This afternoon I held a debate in Westminster Hall on the impact of the monsoon season on the Rohingya refugees who, having fled violence and persecution in Burma, are living in camps across the border in Bangladesh.
Monsoon season is fast approaching and the area of Bangladesh which is home to the refugee camps is particularly prone to flooding and landslides, seeing average rainfall of 2 metres between May and September each year.
For refugees currently surviving in makeshift shelters, with very little space, the impact of the monsoon season will be huge, potentially leading to outbreaks of communicable disease, loss of hygeine and sanitation systems, and the very real possibility of shelters simply being washed away.
Yesterday I wrote for The Guardian on why it’s important for the UK Government to act now to improve conditions for the Rohingya people.
During the debate MPs from all parties, including members who, like me, have visited the camps in Bangladesh, joined my call on the government to take action both in terms of funding and in keeping up diplomatic efforts in the region.
Responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, Alistair Burt, Minister for International Development, confirmed that the UK Government is speaking to both the Bangladesh and Burma governments to attempt to address the various issues preventing access to the camps, and preventing the safe return of the Rohingya to Burma.
While I welcome the Government’s efforts so far, it’s vital that we use our influence to put pressure on the international community to keep focus on this crisis. There are over 1 million people in the refugee camps living in squalor, at risk of communicable disease, flooding and landslides. We can and must do more to help them.
The problem is immediate, the time is now.
You can watch my speech here:
And watch the full debate online here.
Full text of my speech:
(Check against delivery)
That this House has considered the effect of the monsoon season on the Rohingya
Thank you chair, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
The desperate situation facing the Rohingya people is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of recent times.
A deliberate crisis. A man-made crisis. And a crisis that is now set to be compounded by nature as the monsoon season hits Bangladesh.
There are nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh who have fled Burma.
During August last year, nearly 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children fled following unspeakable levels of violence and systematic abuse including torture, rape and murder by the Burmese military.
The monsoons look set to exacerbate an already dire situation. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 36% of the Rohingya in the camps already do not have access to safe water.
Nearly a quarter are suffering from acute malnutrition.
Communicable diseases thrive in these conditions.
81% of water samples collected from Rohingya refugee households in December 2017 had E.coli.
The report from the World Health Organisation on the situation in the camps makes for grim reading; diphtheria, acute jaundice, respiratory infections and watery diarrhoea stalk the camps.
To mitigate this, the UNHCR put out a plea for $950 million dollars to meet the refugees’ immediate needs. But, less than 20% of that money has been raised.
I visited the largest of those camps, at Kutupalong, in November last year and saw sights and heard testimony so shocking that they will remain with me for the rest of my life.
I met a young, very frail woman, who beckoned me inside a tarpaulin shelter and pointed at a bundle of dirty rags on the ground.
Slowly she lifted the rags and underneath was her days old baby whom she held up and showed me with pride and tears in her eyes. What a beginning to life for that child.
A squalid existence but undoubtedly a safer one than had that young, heavily pregnant woman not been able to get out of Burma.
It is now nearly 9 nine months on from the August 2017 slaughter and rape by the Burmese military and there are an estimated 60,000 Rohingya women who are pregnant in Kutupalong and other refugee camps in Southern Bangladesh. Many of those women are victims of the brutal sexual violence used by Burmese soldiers as a weapon of genocide.
Pramila Patten, the United Nations Envoy on Sexual Violence has described it as “a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.”
Aid agencies are preparing for a surge of births and abandoned babies at the camps.
It is reported that Bangladeshi social services have already taken in many refugee children whose parents have been murdered, disappeared or unable to care for them and support them having lost everything in the flight from Burma.
There is deep concern that many more children will be abandoned in the coming weeks by mothers who are victims of rape and who cannot bear to keep their babies, creating a new generation of victims of this terrible and evolving crisis.
These desperate people now face a further tragedy as the monsoon season hits and threatens to wipe out even more lives.
Bangladesh can be hit by some of the most severe monsoons in the world.
80% of Bangladesh’s annual rainfall occurs between May and September and severe cyclones have killed thousands of people there within living memory.
And those victims were not living in the flimsy shelters in refugee camps.
I saw the shelters people were living in at the Kutupalong camp. Some consisted solely of a piece of tarpaulin tied to the odd tree or wall and pegged to the dry, dirty ground. Others were a few bamboo sticks and plastic sheeting on steep hillsides crammed into tiny amounts of space.
In Cox’s Bazar, over 102,000 people are in areas at risk of being directly affected by flooding and landslides in the event of heavy rain.
33% of those people are classed as vulnerable – so they are single mothers, children, elderly or ill and therefore at particular risk of being killed in a natural disaster.
But the risks are not confined to the initial effects. For example, the rains will adversely affect mobility around the camp, turning dirt path ways to mud and making roads impassable.
This could severely restrict access to over 500,000 people worsening the malnutrition rate as over 91% of people are reliant on food supplies.
The UNHCR has made it clear that the shelter packs I saw being handed out at Kutulpalong by UNICEF aid workers are not expected to survive monsoon rains. This will lead to inevitable harm and displacement as shelters collapse.
At best this will add to the already gross overcrowding in the camp. The obvious outcome is much worse.
Flooding will contaminate and destroy water supplies and latrines.
46% of water pumps in the camps are at risk from flooding and landslides.
So this will create the perfect condition for diseases to tear through the camps.
Whilst the latest round of oral cholera vaccinations bringing the total number of locally vaccinated people up to 1 million is welcome, given the total population of the area is 1.3 million that still leaves 300,000 people un-vaccinated.
We also know that unsanitary conditions and malnutrition make people more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.
The World Health Organisation has been very clear in saying that this risk of disease – more than the initial flooding – could lead to a massive loss of life.
The UN has estimated up to 200,000 people could perish.
Some preparations have been made for the monsoon season. I have seen the details of the upgraded shelter kit that is being made available to vulnerable families in the camps.
But this simply consists of tarpaulin, rope, bamboo, wire and sandbags. No real protection against winds, severe rain and flooding.
I am afraid that hundreds of thousands of refugees are effectively sitting targets for the monsoon. It could be catastrophic.
So what can be done?
A crisis doesn’t stop because the headlines are now elsewhere.
I obviously welcome the financial support that the Government has provided to date and yesterday’s announcement of an additional £70m of support is good news as it will help to fund sanitation, healthcare and vaccination programmes for the most vulnerable refugees.
The British public have also shown remarkable generosity raising £25.9m for the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal.
In my own constituency, the British Bangladeshi community have raised over £30,000 though the Cardiff Bangladesh Association spearheaded by Labour Councillor Ali Ahmed.
But we need to recognise that trying to protect a million people living in squalor on open hillsides is not a long-term solution.
So could the Minister in his/her response tell us what conversations he/she has had with other Governments about encouraging more international financial support to meet the overall funding shortfall?
The UN and other aid agencies are being held up by red tape in the process of gaining access to the camps.
We must work with the government of Bangladesh to see an increase in speedy registration of international organisations to work and deliver services in the camps.
This will allow for technical experts to support the Bangladeshi response.
Without this expertise almost half a million people will continue to be unable to access services such as health facilities, food support and education.
Will the Minister ask the Bangladeshi government to streamline the FD7 approval system by ensuring that applications are processed within the stated 48 hour window, providing extended windows of at least 6 months for programme delivery, and allowing for appropriate visas for international emergency personnel?
The Rohingya have an inalienable right to return to Burma and this right must be protected.
It is vital therefore that steps are taken to address the conditions which have forced, and continue to force, people to flee.
The findings of the Annan Commission on Rakhine provide a nationally and internationally endorsed framework designed to address the marginalisation of the Rohingya –although I would have wanted it to go further recommending immediate and full citizenship for the Rohingya.
It is vital that the UK, in partnership with regional actors and partners such as ASEAN, support the progressive implementation of the findings by the Burmese Government.
But progress on ensuring Rohingya citizenship must, in my view, be an essential precondition for return.
In the longer term, the international community must work with the Government of Bangladesh to define, agree and finance a response to the crisis that supports both refugees’ self-reliance as well as contributing to improved conditions for host communities and to Bangladesh’s own development objectives.
Agreements reached with other refugee hosting nations including Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia provide an indication of what can be achieved with the right package of support combined with strong partnerships.
And strong partnerships and political leadership on the rights of the Rohingya and action against Burma for its gross violations of international law must go hand in hand – and with our government taking a lead.
I wrote to Minister Field in January asking the government to support a referral to the International Criminal Court and again as one of 100 parliamentarians who wrote to the Foreign Secretary in February in the same terms.
The response of the Burmese government to this was to ban members of our International Development Select Committee from visiting Burma.
I know that the Minister will say that a UN Security Council resolution on a referral might be vetoed by Russia and China.
But that is why the UK must start supporting a referral and building global support – from the EU, OIC and other countries – in order to try to overcome that opposition.
The government can hardly ask other countries to support a referral when it isn’t even calling for one itself.
We in the UK should be taking the political lead on this. Everything that can be done, should be done.
As Edmund Burke, a former member of this parliament said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.
This humanitarian and human rights disaster, about to be compounded by a natural disaster, was entirely avoidable and cannot be allowed to happen again.
Burma cannot be allowed to operate with impunity setting an international precedent for the unpunished genocide of a minority population.