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The UK must take a position of leadership in addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis on both sides of the border

The UK must take a position of leadership in addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis on both sides of the border
5 min read

With monsoons approaching, the clock is ticking for the international community to respond to the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Now is the time for the UK to show what Commonwealth solidarity really means, writes Preet Kaur Gill

To date, nearly one million Rohingya refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. These people have escaped unspeakable levels of violence, decades of persecution and arrived with virtually nothing. While international attention is focused on conditions in Bangladesh, conditions in Myanmar continue to force people to flee and undermine hopes of safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya to their own country.

The Rohingya crisis is on an enormous scale. The speed and number of refugee arrivals in Bangladesh – the fastest refugee displacement since Rwanda – would test the capacity of the richest nation. Bangladesh has shown generosity in opening its borders to the Rohingya and its response to the crisis should be commended.

With the monsoon season fast approaching, thousands of refugees are at risk of flooding and waterborne diseases. Sadly, we have seen the effects of climate change intensifying these already difficult conditions.

Labour recognises that action on climate change is needed if international development policy is to succeed. In our new policy paper, ‘A World For The Many Not The Few’, we have made action on climate justice and ecology one of our five top priorities, committing to deliver on the Paris agreement’s international undertaking to reduce emissions, while mitigating the impact of climate change on the global south.

However, the scale of the crisis, combined with the limited prospects of return in the near future, demand that we do not rest on our laurels. Working with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the international community must now implement its strategy to meet the needs of Rohingya refugees, and address the conditions that created this crisis. I believe the UK has a vital role to play in this process.

Since I arrived in parliament almost a year ago, I have already heard the phrases “we must act now” and “we must do more” too many times. Now, we as the UK have a great opportunity coming out of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) last month to turn these words into action. By leading efforts to address the suffering of the Rohingya, we can make a real impact on the global stage and show what Commonwealth solidarity really means.

Chogm, the World Bank spring meeting and the G7 foreign ministers’ and security ministers’ meetings, all held last month, provided the perfect opportunities for the international community to come together, discuss and put a plan in place to see how they can support Bangladesh in achieving its aim to transition into a middle-income country by its 50th birthday in 2021, while jointly taking responsibility for hosting almost 1 million extra people.

It was a positive step to see specific mention of the Rohingya crisis in the final communique from Chogm, with nations unanimously expressing their solidarity with the government and people of Bangladesh and commending the role that Bangladesh has played in providing shelter to the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar.

However, the Chogm communique also focuses heavily on repatriation of the Rohingya as a solution to the displacement crisis. Particularly worrying was the heads of government, including our own, noting the agreements made between the government of Bangladesh and government of Myanmar “as a beginning towards the sustainable return of the Rohingya and their reintegration into Myanmar society as equal members”.

In contrast, our very own Foreign Secretary has recently stated that conditions in Rakhine state are “not conducive to safe returns”, and much of the discussion of repatriation agreement reached between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar focused on its failure to put in place steps that address the underlying causes of discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya – conditions that must be addressed for returns to be considered voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable.

Further to this, nowhere in the wording does the concept of returns to Myanmar being voluntary feature. Forced or premature returns will not provide a sustainable solution, and only serve to put the lives of the Rohingya back in danger as they cross the border yet again. We have seen in the past Rohingya who had once fled Myanmar into Bangladesh return, only to be displaced a few years later. This cannot be the precedent that is followed this time around. The Rohingya people deserve much more.

I believe this reality demands the UK take a position of leadership in addressing the crisis on both sides of the border.

The Rohingya have an inalienable right to return to Myanmar and this 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 Kofi Annan-led advisory commission on Rakhine state provide a nationally and internationally endorsed framework designed to address the marginalisation of the Rohingya. I believe it is vital that the UK, in partnership with regional actors and partners such as Asean, supports the progressive implementation of the findings by the government of Myanmar. Progress on ensuring Rohingya citizenship must be a priority.

Final communiques are all well and good, but the international community must ensure they are more than words that are forgotten weeks later. As chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years, it is now up to the UK to ensure words turn to action on the ground in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. 


Preet Kaur Gill is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and shadow minister for international development

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