Refugees and Human Rights

Yesterday, Mark spoke in the House on behalf of the Government in response to an Opposition Day debate regarding refugees and human rights. You can find the whole debate on the Hansard website by clicking here.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field) 

The Government welcome such a heartfelt parliamentary debate on subjects as topical as conflict prevention, climate change and the protection of inalienable human rights. I have listened carefully over the past few hours to the contributions from Members in all parts of the House, who have underlined the fundamental importance of those matters. I shall try to summarise what the Government are doing and respond to some of the points that have been made today; I fear that I shall have to deal with others in writing.

I thank all Members who have spoken, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and my hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main), for Corby (Tom Pursglove), for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Solihull (Julian Knight), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr).

Human rights are the guarantors of freedom, non-discrimination and the innate dignity of every human being. The UN’s universal declaration of human rights makes clear that those rights and freedoms are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible, and they apply equally to the whole of humankind. Promoting, championing and defending human rights are, and will remain, part of the everyday work of all British diplomats across the globe. It is the right thing to do, legally, ethically and morally, but it is also firmly in the national interest. Societies in which human rights are restricted tend to be less stable, less democratic and less prosperous. By contrast, those that protect collective opportunities and freedoms tread the path towards long-term prosperity and security.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights report gives examples of our work, concentrating on some 30 priority countries. Our 2017 report will be published during the next few months. In the context of today’s debate, it may be helpful for Members to know that it will include a section on migrants.

To achieve the maximum impact, we are prioritising our human rights efforts in a number of specific areas, including promoting girls’ education, tackling modern slavery and promoting and defending freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom from all aspects of discrimination.​

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made combating modern slavery, which has an intentional impact on some of the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings, one of the UK’s top foreign policy priorities. That is why she convened world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September to launch a call to action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. More than 40 countries, working together, have already endorsed the call to action, and the number is rising. As a number of Members have pointed out, heart-wrenching, shocking instances of this crime occur here in the UK. Indeed, they occur within a short distance of the House, in my own constituency. The UK’s stance on modern slavery is not some patronising plea to the developing world; it is a recognition of the global reach of this most tragic issue.

The UK also leads international initiatives on ending conflict and promoting stability, including through our permanent membership of the UN Security Council, where only last week in New York I represented the UK in debates on Afghanistan and nuclear counter-proliferation. Research has shown that countries with the highest levels of gender-based discrimination are more likely to be afflicted by conflict. That is why our work on conflict has a strong focus on the role of women and sexual violence.

Climate change presents the most urgent and existential threat. It is indisputably one of the major drivers of migration and global insecurity. In 2016 alone, three times as many people were displaced by natural disasters as by conflict. In recent months, we have seen many extreme weather events, from drought in Somalia to hurricanes in the Caribbean and floods in India and Bangladesh. Last week at the United Nations, I heard impassioned pleas for help from the representatives of small island developing states, whose countries are already being affected by climate change.

We must change how we live our lives to prevent climate change from accelerating; we must adapt to the changes that have already taken place; and we must build resilience for the future among the world’s poorest communities, which suffer a disproportionate impact. That is why climate change remains a foreign policy priority. We are helping to maintain international momentum to raise our ambition. We have consistently encouraged robust international action on climate security, and as part of the Paris agreement, we pledged to provide at least $7.5 billion of international climate finance over five years.

I would love to say more about other elements of the debate, but there is no time. 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 firefighters, who have been deployed to the frontline of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar 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. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans spoke passionately about the importance of Rohingya representation in that process. If the returns are to be genuinely voluntary, there must a consultative process to establish the refugees’ intentions and concerns. This was raised by the hon. Members for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). 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.

Opposition Members are understandably frustrated—the shadow Foreign Secretary expressed that frustration in her speech—but, as I have learned in the past eight months as a Minister, diplomacy requires patience. Progress can be slow and painstaking. The frustration can be unbelievable, but we have to work within the framework we have got. We have to compromise. I will not stand here and criticise the United States because we have to work with that country, and Presidents come and go. One of the biggest frustrations arises from the simplistic view of politics—that we can compromise easily and that people can easily express their views in ​tweets. The process is painstaking and requires patience. For all its failings, the United Nations is the only game in town. We have to work with the international community. All the issues that have been addressed here today and all the problems around the world can be solved only if we work together as an international community.

Rest assured, it has always been the UK’s role to take a lead on these matters. Today’s debate has been fierce at times, and there are many here who wish we could do more, and more quickly. I am aware of that concern, and my door is open to everyone who has concerns, particularly those relating to my own brief of Asia and the Pacific. Please be assured that we are doing our level best, quietly and painstakingly behind the scenes. Sometimes we take three steps forward only to have to take two steps back, but working within the international community is the only way forward if we are to bring about some sort of peace to ensure that human rights are properly protected.