Debate on Rohingya Refugee
in the British Parliament
Dr. Mozammel Haque
Last month in January 2018 there were some important debate, discussions and events on Rohingya in London, the first one was a discussion at the internationally well-known Think-Tank The Chatham House, London, on Rohingya Crisis: Past Present and Future, held on 23 January 2018. The second one was Labour parliamentarian briefing on Rohingya Refugees held at Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament on 29 January, 2018 and the third was a debate on Refugees and Human Rights moved by Opposition Labour Party MP Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) in the House of Commons on 24 January, 2018.
Debate on Refugees and Human
Rights: Some Excerpts
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)
This motion on Refugees and Human Rights was moved by Labour MP Emily Thornberry for Islington South and Finsbury on 24 January 2018. She spoke about the terrible impacts of crisis and conflict in Myanmar. Many Members of the House participated in this debate and expressed their viewpoints on this topic. Many others who have spoken in the debate are united in desiring an end to the death, suffering and sexual violence, and end to the lost generation of refugees unable to leave the camps.
In the debate following important issues were discussed, such as horrors and hardships that the Rohingya have faced; dangers of the proposed repatriation of Rohingya; 1982 Citizenship Act of Myanmar – the Fundamental problem; ethnic cleansing and textbook crimes of rape and crimes against humanity; Rohingya crisis be raised in the UN Security Council; imposition of sanctions on Myanmar and Rohingya voice must be heard in the debate and at the negotiating table.
Horrors and Hardships
that Rohingya have faced
Speaking about the horrors and hardships that the Rohingya have faced, Emily Thornberry, MP, said: “No one present needs any reminding of the horrors and hardship that the Rohingya have faced ever since the attacks in August. No one needs any telling of the desperate humanitarian situation in the camps on the Bangladesh border. No one needs any warning of the dangers of the proposed repatriation of the Rohingya. What we need to know is what action our Government are actually taking—not just to alleviate the situation, but to resolve it.”
Speaking about Repatriation, she mentioned: “We know that Myanmar simply will not act without external pressure—not on consent for repatriation, and not on the guarantees the Rohingya need regarding their future security, citizenship and economic viability. Will the Minister, finally, use our role as the UN penholder on this issue to submit a Security Council resolution to ensure legally binding guarantees on and international monitoring of all these issues? Until we get those guarantees, will he urge India and Japan to withdraw their offer to fund the planned repatriation?”
Emily Thornberry MP also said, “As we work for the future protection of the Rohingya, we cannot forget those who have already suffered and died, so let me ask the Minister this as well: is it still the case that only two of the Government’s 70 experts on international sexual violence have so far been deployed in the region, despite the vast scale of crimes that have occurred? Will he make it clear that Myanmar must allow the UN special rapporteur on human rights to carry out her investigation unobstructed, or Myanmar risks once more being a pariah state and being pushed out into the cold?”
Long history of oppression,
Sufferings and persecution
Conservative MP Mrs. Anne Main (St. Albans) as chair of the All-Party Group on Bangladesh observed on the experience of those fleeing persecution in Burma and living in Cox’s Bazaar. Mrs. Anne Main Conservative Member for St. Albans said, “I think the House needs a little history lesson. The first major push against the Rohingya was in 1978. Then the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 left them out of the list of 135 ethnic minority communities, thus denying them their state—so this has been going on for a very long time. In 1992, their political party was also outlawed. I understand that by that point 47 individuals—four of them women—from the Rohingya community had served as MPs in the Burmese Parliament.”
She also mentioned, “This process has, then, been going on for an extremely long time. Those of us who have visited the sites and camps—right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House—have seen the atrocious conditions these people are being forced to live in. We would all accept that a basic human right is the freedom to worship as we see fit. The one thing that joins the Rohingya in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Bangladesh is their religion. Unfortunately—it is a sad story to tell—the Buddhist community is complicit in and accepting of the driving out of the Muslim population that are the Rohingya.”
Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, mentioned about the sufferings. He said that the International Development Secretary travelled to Cox’s Bazaar. He mentioned, “There she met a young mother—one of more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh since August. Her name is Yasmin. Yasmin had fled Burma with her new-born baby, after her village was burned down and her brother murdered. On their journey, she and her baby were thrown over the side of a smuggler’s boat so that her son’s crying did not alert the Burmese soldiers. They arrived in a giant, crowded camp only for her son to contract cholera. Yasmin is just one of the 65 million people around the world—the right hon. Lady mentioned them—who have been forcibly displaced.”
Anna McMorrin said, “The Bangladesh Welfare Association Cardiff and friends of the Rohingya in Wales are in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps, unloading trucks full of food parcels, blankets, baby food and medicines. They have encountered devastating scenes of hardship and heartbreak and have heard first-hand accounts that no one should experience: people losing loved ones, suffering violence and experiencing squalor, overcrowding and deprivation. Some 48,000 babies are due to be born in the refugee camps this year. Does the Minister agree.”
Conservative MP Michelle Donelan for Chipperham said, “Today, I will concentrate on the situation that has been endured for five harrowing months by the Rohingya people in Burma.
She mentioned, “I can only begin to imagine what life is like for those who have been forced to flee their home with nothing and for those who have been left behind to continue living out the nightmare in Burma. Ten thousand people have been confirmed dead, but the actual figure could be immeasurably higher. Some 830,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed over to Bangladesh, which is 11 times the number of people in my constituency. Those refugees must be allowed to return to Burma, but only when it is safe, which is far from the current situation.”
Talking about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Minister Alistair Burt said, “We remain deeply concerned by the Rohingya crisis, where people are still crossing the border every day with stories of unimaginable trauma. This is a major humanitarian crisis created by Burma’s military. There has been ethnic cleansing and those responsible must be held accountable.
Labour MP for Tooting, Rosena Allin-Khan, said, “Forcibly repatriating the Rohingya to Myanmar would be tantamount to sending them back to their deaths. Who will ensure their protection—the very military who killed their babies, tortured their menfolk, and who have systematically raped the women? The military who forced parents to make the decision whether to go and rescue their children from burning fires or—the ones who are still alive—to run and flee? We cannot once again turn a blind eye to human suffering—to people living in an apartheid state where citizenship is unattainable and where religious persecution has long been the status quo.”
“The challenge to the international community and to us is clear: how do we create the conditions, not just for the Rohingya, but for all stateless and persecuted minorities, to rebuild their homes without fear of persecution? This country’s response to that challenge goes to the essence of who we are as a people. I believe—I know—that British people are kind, courageous, brave and compassionate. Our Government should be acting to live up to that idea of the very best of Britain, but too often they have failed in the courage of their political convictions. Too often they have turned a blind eye,” she mentioned.
Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan said, “Creating the conditions for refugees to return to their homes will have been achieved only once the fear they have in their hearts has gone. We can really lead the way through fierce, active diplomacy, and our Government must use all their leverage to bring about peaceful resolutions.”
“I hope that hon. Members across the House will join me in calling on the Government to take a much more active role in bringing the international community together, to provide those across the world fleeing war, facing danger and suffering in squalid camps not fit for the inhabitation of insects with the dignity and humanity they deserve,” she emphasized.
The proposed repatriation scheme has now been suspended, as announced on Monday. Conservative MP Mrs. Anne Main welcomed the suspension of the proposed repatriation scheme. She said, “I am pleased that repatriation is no longer being considered, because the memorandum of understanding did not mention the word “Rohingya”.”
Labour MP for St. Helen South and Whiston, Ms Marie Rimmer, said, “The Rohingya face forced repatriation and a return to state-sponsored violence in Myanmar. Thank goodness that a pause has been put on that—for now.”
No Quick Return
Speaking about the agreement between the Government of Bangladesh and Burma on repatriation, Minister for Middle East Alistair Burt said, “The honest truth is that people are having to recognise that we are talking about a long-term, protracted refugee stay in Bangladesh. There is no quick return. We cannot ask people to return to a situation after they were expelled with maximum force, violence and horror. Although the agreement between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to return people over a two-year period is a welcome sign of intent, it cannot possibly have any serious basis unless we know that people are going to be safe. People cannot be returned on any other basis. The honest truth is that we have to be prepared for this to take time. We are pushing not only for the work that we do in Cox’s Bazaar itself, but for a role for the international community in monitoring any return, with the UNHCR taking the lead.”
Importance of Rohingya voice
being heard at the debate
Conservative MP Mrs. Anne Main said, “How can there be no voice for the Rohingya at the negotiating table? It is totally unacceptable that the oppressors, who are land-mining the border and driving people out with machine guns, and who have denied these people their rights since 1982, should be divvying up the role of the Rohingya and their future. It is no surprise that there have been marches and resistance on the camps to any talk of repatriation. How can anyone accept being asked to go back to a country where their existence has been denied since 1982? That needs to be dealt with as much as anything.”
Mrs. Anne Main pleaded that somehow the Rohingya be given a voice. She said, “I understand that Ata Ullah is not an acceptable voice, as he is leading a resistance group, but there must be someone who can speak up for the Rohingya.” “We must keep driving forward to find someone who will sit at the table and say what the Rohingya want to happen, otherwise the rioting and unrest in the camps will continue. The worst thing we can do is insist that people go back to a country where they are denied even their existence.”
International Development Committee Report
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool West Derby) (Labour Co-op) mentioned about the Report. He said, As the International Development Committee report, which we published last week, pointed out, the Rohingya crisis has tested these commitments to destruction. I echo what others have said today about the Rohingya crisis. One lesson we must surely learn, which is relevant to the excellent motion before us, is that prevention is always best. As the hon. Lady reminded us, this did not come from nowhere: we have known for years about the threat to the Rohingya people. In recent years, there have been early warnings from Human Rights Watch and the Holocaust museum in Washington. I also echo what others have said about repatriation. It cannot be on the agenda in the foreseeable future, and I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that in his closing remarks.”
The Minister for Asia and Pacific said, “Throughout, we have heard moving testimony about the situation facing many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Burma in recent months. Since 28 December, the UK’s pledge of some £59 million has helped to fund an emergency medical team of 40 doctors, nurses and midwives, paramedics and fire-fighters, who have been deployed to the frontline of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, to help to combat the diphtheria outbreak.
“In my role as FCO Minister for Asia, I remain persistent in our lobbying the Government of Burma to allow the Rohingya back to their homeland with sufficient guarantees on security and, importantly, on citizenship that they will be able to rebuild their lives. As I have said before, that can begin only when conditions allow for a safe, voluntary and dignified return,” the Minister for Asia said.
Referring to the question of return raised by Members for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), Minister for Asia said, “If the returns are to be genuinely voluntary, there must a consultative process to establish the refugees’ intentions and concerns. We are encouraging the UNHCR to develop a more systematic process for consultation with refugees, and we will call on Governments to incorporate the refugees’ views in repatriation processes as they develop. I assure the House that I am also working within the international community to develop a coherent strategy that will begin to hold to account those who have committed what independent observers regard as crimes against humanity.”
Labour Party Briefing on Rohingya
In the UK Parliament
Then on Monday, 29th of January, 2018, Labour Parliamentarians invited press at the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament to brief the position of Labour party and parliamentarians on the Rohingya situations both in Cox’s Bazaar Bangladesh and in Rakhine state Myanmar. They said: “We would like to invite you to come and hear about our work and what we want the British Government to do to resolve this crisis.”
The Labour Parliamentarians who were present and talked about the situations and their works were: Helen Goodman MP, Shadow FCO Minister with responsibility for East Asia and Myanmar, who has been leading for Her Majesty’s Opposition on debates in Parliament. Stephen Twigg MP, Labour Chair of the International Development Committee, which published a fantastic report last week that highlights the Government’s slow response and Rushanara Ali MP, who has been championing the Rohingya’s cause in Parliament and who sent a letter, signed by over 150 MPs, to the Foreign Secretary in September calling for government action.
Helen Goodman MP
The first speaker was Helen Goodman who gave a brief activity which the Labour Parliamentarians are doing. She mentioned: “Ever since the Rohingya people started to cross the border in August and the first urgent question was raised by Yasmin Qureishi on the 5th of September 2017 and then Rushanara Ali coordinated a letter which 150 Members of Parliament signed to the Foreign Secretary and then she initiated backbench business community to debate which is a debate in the main chamber on the 17th of October 2017. Some Labour MPs went to Cox’s Bazaar and one of those was Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP and she initiated another debate at Westminster Hall on 28th of November 2017 and then as well as raising at Foreign Office questions Emily Thornberry spoke in the opposition debate last Wednesday, the 24th of January 2018. So you can see all the time we have been pushing pushing and pushing to get the government to be more energetic in their policy.”
Summary of briefings
During the parliamentary briefing, Labour parliamentarians touched on the issues of return to Rakhine state, repatriation of Rohingyas, oppression, appalling evidence of crimes of rape and sexual violence.
Parliamentarian Stephen Twigg mentioned about the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee Report into the International Development into Bangladesh and Burma of which he was the chairman and the report was published two weeks ago. He also mentioned we made it very clear that the conditions are not in place for any repatriation. He also said any return should certainly be voluntary. He emphasized Rohingya voice should be heard. Stephen MP mentioned the oppression of the Rohingya goes back decades. There is a big failure of policy. He also mentioned about the appalling evidence of crimes of rape and sexual violence against women and children.
Parliamentarian Helen Goodman mentioned about the debate in the main chambers by Emily Thornberry on 24 January 2018. She described the points Labour Party agreed with the government and the points on which Labour party wants strong response. Speaking about the five point plan about which the Labour is in agreement is: an end to violence; guarantee humanitarian aid access; and any return must be safe, voluntary and dignified; implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission and have access for the UN Human Rights Commission for Fact-finding mission.
As regards the points of difference, Goodman MP mentioned, the first point of difference is protecting the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi for which Rohingya has to pay the price which is not acceptable. The second point of difference relates to terrible gender-based violence. The third point of difference is on repatriation. No repatriation without the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Fourth point of difference is on sanctions. Fifth point of difference is: “we think the government which is penholder in the UN should take the initiative on this.”
Parliamentarian Rushanara mentioned about her visit and the conditions of refugees. She said, ‘absolutely horrified, essentially like prison camps; apartheid.’ She also mentioned about the response of the international community: “the international community was very slow to catch off at what’s been happening in spite of the warnings.”
Labour MPs Press release 5.02.18
On 5th of February 2018, Labour parliamentarians issued a press release under the following caption:
Labour MPs calls for further action to be taken to help Rohingya Muslims
The press release runs as follows:
“Labour affirms Government action in providing £59m, commends the aid money sent and the Government’s 5 Point Plan. But they said “you must will the means as well as the ends”. The Government’s initial response was slow, they have 71 experts in helping people who’ve suffered sexual violence but have only sent 2. They have taken no action to ensure that the UN monitors any repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar which must not be undertaken without this. The government must also re-impose sanctions on the military.
The Labour MPs stated that they will continue to use all available fora to press the government on all these issues.
The press release also mentioned: “On sanctions, in particular, the Labour MPs stated that they will urge the Government to consider the reintroduction of sanctions on economic sectors controlled by the military and to have new, targeted sanctions on individuals that have played a role in the abuse of the Rohingya. The Labour MPs stressed that the Government must now take more initiative in the EU and at the UN.”
The press release also mentioned the actions to be taken in the future, in pressing the UK Government to do more to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. Besides others, The MPs listed a number of ways Labour have pressed the Government on doing more for the Rohingya so far and added:
“The 5 points are: the cessation of violence by the Burmese security forces; humanitarian access to be guaranteed in Burma; any returns of refugees to be in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; full implementation of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission’s recommendations; and, above all, full access for, and cooperation with, the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission.”