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Rohingya: Refugees

Volume 787: debated on Thursday 23 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the long-term needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh; and what further assistance they will provide.

My Lords, the Department for International Development has started planning for the scenario of a protracted refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Discussions with the Government of Bangladesh and key partners have begun to identify acceptable solutions that protect and respect the rights and freedoms of refugees.

I am grateful to the Minister and the department for what they have done for the refugees. As the Minister knows, I was there two weeks ago and saw for myself the appalling situation: the malnutrition, lack of sanitation and lack of hope. That is why we must welcome the provisional agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, because the only way that these 800,000 people can have hope for the future is if they return to their homeland in Myanmar. However, they need a guarantee of their safety so that there is no more persecution and, effectively, genocide, which has taken place. Will the British Government do everything they can to support this agreement and to get guarantees that the refugees will return safely and have hope for the future?

I am very happy to give that undertaking. Like the noble Lord, I welcome the news today that an agreement on safe return has been reached at a high level between Bangladesh and Burma. That is a key part of the UN Security Council presidential statement of 6 November, which called for the safe return of those refugees to their homes, and, of course, their safety while there. The noble Lord makes a very important point—namely, when they go back, great dangers await them. Therefore, the other part of the presidential statement calls for access to the area for the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission and international humanitarian organisations as an essential part of providing the safety and security to enable that outcome to happen.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Burmese military’s denials that there has been mass orchestrated rape and sexual violence against women and girls are devoid of any credibility given the numerous eye-witness accounts, and that this is a crime against humanity? While I welcome the Written Answer I have received, which states that Foreign Office experts will be deployed to assess the needs of the victims, will the Government step up urgently and for the long term the provision of specialist medical care for those victims, assistance in dealing with the stigma of rape and the documentation of these crimes for future accountability, all of which the United Kingdom is in a strong position to provide?

We are in a strong position to provide it because of my noble friend’s work when he was Foreign Secretary and the leadership he has taken in this important area. As a result of that, one of the first things we did was to ensure that counselling was available for 10,000 women who had been subjected to gender-based violence, and 2,000 who had been subjected to sexual violence in conflict. That is only part of our wider effort on this. There is no doubt that significant crimes have been committed and those responsible need to be brought to justice. The events in The Hague yesterday should remind us that, however long it takes, the resolve of the international community will ensure that happens.

My Lords, DfID’s support for the almost 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who have fled such horrific violence would be effectively demonstrated by implementing its recommitments to the Grand Bargain and releasing funds to local first responders swiftly, paying particular attention to women, so that they can lead the response to the 448,000 women and girls who have suffered devastating sexual and gender-based violence. To what extent is this happening and by what mechanism? Secondly, has the FCO team specialising in responding to gender-based violence been deployed? I understand that is now the case.

That work is going on: the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR are working there, and we are co-ordinating with all the organisations. We have committed £47 million and should take pride in the UK being by far the largest bilateral donor, with $63 million pledged. Next is the United States, with $38 million, then Sweden, with $23 million. We are proud of that, but it is not just about the money; it is also about driving the political and international pressure.

My Lords, on bringing people to justice, in addition to the security that is required, does the noble Lord accept that the root cause of this was the denial of citizenship to the Rohingya people? Will he say what discussions we have had with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Government in Burma to that effect, and whether we will impose sanctions on members of the military who have been responsible for these depredations?

The noble Lord’s point on the loss of citizenship is absolutely at the core of this. One of the recommendations made by Kofi Annan’s Rakhine advisory commission is that the 1982 law, which stripped them of their citizenship and underlies this ongoing injustice, needs to be tackled. We recognise that that is an important part of it and we want to see that situation resolved, along with the others.

I am being urged to carry on. Thank you. Does the Minister recognise that continual genocidal attacks have driven over 700,000 injured Rohingya people out of Burma, and many who remain exist in the terrible misery of detention camps? Is it not therefore clear that these realities mean that repatriation would be not a solution but a terrible punishment? Therefore, instead of hoping for the Rohingya to return, will the Government make it their absolute priority to encourage the Bangladeshi Government to enable major NGOs to provide long-term humanitarian and development aid for these oppressed, homeless people so that they do not have to fear a return to hell?

I fear that is correct. As I said in my opening Answer to the noble Lord, we are preparing for a protracted refugee crisis. However, we have to keep the pressure up by saying that we want those refugees to be able to return home in safety and for that to be part of a wider solution that addresses their human rights.