosques and churches and charities around the country came together in a spectacular way, first to raise the money, and secondly to do what we are trying to do here: to keep the voice of the Rohingya in our minds. We saw a huge improvement in the registration camps. It had taken my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and me perhaps 40 minutes to cross areas that could now be crossed in 10 minutes because of the tracks and roads that had been built over those six months.
I think that landslides and cyclones posed a risk to about 200,000 people. Fortunately, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, our worst fears were not realised; none the less, people are still suffering in the makeshift camps, which are cleared jungle. It is the only hillside in Bangladesh: there is pretty flat land below sea level, but they managed to find the only slopes. The area is on an elephant migration track, and unfortunately when people walk around the landslides, some of them are trampled by elephants travelling back and forth on their normal annual path. So there is plenty more for us to do.
I was the rapporteur for the Rohingya report that we produced a few months ago. It is my job to follow up developments and ensure that we are keeping the Government and all the agency and non-governmental organisations on their toes, and that they are fulfilling our recommendations, to which DFID agreed. We could return to some of the stuff that we have talked about before, and discuss how we can prevent crises in the future, but that is for other debates and other crises not yet known. We need to empower the affected people. That means building up leadership structures through DFID and NGOs, but it is also up to the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, to ensure that we in Parliament can start to speak out. This is not just between the Bangladeshi and the Burmese Governments. Stakeholders—those people, those women, those children—must be at the heart of any decision making, so that if they are able to go back they will be repatriated in a dignified way, when it is safe for them to do so and when they have agreed to do so.
This is at a slight tangent, but there is one particular thing that I think our Committee needs to do. I appeal to any women Members, if they so choose, to put their names forward when there is a vacancy. Women and Equalities questions took place earlier today, and we have had plenty of debates about women’s equality, but this is at the heart of what we need to be doing. The Committee currently has just one female member, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). One of the limitations when we are investigating what is happening in the camps is our inability to go into some of the health clinics and see people who are traumatised by the rape, the violence and the maiming that they have seen. It is impossible for the likes of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and me to go there, and even if we did, we would not get the information out. If Parliament is to do its job, it is fundamentally important for the Committee to have a better gender balance in future.
Many Members have mentioned gender-based violence, which is mentioned in one of our recommendations. How can we build up justice, and establish accountability for what has happened? We have clearly said that the military cannot act with impunity, feeling that they can do what they like and get away with it. They must be held to account. The next stage is reconciliation. How can we start to bring the different factions back together? That does not just mean dampening down military control in the country. If the Rohingya manage to return to their homes, they will need to be able to live side by side with the other members of the Rakhine community, who have been whipped up into a nationalist frenzy and pushed into perpetrating some of the violence alongside the militia.
The Rohingya communities were farming some of the land and harvesting, but as people have been pushed into Bangladesh, that has gone to pot, and many of the villages that were burnt have started to turn back into jungle, which is beginning to affect the community as a whole. The entire state is suffering badly, not just the million people who have been pushed out. DFID has done a very good job so far in providing medicine, vaccinations, food, shelter and trauma support, but we need to do much more. This is not just about helping the people who are there. Yes, we can continue to help them, but surely the best way we can help them is to bring an end to the conflict and allow all of them to return safely and in a dignified way, and that means that the citizenship laws must be overturned.
When I first went to Burma in 2016, I met a young lady called Wai Nu, who is now campaigning around the world—in America, in this country and back in Burma. She had been in prison for seven years, and she was 29. She had served a shorter jail sentence than anyone else I had met, purely and simply because she was so little. She had been imprisoned predominantly because of her father, who was a former Member of Parliament for the area. Now, because of those citizenship laws, not only could he no longer be a Member of Parliament, but he could not even vote. He could not even be a citizen of the country in which he had lived for his entire life, which is painfully ridiculous. This is a fundamental issue. We must press for change if the Rohingya are to have any comfort in the knowledge that they will be able to return to their country.
I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister—who is always very proactive when it comes to matters relating to Burma and, indeed, the whole region, and with whom I have worked very closely—have been far more robust in recent weeks and months in respect of the possibility of a referral to the International Criminal Court. The work that is being done at the United Nations with the international community is extremely important.
We must think about what more we can do to target the military with sanctions. As I have often said in this place, I do not think that we should target the whole of Burma in a “blanket” way, because that would adversely affect so many people who are not in the midst of the conflict and who desperately need our help. We need to target the military so that they cannot feel that they can get away with this with impunity.
We need China’s influence as well. Yes, it has its trading links, but if it wants to be part of a wider trading partnership with the international community, it must realise that it has responsibilities as well. I do not care if ASEAN countries do not come out and say that publicly, as long as they are saying it when they are having conversations with the Burmese military, with whom many countries in the surrounding area are reasonably friendly. They can have private conversations that may bear fruit in the long run. They can say to Burma, “You need to tackle your responsibilities if you want to return as an open member of the international community.”
Finally and briefly, I want to broaden my speech and talk about why I have always believed we need a holistic approach. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) talked about the other conflicts, and it is important that have an understanding of them here, by looking at the Christians in Chin state who are still persecuted, and at northern Shan and Kachin where there is still conflict going on; airstrikes were reported only a few months ago, and there is open fighting. A bomb was found in Shan state just last month. There are also the Reuters journalists who have been put in prison, and a British national, Niranjan Rasalingam, who is in Insein prison serving a 17-year sentence on what many believe are trumped-up financial charges. We need to look at that, and address it by asking, even though many political prisoners have been released, what more we can do to make sure people whose charges might be fake or trumped up are judged under the open rule of law.
Without stopping too much DFID aid around the country, we do need to make sure we provide for the healthcare and educational needs and the democratic structures, so that when Burma finally decides to re-join the international community it has the capacity to do so in its Hluttaw—its Parliament.
I am the trade envoy to Burma and, finally, I want to say that the economic development of Burma is very important. We must build on prosperity and bring people into that, because if they feel the benefit of involvement with the wider international community, through improved facilities and services, micropayments, FinTech solutions for the smaller villages and so forth, that holistic approach will help to drive them back into the wider family of the United Nations.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is a member of the International Development Committee and has had the benefit of visiting Cox’s Bazar and therefore gave an informed speech based on first-hand experience. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), Chair of the Committee, all of whom made powerful and substantial contributions. In particular I thank all three Members for continuing to keep this important issue alive, and continuing to make sure that it is brought back before the House at every opportunity. That should, however, be the role of the Government.
We have tried to get a statement on this issue over the last two or three weeks, but were aware that there was great interest in this Backbench Business Committee debate. Obviously, I would have much preferred it to have taken place on a different day when more Members would have been present, but we have been aware of this and would have had a Government statement other than for the fact that there was a real passion on the subject from many Members including the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the Minister, but he still has the opportunity to make a statement in the new year, because this is an ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing. I hope he will make such a statement, and at a time when more Members are present and can take part in this important debate. I was actually, however, referring to the last year, but I will come on to that shortly.
This is an extremely important debate, as I have said, but sadly the issue of the persecution of the Rohingya is not a new one; it has taken place for hundreds of years in that region, with violence flaring up on countless occasions. However, this persecution reached new heights last August, with some of the most brutal violence ever seen.
I want to reflect for a few moments on that violence, because the pictures and reports of violence against the Rohingya do not do justice to what they faced; they do not even begin to properly depict the horrors that innocent, men, women and children were subjected to. They faced murder, and their friends and relatives cut down by gunfire, knives, machetes and whatever else soldiers and thugs could lay their hands on. They faced pillage, their homes ransacked, their belongings plundered, and valuables seized. And they faced rape: women and girls—daughters, sisters, and wives—tied to trees and subjected to the most brutal treatment as relatives were forced to watch. Once they had finished inflicting their carnage, the soldiers moved on. Without remorse or reconsideration, they headed to the next village, but not before burning down the one they had just devastated. Homes that had stood for years, built by hand by those who lived in them, were reduced to nothing more than ash. These fires became the face of the violence carried out against the Rohingya, the pictures adorning the pages of the media as journalists were allowed no closer —Burma blocked off to them by a hostile Government fearful of outside independent reporting.
The hon. Gentleman is painting a very graphic picture of what went on. Does he share my concern that we need to have all this documented as this has gone on over a long period and by the time justice is served—hopefully it will be—names and incidents might be forgotten, and documentation might not be available? It is hugely important that what the hon. Gentleman is describing is recorded so we can bring those responsible to account at some point.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The UN Human Rights Council has taken many first-hand testimonies, but that is just a starting point. Perhaps a Committee of this House—perhaps the International Development Committee or some other appropriate Committee—might choose to take that up; the Chair of the International Development Committee is in the Chamber listening.
This violence was shocking, but it was not as shocking as the response from this Government and the international community. The UK Government and Governments across the world turned a blind eye as the Rohingya screamed, as people pleaded and protested, and as we in this House repeatedly begged for action to be taken. But we did nothing: the UK stood silent, and by doing nothing—by refusing to condemn them—we emboldened the Burmese military. We allowed them to act and we allowed them to carry on and to conduct, in the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a
“textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
May I temper very slightly the comments of the hon. Gentleman? The Foreign Affairs Committee, which I am privileged to chair, was very clear in its criticism of the Burmese military and indeed of Aung San Suu Kyi herself. In evidence session—this is an unusual position for me, but I am going to say it—the Minister who is on the Treasury Bench today was also extremely clear in criticising the Burmese regime. His efforts and those of other Ministers in the Department shadowed by the Committee of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), including the Secretary of State, and of Ministers in the Foreign Office in getting aid to the Bangladesh Government and forward to the refugees have been pretty good. I am not going to argue that we could not have done more, or that we should not do more and must do better, but I do not agree with the idea that we just stood by.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was referring to the Government, of course, because I know that the Foreign Affairs Committee has done a great deal of work on this. However, let me be absolutely clear that I do not accept what he says, because I stood up in the House soon after the atrocities last August and asked the Minister simply to condemn the brutal actions, to condemn the ethnic cleansing, and to condemn the genocide, but there was no condemnation at that time—the hon. Gentleman might like to look in Hansard if he has any doubt. The reality is that even today I cannot think of one occasion when the Government have openly and forcefully condemned those atrocities in the House. If the Minister wishes to correct me on that, I am more than happy to give way.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is very passionate about this issue and has raised it several times, but the Government have repeatedly, on the Floor of the House, talked about ethnic cleansing. We stand by the ICC report, which we want to push through the UN Security Council, and I will say more about that later. We have condemned the actions of senior figures in the Burmese military and played a leading role in ensuring that they are sanctioned at international level, through the European Union rather than through the UN. It is all very well to condemn, but we also have a range of other actions, both humanitarian and political, which I will talk about more in my speech. Although we have condemned, condemnation is never enough; we need a practical plan of action, both for what happened over the past 15 months and hopefully for the months and years to come.
I partly accept what the Minister says. Of course condemnation alone does not go the length, but it is absolutely a starting point. Regrettably, the Minister did not condemn at that point—he knows that he did not use the word “condemnation”—and did not strongly condemn the Burmese Government for their actions at that point, perhaps because he wanted to pursue more diplomatic channels. There are times for diplomatic channels, but perhaps condemnation is more appropriate when genocide and ethnic cleansing is happening.
Those on the fact-finding missions to Burma saw for themselves the horrors that have led to the creation of one of the biggest refugee crises ever seen. So great was the crisis, and so brutal the violence, that the weekly outflow of refugees fleeing Burma rose to a level unseen since Rwanda in the 1990s, as many Members have mentioned. Yet although the refugees, having fled across difficult and even hostile terrain that saw many die on the journey, have escaped the boot of the Burmese military, they are not safe in Bangladesh. The conditions in the camps in which they reside are on the edge of inhumane.
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, have described graphically the conditions in the camps. I will not repeat what has been said, but I want to highlight the really important point made by the hon. Member for St Albans about the children born in Cox’s Bazar. What is their future? What are the thoughts of the young people living day to day in those squalid conditions? Let us all reflect on that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about the children born in the refugee camps. Does he agree that the 13,000 children who were orphaned and then crossed the border on their own face an equally grim future?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is massively important that safeguards are put in place to protect those children. Again, the international community must do more to ensure that we protect the children, whether they are born in the camps or whether they have been orphaned.
Despite those conditions—and we have heard graphic descriptions—many Rohingya would still rather stay in the camps than be repatriated, against their will or with false promises, to the country that tried to kill them. That is a powerful point. Let us be absolutely clear that they are not being relocated back to their villages, which have long since been burnt to the ground, erased by soldiers who are equally keen on erasing the existence of the Rohingya themselves. Instead, they are being relocated to holding camps; camps surrounded by fences and barbed wires; camps that are a prison, not a new home. In these camps the Rohingya are easily identifiable to the Burmese Government, easily located, easily persecuted and easily killed. When the same Government and military who forced them out of their homes, and killed their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, are in power, and when there are no guarantees of their protection other than the word of the same Burmese Government, then safe return is a fiction.
The Rohingya would not be safe. Indeed, they would be even more at risk. We cannot expect them to return to Burma willingly. To guarantee as great a level of protection as possible for the Rohingya and to stop this genocide from ever happening again, we need to hold the Burmese Government to account. We need to hold them responsible, and we need to hold them to their commitments and promises to Bangladesh and to the international community. The first real step—the Minister is listening—that the Burmese Government can take, if there is an ounce of will to move in the right direction, is to give immediate and equal citizenship—not a passport to citizenship or a route to citizenship, or any other scheme, but an immediate right to citizenship. Promises and gestures will not do. Only hard action and a firm stance will work, because that is the only language the Burmese Government seem to understand.
The first action we should take is to refer the Burmese Government and the leaders, military and civilian, who are responsible for the Rohingyan genocide to the International Criminal Court. That point has been made, and made well. Those who commit grave crimes against humanity do not belong in power; they belong in The Hague, on trial for their actions. The Government occasionally argue back that any referral to the ICC would be vetoed by China, but I say, let them veto it. Let it be known that they did nothing to stop the persecution of innocent civilians. But we should not let it be known that the UK did not even try, that we shied away from our global responsibilities and that we ran in fear of a veto. The Government have nothing to lose from pushing for a referral and building an international coalition of support for such a measure across the UN General Assembly, but we have our dignity, respect and, above all, our humanity to lose by staying away.
We should not stop there. We must take further action. We need to create a deterrence to prevent this from ever happening again, and we can do that only by creating a serious impact on the Burmese Government. We therefore need to look again at the sanctions that can be imposed on the Burmese military and the companies that are owned by or profit through the military. Some will say that sanctions are dangerous and that they would lead to the toppling of a democratic Government. That may be their concern, but I am concerned that the Government in Burma are no longer democratic or representative anyway, and that Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto President of Burma, is just as culpable for the genocide. She may not have issued the orders, but she was part of the persecution campaign against the Rohingya.
Sanctions will not topple the democratic Government in Burma and will not lead to a military coup. That is just a myth, because those in the Burmese military already have everything they want. They have control over the legislature and the key Government Ministries. They have made reforms that are acceptable to the international community while barely sacrificing an ounce of their power, so why would they rock the boat now? Their violence and genocide against the Rohingya may have gone unpunished so far, but it is certain that a military coup would not be. To believe in the military coup is simply an excuse, and the Government need to propose measures on how they will respond to the UN report’s findings and impose sanctions on those involved in the genocide that it describes.
Before I finish, I want to stress the importance of ensuring that those who can escape to the UK—those who can legally reside in this country—are able do so. Many Rohingya in Burma have close family in the UK—indeed, my constituency houses the largest population of Rohingya in Europe—but Home Office hoops and legal hurdles mean that they cannot escape the hell in which they find themselves and join their family here. To enter the UK, the Home Office requires an English language test and a tuberculosis test, both of which must be completed at the British consulate in Dhaka. It is impossible for the refugees trapped in Cox’s Bazar to fulfil those criteria, because they are unable to leave. I have spoken with DFID staff about this matter and sought contact with the Home Office, but I have thus far been ignored. I will be grateful to the Minister if he states what further action he can take to allow the tests to be done in the camps. Will he press upon the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister the importance of lifting restrictions that refugees cannot fulfil?
The Rohingya in my constituency have made a rich contribution to Bradford, and I put on the record my thanks, gratitude and appreciation to them for the positive contribution that the Rohingya community has made to the great district of Bradford.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and a real honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who spoke in this debate with such knowledge and passion. It was a real delight to hear them talk.
Like many other Members present, I took part in the debate last year in which we heard about the appalling violence that was being carried out against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and about the disgraceful failure of the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, to act. She was a woman in whom I placed real hope and faith; she has now betrayed her nation and the most vulnerable in it.
The most horrific stories are still emerging, but I wish to share just two. Lukia is just 18. She grew up in Rakhine state with three sisters and one brother. Their father was a fisherman who took care of them all. Lukia was married just one week before her village was attacked. Some would say she was fortunate to be out of the house when the Myanmar military fired at it with a rocket launcher. Her family, brothers and husband were all killed instantly. She managed to escape the village and, after weeks of walking with other bereaved people, sleeping in tents with traumatised strangers, starving, she managed to join her sister and nephew in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. There, she at least has some rice and dal to eat, and some soap to get clean. But she cannot work, so she can do nothing except dwell on all that she has lost—the family and home that were so cruelly stolen from her. She still dreams of one day returning.
A man called Abul Basar has a similar story. He was also married at 18, and he sold betel leaves to support his wife. When the military entered his village two years later, he ran to a nearby hill to hide, because he knew that men of military age were often abducted or killed, as the UN reports confirm. From that hill, he saw the military take his wife and subject her to rape and torture. There were so many of them that there was nothing he could do. They put her in a house with 20 other women and burned them all alive. Abul said:
“The world went dark for me at that moment.”
He does not remember the journey afterwards—the trauma was too much for him—but he seems to have been carried by people from his village all the way to Bangladesh.
It is so hard to imagine the suffering that Abul, Lukia and the 900,000 others are going through. The Rohingya have already suffered so much, and the criminals who planned and perpetrated all this are getting what they wanted: ethnic cleansing. For those who do return to Rakhine state, the Government there are developing Rohingya-only settlements. They will not be allowed to return home. Amnesty International has called what is emerging
“a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounts to apartheid”,
and that is so true. There is no room for doubt about the scale of the persecution of the Rohingya, and there should not be any doubt about the intentions of those responsible.
In 2012, the Rakhine Nationalities Development party, the most powerful elected party in Rakhine at the time, was already preparing for genocidal violence. It spread an insidious message of hate, representing the Rohingya as terrorists and a threat to the Buddhist majority. In an official publication, the party used the example of Adolf Hitler to spread its message. The report explicitly said that “inhuman acts” are sometimes
“necessary to maintain a race”,
and called for a “final solution”. What an utterly terrifying thing for any Rohingya person to hear. The report went on:
“Although Hitler and Eichmann were the greatest enemies of the Jews, they were probably heroes to the Germans.”
Just this year, the Myanmar army published a pamphlet to justify the violence that said:
“Despite living among peacocks, crows cannot become peacocks.”
Dehumanising language, presenting an entire people as a threat, and praise for Hitler and the holocaust. I know the Minister will agree that there are clear grounds for an investigation under article 3 of the genocide convention—the crime of:
“Direct and public incitement to commit genocide”.
I really hope he will address that later.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said, social media platforms played a huge role in the incitement. As the UN report says, for so many in Myanmar, Facebook is almost synonymous with the internet, and Facebook has proved to be a useful tool for spreading hatred in the build-up to each outbreak of violence. The site was used by individuals to post messages urging their friends to fight the Rohingya the way that Hitler fought the Jews, or advocating burning Muslim refugees
“so that they can meet Allah faster.”
The UN report describes this as a “carefully crafted hate campaign” conducted by
“nationalistic political parties and politicians,”—
and, heaven help us—
“leading monks, academics, prominent individuals and members of the Government.”
It was a campaign of hatred across all levels of society.
Facebook continues to host the page of the so-called Information Committee, apparently run from the office of Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The page shares propaganda posts denying the persecution of the Rohingya people. One particularly awful post smeared a woman who had dared to speak publicly about being raped. The words “FAKE RAPE” appear twice, in big font, at the top of the post. Facebook officials have conceded that they bear some responsibility, and they have now trained dozens of content moderators who speak the Burmese language and banned various military figures from the site. It is a start, but we need social media platforms such as Facebook to take responsibility for their complicity in horrors such as this much earlier, ensuring that such content cannot be shared on their platforms. Facebook does need to take responsibility, but it is the Government and the military of Myanmar who are ultimately responsible for the evils that have taken place. Thankfully, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has launched an initial inquiry into the violence against the Rohingya—I was not alone in asking for that last year. This is genuinely good progress, but we need to do far more.
In the debate last year, the Minister said that the responsibility lies with the Government of Myanmar and the security forces. He said that we should support the Government in following through on the promises made by Aung San Suu Kyi. But look at what is still happening. Look at the things that the security services are still saying and doing. Working with the security services of Myanmar would be a betrayal of Abul, Lukia and the hundreds of thousands of others who have suffered. It would not help end this horrific persecution, remove the people responsible from positions of power in Myanmar or secure justice for the Rohingya. So I would like the Minister to categorically rule out any military transfers and commit to a broad review of UK trade with Myanmar. We need to know that no aid money provided by this Government, and not one penny of profit from trade or investments involving UK companies, will reach the hands of those responsible for this genocide.
I congratulate colleagues from across the House who have brought this important issue to the Chamber today. I know that the number of MPs here does not reflect the importance we put on this vital issue. I have visited the Rohingya refugee camps on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar twice in my capacity as a humanitarian doctor. In doing so, I have had the ability to see at first hand the brutality and hear the accounts of what has been undertaken in Myanmar. I have had a career spanning more than 10 years working in the field of humanitarian medicine, and never have I experienced such atrocity.
Last year, when I first met refugees crossing the border, I saw the most brutal injuries and heard devastating first-hand accounts of mothers having their babies ripped from their arms and having to make the choice of whether to go and save one baby from a burning fire or flee with the children they still had remaining, in the vain hope of saving their lives. These are mothers whose children were murdered with the same knives then used to slice off their own breasts. There are sprawling camps, housing almost 1 million Rohingya; the scale has to be seen to be believed, and I know that many in the House today have seen that for themselves. There is a generation of children born out of rape, women who have been brutally violated and men who have had to carry their pregnant wife for 15 days, without food, often needing to drag them just to get over the border to safety. Meanwhile, the world has watched; meanwhile, we have watched.
In October, I returned to the camps and heard how, despite the uncertainty surrounding their futures, people felt relief at finally being able to sleep at night. It was so much easier for people to live in a camp, knee-deep in mud, with a family of eight sharing one little shack, but without the fear of imminently having their child snatched away and murdered. I spoke with Humaira, whose young son was murdered when the army stormed her village. She told me how she wanted to kill herself but was kept alive by the thought of trying to find his body to at least give him a burial. After two days of searching in vain, she had to decide between staying and losing her own life, or fleeing across the border, knowing that she was leaving her son’s body somewhere to rot. She still lives with the pain of not being able to bury her son.
I then met Subara, a 24-year-old mother, who spoke of how the military snatched from her arms her one-year-old child and hacked him to death right in front of her eyes. I know this does not make for easy listening, but these are the facts. We have seen this and heard this; this has been happening on our watch. I was in a room full of 30 women each of whom had a similar woeful, devastating story to tell. The guilt of coming home to my own three-year-old and five-year-old daughters left me unable to sleep at night, as I pondered what it must feel like to have to choose between your two children and for a moment accept that choice. No parent, wherever they are in the world, should ever have to make that choice, but that has been happening as the world has watched and as we have watched. Why should our children’s lives be of more value than those of the Rohingya children, so brutally left for dead and slaughtered, without even a proper burial?
There are now plans to forcibly repatriate thousands of refugees, despite condemnation by the UN and despite their having escaped incomprehensible brutality. These refugees have already lived through the most intolerable cruelty. Just last month, refugees were fleeing camps in fear and others attempted suicide having been named on the list of 4,355 Rohingya refugees for imminent return, without their consent. Those repatriations have been halted for the time being, but they are due to start again in the new year. With the clock ticking, will the Minister confirm to the House that he will speak to the UN to place international pressure on Myanmar and Bangladesh to stop this forced repatriation? The UK Government, as the penholder for Myanmar on the UN Security Council, have a real leadership opportunity, which we have to take.
One year ago, Rohingya refugees were still fleeing over the Myanmar border into Bangladesh. One year ago, Members in this House were debating the horrors faced by the Rohingya in northern Rakhine. One year ago, the Minister stated in this House that if the UN found evidence of genocide, he would support a referral to the ICC. However, just last month, he stated, in writing, that there is insufficient support among Security Council members for an ICC referral at this time. Just how much more suffering do the Rohingya people have to go through before the UK Government are forced to act? The debate is not concluded, yet we have already heard so many first-hand accounts, and I have witnessed these things myself. What more needs to happen? How is it possible that we are still witnessing the Rohingya face unimaginable horrors on a daily basis and uncertainty, yet the UK Government have not publicly spoken out against the forced repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar? Should the Rohingya not return to Myanmar, it is looking ever more likely that they face an uncertain future, with the possibility of relocation to Bhasan Char, a desolate island in the bay of Bengal, where communication with the mainland would be entirely cut off during monsoon season.
Many people would do anything to have our job, sitting in this place and making decisions that affect hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror in the twilight of our years and know that we did something with our position in this House. Sometimes that will call for bravery, sometimes it will call on us to take a chance and speak out for all that is right and good. We sit here today on the verge of Christmas and new year. I will be cuddling my children in the new year, but there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees for whom their children are but a memory. How can life have such different value depending on where a person was born? The Rohingya are crying out for justice. Humanity must have no borders. Will the Minister today please replace platitudes with promises of action?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for her excellent work in bringing this important debate to the House, and I thank the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for her excellent work as well. This is a very important issue, and having listened to some of the speeches of my hon. Friends, I am feeling quite emotional over the trauma that the Rohingya people are going through. It is unbelievable in this day and age. I cannot believe that the international community has failed completely to help these people.
Only last month, buses and trucks stood ready to return refugees to Myanmar from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, but no one wanted to go back. There are 900,000 Rohingya in more than two dozen camps in the area, living in appalling and dangerous conditions. Food and medical facilities are poor, there is little or no access to education for children, and living conditions are dire. New arrivals are living in highly congested areas and are vulnerable to disease and starvation. There is no proper sanitation, there is insufficient water supply, and women and children are living with the threat of, or enduring, horrific sexual violence and trafficking.
As bleak and disturbing as this picture is, the prospect of forced repatriation to a dangerously hostile home country, stripped of rights and citizenship, is even worse. The draft UN resolution aims to put a timeline on Myanmar allowing the return of more than 700,000 refugees, but all the evidence points to the fact it is not safe for even one refugee to return. It is an act of gross inhumanity that refugees still living with the trauma of horrific experiences are being forced back to a Buddhist-majority country that is still perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya people.
According to UN investigators, thousands of Rohingya are still fleeing to Bangladesh, and the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 who have remained following last year’s brutal military campaign in Myanmar continue to suffer the most severe restrictions and repression. Furthermore, according to reports from Reuters and others, the Myanmar Government are taking steps that threaten to make the purge of the Rohingya permanent. In August 2017, all 6,000 Rohingya residents of the village of Inn Din in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state fled a brutal army campaign. Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist villagers were once neighbours here, but Rohingya houses were burned to the ground and all trace of their lives there erased.
New satellite images show that the area was bulldozed and security buildings constructed where the Muslim houses stood. New homes have also sprung up, but not for the Rohingya. The new inhabitants are Buddhists, largely from other parts of Rakhine. The Myanmar Government’s resettlement maps show that Rohingya refugees returning to Rakhine will be herded into settlements that segregate them from the rest of the population.
The international community, including the British Government, has failed to take effective action to hold those responsible to account, address the root causes of the crisis and provide sufficient support to refugees. They cannot stand back and allow forced repatriation to a homeland where genocide is still happening. The British Government must accept in full the findings and recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission and officially accept that what took place is genocide, if we are to provide an adequate response to this appalling human suffering.
I welcome the Government’s leading role in humanitarian assistance for Rohingya refugees, but we must act now to improve security for women and children in the camps. The UK Government must take action through the UN Security Council to ensure that the Burmese authorities promptly bring suspected perpetrators of crimes against Rohingya to justice, including by referring perpetrators to the International Criminal Court. All the Rohingya refugees would like to return to Myanmar, but they cannot be expected to do so without guarantees of safety, citizenship and dignity.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for St Albans (Mrs Main) for setting the scene so well. I also declare an interest. As chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, it is an issue I am very interested in. Every time there has been a debate on the Rohingya, I have probably been there. I commend the hon. Ladies for their leadership in this area and the Backbench Business Committee for making this debate possible today. I am very aware of this issue. I have spoken about it numerous times. I would love to say that I will not have to speak about it again, but, as everyone has said today, we probably will. We will probably be having this same debate this time next year. It would be great if things had improved by then. We wish and pray for that.
The reason for this debate is very clear. The humanitarian crisis has been described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”,
the UN Secretary-General has described the situation as “catastrophic”, and various NGOs continue to warn that the recent escalation of violence by Burma’s security forces against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya population constitutes crimes against humanity—those last words are all important. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma has said that the situation has the “hallmarks” of genocide, while the independent international fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council claims to have documented evidence of genocide.
It has been over a year since these atrocities were perpetrated, and the international community has taken woefully—I say that respectfully—insufficient action either to bring them to an end or to bring the perpetrators to justice. The independent international fact-finding mission has called for a case to be brought to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. All these things irk us. Right hon. and hon. Members have referred to much depravity and violence and brutal killing. It is very hard to sit through these things and not be moved.
As we work to secure the referral of a case to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, as recommended by the UN independent fact-finding mission, I believe we should seek a UN Security Council resolution imposing a global arms embargo on the Burmese army, with targeted sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. May I ask the Minister—we are very fortunate to have a Minister of such standing, whose responses show such an understanding of this issue—to indicate what our Government, my and his Government, have done on this?
A briefing I have received from the Burma Campaign UK states very clearly:
“Time is running out to address one of the most critical issues for addressing the root causes of the crisis, the denial of citizenship. Aung San Suu Kyi still refuses to accept Rohingya belong in Burma and should have citizenship. With elections due in Burma in 2020, there is now only a window of 12 months where it may be possible to repeat or replace the Citizenship Law. At the present time, Aung San Suu Kyi has the Parliamentary majority and political authority to push through a change. This may not be the case after the 2020 election. The British government and others must prioritise this issue, pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi to change the Citizenship Law in 2019.”
Hon. Members have all asked for it and I am asking for it, so I ask my Minister—our Minister—what has been done to ensure that that happens? We are ever mindful, as the Burma Campaign UK says, and I agree, that we have a “window of 12 months”, which is a very short time. While it is right and proper that we give the Brexit issue full attention, and it is consuming all our lives at the moment, we cannot and must not forget what we owe to the world out there, and especially to those countries with which we have had colonial connections in the past.
I was shocked to learn back in October that the number of Rohingya refugees has reached nearly 1 million, with the young girls in Bangladesh refugee camps sold into forced labour accounting for the largest group of trafficking victims. All these things are horrible to listen to. It is even more horrible to know that, despite the efforts of many, they continue. OM—Operation Mobilisation—reports that women and girls are lured into forced labour, and they account for two thirds of those receiving the agency’s support in Cox’s Bazar, while another 10% were victims of sexual exploitation. They have run from sexual exploitation, and they find themselves back in it. There must be something seriously wrong when that is happening. Men and boys are not exempt, accounting for about a third of refugees forced into labour.
There must be more support on the ground, and it is clear that we must call on the Burmese Government to allow unhindered access to the country for international humanitarian aid agencies, human rights monitors, the media, UN representatives of the fact-finding mission and the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma. Everyone has a role to play. This will, I sincerely hope, curtail the actions of those who believe that there is no law and no accountability for breaking any human rights violations.
A short time ago, I met Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s delegation from northern Burma, which gave us some horrific statistics about what is taking place. While it is completely understandable and right that the world has focused on the plight of the Rohingya, I want very gently to mention others. In no way should we detract from their plight, but the situation in northern Burma affecting the predominantly Christian Kachin, as well as the Buddhist Shan and Ta’ang and others, has deteriorated dramatically.
It would seem that, having achieved their objectives in Rakhine state, the Burmese army has moved on to perpetrate similar atrocities in northern Burma, while the world was still focused on Rakhine. The Burmese army, and all the officers that have been commanding it, need to be held accountable. If there is a war crimes tribunal, I can tell you, I will be the first in the queue to give them a good going over. What has taken place is absolutely despicable, and it really grieves me greatly.
In a statement on 23 April, the Kachin community warned of an escalation in Burmese army military offensives against the country’s ethnic groups. It stated that
“the Burma military is escalating attacks against ethnic groups in the country, including in Rakhine State, Kachin State, Shan State and most recently breaking the ceasefire in Karen State.”
“There is no shortage of evidence of violations of international law committed by the Burma military.”
That has been outlined by other Members today.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that because nothing has really happened as a result of the atrocities against the Rohingya, the Burmese army is emboldened to do this? It would actually help support other religious communities in the country if they could see that these actions against the Rohingya were stamped on. The Burmese army is doing it because it knows it can, and the public quite welcome it.
The hon. Lady is so right. This is the frustration we all have, and this is where we are. We have the frustration that the Burmese army is emboldened: because it has got away with it, it can get away with it again. I think it is time that we draw a line and make it accountable. The United Nations has been documenting these crimes for decades. There is another example: it just goes on and on. It is really time to draw a line and to tell these people, who think they are judge and executioner and that they can do whatever they want, that, no, they cannot. They will be held accountable for it some day.
A detailed assessment in 2016 stated that what may amount to war crimes were being committed in Kachin state and Shan state. The independent international fact-finding mission has concluded that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Kachin and Shan states. The judicial system has systematically failed to hold accountable perpetrators of abuses such as torture, forced labour, systematic rape and sexual violence.
According to Rev. Samson, by September 2018, 52 churches had been closed down and 92 pastors had been arrested. Further, in October 2018, the United Wa State Army—the UWSA—expelled a group of eight catholic clergy and lay people from the Wa region in Burma’s Shan state. The UWSA has now said that all churches built after 1992 were constructed illegally and will be destroyed. It has forbidden the construction of any new churches, and five churches are reported to have been destroyed.
This demands action, and I believe that we must take it. I ask the Minister again to give serious consideration to actively ensuring that engagement with Burma on human rights and freedom of religion or belief does not focus entirely, with respect, on the plight of the Rohingya to the exclusion of the Kachin and Shan people or of the Muslims, the Christians and other minorities throughout the country. Nobody is safe from the Burmese army; that is a fact. Will he also ensure that freedom of religion or belief is recognised as a priority for all the people of Burma and that we press for international accountability for the human rights violations that have been committed in the Kachin and Shan states?
At the very least, we have a responsibility to encourage the Burmese Government to repeal all legislation that discriminates against religious and ethnic minorities, including laws that limit religious conversion and interfaith marriage. In particular, the Burmese Government should change or repeal the 1982 citizenship law to allow the Rohingya full citizenship rights. That is the least that we can do for them and the least we can expect. We also need to do many other things, and we must use any diplomatic pressure that we have available. In the medium to long term, there must be investment to support initiatives to address racial and religious hatred in Burma. The hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) clearly illustrated that point. We need to support the voices of peace and moderation, and encourage a reconciliation process.
I am conscious of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall conclude by pressing the Minister to take this case to heart. I have the greatest faith in him as a person, and also in his position as a Minister, as to how he will respond. Minister, every one of us is burdened with this—
Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for interrupting him, but it has been my ambition during this year to persuade him to address Members of the House through the Chair. He has now, for the 124th time, addressed the Minister as “you”, and I have to admit my failure. I have failed during the whole year to persuade the hon. Gentleman, who speaks in this House every single day, to refer to the Minister as “the Minister” and to use the word “you” only when he is addressing the Chair. I feel a great burden of failure for not having persuaded him to do that during this year. I will start again next year, as I am determined to educate him in the ways of this Chamber. I beg him, please, to call the Minister “the Minister”, just this once.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is up to me to grasp that terminology. I usually get carried away by the emotion of the occasion, and sometimes I let my voice follow what my heart is saying. Sometimes, inadvertently, that terrible word “you” comes out. The problem is that we are so involved with the EU at the moment, and sometimes I get the two terms mixed up. But there we are; that is by the way. I will endeavour to achieve what you ask.
At this time, Minister, we have a heavy burden in our hearts for the Rohingya, for the Christian Kachin and for all the states in Burma and across the world. I believe that we in this House have a responsibility to act, and act we must. I look to the Minister to outline what form this action will take and when it will take place. We need a timescale. In her introduction, the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned the fact that we were debating this issue this time last year, and indeed we were. We are back again now, but I am not sure how much further forward we are. There are hundreds of thousands of people looking towards us and praying for relief, and if it is in our power to grant that, we must do so. If it is not, we must still do all that we can to exorcise those whose gift it is to enable people to return home and to live and worship as they see fit.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I pay tribute to the work that he does in the all-party group for international freedom of religion and belief. Perhaps I could even say, “Well done, you,”—but perhaps not.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate. It is a sombre and reflective end to the term, but, nevertheless, a very important opportunity to remember, as we go off on the Christmas break, that the seasonal message of peace, hope and joy should be not just aspirational, but motivational, as we remember those who will not enjoy the comforts that many of us are looking forward to, and, of course, that includes the refugees and the Rohingya people. I also echo the point made by others that, on another day, the Benches would have been considerably fuller. That applies to the Scottish National party Benches as well, and I speak on behalf of all my hon. Friends in this debate.
The House has considered this issue several times since the first evidence of the crisis. I remember, very soon after the 2015 general election, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) leading an Adjournment debate on the issue. He had also drawn the attention of the House to the issue in January of that year in Westminster Hall. Those debates were the straws in the wind, as it was becoming apparent then that the initial high expectations of democratic reform and the forthcoming elections were perhaps too high, and that there would in fact be trouble ahead. That has been reflected in the powerful contributions that we have heard in all the speeches today, especially from members of the International Development Committee who have travelled to the area. They include the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) who has had first-hand experience of the area, and the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) who gave a very powerful and moving account.
I just want to reflect briefly on the situation on the ground, some of the international responses and the role for the UK Government. We have heard those testimonies throughout the debate. Since 2017, and indeed before, there has been a brutal state-sponsored oppression of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state—mass murder, rape, abuse, destruction of villages, certainly a form of ethnic cleansing and now very clear ground to consider whether a genocide is taking place. We heard other moving stories from the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) in that regard.
More than 800,000 Rohingya people have already fled to Bangladesh, with women and children accounting for at least 80% of those refugees. The point was well made by the hon. Member for St Albans about the need to continue to raise awareness and public understanding so that this issue does not get lost. I pay tribute to my old friends in the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and Justice and Peace Scotland who, this year, commissioned the photo exhibition, The Journey, which has been touring Catholic cathedrals and other venues in Scotland, bringing home the harrowing reality of the refugee crisis and the experience of the Rohingya people and ensuring that they are not forgotten. I also join the tributes that have been paid to other non-governmental organisations working in the area. Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Burma Campaign in particular provided very helpful background for this debate.
There may now be a pretence of calm and an attempt to keep the lid on the situation, but it is clear that things remain precarious, that oppression continues, and that any attempt by Bangladesh to force repatriation on the refugees could once again lead to an escalation in violence.
It is important to recognise some of the responses from international actors. There is a widespread humanitarian response in operation. Last year, the Scottish Government contributed £120,000 from their humanitarian emergency fund. The First Minister said:
“The Scottish Government has made clear that we support the UN Secretary General’s call for effective action that addresses the root causes of the situation and brings an end to violence. We also stand ready to support the UK Government in providing an appropriate response to this situation…The Scottish Government expects all states to comply with fundamental and human rights law, to condemn human rights abuses wherever they occur, and to take positive action to confront abuses and give practical day-to-day effect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
We support the EU and US actions and sanctions on individuals in the Myanmar military, including the European Council’s recent decision to adopt individual sanctions against Myanmar’s senior military and border guard officials for alleged human rights violations. The US has also adopted such sanctions, but, clearly, there are calls in this Chamber and from elsewhere that they could be stronger and more effective. I also note the decision of the US House of Representatives to agree a resolution that the Myanmar Government’s actions constitute genocide, and perhaps that does need further consideration here in this House.
It is clear that further support is needed for the authorities and responders in Bangladesh. It must not feel that it has to forcibly repatriate the Rohingya refugees—a point on which the Chair of the International Development Committee spoke very powerfully. There are some estimates that suggest that barely half of the required funding has actually been met. Likewise, the refugees must be treated with respect for their human rights and under humanitarian principles. The reports we have heard of prison-like accommodation and significant overcrowding in camps are simply unacceptable.
I echo the calls for careful management and regulation of social media. The comparison has been drawn with the situation in Rwanda. I had the privilege of travelling there with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association earlier this year, and the legacy of that genocide is still incredibly raw 25 years on. We keep saying that this must never happen again, yet here we are on the verge of it happening again. We have to respond and take action, which is why this situation should be among the highest priorities for the UK’s diplomatic efforts.
We have a long historical relationship with Burma/Myanmar and we should be using our influence with the country’s Government and on the world stage. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government have chosen not to accept in full the findings and recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission, and it is clear from this debate that there has to be further and full consideration of whether the violence against the Rohingya people constitutes genocide. I echo the calls of the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) that the Government must completely and unequivocally condemn what is happening.
As others have said, it would be useful to hear from the Minister an update on efforts to build support for a legal tribunal, whether that is a referral of the regime to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal to consider the situation. There are other steps that the UK and its agencies could take to more effectively enforce sanctions—for example, by making sure that procurement by the Department for International Development or the embassy does not source goods or services from military-owned or controlled companies in the country.
As others have alluded to, the sorriest part of the story is the fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi. She had been such an inspirational figure to so many people. As I have said previously in Westminster Hall debates, I grew up hearing about her house arrest and the inspiration she provided. When she was released, she was fêted here in this House, but now the civic honours are being stripped from her, including the freedom of the cities of Dundee and Glasgow. But she still has a crucial role to play, and could redeem her reputation and her Government, if she was willing to acknowledge the mistakes that are being made and take whatever steps she can to bring the army under control. The first and most important thing she must do is to recognise the rights of the Rohingya people to citizenship in their own country. That message is coming very strongly from this debate and from the international actors, and it must come strongly from the UK Government too.
This time of year is about hope. We must have hope, but we must take responsibility for bringing that hope to fruition. That message is coming strongly and clearly from this House in support of the UN’s findings, and the Government must use their resources and influences to build peace and seek justice for the Rohingya people of Myanmar. On that note, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everybody in the House and around the world—including the people of Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Rohingya communities—a happy and peaceful Christmas.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate. At the beginning of her speech, my hon. Friend drew our attention to the motion before the House, and I am going to begin in the same way:
“this House is deeply concerned by the ongoing humanitarian crisis…agrees with the findings of the UN fact-finding mission that genocide and war crimes have been carried out…calls on the Government to pursue an ICC referral…and further calls on the Government to put pressure on the United Nations.”
The fact of the matter is that we are not going to divide the House this afternoon. This is a substantive motion. It means that the Government, having accepted it, must carry through in full with action.
My hon. Friend made an excellent speech, in which she pointed out that the UN fact-finding mission has found that genocide and war crimes have been committed. I thank her for her work in not only securing the debate but visiting the refugees, preparing so thoroughly and putting pressure on the Myanmar Government. As she said, half the refugees are children, so the horror and catastrophe of this situation cannot be exaggerated. She said, as other Members have, that she was disappointed in the Government’s response. Later in my speech, I will suggest some ways in which we could toughen up the UK’s position.
It is now 16 months since three quarters of a million Rohingya people began to cross the border into Bangladesh. In the camps, there is plainly terrible suffering and squalid conditions—many Members have testified to that —but, of course, the situation from which they were escaping and the horror of the sexual violence were even worse.
All Members have rightly acknowledged the great generosity of the Bangladeshi Government. I also want to thank the voluntary sector for not only its support in briefing us for the debate but the work it is doing day in, day out, including Save the Children, Burma Campaign UK, the International Rescue Committee, Human Rights Watch and the UNHRC.
I was somewhat alarmed when I discovered that the Myanmar and Bangladeshi Governments had reached a new agreement on repatriation and registered all the refugees in the camps, which is the necessary base for repatriation. The main question is: are the conditions right for a safe, voluntary and dignified return? This House is sending a message to both those Governments that the answer is an emphatic no; those conditions are not yet present.
The hon. Lady is referring to the memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries. It is worth putting on record that there was no voice for the Rohingya in the dialogue on the memorandum of understanding. They were being talked about, done to and organised around, but they did not have a voice at that negotiating table.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and she is absolutely right. She made a powerful speech. Through their work and actions, she and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) have demonstrated that there is a consensus across the House on this matter, to which we want Ministers to listen and pay attention. She asked, what would be different in December 2019 and why should we wait for the independent commission of inquiry, because this is surely a recipe for delay and the loss of evidence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs the International Development Committee, made an excellent speech in which he emphasised the problems with repatriation and the conditions in the camps. He stressed the importance of enabling people in the camps to work and secure an education. He pointed out that this problem will not be solved quickly, and we need to borrow from best practice in other countries in order that these people do not become a lost generation.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, who is the Select Committee’s rapporteur, gave us the benefit of his deep and long-standing understanding and emphasised that the Rohingya themselves must have more control in this situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) demonstrated that the gender-based violence is not the result of an army out of control but is being used as a systematic weapon of war. He expressed his frustration with the position that the British Government have taken. He talked, in particular, about children born in the camps. There is a question for the Minister flowing from his remarks: what is the legal status of these children? It would be very helpful if we could have a clear legal view from the Foreign Office on their legal status, because we are clearly talking about thousands of young children. My hon. Friend also pointed out that relying on the internal state to provide security for the Rohingya people is completely inadequate.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) talked about the catastrophe suffered by two people, in particular. As so often, the horror is easier to understand when one hears about individuals than when one hears about thousands of people. She also pointed to the propaganda war that has been run over a long period. Will the Minister consider what the legal responsibilities are of the social media companies? What, precisely, are the responsibilities that we should be attributing to Facebook—and, incidentally, has it given any money from its huge profits to address this vast humanitarian crisis?
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) spoke about the atrocities that have occurred. Her testimony was so powerful that I really feel that I do not want even to begin to comment on it. She ended by saying that we need to move from platitudes to promises, and I completely agree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) pointed to the most recent evidence that has come out of the country. All hon. Members have said that the treatment of the Rohingya is obviously the most horrific act of the Myanmar Government, but a number of things are going on in the country that show that it is not open or properly democratic. The Government made such a strategic error when they jailed two Reuters journalists, because now Reuters is using satellite photography that shows that villages are being bulldozed and new people are being put into them. That reinforces the case that hon. Members are making that, when the Myanmar Government say that people should go back into Rakhine state, they mean that they are just going to be put into camps—enclosed, not given freedom of movement. That, in itself, is a completely unacceptable and unsafe situation. They are continuing to oppress the Rohingya people and they are suppressing open reporting.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, made a heartfelt call for improvements across the board in Myanmar. I agree with him about what is happening to the Chin people. I was extremely alarmed—again, I would like some answers from the Minister on this—when I heard on the World Service that the UNHCR was proposing to send back people from that ethnic minority who are currently refugees in Malaysia, India, Thailand and Nepal. So I wrote to the UNHCR to ask it about this. I wrote for two reasons, partly out of concern for that group of people and partly because it sets a terrible precedent for the Rohingya minority. I had a letter back from the UNHCR at the end of November, and it said that the reasons giving rise to a fear of persecution under the 1951 convention have very significantly diminished. I will share the letter with the Minister afterwards, but I would like to know whether that is also the Foreign Office’s assessment. I do not think it is the assessment of hon. Members, not least because we have seen the Rohingya people continuing to cross the border throughout the year.
The big question, of course, is, what should be done? What should we do now? The Government are telling us that they think we should allow the Burmese Government to carry on with the process they call a commission of inquiry. The UK Government want to press them to ensure that the process is transparent, independent and considers international evidence. Everything we know about the Myanmar Government suggests that we cannot have confidence in an internal inquiry. Myanmar is not a country with a robust criminal justice system, and there is a big risk in behaving as if it is such a country. The risk is that people escape, that evidence is lost, that nothing ever happens and that people are not brought to justice.
Her Majesty’s Opposition believe it is now time to have a UN Security Council resolution referring the Myanmar military to the ICC. When the Minister wrote to me about that a few days ago, he said that we would lose and that it would not advance the cause of accountability should the UNSC try and fail to refer Burma to the ICC. I do not think for a single moment that that is an easy judgment to make, and nor do I think any Member would think that, but we need to look at where we think the opposition to such a resolution would come from.
First, of course, there is the risk of a Chinese veto. As part of its belt and road initiative, China is currently trying to build a port in Rakhine state. China is continually arguing that the Rohingya are an internal issue. That is clearly because China wants to have a good relationship with the Myanmar Government so it is able to continue with its belt and road initiative, and in my opinion it is also because China does not want people looking too closely at how it is treating the Muslim Uighur minority in the west of China.
We are also beginning to see an undermining of the ICC by the Trump Administration. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, recently said that the ICC is “dead to us”. He does not want the ICC to prosecute US army officials for alleged abuses in Afghanistan.
The question is really whether the British Government wish to hand over their moral conscience to the Chinese and the Trump Administration. Would it not be better to be open and straightforward by standing up for what we believe and letting them be tried in the court of public opinion?
Other hon. Members have talked about sanctions, and we now have individual sanctions against some members of the Myanmar military. However, two further strengthenings would send helpful and powerful signals. Unless we put more pressure on the Myanmar Government, they will feel that they have some impunity. The first point is to have a UN-mandated global arms embargo, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about the scope for that. The second point is to extend European sanctions, which at the moment are on individuals, to that part of the economy controlled by the military. We know there are travel restrictions on some of the Myanmar military, but we do not know—again, this is a specific question for the Government—what assets have been frozen so far.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and compelling case. On military personnel travelling, she will know that, soon after the initial escalation in violence in October 2016, red carpets were rolled out in Italy and other countries in Europe for the military generals in April 2017. That is outrageous and any sanctions must start with the top personnel, not the military further down the chain.
I did not know about that episode, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. Ultimately, as everyone in the Chamber understands, we want the implementation of the Kofi Annan report, and full recognition and civil rights for Rohingya people within Myanmar.
To be honest, there could not be a better day for this debate. Hon. Members will recall that two days after Christmas day we remember the slaughter of the innocents, so it is therefore apposite for us to be considering this issue. Hon. Members and people watching the debate also know that Christmas is a time for giving, and having heard the powerful testimonies from my colleagues, I hope that those watching who feel moved to do so, know that to give to the Rohingya refugees via Save the Children they can telephone 0207 012 6400, or go online to www.savethechildren.org.uk/rohingya.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I think I will be the last person from this Dispatch Box to have the opportunity to wish you, other hon. Members, and the staff of the House, a very happy Christmas.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, and to Members for their heartfelt and emotional contributions. One difficulty of standing at this Dispatch Box is that although I have heard the poetry, there may now be a little more prose as I try to give a realistic assessment of what is achievable. As we know, politics is to an extent the art of the possible, but it is also the art of aspiration, and I hope to touch on a few issues that have been raised. I shall try to respond to all the points raised, but I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I revert to writing to a number of specific points. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) will accept that it is better I do it that way, rather than try to give a glib answer that then begins to unravel.
I take this opportunity to condemn on the record the political violence that we have seen in Bangladesh in recent days, which has, and will have, a big bearing on these matters. Whenever I visit Bangladesh, I am struck—as I am sure other hon. Members are—by the absolute determination of its people to get on and prosper, and we all know that political instability and violence will not help them to do either of those things. Much can be said, of course, for many in the British-Bangladeshi diaspora
I am concerned by reports that some civil society organisations in Bangladesh are being prevented from observing the election. Independent domestic and international observers have a crucial role in helping to support a free and transparent process for the elections in 10 days’ time. We urge all in Bangladesh to refrain from further violence, to deliver a democratic election, to give Bangladeshis a properly representative Parliament that can propel their country to greater economic prosperity, and—to reflect the words of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—to reflect on their ongoing responsibilities for the situation in and around Cox’s Bazar.
I now turn directly to the subject of this impassioned debate. The plight of the Rohingya people rightly concerns many hon. Members—many more, perhaps, than are in the Chamber today. Like me, several colleagues have made the journey to camps in Bangladesh to meet refugees and heard their distressing testimony for themselves. When I travelled to Cox’s Bazar in June, I could see the immense scale of the suffering. The refugee situation is heartbreaking, notwithstanding the immense generosity being shown to them by the Government of Bangladesh, who have given shelter to nearly 1 million people. Those whom I spoke to said that they wanted, in time, to return to their homes in Burma, but only if they could be certain that they would no longer be persecuted and discriminated against.
I very much agree with the sentiments of the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Bishop Auckland and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain): the citizenship issue is critical. If we do not get that right, it will be pointless for the refugees to return. But the situation is difficult: we cannot impose that but must work with the international community to make the case to the Burmese authorities. The UK Government will continue to work with international partners to press for the creation of conditions in Rakhine allowing for a voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees. However, there is clearly no appetite for such a return at the moment.
As the Minister says, at the moment there is no appetite for going back. There is also a sense of hardening opinions. Whereas a year ago refugees wanted to go back if it was safe, the refugees I spoke to six months ago felt that hope was being lost.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who has been to the camps on several occasions and has probably seen the degradation of process in that regard. I say again that, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), we absolutely oppose plans for moving any Rohingya to Bhasan Char, the island in the bay of Bengal. We do not feel that that would be a safe or feasible place, for the reasons that she set out. Any location or relocation of refugees has to be safe, dignified and in accordance with international humanitarian principles, standards and laws.
As colleagues will know, the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma were preparing to start a refugee repatriation on 15 November. I spoke as a matter of urgency by telephone with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister and I spoke with both the Bangladeshi State Minister of Foreign Affairs and Burma’s Minister for International Co-operation in advance of that day. I was absolutely clear with each of them that the UK Government shared the assessment of the UN Refugee Agency: that insufficient progress had been made to enable safe returns to northern Rakhine.
Our concerns were also borne out by the fact, brought up by many hon. Members today, that no Rohingya refugees volunteered to return. I believe that international pressure at that point was a key factor in halting any involuntary repatriations. I welcome the Bangladeshi Government’s subsequent reaffirmation of their commitment to exclusively voluntary returns, but we all know in the international community that we will have to remain vigilant about that point.
I can reassure Members that the UK will continue to play a full part in supporting Rohingya refugees as a leading donor to the international humanitarian response, to which we have so far donated £129 million.
It is great to hear the Minister affirming that we do not want any forced repatriations and acknowledging that Rohingya refugees want to return only if that is safe. On my most recent visit just two months ago, the word coming out from the refugees was that they wanted justice. Does the Minister agree that the issue is about not just safe repatriation but bringing about justice for all the atrocities that those people have had to live through?
I do understand that. What justice amounts to is obviously something that will develop in time, as and when, one hopes, they are able to return to traditional homelands. That is something I am sure we will discuss.
Just before the Minister moves on from his point about Bhasan Char island, I met the new Bangladesh high commissioner to the UK this week. This is a narrative I have heard before. They do not regard as Bhasan Char island as a bad place to go. Indeed, they say that they are encouraging their own people—Bangladeshis—to apply to Bhasan Char island and that it will not just be an outpost for Rohingya. My concern, however, particularly with the monsoon and so on, is that it is a very secretive environment, so we need to stress that we do not consider Bhasan Char island in that way. I know that this is a point of dispute. I would like to put it on record that the Bangladesh Government do not see Bhasan Char island as a bad place to be.
We have made it clear that we do not feel it is an appropriate place, for the reasons my hon. Friend rightly sets out. Out of sight is out of mind. There is a sense of it being almost like an Alcatraz or near enough some sort of holding pen, rather than a viable place for the longer term.
On my hon. Friend’s previous point about the joint response plan, which goes to the issue of the overall humanitarian response, I am afraid to say that at the moment, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby will know, it is only partially funded. The current figure is 68.9%, which is $654 million out of a $950 million expectation. The UK is, mainly through the international community in Geneva rather than New York, actively encouraging others to step up to do their share in fully funding the plan, including through DFID’s relationships with other donors and donor agencies.
Ultimately, we all know that the solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Rakhine and in Burma more widely. The UN fact-finding mission—we are supportive of it and its evidence—uncovered evidence of a series of horrendous crimes. Its report makes for chilling reading. However, as I have said previously in this House, the Government believe that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is not a political judgment but a matter for judicial decision. It is therefore critical that we work to ensure that a credible judicial process is put in place. The Burmese authorities want to demonstrate that there is no need for an international justice mechanism. They must show that their commission of inquiry will lead to an effective judicial process. I share many of the concerns expressed on the Opposition Benches about that process. What I would say is that the commission of inquiry does have high-ranking international observers. We therefore continue to maintain some hope, but it can work only if it properly holds to account those responsible for crimes, whether they are civilian or in the military.
I have a great deal of time for the Minister, but I find it utterly shocking that, after everything he has heard and all that he knows—he knows a lot more than many others, because he is the Minister—he believes we should be even recognising the internal commission of inquiry. The Burmese military uses commission after commission to distract the international community. In the past, when his predecessors in government used similar lines, we would subsequently look away and thousands of people would have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced out of their country. The same mistake is happening again. He should not have any hope for that internal inquiry. He should answer the question in the motion about the ICC and what we will do.
I think the hon. Lady has slightly misinterpreted what I said. I have very little faith in the commission of inquiry, other than the fact that within it there are international individuals who will hopefully be able to keep some lines of communication open. She is absolutely right that the Burmese authorities have given very little evidence in the past year to suggest that this will be anything more than a whitewash. As I say, there are individuals involved who I hope can keep lines of communication open. [Interruption.] In fairness, the Annan report was commissioned in part by the Burmese military. It provides a fantastic template, if only it were properly enforced.
The Minister is right. We recognise the contribution of the late Kofi Annan, and we recognise that the commission’s recommendations would be significant if only they were implemented. The Burmese military’s answer to those recommendations was the 2017 attacks that brought about this crisis, with thousands of people killed and 700,000 forced out. That is their answer to people like Kofi Annan and others—independent- minded figures engaging and trying to help the Burmese Government. Their answer is further slaughter and genocide.
I very much respect what the hon. Lady has said, and, as she will know, I share her concerns. We will do all that we can.
If I may, in the time allotted to me, I will say a little more about what else we are doing in the international community. The Foreign Secretary is the Minister who visited Burma most recently, back in September. He made our expectations very clear to Aung San Suu Kyi, and repeated that message in a letter written jointly with the French Foreign Minister. He made clear that if the commission of inquiry was to have any credibility, it must be transparent and independent, and must take full account of the international evidence brought to it. If it is not and does not, the Burmese authorities and their supporters at the United Nations will, in our view, have no grounds whatsoever for rejecting moves towards an international mechanism to secure that accountability.
Let me now say something about the UK’s international action. We are, in the meantime, building on our success at the September session of the Human Rights Council, where we secured a regulation mandating the creation of a “collect and preserve” mechanism. That will support the preparation of case files for use in future prosecutions. I fear that some of the leading lights of the Burmese military will be there for some time to come, but that unique mechanism will enable evidence to be in place for those future prosecutions.
We have been clear with fellow members that the Security Council should take further action, and we have tried to build consensus on what that might be. I know that many Members would like the Security Council to refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court, but a referral would be extremely difficult to achieve, because veto-wielding members of the Security Council would vote against it. I must say to the hon. Members for Tooting and for Bradford East and others that there is a risk that a vetoed resolution would be counterproductive to our aims, because it would reduce pressure on the Burmese military, and would also undermine the very credibility of the United Nations.
I know that some look back at China’s decision to abstain rather than vetoing the UN Security Resolution in 2005 referring the Darfur situation to the International Criminal Court. I believe that we should test what China is prepared to accept in this situation, but I also think we need to recognise that the way in which that nation behaved in 2005 in relation to a crisis in Africa may not be the way in which a China that is rather more assertive on the international stage behaves in relation to a crisis in its own neighbourhood.
The Minister says that China’s interests in that part of Africa were not necessarily what its interests are in Myanmar. Is it not a fact that the Chinese Government see this region as essential to its belt and road strategy and its overall expansion of its investments, and therefore regards neighbouring countries as a strategic asset? Is it not very likely that the Chinese will continue to prove very difficult in the United Nations on this matter?
I fear that they will. There are the strategic and economic issues to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and there is also—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland—the sense of a non-interference strategy. To be fair, they believe that across the board in the context of sovereignty, but obviously there are issues closer at hand in regard to which there has been public criticism, and that will, I suspect, increase in the months and years to come.
I would like to think that we will continue to try to work within the UN, and that we should try to table a resolution if the opportunity arises, but I am trying to be as open as possible with the House about some of the fundamental strategic difficulties that we face in trying to table a resolution. Although I understand that there is a real sense of outrage, and a feeling that we need to be on the front foot, it might well undermine what we are trying to achieve in the short to medium term in building some sort of consensus among like-minded international states.
The point the Minister makes about the Chinese veto somehow emboldening the Burmese military further is lost on me, because the Burmese military at the moment are acting as judge, jury and executioner; anybody who thinks there is an ounce of real democracy in Burma is kidding themselves. The military have all the key seats, including, as the Minister knows, the Home, Foreign and Security Offices. If we do nothing, that will surely embolden the Burmese military further.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and he will appreciate that these are very sensitive decisions that we are making on the international stage. I know that this debate will be read not just in Burma, but in the UN as well, where our group there will try to make some headway on the issue.
I am taking rather longer than I intended, but this is an important debate and I wanted to take some interventions. However, I want now to come back to my speech.
Let me also say this very specifically about China’s actions at the moment: China’s forcing of a procedural vote as recently as October to try to prevent the fact-finding mission from even briefing the UN Security Council highlights, I fear, the level of opposition we are currently up against. But we shall continue to try to engage China on the need for accountability for this horrendous set of crimes, and our strategy of course is not constrained to the UN Security Council; we secured agreement as recently as 10 December at the Foreign Affairs Council to expand the EU’s Burma sanctions listing. Seven senior military and border guard police officers were sanctioned by the EU in June for their roles in human rights violations in Rakhine in August and September 2017. We shall be adding more names to that list and expect to announce details early in the new year. These measures and their signal that the international community will take further steps to increase the pressure are noticed and are not welcomed by the Burmese military or indeed the State Counsellor.
Of course human rights violations continue to occur elsewhere in Burma, as has been mentioned by a number of Members. In the last few weeks three Kachin activists were convicted of defamation and sentenced to six months in prison for organising protests in which they were alleged to have criticised the Burmese military. Our ambassador had met them only a few days earlier, and both he and I have publicly protested at that sentencing.
The fact-finding mission report also highlighted that atrocities had been committed against both Kachin and Shan state minorities, and I heard some of the horrifying evidence for myself.
I am sorry for intervening as I appreciate that the Minister has a limited amount of time in which to speak. However, I feel that I cannot sit here in silence while listening to the continuation of the debate without saying that the Minister has so eloquently spoken of the atrocities against a number of other minority groups unfolding as we sit here ready to go on our Christmas recess. I am proud to be British and proud to be in this Parliament, and we have a duty to call out all that is wrong globally. We sit here talking about this knowing full well that atrocities are continuing. When are we going to stand up, be counted and not be fearful of what the countries around Burma are going to be saying to us?
We are standing up in New York and in Geneva on a daily basis and being counted on this very issue—trying to take a lead. The Kachin and Shan issue is not an isolated example. This goes back to the issue of our being penholders, and one can look back through history to 1824 or 1945, but one of the desperate things is that those minorities fought on our side during the war while the Burmese Buddhist majority sided with the Japanese, and that is one of the reasons why we have an historical moral and ethical imperative. A number of those minorities have been considered as beyond the pale and not as citizens partly as a result of that episode; essentially that was seen as somehow being against the moves for Burma to have independence from the United Kingdom.
With the House’s indulgence, I will touch on two more points. I will write to Members on some of the specifics, because I would rather not say anything inaccurate. With regard to family reunion for refugees, I believe that the Home Office has written to the hon. Member for Bradford East, stating that the UK Government strongly support family unity, and that the Home Office has a comprehensive framework in place for refugees and their families. He made a good point that the refugees in Cox’s Bazar clearly cannot go to Dhaka anytime soon to exercise those rights. He made the point on the Floor of the House, and I will do my best and will write to the Home Office to make clear his concerns.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me at least to put this on the record. For months now I have been seeking to meet the Home Office in order to deliver hundreds of applications or information sheets that I have received from constituents who have relatives in Cox’s Bazar, first so that the Home Office has that valuable information, and secondly to see whether anything could be done. However, the Home Office is refusing to meet me.
I am sure that was a rather mischievous intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but because it is Christmas we will let him get away with it. But he makes a serious point.
Let me touch on the issue of sexual violence, which was raised by a number of Members. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland asked about the legal status of children in camps. I will write to her, because I need to consult the FCO’s legal advisers to be absolutely clear about the precise nature of that. As many Members will know, we have worked very closely and played a leading role with our advisers on sexual violence in Bangladesh. We have a team of experts trying to map and document human rights violations, partly for the longer-term development of evidence, but obviously also to try to train up Bangladeshi expertise in this regard. Clearly that is an important part of our ongoing work in the camps.
DFID is very much leading the way in supporting a range of organisations that provide specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh, including 19 women’s centres offering a safe space, psychosocial support and activity for women and girls. At the last count, 53,510 women have been provided with midwifery care and advice. We also support projects in Burma as part of the preventing sexual violence initiative, including publishing guidance on support for survivors in a formal legal process.
In conclusion, we all know that the Rohingya people have a right to live in their home country in safety and with dignity—something we take for granted at this time of the year. For that to happen, those responsible for their persecution must be held accountable, and the Burmese state must show that it is serious about bringing an end to prejudice and discrimination against ethnic minorities who have suffered for so long. Burma will also continue to need the support of the international community if we are to see democracy, human rights and the rule of law embedded in that country for the longer term.
As things stand, we must prepare ourselves for what I fear will be a very long journey. We must remember that the Burmese people will have to endure every step of that journey, given the Government they have. That is why I will repeat today what I have said before: for their sake, the UK will stay the course so that one day the people of Burma can live together in peace, justice and prosperity.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I repeat the offer that my door will remain open on the issue. One of the frustrations in the 18 months or so that I have been a Foreign Office Minister is that there are certain matters—I was going to say “easy wins”, but nothing is easy in diplomacy—that land on my desk and in relation to which I can achieve something in very quick order. I have spent a huge amount of time working on this issue, as a number of Members have been kind enough to point out. Perhaps I do not share the passion or anger shown by some Opposition Members, but I share their concerns and wish that I could achieve more. I wish that I could say that we had been able to achieve a huge amount in the international community. Sometimes, as I have said on the Floor of the House before, one of the frustrations and challenges of being in the Foreign Office is that we take two or three steps forward and then take a couple of steps back. We have made progress and a lot of work is going on, not only among my team in the Foreign Office but in New York and Geneva, and particularly in Dhaka, Rangoon and Naypyidaw, where we have our high commissions and embassies.
The truth of the matter is that this issue is very tough. It is one of those issues that is not open to a rapid solution. I wish it were. It breaks my heart: I am a father of two children and, not least at this time of the year, one recognises the conditions in which many Rohingya live, and not just for the past 18 months, because many of them have been living in those conditions for decades. We have to be in it for the long haul. The UK Government and, more importantly still, in many ways, the UK Parliament is in it for the long haul.
I thank everyone for what they have done. As I say, my door remains open and I will try to ensure that as the situation develops we speak to as many Members with strong concerns about this matter as we can. Work is in progress, and although there is not a great dawn ahead in 2019, I feel that we are taking a number of tracks, and hopefully we will not only have accountability and improve the humanitarian opportunities for those living in Cox’s Bazar, but work with international partners to try to look properly to the longer term. As many people say, the issue in that part of the world is not just about the Rohingya today; it is about the precedent that is being set. Although we can never say never again, and they always seem like such hollow words, that is the real prize here. If we can do something and bring together an accountability process that is a precedent for the future, a lot of the very hard work on this matter that goes on, not only in the UK Foreign Office but in several other countries, will not be in vain.
Let me start by expressing my gratitude to my hon. Friends and other Members, especially my co-sponsor the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), for taking time to contribute to this debate ahead of Christmas. Everybody has spoken passionately and with conviction and courage about the importance of the need for the British Government to act, and we have highlighted our own experiences of why we need to act. I am grateful to the Minister for the work he has been doing and for what he has said.
Let me sum up and reiterate some of the points made by my hon. Friends and Members in all parts the Chamber. The first is the importance of the reform of citizenship laws and the protection of all minorities—especially the Rohingya population, given the scale of the disaster, but also other minorities, including Christian minorities. There are conflicts throughout Burma that affect humanitarian access for other minorities, such as the Kachin.
Along with its humanitarian dimension, the particular focus of the motion is the need to seek an International Criminal Court referral through the United Nations. The Minister highlighted very well the complexities of getting such a referral, and we understand them, but we need to remind ourselves of some of the remarks that have been made, including “If not now, when?” If the Minister is not prepared to say when, for the reasons that he has explained—we fully appreciate the complexity and difficulty of international diplomacy—will he please make the commitment that he, and perhaps even the Foreign Secretary, will regularly report to the House, without our having to spend months trying to secure a Backbench debate that then gets delayed because of the wider crises that we face in this country, particularly given the uncertainties of Brexit and a potential no-deal situation.
The point about the referral and accountability and justice is well made and important. We are particularly passionate and determined that this foreign affairs team—the current Foreign Secretary, with the Minister and his colleagues—take action, because they have shown the greatest commitment so far. That includes the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Burma and his discussions with some of us before and after that. I am grateful for the time that has been given to involve Members of the House. This team has shown the most commitment to trying to get results, so we need to seize that opportunity, because we have had a lot of change, with a number of Ministers having moved. While we have the Government’s commitment and understanding, we need action. Otherwise, we will keep coming back here to remind and re-educate subsequent Ministers, not because they do not care, but because they are having to learn fast, as this Minister had to do when, as a new Minister, he stood in this Chamber to respond to an urgent question when this crisis began. That is why we are absolutely determined to ensure that the Government take much stronger action and report back—every few months, I hope—with some results, rather than have us go round in circles.
The points on the issues relating to protection, particularly of women and children, are well made. I urge the Minister to make sure that DFID does more and that we do more to ensure that the outstanding funding is provided for the appeal, because without medium to long-term funding, the hand-to-mouth existence is going to cause further devastation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned the Jordan compact as a way of learning what else could be done and supporting host populations, as has been the case in Jordan in respect of Syrian refugees. It is important that DFID and the Foreign Office explore those options. On the conditions in the camps, the International Development Committee highlighted the 200,000 people who would have been at risk if landslides had taken place as a result of flooding and cyclones. There is a real risk that that could happen next year. I know from spending the first seven years of my life in Bangladesh that the climate is very difficult, so I hope the Minister will do more with the Department to ensure that more support is provided.
I want to thank all the international and domestic non-governmental organisations that have supported the efforts, both in Rakhine and in Bangladesh. I particularly thank the Burma Campaign UK and Refugees International, which first took me to Burma when I was a newly elected MP, in very challenging circumstances. I also thank the faith organisations—the mosques, synagogues and churches—which have raised so much money; British nationals have raised so much money and shown so much generosity. I echo the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for people to donate ahead of this Christmas to support people who are struggling to survive. I thank all of my colleagues for giving their time and sticking with this very important issue, because genocide cannot be taken lightly. That is why we must act.
I wish to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for indulging us, and me in particular, in allowing me to speak for a bit longer than two minutes. I wish you a very happy Christmas, and I wish all colleagues, especially my co-sponsor, a very happy Christmas and new year.
I thank the hon. Lady for her good wishes. I have allowed speeches to take rather longer than they ought to have this afternoon because this is a very difficult subject, and some powerful and impassioned speeches have been made. It breaks my heart to think of the way in which this Chamber and this Parliament are criticised for what happens for half an hour a week, given that for the other 40 hours of the week that we sit here in this Chamber and this Parliament we do some very good and important work. I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate this afternoon, and I only wish that those who observe us would look now and see how positive and beneficial this Parliament is to the nation and indeed to the world.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House is deeply concerned by the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing Rohingya refugees; agrees with the findings of the UN fact-finding mission that genocide and war crimes have been carried out against the Rohingya by senior Myanmar military figures; calls on the Government to pursue an ICC referral for Myanmar through the UN Security Council; and further calls on the Government to put pressure on the United Nations to prevent the repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh to unsafe conditions in Myanmar and continue to provide assistance to Rohingya refugees.