Skip to main content

Persecution of the Rohingya: International Response

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 13 October 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jacob Young.)

May I extend my deepest condolences to Sir David Amess’s family? He was a friend to us across the House.

In August, we marked the fifth anniversary of the Burmese military’s genocide against the Rohingya people. For the Rohingya, it has been five long years of pain, trauma, grief and displacement in camps far from their homes, with their families destroyed. They have been robbed of their livelihoods, their education, their peace of mind and their future. For the perpetrators, the soldiers and the men who issued the orders—the heads of the Burmese military—it has been five years of evading justice for their crimes.

I thank colleagues across both Houses who have served on the all-party parliamentary groups on democracy in Burma—I am grateful for the support of my co-chair, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)—and on the rights of the Rohingya. Both groups have the support of a number of parliamentarians in each House, including Baroness Cox. I am also grateful for the work of the former Member of Parliament for St Albans, Anne Main, who helped to set up the all-party group on the rights of the Rohingya after the genocide five years ago.

After years of campaigning with hundreds of parliamentarians across this House, I welcome the decision—a rather belated one, but I am grateful to Ministers for confirming it—that the UK will intervene to support international justice in the case of The Gambia v. Myanmar at the International Court of Justice. I would have liked that to happen sooner, as Britain is the penholder on Burma at the UN Security Council, but it is good to see the Government supporting the case, along with other countries.

I thank the Burma Campaign, which has given critical support to parliamentarians campaigning on this important issue, not only in this country but in the US and elsewhere. I must also thank a number of international non-governmental organisations. The list is extensive, but I want to name a few. The International Rescue Committee supported my visit to the camps at Cox’s Bazar a few years ago. BRAC has thousands of staff who have been supporting people, along with other international and national NGOs in Bangladesh, after the displacement of 700,000 refugees during the genocide five years ago; the country now hosts 1 million Rohingya refugees. I also thank Save the Children, Refugees International, which supported my visit to Rakhine state in 2013, and other international NGOs that have supported subsequent visits to Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine state in 2017.

It is also thanks to the Rohingya community organisations, both in this country and internationally, that the issue has been raised not only in the international media but in our Parliament and Parliaments across the world. However, keeping it on the agenda has been a challenge, given the many crises, sadly, that have been happening around the world, not least the most recent challenge facing the Ukrainian people in the conflict perpetrated by Russia.

I am pleased that Ministers have announced that sanctions will be stepped up against the companies that are propping up the military dictatorship, including the Star Sapphire Group of Companies, the International Gateways Group of Companies Ltd, and Sky One Construction Company Ltd. I also welcome the Government’s commitment, in principle, to bring the Burmese military to the International Criminal Court.

On 23 September, in answer to a written question from me, the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), stated:

“The UK is clear that there must be accountability for the atrocities committed in Myanmar. We condemn the continuing grave human rights violations by the Myanmar Armed Forces, as well as historic atrocities against the Rohingya. The UK is supportive, in principle, of any attempts to bring these issues before the International Criminal Court…where they can be scrutinised.”

Unfortunately, however, the Minister went on to say that the Government remained resistant to convening the Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court because of

“insufficient support amongst Security Council members”.

I understand the challenges, but that is not good enough. As I said earlier, Britain is the penholder at the UN Security Council when it is concerned with Burma/Myanmar. It is imperative for our Government to take a leadership role in the international community to build that alliance and consensus, so that a referral can be made and we can make further progress in seeking and achieving justice for the Rohingya people, who have faced genocide.

Even in the months since the military coup on 1 February 2021, the military has stepped up attacks in ethnic areas including Chin, Karenni and Karen state, including the torching of villages, the murder of children, and people being burned alive. The international community must speak out with one voice, and prove the strength of its collective institutions by bringing the Myanmar military regime to justice. There is more that we can do right now. That requires leadership from our Government, building on what has been achieved so far.

It is—unfortunately—shameful that the British Government have drastically reduced their aid to the Rohingya refugees over the last few years. For the 2021-22 financial year, British aid to the camps was reduced to 45% of the level of the previous financial year, and a reduction of 67% on the financial year before that. The need in the camps has not been reduced; it has grown.

We can endlessly debate here the terrible iniquities that the Rohingya people have been experiencing for a number of years, and my hon. Friend and I worked together when we were in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to try to further the support of the UK Government, but in the end it is money that counts. There have been enormous cuts in international aid, and hence an overall cut in support for the Rohingya refugees. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is simply not good enough, and that the Government ought to rectify it with urgency? They have said that they are not cutting their public expenditure, so let them put it where it is needed most.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. It is vital that the Government reverse those cuts in aid for the camps. It cannot be right that the country that is hosting the largest number of refugees, Bangladesh, is left to deal with the situation with much less funding. It also cannot be right that the internally displaced camps in Myanmar, where there is a desperate need for support, are receiving far less funding, and the non-governmental organisations that have access are struggling desperately to cope with and address the needs, demands and problems of the refugees.

I will never forget the experience of hearing the stories of what happened to the refugees I visited in 2013 and 2017 in Rakhine state, where there are heavy restrictions on aid agencies and how they operate. Despite that, the agencies have made heroic efforts to support those who have been forced into the camps by the denial of citizenship rights, by persecution and by the atrocities that the Burmese military committed over a number of years, including in 2012 and subsequently in the so-called clear-out operations.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I am sure all will join me in congratulating her on her tireless efforts in not only raising the plight of the Rohingya, but continuing to seek justice for one of the most persecuted peoples of the last few decades. The reality is that five years on, we still have a million people in refugee camps, the international community is yet to give 58% of its overall commitment, and the Burmese military roam free from any consequences. Does she agree that the international community must come together, give the aid that they have pledged and bring justice to the Rohingya people?

My hon. Friend makes important points about the need to provide support, as well as the need for justice. I am grateful to him and to colleagues across the House for all the support they have given over the years. The progress that has been made so far on the justice dimension could not have been achieved if parliamentarians had not mobilised, and we have shown our best side on this important campaign. I think the Minister will acknowledge that there has been considerable resistance over the years, and the UK Government’s position has shifted as a result of the efforts of colleagues across both Houses. We were the first group of parliamentarians to call for the Burmese military to be referred to the International Criminal Court all those years ago, and I am pleased to see that President Biden’s Administration has led the way in making it clear that they will support a referral to the International Criminal Court.

To return to the humanitarian situation, I will never forget the trauma described by women in the Cox’s Bazar camp, which I have visited twice. They spoke of being raped in front of their fathers, and fathers described witnessing the killing of their sons. They have had to live with the trauma of that experience without any support. Our Government have reduced material support over the last few years, and there is very little psychological support. Where such support exists, it has been phenomenal in helping women, men and children.

I will never forget the trauma that girls and boys experienced during the genocide. They have faced the double catastrophe of having to live in camps in Rakhine state where their physical movement and access to food are limited. In those camps, access to resources is so limited that Muslim women have been unable even to find headscarves or access sanitary products and many other basic necessities, because of the shortage of food and other essential goods. I will never forget how teenage boys and girls were struggling because they did not have access to education in the camps, due to restrictions in both countries. I have seen at first hand the suffering in those camps. The pandemic made matters worse, ravaging camps despite the heroic efforts of non-governmental organisations, and putting even more strain on stretched resources.

The 1 February 2021 military coup in Myanmar has made it even more unlikely that the Rohingya people will return to their rightful home—Myanmar. When Rohingya people see the same men in charge in Myanmar, they see their torturers, their murderers, their rapists. The United Nations joint response plan for the Rohingya refugee camps is only 30% funded for 2022, yet there will be a need for support in years to come. I urge the Minister to revisit the UK Government’s decision to cut funding to the Rohingya refugees and to ensure that the cuts that have been made are reversed. It cannot be right that they are put in an even more perilous position than the one they are already in.

Given the static situation the Rohingya face, with little hope of a speedy return to their country, what else can we do to help? I mentioned the generation of Rohingya denied an education. As I pointed out in a 2018 debate, over half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children. For the children and teenagers in the camps, education has been disrupted and is sporadic, to say the least. Many do not have access to education at all; schools and lessons have been closed down. During the pandemic, they were set back even more. I urge all responsible parties—aid agencies, local authorities and the international community—to come together to support children and families in the camps, in particular the young people who need education as well as other resources to survive and cope with the ongoing situation there.

On my visit to Cox’s Bazar earlier this year, I was amazed to see the tireless work of the NGOs but also of officials—British diplomats and those leading the way in supporting the distribution of aid. They are trying desperately to make ends meet, with very limited resources, to support people in the camps. It is profoundly clear that teenagers have the least resources, in terms of access to education and so on. That is potentially extremely dangerous. We need to make sure that the next generation of Rohingya people are able to get an education while they wait to eventually return home. I invite the Minister to address these issues, and I hope that he will continue to work with the relevant agencies and Governments to make sure that that happens.

I mentioned the welcome expansion of sanctions by the UK Government to choke off the supply of cash and materials to the military regime.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the House, and I congratulate her on her dogged perseverance on behalf of the Rohingyas, who face persecution and discrimination. She mentioned sanctions. The military continues to make vast profits through the destruction of religious minorities and the crushing of political opposition. Land and assets have been seized from victims as the regime looks to hide the money abroad. Jade and rubies, which are exported in vast quantities, have become the new blood diamonds. Does the hon. Lady agree that more action is needed to prevent Myanmar’s military from profiteering from human rights abuses and hiding the money on international markets? The Government and the Minister need to act directly.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, because unless we have robust sanctions, building on what has been done so far, the Myanmar military will continue to act with impunity. That is very much what has happened. They will continue to profit from their abuses of power and be rewarded for the military coup that they instigated, where they successfully retook the country altogether, taking it away from its democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

A recent UN report on the implementation of the recommendations of the factfinding mission on Myanmar showed that there is so much more we can do on sanctions. I hope that the Minister will address the reasons why the Government have not fully implemented the recommendations in that report. We acted swiftly and resolutely against Putin’s Russia in relation to the Ukrainian conflict; we have much to learn from the interventions that have been made, and the international co-ordination and co-operation that has gone on. Why are we not doing the same in relation to Myanmar, given what has happened in that country, with the appalling actions of the military against not only the Rohingya population, but other minorities and, in the light of the military coup, the entire population? Thousands have been killed in that country since the military coup.

The military have targeted minority groups and the Rohingya, and have committed genocide, but they have now targeted the entire nation. Many state-owned enterprises, such as the No. 2 Mining Enterprise, which has been mentioned and which gets profits from rare earths, have not yet been sanctioned by the Government. The important thing about sanctions is that they must be internationally co-ordinated, otherwise sanctions-busters will, like water, always find the cracks. This requires leadership, which is where our Governments can take the lead.

For the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, life is unimaginably hard. They face an apartheid-like regime of ethnic separation; routine human rights abuses; and violence and murder. The UN Security Council must convene and pass a resolution under chapter VII that would establish targeted economic sanctions and establish an arms embargo. Those states supplying weapons used to kill civilians—Russia, Serbia and China—must be stopped now. That requires leadership by our Government and international co-operation. As Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, reported in February:

“Stopping the junta’s atrocity crimes begins with blocking their access to weapons. The more the world delays, the more innocent people, including children, will die in Myanmar.”

The longer the delay, the more graves the people of Myanmar will be digging.

So my last question to the Minister is this: what conversations has he had, or have his colleagues had, with our international partners in order to co-ordinate the sanctions effort, to make it genuinely supra-national and to hit the regime where it hurts? The Burmese military’s genocide against the Rohingya stands as one of the greatest crimes against humanity in recent times, and it is not over. We have seen villages torched; children and babies killed; women raped and murdered; people set on fire; and a million people forced from their homes. All of that has been documented by the United Nations. This genocide was also fuelled by the use of modern technology and social media. As the UN factfinding mission pointed out, Facebook played a “determining role” in that genocide. Five years on, the Rohingya are no nearer justice and no closer to home. They have no hope of a settled, stable life, which is all they want. Will we be here in five years’ time, still talking about aid to the camps and the need for sanctions? Surely the answer must be no.

I am pleased to be able to respond today. I thank the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for calling this debate and for speaking movingly of her experience, which is reflective of her long-standing interest in this issue, for which the House is grateful. I should say that in preparation for this debate, I have liaised with Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister of State with responsibility for south Asia. Again, I wish to thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the all-party groups, as we acknowledge the importance of their work over a number of years in raising the prominence of this issue and correctly pushing for an active policy response. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) for their contributions in the Chamber

It has been more than a year and a half since the Myanmar armed forces seized power in a coup in that country. We must be clear that they continue to inflict acute suffering on the people of Myanmar. The country is plunging ever deeper into political, economic and humanitarian crisis, and the consequences for regional stability and security are clear.

The Myanmar armed forces continue their brutal campaign of violence against civilians, with many of the same hallmarks of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017. The recent airstrike on a school, which killed at least 11 children, was an abhorrent reminder of the nature of the military regime. At this point I should say, in response to the questions from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, that we are targeting sanctions at the military’s access to finance and arms. That includes targeted sanctions on gems and timber. We have worked and continue to work closely with partners in the US, Canada and the EU to tighten the sanctions regime to hit the military where it hurts.

More than 14 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance—a staggering 13 million increase since the coup—which makes the situation in Myanmar one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Over the past financial year, the UK Government have given more than £49 million in assistance to support humanitarian needs, as well as for healthcare, education and civil society. More than half that money is being spent to tackle the humanitarian crisis, particularly in the border regions. That includes support to the Rohingya communities in Rakhine state. Approximately 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine state, almost a quarter of whom have been confined to camps for the past decade.

We are now five years on from the horrific violence and trauma that the Rohingya communities suffered in 2017. Sadly, there continues to be no sign of a durable solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis. We are particularly concerned about the renewed violence in Rakhine state over the past month. Rohingya communities are caught up in fighting between the armed forces and the Arakan army, which is, as Members will know, an ethnic Rakhine armed organisation. Humanitarian access is blocked by the military regime, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people in need.

Rohingya communities, who have been stripped of their citizenship and denied freedom of movement, have been caught in the crossfire, with many trying to flee to safety. The UK Government are clear: the violence must stop immediately; all civilians must be protected; humanitarian access must be restored; and Rohingya communities must be enabled to return to Myanmar from neighbouring countries in a safe, voluntary and dignified way.

When it comes to our support, which has been mentioned, since 2017 the United Kingdom has provided £340 million-worth of support to the Rohingya and neighbouring communities in Bangladesh. We have also provided £25 million for the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine state. This has paid for life-saving food, water, shelter, healthcare and protection. We continue to be a major global donor to the United Nations’ humanitarian agencies, providing £108 million this year. That enables them to respond to this crisis, including when it affects young people and children. One of our key partners is UNICEF, which attends to children and young adults who are particularly in need.

Let me address directly one question from the hon. Lady. We remain committed to increasing the level of our humanitarian support back to 0.7% of GNI when fiscal constraints allow. We have been clear about that all along. We are of course operating under some constraints.

Overall, the UK Government’s total portfolio of support makes us one of the largest bilateral humanitarian donors to the Rohingya response. We will continue to provide support until the Rohingya are able to return to Myanmar, as well as to local communities around the camps in Bangladesh. We will of course continue to work alongside the international community to improve conditions for the Rohingya in Myanmar and mitigate the risk of further atrocities. As I have mentioned, that work includes using targeted sanctions and building a global coalition of countries committed to tackling the flow of arms into Myanmar.

This year marked the fifth anniversary of the atrocities committed by the Myanmar armed forces against the Rohingya people. We marked it by pressing for accountability for the atrocities in Rakhine state. We have not forgotten what happened. Last month, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the United Kingdom announced a further round of sanctions to target businesses with close links to the Myanmar armed forces that funded the clearance operation of 2017. We want to hold those responsible to account. We believe that that is crucial to ending the violence and the misery suffered by the Rohingya.

In August, the UK Government announced our intention to intervene in the International Court of Justice case—the case mentioned by the hon. Lady—which has been brought by the Gambia, regarding Myanmar’s obligations under the genocide convention. We believe that that is the best form of holding those responsible to account. The hon. Lady also referred to the International Criminal Court. Of course, we support attempts to bring these issues before the ICC, but our judgment is that a referral from the Security Council would not at this stage be the most efficacious way of doing that, and it may inadvertently afford comfort to Myanmar’s military. Our belief is that the best vehicle for holding the perpetrators of these terrible atrocities to account is through the International Court of Justice and the case brought by the Gambia, and we have been energetic in our intervention in support of that case.

I thank the Minister for his response, but could he say a bit more about what is being done to build that international alliance to ensure that the ICC referral route is pursued at some point? The only way to do that is if the UK, as the lead, actually works to build that alliance. It will not happen without that effort. Furthermore, what exactly are the UK Government doing to support the ICJ case led by the Gambia? Having expressed support, can the Minister be specific about what exactly the Government are doing?

We certainly hope that the ICC will at some point be a forum for holding these crimes to account. We will continue to use our diplomatic network very energetically to build a foundation for one day arriving at that point. We think that, on that journey, our contribution to the ICJ case will be very significant. What we bring to that is tremendous legal firepower and an ability to add real strength to the case being brought by the Gambia. We hope that our alliance and our legal firepower will be an effective and important intervention in that case, which may lay the foundation for further legal activity and, possibly in the longer term, some movement in the ICC.

To achieve true justice for the Rohingya, their citizenship in Myanmar must be restored, the systematic human rights violations they have suffered for decades must end and Rohingya people must be meaningfully included in future visions of Myanmar society. Humanitarian assistance cannot solve that political element of the crisis. We need to look to the future and work to create the conditions that will allow the Rohingya to return to Myanmar voluntarily, safely, and with dignity when the situation allows.

We therefore continue to engage with a range of partners, both globally and in the region, to encourage dialogue, to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis and fundamentally to support a return to democracy. We will use all available opportunities, including at the G7 and with our Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners, to push for a long-term solution to the crisis at its root cause. We will also use our role as penholder to keep the situation in Myanmar on the UN Security Council’s agenda and explore all available council tools.

The Rohingya crisis remains a top priority for this Government. We will continue to do all we can to ensure the Rohingya can voluntarily, safely and sustainably return home when conditions allow, and to ensure that all people in Myanmar can live safely and in peace. I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Lady for calling this debate and to all parliamentarians for their efforts to engage and support this important issue.

As somebody who has been to Cox’s Bazar myself and seen the appalling consequences of the persecution of the Rohingya, I must say how privileged I am to have chaired today’s Adjournment debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.