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Westminster Hall debate on the Rohingya Crisis

November 29, 2017

In his role as Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Asia and the Pacific, Mark yesterday responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate regarding the ongoing Rohingya crisis. Mark’s response to the debate can be found below and if you would like to review the entirety of the debate, you can do so by following this by clicking here

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me to speak. Having visited Burma last week, for the second time in seven weeks, I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the heartbreakingly appalling situation facing the Rohingya people of Rakhine state and the active work of the UK Government to address it in both Burman and Bangladesh, and in the UN and the international community.

I thank all colleagues for their powerful contributions and testimony, particularly the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). They should rest assured that their words will be heard not just across the road in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but around the globe, as we make the case about what is happening. I am well aware that in Burma people actively listen to what is happening in the UK Parliament, so these are words that will be listened to far afield.

Since military operations began in Rakhine state on 25 August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh. Many have given heart-wrenching accounts, which I know many have heard, about the human rights abuses, including unspeakable sexual violence, which has been suffered or witnessed in Rakhine. Up to 1,000 people are still crossing that border each and every day. This is a movement of people on a colossal scale, with few parallels in recent times. I accept the point, made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), that this issue with the Rohingya goes back to the formation of the Burmese state, but the sheer scale of it over the past three months has been remarkable.

I pay tribute again to the Government of Bangladesh for the support they have offered the Rohingya. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to open the border and allow the refugees to enter has without doubt saved ​countless lives. Last Thursday, as has been pointed out, Bangladesh and Burma signed a memorandum of understanding on the return of refugees to Rakhine. We understand that a joint working group will be set up within three weeks, with the aim of commencing the processing of returns within two months.

I want to touch on the UK Government’s position, because I know that there are concerns across the House. We will press for quick progress on the implementation of this bilateral agreement, but we will be absolutely clear that any returns must be safe, voluntary and dignified, and there must be appropriate international oversight. In my view, which I think is shared by many Members here, it is too early even to talk about voluntary returns at this stage. The Rohingya have rightly addressed legitimate concerns about their personal security. The severe restrictions that Amnesty International has described persist. Access to livelihood and humanitarian aid remains insufficient. That was evident to me from the other side of the border when, on my first visit to Burma, I went to a camp in Sittwe that had been set up in 2012, during one of the more recent times of strife.

It is not a life for the people living in that camp; it is barely a subsistence living. They are able to live and eat, they have healthcare and UK aid is able to provide fairly significantly, but it is not a life that anyone can recognise. It was heartbreaking to chat to Rohingya people there who had had businesses and professions, and who were left in limbo for five years, and potentially for many years to come. That option is not satisfactory. It would get people across the border, but the notion of setting up similar sorts of camps for the future for many years to come has to be a non-starter.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central)

The Minister just said that the working group and implementation would start within two months, and that any scheme must be “safe, voluntary and dignified,” but then I think he said that clearly people are not going to return voluntarily. Will he clarify that point?

Mark Field

I am making the point that we want to see people return. I will move on to the important point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) a moment ago. Although the Government are not directly criticising the agreement, our position is that we should be telling both Governments that substantial progress on the ground will be necessary, as well as proper engagement with both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya—if needed—if any Rohingya are to return. We want to see the momentum on this issue. The reason for that—I think it was alluded to earlier—is that if the Rohingya do not return, ruthlessly the Burmese military will have got their way; they will have got what they wanted. That is why, although I accept that we should not dream of forcing Rohingya to return, nor should we do this with such swiftness that they are not secure on the ground.

Equally—this is the slight concern I have with the contribution from the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), who spoke for the Scottish National party—even to talk about resettlement at this stage plays into the hands of the Burmese military, and I think it is something we should avoid. I understand that she is doing it for the best of humanitarian motives, but realistically at the moment we must try to insist that the Rohingya return to their rightful homeland.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Perhaps the Minister will allude to this shortly, but will there be an international presence? Will we be pushing for an independent security presence to protect them, because otherwise we are expecting the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing to be the ones managing this process?

Mark Field

Absolutely. We will. I am also wary of the idea of having a long-term presence there, rather like what has happened in the middle east where one has an unsustainable position for the longer term, but in the short term we need to have an independent international presence to police this matter.

The UK Government have concluded that the inexcusable violence perpetrated on the Rohingya by the Burmese military and ethnic Rakhine militia appears to be ethnic cleansing—or is ethnic cleansing. The UK has been leading the international response diplomatically, politically and in terms of humanitarian support.

Dr Allin-Khan (Tooting)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

If the hon. Lady will excuse me, I am wary that I am running out of time and I want to touch on sanctions and other issues that have been raised.

On 6 November we proposed, and secured with unanimous support, the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma in a decade. With this the Security Council made clear its expectations of the Burmese authorities: no further excessive military force; immediate UN humanitarian access; mechanisms to allow voluntary return; and an investigation into human rights violations, including allegations of sexual violence.

Elsewhere in the UN, we are co-sponsoring a UN General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Burma. I note the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) about the importance of China in this situation. Please rest assured that a huge amount of work is going on at the UN to try to bring China on board. I think it would be wrong to overstate China’s leverage on these matters, and there are issues on the Chinese-Burmese border that are nothing to do with the Rohingya, but hon. Members are correct that China has an important role to play. The resolution we are proposing has received the support of 135 member states at the Third Committee. The strong international support for this resolution and the Security Council’s presidential statement send a powerful signal to the Burmese authorities about the military’s conduct and the lasting damage it will do to their international reputation.

May I touch on sanctions, which the hon. Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned? We impose our sanctions through the EU, but we must secure the consensus of all member states. At the October EU Foreign Affairs Council, the Foreign Secretary secured agreement to consider additional measures if the situation did not improve. Evidently, it has not. If the Burmese authorities do not heed the call of the 6 November UNSC presidential statement, we will be returning to EU partners to press for agreement on further measures, which could include targeted sanctions along the lines that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred to. But we would want to be clear about what ​impact they were having on the military’s conduct, as indeed would our EU partners. I pledge to the House that we will be giving very serious consideration to trying to work out the appropriateness of such sanctions, including to try to discover whether there is any property or companies owned by the Burmese military.

I attended the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers meeting in Naypyidaw last Monday and Tuesday and had meetings with the Minister of Defence, Sein Win, the Deputy Foreign Minister, Kyaw Tin, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief of staff, Kyaw Tint Swe. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) will, I hope, be pleased to learn that I did not pussyfoot about. I referred on each occasion to “Rohingya” and got a lecture for my pains in doing so, but we will continue to do so on that basis.

Dr Allin-Khan

I very much appreciate the Minister giving way. Although I acknowledge that the geopolitics of the region might make it difficult for our Government to speak out against Myanmar, and I appreciate that he was there last week at the same time I was, does he not agree that we stood by and blinked while the Rwandan genocide happened and, given the nature of the crimes against humanity that are currently being committed, while we play around with semantics we risk being bystanders to yet another genocide?

Mark Field

The hon. Lady will be aware that I think of this a great deal. I am very much aware, as we should all be in the international community, that we are faced with a set of problems, and one could argue that they are not dissimilar to what happened in Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Srebrenica, and at various other times. The international community needs to be able to come together, but it needs to do that in a united way, and the only way to do that is through the United Nations, which is why we continue to work tirelessly in that regard.

Any long-term resolution needs to address the issue of citizenship in Burma, as has been said. The report of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State remains central to this, and I welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent establishment of an international advisory board, including Lord Darzi and other respected international political figures, to ensure its implementation. She has publicly committed to implementing the commission’s recommendations, which include reviewing the controversial 1982 citizenship law and making progress on citizenship through the existing legal framework.

The main current impetus continues to be the urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees. The UK is the single largest bilateral donor to the crisis. We have now contributed £59 million, as has been stated, and we are making a material difference. We are providing food for over 170,000 people, 140,000 people with safe water and sanitation, and emergency nutritional support to more than 60,000 vulnerable children under the age of five. On 23 October I represented the UK at an UN-organised pledging conference in Geneva, where through our leadership we were able to get more money. But the reality is that, as has been pointed out, that will take us through only to February, when we will need to go through that process again. More will be needed from us and others, and we will sustain the international leadership role on the humanitarian response to ensure that it happens.​

I want to touch on sexual violence. I have already mentioned the horrifying accounts provided by some Rohingya refugees about sexual and gender-based violence. Earlier this month the UN’s special representative on sexual violence visited Bangladesh and heard consistent and harrowing reports of the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, both in the past on the Burmese side of the border and now in the Bangladeshi camps. That clearly needs to stop. The extremely serious conclusions have meant that the UK Government have deployed two civilian experts to Bangladesh. We will obviously review that and whether to increase it to look at the current levels of investigation and documentation of these abhorrent crimes. They will provide us with advice on where the UK can continue to support this vital work. We are committed to ensuring that there is full support for victims and witnesses of these crimes. We need to have accountability, and we are determined that those who have committed human rights violations will be brought properly to account.

I want to thank everyone here for all that they have said. Please rest assured that my door remains open, as the Minister with responsibility in this area. Please feel free to get in touch at any stage if you are able to pass on either more evidence or the strength of the views of many of your constituents. I know that the hon. Member for City of Durham will want to say a few words, so I will sum up.

The UK Government will do our best to maintain a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts, leading the international community’s response to this ongoing catastrophe and pressing Burma to ​meet urgently the expectations set out in the UN Security Council’s presidential statement. I know that diplomacy has a bad name sometimes, and it is something we have to be very determined to try to work together on. Please be assured that we are doing as much as we can. I wish that we could do more. I wish that this situation could be resolved. I wish that there was more goodwill in that part of the world. The Foreign Office will remain steadfastly determined to ensure, as far as we can, the safe return of the Rohingya people, to ensure access for humanitarian aid and to hold to account those who are responsible for these harrowing crimes.