Christmas Day marks exactly four months since the start of the latest influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh from Myanmar. An estimated 830,000 people – seven times the population of my Edmonton constituency – now live on the border. More arrive every day.
In one month, half a million arrived. That is the highest monthly exodus of refugees anywhere on the planet since the Rwandan genocide. Médecins Sans Frontières has documented at least 6,700 deaths from violence, but the real number is likely to be much higher. The world is outraged at the savagery of the atrocities, at the sexual violence, at the torture, at the discrimination and at the sheer impunity of General Min Aung Hlaing and the failure of Myanmar’s military leaders to face consequences.
But for all the outrage, the world has not done nearly enough. A long-term political solution will require much more. Earlier this month, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee passed judgement on what else the UK Government could have done.
There are immediate and massive humanitarian needs that risk being forgotten as the news cycle moves on. A recent International Rescue Committee assessment found that 95 per cent of people are drinking untreated water, risking a cholera outbreak. Nearly 60 million litres of safe water – the equivalent of 23 Olympic-sized swimming pools – are needed every day; 40 per cent of children are currently malnourished.
Women are in particular danger: horrific accounts continue to emerge of systematic rape, abuse and torture at the hands of the Myanmar military, while there is only limited support for recovery and treatment in the camps. Access to even basic healthcare and education is severely restricted. Shelter needs too are acute: camps sprang up rapidly, without sufficient planning or space to expand. Hundreds of thousands will sleep in 2018 crowded under tarpaulins propped up by bamboo sticks.
The plight of the Rohingya began long before August, and there is no quick end in sight. The chances are that whole generations will now spend their lives in Bangladesh as refugees. That is why the medium-term response in Bangladesh matters so much. International donors have already pledged some $344m (£257m) towards the response. That includes £59m from the UK – our aid provision has been both swift and generous. But governments and international institutions must now step up in the months ahead, and agree a much bigger financial package with Bangladesh.
That support must be tied to a progressive refugee policy that will provide refugees with access to work, education, citizenship rights and a future, without putting further strain on already stretched public services. There are important lessons to learn from similar influxes in Uganda, Jordan, and Lebanon.
But right now, that progressive, positive, outcome looks a long way away for the Rohingya. Rather than welcome and integrate, the government of Bangladesh is now activating a costly plan to transfer 100,000 Rohingya to Bhashan Char, a currently uninhabited island.
At the end of November, the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar also agreed to return and repatriate Rohingya to Myanmar – the very country they fled just weeks ago – with support from the UK and other countries. It is reported that repatriation and refugee returns could start as soon as January, just a few weeks away.
The UK Government says it is seeking assurances that repatriations will only happen if they are safe, voluntary and dignified. But according to human rights groups surveying refugees on the ground, many neither want to return nor believe it is yet safe to do so. That is hardly surprising when you consider their horrific experience at the hands of the military, or that a repeat cycle of counter-insurgency human rights violations is highly likely in future. We now know that the assurances of civilian leaders like Aung Sang Suu Kyi count for little in a country still dominated by the military.
Until the UK Government receives far stronger and more credible assurances and evidence that any returns will indeed be safe, voluntary and dignified, and until UN agencies have full confidence in the arrangement, the UK must not support an agreement that could put thousands more Rohingya lives in serious danger.
This Christmas Day, four months on from the start of the crisis, we should focus not on how the Rohingya can be sent back, but on how we can help provide short-term help, and long-term sanctuary. The UK must help the Rohingya, not send them back into danger.
Kate Osamor is the Labour MP for Edmonton
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