Rohingya Crisis Debate

20th December 2018

Anne Main calls for more humanitarian aid for Rohingya refugees and for the UK Government to do everything possible to bring those responsible for the heinous crimes committed against the Rohingya to the ICC to ensure justice and accountability for the Rohingya people.

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.



Later interventions in the same debate

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.



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.



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.



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.



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