Labour Parliamentarians Briefing on Rohingya Refugees at the Parliament

Dr. Mozammel Haque

Labour Parliamentarians invited press at the Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, on Monday, 29 January 2018, to brief the position of Labour party and parliamentarians on the Rohingya situations both in Cox’s Bazaar Bangladesh and in Rakhine state Myanmar. They said: “We would like to invite you to come and hear about our work and what we want the British Government to do to resolve this crisis.”


They mentioned: “Since large-scale, state-approved violence re-erupted against the Rohingya people last August, an estimated 688,000 more refugees have fled across the border into Bangladesh, around half of them children, now living in desperate squalor and poverty in hugely over-crowded camps in the Cox’s Bazar district.


“This is one of the worst humanitarian disasters we have seen in a long time, and the Labour Party considers the campaign by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslims to be ethnic cleansing. Labour MPs have been extremely active; taking the initiative in parliament to raise the issues and pressing the British Government to ensure that the Rohingya can get as much aid as possible and to do all they can to get Myanmar authorities to stop their ethnic cleansing campaign,” they mentioned.


The Labour Parliamentarians who were present and talked about the situations and their works were: Helen Goodman MP, Shadow FCO Minister with responsibility for East Asia and Myanmar, who has been leading for Her Majesty’s Opposition on debates in Parliament.  Stephen Twigg MP, Labour Chair of the International Development Committee, which published a fantastic report last week that highlights the Government’s slow response and   Rushanara Ali MP, who has been championing the Rohingya’s cause in Parliament and who sent a letter, signed by over 150 MPs, to the Foreign Secretary in September calling for government action.


Helen Goodman MP

First of all The first speaker was Helen Goodman who at the beginning, gave a brief activities which the Labour Parliamentarians are doing. She mentioned: “Ever since the Rohingya people started to cross the border in August and the first urgent question was raised by Yasmin Qureishi on the 5th of September 2017 and then Roshanara Ali coordinated a letter which 150 Members of Parliament signed to the Foreign Secretary and then she initiated backbench business community to debate which is a debate in the main chamber on the 17th of October 2017. Some Labour MPs went to Cox’s Bazaar and one of those was Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP and she initiated another debate at Westminster Hall on 28th of November 2017 and then as well as raising at Foreign Office questions Emily Thornberry spoke in the opposition debate last Wednesday, the 24th of January 2018. So you can see all the time we have been pushing pushing and pushing to get the government to be more energetic in their policy.”


After this introductory few words, MP Goodman  requested Stephen Twigg, MP, to talk about the Select Committee Report and said that she would come back to describe “where we agree with the government and where we would like stronger response where Labour position is different from the government.”


Summary of briefings

During the parliamentary briefing, Labour parliamentarians touched on the issues of return to Rakhine state, repatriation of Rohingyas, oppression, appalling evidence of crimes of rape and sexual violence.


Parliamentarian Stephen Twigg mentioned about the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee Report into the International Development into Bangladesh and Burma of which he was the chairman and the report was published two weeks ago. He also mentioned we made it very clear that the conditions are not in place for any repatriation. He also said any return should certainly be voluntary. He emphasized Rohingya voice should be heard. Stephen MP mentioned the oppression of the Rohingya goes back decades. There is a big failure of policy. He also mentioned about the appalling evidence of crimes of rape and sexual violence against women and children.


Parliamentarian Helen Goodman mentioned about the debate in the main chambers by Emily Thornberry on 24 January 2018. She described the points Labour Party agreed with the government and the points on which Labour party wants strong response. Speaking about the five point plan about which the Labour is in agreement is: an end to violence; guarantee humanitarian aid access; and any return must be safe, voluntary and dignified; implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission and have access for the UN Human Rights Commission for Fact-finding mission.


As regards the points of difference, Goodman MP mentioned, the first point of difference is protecting the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi for which Rohingya has to pay the price which is not acceptable. The second point of difference relates to terrible gender-based violence. The third point of difference is repatriation. No repatriation without the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Fourth point of difference is on sanctions. Fifth point of difference is: “we think the government which is penholder in the UN should take the initiative on this.”


Parliamentarian Roshanara mentioned about her visit and the conditions of refugees. She said, ‘absolutely horrified, essentially like prison camps; apartheid.’ She also mentioned about the response of the international community: “the international community was very slow to catch off at what’s been happening in spite of the warnings.”


Goodman mentioned about the Emily Thornberry’s debate on 24th of January, 2018. I thought it is important to add some of the excerpts from that debate at the end of this report.


Stephen Twigg, MP

Labour MP Stephen Twigg echoed what his colleague parliamentarian Helen Goodman has said. He mentioned, “I think number of Labour colleagues including those Helen referred to have taken the lead on this both on the front bench and on the back bench. My is slightly different because I chair across party I did when we fought in the autumn to have an enquiry into the work of International Development was doing in Bangladesh and Burma but to start by looking specifically at the Rohingya crisis. We published our report two weeks ago.”


He said, “We set a number of things. Our report publication coincided with suggestions. He mentioned about repatriation. He said, “that the government of Burma and Bangladesh have agreed around repatriation of some of the Rohingya refugees; we made very very clear that we do not believe that the conditions are in place for any repatriation that even be considered to be seen massive changing in Burma itself that any return should certainly be voluntary. Connected to that and something that came across the debate Emily Thornberry led last week is that very often in debates on the Rohingya the voices of the Rohingya themselves are not heard.”


He also mentioned about the voices of the Rohingya themselves are not heard. He said, “We think one of the priorities and the UK can play a positive role on this is amongst those who are living refugees in Cox’s Bazaar and elsewhere. Let us identify leaders that can speak for their communities so that the Rohingya voice is heard and that is relevant to today’s discussion; because of course we do have Rohingya community here in the UK who live as refugees and number of our colleagues, for example,  some of the Bradford MPs where there is a very significant Rohingya community have made the point that we need to listen to the Rohingya Diaspora in our own country and we certainly gather evidence from British Rohingya as an important part of our enquiry that we did that.”


Parliamentarian Twigg then talked about the history of the Rohingya people. He mentioned, “We looked at some of the history because Rohingya is really important to make the point that this is not something that had happened unexpectedly. There were many early warnings that something like this could happened; the oppression of the Rohingya goes back decades; this is not something that simply emerged in recent years. And I think there is a big failure of policy more often done to try to prevent this from happening.”

He also mentioned the other aspects which they have focussed in the Report. He said, “We focussed a lot in our Report is the appalling evidence of crimes of rape and sexual violence against women and children in particular and they need from the UK office to do a lot more to collect evidence and also to give support to those who have suffered appalling violence including sexual violence. That is a very brief summary of quite a long report probably the key headlines happened.”

Helen Goodman, MP

As said earlier, parliamentarian Helen Goodman started to describe at which points they agreed and at which points they need stronger response. She said, “The House has put 59 million pounds aid we support that and we really pleased that they have done that. And they have a five point plan and that is: an end to violence; guarantee humanitarian aid access; and any return must be safe, voluntary and dignified; implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission and have access for the UN Human Rights Commission for Fact-finding mission. So we agreed with all these things but we felt as well as willing ends we have to the means and this is where we would like a stronger response because we now got 680,000 refugees; many many people have suffered horrendous crimes.”


Parliamentarian Goodman after pointing out the point where she agreed and then she mentioned the points of difference. She mentioned: “Many people have suffered horrendous crimes and the scale of problems just emerged. So our first point of difference is that we think the government was too slow. This is being, as Stephen has described, a long running problem so they should have been more alert when it really blew up in August-September, 2017. We think they should have acknowledged the ethnic cleansing much faster; it took us in November to get the Minister to say that and we feel that there have been too interested in protecting the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi. They have been very anxious to protect her position within Burma; that is important; of course that is important. But the suffering by the Rohingya people cannot be a price who are paying for critical development in Burma; that’s not acceptable. That is our first point of difference.”

Parliamentarian Goodman then mentioned the second point of difference which is related to terrible gender based violence. She mentioned: “Our second point of difference relates to the terrible gender-based violence. That the British government has 71 people trained and able to do counselling and support people who suffered sex crimes, rape and that so far they only sent two out of those 71 people. Well they cannot be greater need for that support than they need in Cox’s Bazaar at the moment. We just cannot understand why they only sent two of the 71 people.”

Goodman MP also mentioned her third point of difference on the issue of repatriation. She said, “Thirdly we believe there should be no repatriation without the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. We think the idea we rely on the Red Cross or some of the voluntary organisation, however good they are, it’s not the same of having the UN; because the UN has a legal responsibility and legal powers and legal duties that nobody else has. We want the UN to be there to see the situation is in Rakhine state and for that to be no question of people going back without that UN presence being permanent; it’s not possible; it’s clearly not possible.”

Then Parliamentarian Goodman mentioned another point of difference on sanctions. She explained, “We have difference with on sanctions. Now you will probably remember we had full investment trade sanction between 1996 and 2012; Last September the Prime Minister announced the re-imposition of arms sanction which is good; but we don’t think these sanctions covered broad enough spread the relationship that we have with Myanmar. The sanctions are come to an end in March. So we would like to have statement now from the government that they will roll these sanctions over in April unless we have succeeded in getting UN in and proved the conditions are safe. My personal view is that incredibly unlikely. I don’t think that thing is going to happen. I think that sanctions should be rolled over but you know; if there is a miracle.”

Parliamentarian Goodman then maintained, “But now we would like these sanctions extended to two areas: one is to all the economic sectors controlled by the military of the Myanmar. In Myanmar the economy got two parts; it has got big big parts of industrial corporations controlled by the military and they don’t just control the army; they control weapons manufacturing; they control some of the mineral extractions and we would like to see sanctions extended to that part of the economy. And we would also like to see sanctions extended to individuals who we know have been responsible for the abuses and we now in the situations where we are even behind the Americans because the Americans have used the law to put sanctions on the man called Maung Maung Soe who ran the campaign in the Rakhine state.”

Talking about taking initiative to raise the Rohingya issue in the UN, MP Goodman said, “We think the government which is the penholder in the UN should take the initiative on this. Now we know that there would be pushed back from China and Russia. We are not naïve about this; but we think the government should take the initiative. We also think that we should use the opportunity which we have to collaborate with our EU colleagues because we could have EU sanctions. We could do that even before we get agreement in the UN.”

“For Labour, this crisis is a priority which is why Emily spoke and I can give you what she said last Wednesday,” mentioned Goodman MP and said, “Boris Johnson went to Myanmar and all we saw he was doing; that’s not acceptable; because this is a very big crisis; and we need the top of the government to be putting it weight behind pressing for resolutions.”


Roshanara Ali MP

Then Parliamentarian Roshanara Ali spoke on the Rohingya situation. She visited Rakhine state in 2013 after the violence. Roshanara MP said, When I went to Burma with refugees international Burma campaign; she was absolutely horrified; situation was essentially like prison camps; apartheid. You can’t get access to help; you cannot move around; and the daily battle of survival was horrific; humanitarian agency in the north were not allowed to go as much and the NGOs were really concerned because they had very limited access for medical staff; if there is any emergency they phoned life-threatening situation particularly for women during child birth with unprecedented.”


Speaking about the response of the international community, parliamentarian Roshanara said, “The international community being very slow to catch off at what’s been happening despite the warnings and there are still number of countries selling arms not just usual suspects I understand countries like Pakistan; so we do need much more assertive action and leadership in government both at UN level. So along side with the debates in parliament which is very well attended; numbers of colleagues have visited Rakhine as well as delegations.”

She also mentioned about the Holocaust Memorial day during the Second World War and “There have been subsequent genocide UN has stated, as Helen has already said, this is a textbook of crime against humanity,” she mentioned.

Speaking about sending back Rohingyas to Myanmar, parliamentarian Roshanara said, “Without security sending people back is equivalent back to the perpetrated army.” She said that the idea of repatriation should be under the international protection. That’s the first step.”

Questions & Answers Session

In the Questions & Answers Session, I raised some of the questions such as the 1982 Citizenship Act which makes the Rohingya community stateless and the Myanmar authority does not treat them as Rohingyas. Both the parliamentarians Stephen and Helen agreed and said, “Exactly; that’s the fundamental. Absolutely; that’s the fundamental problem. That’s why we want to see the amendments that Kofi Annan made - everyone has the right of citizenship share.”

I also raised the question about the role of international community to raise the Rohingya crisis in the UN Security Council.  Replying to that, Parliamentarian Goodman said, “We want the government to take the initiative. When we ask them they said to us China and Russia will say that is probably the realistic assessment. We could go for a resolution in the UN but my point is we can also work through the EU; we don’t need to get involved in worrying about China and Russia; should we think the EU.  We could make strong sanctions.”

Labour MPs Press release 5.02.18

 On 5th of February 2018, Labour parliamentarians issued a press release under the following caption:

Labour MPs calls for further action

to be taken to help Rohingya Muslims


The press release runs as follows: 

“Labour affirms Government action in providing £59m, commends the aid money sent and the Government’s 5 Point Plan. But they said “you must will the means as well as the ends”. The Government’s initial response was slow, they have 71 experts in helping people who’ve suffered sexual violence but have only sent 2. They have taken no action to ensure that the UN monitors any repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar which must not be undertaken without this. The government must also re-impose sanctions on the military. 

The Labour MPs stated that they will continue to use all available fora to press the government on all these issues. 

The press release also mentioned: “On sanctions, in particular, the Labour MPs stated that they will urge the Government to consider the reintroduction of sanctions on economic sectors controlled by the military and to have new, targeted sanctions on individuals that have played a role in the abuse of the Rohingya. The Labour MPs stressed that the Government must now take more initiative in the EU and at the UN.”

The press release also mentioned the actions to be taken in the future, in pressing the UK Government to do more to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. Besides others, The MPs listed a number of ways Labour have pressed the Government on doing more for the Rohingya so far and added:

“The 5 points are: the cessation of violence by the Burmese security forces; humanitarian access to be guaranteed in Burma; any returns of refugees to be in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner; full implementation of the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission’s recommendations; and, above all, full access for, and cooperation with, the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission.”