Back Bench Business Debate on the Rohingya Crisis

On Tuesday 17th October, Parliament called a debate on the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and Burma. Text of Stephen's speech can be found below. 

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and to concur with everything he said in his excellent speech. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), both of whom spoke incredibly powerfully, as has everyone else in this debate.

I am pleased to say that this morning the International Development Committee agreed to carry out an immediate inquiry on Burma and Bangladesh, and to start that inquiry by looking at the current Rohingya crisis. As of this month, more than half a million refugees have fled across the border between the two countries, increasing the number of displaced persons in Bangladesh to about 800,000. To put that number in perspective, UNHCR estimates that the total number of refugees who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe last year was 362,000, so we are talking about more than double that number in the single country of Bangladesh. That is why today’s debate is so important.

As we have heard, while these people—most of them women and children—have been making this perilous journey, they have been traumatised by landmines, gunshots, shrapnel and fires. Those who arrive safely in Bangladesh talk of the appalling violations of human rights that are being carried out in Burma. Let us have no doubt that, as the motion says, we are witnessing ethnic cleansing, and this House needs to say that loud and clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) rightly said, this is not something new. The Rohingya people have faced centuries of persecution and have so often been forgotten.

The need in Bangladesh is severe. According to the International Rescue Committee, which has carried out needs assessments in the region, more than three quarters of the refugees surveyed lacked the most basic food to live; about a third are being forced to defecate in the open; more than 95% are drinking untreated water; a staggering 87% of the displaced families have at least one member with an identified vulnerability—they may be elderly, pregnant, disabled or wounded—and nearly half of the pregnant women have not received medical care for their pregnancies.

I join in paying tribute to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their remarkable response to this crisis. Humanitarian organisations such as UNHCR have struggled to register new arrivals as they cross the border. The camps that have been set up for the fleeing Rohingya in Bangladesh are often located in low-lying areas that are either flooded or severely prone to flooding during the monsoon season. Although the Bangladesh army is planning to construct new camps for the ever-increasing number of arrivals, that will take time. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Bangladesh is not a party to the UN convention on refugees, which sometimes means that UN agencies and others have truggled to gain access to Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh. Given such a massive humanitarian need, the Government of Bangladesh can show further strong leadership by expediting the registration process of refugees to those NGOs that are ready and willing to help. The IRC is a good example, as it is ready to scale up in a massive way and has just submitted its registration request. May I urge the Minister to indicate in his response today that the Government will use their good offices to seek to persuade the Government of Bangladesh to move on this very important point, as it will enable key NGOs to register refugees so that they get the support that they so desperately need?