On the 26th October the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Helic, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken to support the Rohingya refugees currently displaced in Bangladesh.” The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth took part in the debate highlighting the need for a greater action by the international community to support agents of compassion and to address the underlying causes of the crisis.
The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for securing this debate and for her most profound speech. I acknowledge, too, the others in this House who have led on this deep human tragedy. I also acknowledge the humanitarian help provided by the UK thus far.
Over recent days, I have been in contact with Bishop Paul Sarker, who leads the small but vibrant Anglican Church of Bangladesh. He describes the situation as an extreme violation of humanity and talks of the extreme pressure that Bangladesh is experiencing at the moment, as well as its readiness to do all that it can. He pleads for greater action by the international community to support agents of compassion, such as his church, and to address the underlying causes of the crisis. In that spirit, I raise three practical issues and a longer-term one.
First, NGOs working on the front line need urgent help. At least one heroic NGO working on the ground has told me of the urgent need for international humanitarian agencies to be able to register their organisations in Bangladesh as quickly as possible and to have long-term permission to operate. Caritas and Christian Aid currently have, I believe, only two months in which to operate. Speedy and efficient registration processes are self-evidently vital. Without them, they cannot deliver food and medical supplies, let alone establish safe places to protect the children. I have heard terrible reports of children being trafficked and women being raped. Help is needed to stop starving Rohingyas being lured into drug trafficking as carriers. Therefore, I ask the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to help expedite the necessary registration.
Secondly, as important and necessary as long-term return is for the Rohingya people, what can be done to ensure that reported plans for the repatriation of those forcibly driven out do not involve them in being forcibly driven back against their will and exposed to further danger?
Thirdly, following other points that have already been made, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that the witness testimonies of those who have been harmed are recorded so that those responsible for the atrocities can be held to account, as they must be?
Looking at long-term solutions, I am conscious of the analysis of the underlying issues in the Kofi Annan report, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The report refers to the entrenched poverty of the Rakhine, as well as the Rohingya, and to the nutritional status of all the children in the state being,
“the worst in the country”,
It calls for communal participation and representation, intercommunal cohesion on border issues, and for the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh to be addressed, along with the need to abolish the distinction between different kinds of citizens and clarify the rights of those who reside in Myanmar without citizenship.
Given that, the report tells us, the Myanmar Government expressed willingness to implement “the large majority” of the commission’s recommendations, and in the light of a reply from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that I had to a Question very recently stating that the Government,
“assess that the Commission’s recommendations provide the most realistic solution to address the longstanding and underlying issues in Rakhine”,
I ask the Minister what efforts the Government are making now to provide diplomatic, legal and other expertise to assist the State Counsellor and the Government of Myanmar to deliver on that promise.
I end with the call of Pope Francis, who, as we have been reminded, will be visiting the country soon, on men of good will to work for those who are persecuted so that the people of that country,
“may be given their full rights”.
Those words echo Cardinal Bo of Yangon, who visited Parliament last year. He said in a recent interview that,
“the Church reaffirms the rights of every person in the country”.
He said that,
“Peace is possible and peace is the only way”,
and rightly so, but as he warned us in this place and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, the “intolerable situation” in Rakhine state and the injustices suffered by the Rohingya, are,
“not a basis for a stable, peaceful future for my country”.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Lord Bates) (Con) [responded for the Government]: …The survivors’ accounts of the suffering have painted a harrowing picture. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop the Coventry referred to that and to other humanitarian abuses. Burmese security forces and ethnic Rakhine vigilante groups have displaced the Rohingya through a brutal campaign of violence that increasingly appears to be ethnic cleansing. Others have gone much further and we would not detract at all from what those organisations have said. The UK is one of the leading actors in the international community in responding to and seeking a solution to this crisis. I emphasise that word, solution, and I will come back to it. We are calling on the security forces and the Burmese Government to protect civilians, to facilitate full humanitarian access in Rakhine and to allow the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya….