Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Yesterday afternoon, Mark responded on behalf of the Government in the Backbench Business debate tabled by Rushanara Ali MP regarding the Rohingya Refugee Crisis. To read the whole debate on Hansard, please click here. Please find Mark's speech pasted below.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, and to Members for their heartfelt and emotional contributions. One difficulty of standing at this Dispatch Box is that although I have heard the poetry, there may now be a little more prose as I try to give a realistic assessment of what is achievable. As we know, politics is to an extent the art of the possible, but it is also the art of aspiration, and I hope to touch on a few issues that have been raised. I shall try to respond to all the points raised, but I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I revert to writing to a number of specific points. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) will accept that it is better I do it that way, rather than try to give a glib answer that then begins to unravel.

I take this opportunity to condemn on the record the political violence that we have seen in Bangladesh in recent days, which has, and will have, a big bearing on these matters. Whenever I visit Bangladesh, I am struck—as I am sure other hon. Members are—by the absolute determination of its people to get on and prosper, and we all know that political instability and violence will not help them to do either of those things. Much can be said, of course, for many in the British-Bangladeshi diaspora

I am concerned by reports that some civil society organisations in Bangladesh are being prevented from observing the election. Independent domestic and international observers have a crucial role in helping to support a free and transparent process for the elections in 10 days’ time. We urge all in Bangladesh to refrain from further violence, to deliver a democratic election, to give Bangladeshis a properly representative Parliament that can propel their country to greater economic prosperity, and—to reflect the words of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—to reflect on their ongoing responsibilities for the situation in and around Cox’s Bazar.

I now turn directly to the subject of this impassioned debate. The plight of the Rohingya people rightly concerns many hon. Members—many more, perhaps, than are in the Chamber today. Like me, several colleagues have made the journey to camps in Bangladesh to meet refugees and heard their distressing testimony for themselves. When I travelled to Cox’s Bazar in June, I could see the immense scale of the suffering. The refugee situation is heartbreaking, notwithstanding the immense generosity being shown to them by the Government of Bangladesh, who have given shelter to nearly 1 million people. Those whom I spoke to said that they wanted, in time, to return to their homes in Burma, but only if they could be certain that they would no longer be persecuted and discriminated against.

I very much agree with the sentiments of the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Bishop Auckland and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain): the citizenship issue is critical. If we do not get that right, it will be ​pointless for the refugees to return. But the situation is difficult: we cannot impose that but must work with the international community to make the case to the Burmese authorities. The UK Government will continue to work with international partners to press for the creation of conditions in Rakhine allowing for a voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees. However, there is clearly no appetite for such a return at the moment.

 

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

As the Minister says, at the moment there is no appetite for going back. There is also a sense of hardening opinions. Whereas a year ago refugees wanted to go back if it was safe, the refugees I spoke to six months ago felt that hope was being lost.

 

Mark Field

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has been to the camps on several occasions and has probably seen the degradation of process in that regard. I say again that, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), we absolutely oppose plans for moving any Rohingya to Bhasan Char, the island in the bay of Bengal. We do not feel that that would be a safe or feasible place, for the reasons that she set out. Any location or relocation of refugees has to be safe, dignified and in accordance with international humanitarian principles, standards and laws.

As colleagues will know, the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma were preparing to start a refugee repatriation on 15 November. I spoke as a matter of urgency by telephone with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister and I spoke with both the Bangladeshi State Minister of Foreign Affairs and Burma’s Minister for International Co-operation in advance of that day. I was absolutely clear with each of them that the UK Government shared the assessment of the UN Refugee Agency: that insufficient progress had been made to enable safe returns to northern Rakhine.

Our concerns were also borne out by the fact, brought up by many hon. Members today, that no Rohingya refugees volunteered to return. I believe that international pressure at that point was a key factor in halting any involuntary repatriations. I welcome the Bangladeshi Government’s subsequent reaffirmation of their commitment to exclusively voluntary returns, but we all know in the international community that we will have to remain vigilant about that point.

I can reassure Members that the UK will continue to play a full part in supporting Rohingya refugees as a leading donor to the international humanitarian response, to which we have so far donated £129 million.

 

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting) (Lab)

It is great to hear the Minister affirming that we do not want any forced repatriations and acknowledging that Rohingya refugees want to return only if that is safe. On my most recent visit just two months ago, the word coming out from the refugees was that they wanted justice. Does the Minister agree that the issue is about not just safe repatriation but bringing about justice for all the atrocities that those people have had to live through?

 

Mark Field

I do understand that. What justice amounts to is obviously something that will develop in time, as and when, one hopes, they are able to return to traditional homelands. That is something I am sure we will discuss.

 

Anne Main (St Albans) (Con)

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.

 

Mark Field

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.

Ultimately, we all know that the solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Rakhine and in Burma more widely. The UN fact-finding mission—we are supportive of it and its evidence—uncovered evidence of a series of horrendous crimes. Its report makes for chilling reading. However, as I have said previously in this House, the Government believe that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is not a political judgment but a matter for judicial decision. It is therefore critical that we work to ensure that a credible judicial process is put in place. The Burmese authorities want to demonstrate that there is no need for an international justice mechanism. They must show that their commission of inquiry will lead to an effective judicial process. I share many of the concerns expressed on the Opposition Benches about that process. What I would say is that the commission of inquiry does have high-ranking international observers. We therefore continue to maintain some hope, but it can work only if it properly holds to account those responsible for crimes, whether they are civilian or in the military.

 

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

I have a great deal of time for the Minister, but I find it utterly shocking that, after everything he has heard and all that he knows—he knows a lot more than many others, because he is the Minister—he believes we should be even recognising the internal commission of inquiry. The Burmese military uses commission after commission to distract the international community. In the past, when his predecessors in government used similar lines, we would subsequently look away and thousands of people would have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced out of their country. The same mistake is happening again. He should ​not have any hope for that internal inquiry. He should answer the question in the motion about the ICC and what we will do.

 

Mark Field

I think the hon. Lady has slightly misinterpreted what I said. I have very little faith in the commission of inquiry, other than the fact that within it there are international individuals who will hopefully be able to keep some lines of communication open. She is absolutely right that the Burmese authorities have given very little evidence in the past year to suggest that this will be anything more than a whitewash. As I say, there are individuals involved who I hope can keep lines of communication open. [Interruption.] In fairness, the Annan report was commissioned in part by the Burmese military. It provides a fantastic template, if only it were properly enforced.

 

Rushanara Ali

The Minister is right. We recognise the contribution of the late Kofi Annan, and we recognise that the commission’s recommendations would be significant if only they were implemented. The Burmese military’s answer to those recommendations was the 2017 attacks that brought about this crisis, with thousands of people killed and 700,000 forced out. That is their answer to people like Kofi Annan and others—independent- minded figures engaging and trying to help the Burmese Government. Their answer is further slaughter and genocide.

 

Mark Field

I very much respect what the hon. Lady has said, and, as she will know, I share her concerns. We will do all that we can.

If I may, in the time allotted to me, I will say a little more about what else we are doing in the international community. The Foreign Secretary is the Minister who visited Burma most recently, back in September. He made our expectations very clear to Aung San Suu Kyi, and repeated that message in a letter written jointly with the French Foreign Minister. He made clear that if the commission of inquiry was to have any credibility, it must be transparent and independent, and must take full account of the international evidence brought to it. If it is not and does not, the Burmese authorities and their supporters at the United Nations will, in our view, have no grounds whatsoever for rejecting moves towards an international mechanism to secure that accountability.

Let me now say something about the UK’s international action. We are, in the meantime, building on our success at the September session of the Human Rights Council, where we secured a regulation mandating the creation of a “collect and preserve” mechanism. That will support the preparation of case files for use in future prosecutions. I fear that some of the leading lights of the Burmese military will be there for some time to come, but that unique mechanism will enable evidence to be in place for those future prosecutions.

We have been clear with fellow members that the Security Council should take further action, and we have tried to build consensus on what that might be. I know that many Members would like the Security Council to refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court, but a referral would be extremely difficult to achieve, because veto-wielding members of the Security Council would vote against it. I must say to the hon. Members for Tooting and for Bradford East and others that there is a risk that a vetoed resolution would be ​counterproductive to our aims, because it would reduce pressure on the Burmese military, and would also undermine the very credibility of the United Nations.

I know that some look back at China’s decision to abstain rather than vetoing the UN Security Resolution in 2005 referring the Darfur situation to the International Criminal Court. I believe that we should test what China is prepared to accept in this situation, but I also think we need to recognise that the way in which that nation behaved in 2005 in relation to a crisis in Africa may not be the way in which a China that is rather more assertive on the international stage behaves in relation to a crisis in its own neighbourhood.

 

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op)

The Minister says that China’s interests in that part of Africa were not necessarily what its interests are in Myanmar. Is it not a fact that the Chinese Government see this region as essential to its belt and road strategy and its overall expansion of its investments, and therefore regards neighbouring countries as a strategic asset? Is it not very likely that the Chinese will continue to prove very difficult in the United Nations on this matter?

 

Mark Field

I fear that they will. There are the strategic and economic issues to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and there is also—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland—the sense of a non-interference strategy. To be fair, they believe that across the board in the context of sovereignty, but obviously there are issues closer at hand in regard to which there has been public criticism, and that will, I suspect, increase in the months and years to come.

I would like to think that we will continue to try to work within the UN, and that we should try to table a resolution if the opportunity arises, but I am trying to be as open as possible with the House about some of the fundamental strategic difficulties that we face in trying to table a resolution. Although I understand that there is a real sense of outrage, and a feeling that we need to be on the front foot, it might well undermine what we are trying to achieve in the short to medium term in building some sort of consensus among like-minded international states.

 

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)

The point the Minister makes about the Chinese veto somehow emboldening the Burmese military further is lost on me, because the Burmese military at the moment are acting as judge, jury and executioner; anybody who thinks there is an ounce of real democracy in Burma is kidding themselves. The military have all the key seats, including, as the Minister knows, the Home, Foreign and Security Offices. If we do nothing, that will surely embolden the Burmese military further.

 

Mark Field

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and he will appreciate that these are very sensitive decisions that we are making on the international stage. I know that this debate will be read not just in Burma, but in the UN as well, where our group there will try to make some headway on the issue.

 

Several hon. Members rose-

 

Mark Field

I am taking rather longer than I intended, but this is an important debate and I wanted to take some interventions. However, I want now to come back to my speech.​

Let me also say this very specifically about China’s actions at the moment: China’s forcing of a procedural vote as recently as October to try to prevent the fact-finding mission from even briefing the UN Security Council highlights, I fear, the level of opposition we are currently up against. But we shall continue to try to engage China on the need for accountability for this horrendous set of crimes, and our strategy of course is not constrained to the UN Security Council; we secured agreement as recently as 10 December at the Foreign Affairs Council to expand the EU’s Burma sanctions listing. Seven senior military and border guard police officers were sanctioned by the EU in June for their roles in human rights violations in Rakhine in August and September 2017. We shall be adding more names to that list and expect to announce details early in the new year. These measures and their signal that the international community will take further steps to increase the pressure are noticed and are not welcomed by the Burmese military or indeed the State Counsellor.

Of course human rights violations continue to occur elsewhere in Burma, as has been mentioned by a number of Members. In the last few weeks three Kachin activists were convicted of defamation and sentenced to six months in prison for organising protests in which they were alleged to have criticised the Burmese military. Our ambassador had met them only a few days earlier, and both he and I have publicly protested at that sentencing.

The fact-finding mission report also highlighted that atrocities had been committed against both Kachin and Shan state minorities, and I heard some of the horrifying evidence for myself.

 

Dr Allin-Khan

I am sorry for intervening as I appreciate that the Minister has a limited amount of time in which to speak. However, I feel that I cannot sit here in silence while listening to the continuation of the debate without saying that the Minister has so eloquently spoken of the atrocities against a number of other minority groups unfolding as we sit here ready to go on our Christmas recess. I am proud to be British and proud to be in this Parliament, and we have a duty to call out all that is wrong globally. We sit here talking about this knowing full well that atrocities are continuing. When are we going to stand up, be counted and not be fearful of what the countries around Burma are going to be saying to us?

 

Mark Field

We are standing up in New York and in Geneva on a daily basis and being counted on this very issue—trying to take a lead. The Kachin and Shan issue is not an isolated example. This goes back to the issue of our being penholders, and one can look back through history to 1824 or 1945, but one of the desperate things is that those minorities fought on our side during the war while the Burmese Buddhist majority sided with the Japanese, and that is one of the reasons why we have an historical moral and ethical imperative. A number of those minorities have been considered as beyond the pale and not as citizens partly as a result of that episode; essentially that was seen as somehow being against the moves for Burma to have independence from the United Kingdom.

With the House’s indulgence, I will touch on two more points. I will write to Members on some of the specifics, because I would rather not say anything inaccurate. With regard to family reunion for refugees, I believe ​that the Home Office has written to the hon. Member for Bradford East, stating that the UK Government strongly support family unity, and that the Home Office has a comprehensive framework in place for refugees and their families. He made a good point that the refugees in Cox’s Bazar clearly cannot go to Dhaka anytime soon to exercise those rights. He made the point on the Floor of the House, and I will do my best and will write to the Home Office to make clear his concerns.

 

Imran Hussain

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me at least to put this on the record. For months now I have been seeking to meet the Home Office in order to deliver hundreds of applications or information sheets that I have received from constituents who have relatives in Cox’s Bazar, first so that the Home Office has that valuable information, and secondly to see whether anything could be done. However, the Home Office is refusing to meet me.

 

Mark Field

I am sure that was a rather mischievous intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but because it is Christmas we will let him get away with it. But he makes a serious point.

Let me touch on the issue of sexual violence, which was raised by a number of Members. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland asked about the legal status of children in camps. I will write to her, because I need to consult the FCO’s legal advisers to be absolutely clear about the precise nature of that. As many Members will know, we have worked very closely and played a leading role with our advisers on sexual violence in Bangladesh. We have a team of experts trying to map and document human rights violations, partly for the longer-term development of evidence, but obviously also to try to train up Bangladeshi expertise in this regard. Clearly that is an important part of our ongoing work in the camps.

DFID is very much leading the way in supporting a range of organisations that provide specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh, including 19 women’s centres offering a safe space, psychosocial support and activity for women and girls. At the last count, 53,510 women have been provided with midwifery care and advice. We also support projects in Burma as part of the preventing sexual violence initiative, including publishing guidance on support for survivors in a formal legal process.

In conclusion, we all know that the Rohingya people have a right to live in their home country in safety and with dignity—something we take for granted at this time of the year. For that to happen, those responsible for their persecution must be held accountable, and the Burmese state must show that it is serious about bringing an end to prejudice and discrimination against ethnic minorities who have suffered for so long. Burma will also continue to need the support of the international community if we are to see democracy, human rights and the rule of law embedded in that country for the longer term.

As things stand, we must prepare ourselves for what I fear will be a very long journey. We must remember that the Burmese people will have to endure every step of that journey, given the Government they have. That is why I will repeat today what I have said before: for ​their sake, the UK will stay the course so that one day the people of Burma can live together in peace, justice and prosperity.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I repeat the offer that my door will remain open on the issue. One of the frustrations in the 18 months or so that I have been a Foreign Office Minister is that there are certain matters—I was going to say “easy wins”, but nothing is easy in diplomacy—that land on my desk and in relation to which I can achieve something in very quick order. I have spent a huge amount of time working on this issue, as a number of Members have been kind enough to point out. Perhaps I do not share the passion or anger shown by some Opposition Members, but I share their concerns and wish that I could achieve more. I wish that I could say that we had been able to achieve a huge amount in the international community. Sometimes, as I have said on the Floor of the House before, one of the frustrations and challenges of being in the Foreign Office is that we take two or three steps forward and then take a couple of steps back. We have made progress and a lot of work is going on, not only among my team in the Foreign Office but in New York and Geneva, and particularly in Dhaka, Rangoon and Naypyidaw, where we have our high commissions and embassies.

The truth of the matter is that this issue is very tough. It is one of those issues that is not open to a rapid solution. I wish it were. It breaks my heart: I am a father of two children and, not least at this time of the year, one recognises the conditions in which many Rohingya live, and not just for the past 18 months, because many of them have been living in those conditions for decades. We have to be in it for the long haul. The UK Government and, more importantly still, in many ways, the UK Parliament is in it for the long haul.

I thank everyone for what they have done. As I say, my door remains open and I will try to ensure that as the situation develops we speak to as many Members with strong concerns about this matter as we can. Work is in progress, and although there is not a great dawn ahead in 2019, I feel that we are taking a number of tracks, and hopefully we will not only have accountability and improve the humanitarian opportunities for those living in Cox’s Bazar, but work with international partners to try to look properly to the longer term. As many people say, the issue in that part of the world is not just about the Rohingya today; it is about the precedent that is being set. Although we can never say never again, and they always seem like such hollow words, that is the real prize here. If we can do something and bring together an accountability process that is a precedent for the future, a lot of the very hard work on this matter that goes on, not only in the UK Foreign Office but in several other countries, will not be in vain.