Following her recent visit to Rakhine State with Refugees International, Rushanara Ali MP, Shadow Minister for International Development, spoke in a Westminster Hall debate to call for an end to the discrimination against the Rohingya community in Burma and an urgent resolution to their citizenship status.
The humanitarian situation
Since inter-communal violence broke out a year ago in Rakhine State, Rohingya Muslims have been forced into segregated settlements, completely unsuitable for displacement camps, and many have been cut off from lifesaving aid. Rushanara said that the humanitarian situation she witnessed was dire with tens of thousands of people living in makeshift camps lacking food, water, sanitation, adequate shelter and access to healthcare. She said:
"One camp I visited, in Pauk Taw township, was accessible only by means of a two-hour boat journey. Non-governmental organisations had to bring drinking water in on boats, and primary health care was provided just one morning a week. The shores adjacent to the camp were covered in faeces, and dead rats floated in the water just metres from children who were bathing to keep cool in the scorching heat."
"I heard stories of many people—particularly women—dying unnecessarily because of the lack of health care. That experience—observing hospitals turning people away in life-and-death situations because of their ethnicity and the fact that they are not recognised—echoed, to me, apartheid. I do not use that term lightly. Being forced into camps and not allowed out is the equivalent of being a prisoner in one's own country."
Citizenship rights and human rights violations
At the heart of this humanitarian crisis lies the question of citizenship. The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as "one of the most persecuted minorities in the world." Rushanara condemned the discriminatory orders against the Rohingya, including a directive placing a two-child limit on Rohingya couples and restrictions on their movements, cutting them off from their livelihoods and rendering them reliant on aid. She said:
"When I visited camps, where malnutrition rates are dangerously near emergency levels and where people are forced to live in segregated areas cut off from their livelihoods and are struggling to survive, I did not expect citizenship and identity to top the list of issues that people wanted to talk about. However, every group of Rohingya men and women, including children, to whom I spoke told me that their priority was recognition of their Rohingya identity and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship rights, which were taken away from them in the 1980s."
"Many Rohingyas were keen to insist that ethnic Rohingya Muslims had been in Burma for centuries, yet the national and state Governments deny them their Burmese citizenship and their ethnic Rohingya identity, instead claiming that they are "Kala," a racist derogatory term, or Bengali migrants from Bangladesh. One woman lost her entire family—I met a group of women, many of whom had similar stories—and she told me, "If, after having lost everything, including my whole family, because we are Rohingya Muslims, the Government still don't recognise me as Rohingya in my own country, then I might as well be dead."
Following the lifting of EU sanctions she called on the Government to use what leverage remained to exert influence on the Burmese authorities to prevent human rights violations.
Rushanara also called on the UK Government to:
- Press the Burmese authorities to facilitate unimpeded humanitarian access to Rakhine State and other parts of Burma.
- Improve conditions for displaced people, particularly in flood prone areas, and address shelter needs as a matter of urgency.
- Exert pressure on the Burmese authorities to restore the Rohingya's Burmese citizenship status as a matter of urgency.
- Encourage the Burmese authorities to support a safe and voluntary return process for Rohingya with adequate protection.
- In light of Human Rights Watch's recent report 'All we can do is pray' which concluded that crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing were being committed towards Burma's Rohingya Muslims, she called on the UK Government to exert pressure on our international partners for an international inquiry into the events of June and October 2012 and March 2013.
A full transcript of the debate can be found here.