Last week, when Parliament was in recess, I had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) annual conference. The CPA is a global organisation that brings together Parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth and supports them to promote good governance in Parliamentary systems around the world.
After the Conference, along with a cross-party group of MPs, I went to Cox’s Bazaar to visit the Rohingya refugee camps, which are currently home to over 800,000 people.
My visit helped me to understand the action that I can take as the Shadow Minister for International Development to push the UK government to do all it can to help with the crisis. It also made clear the vast scale of the camps, as the mass exodus from Myanmar following the violence in Rakhine state is one of the largest population movements in living memory.
This is the equivalent of a city the size of Manchester establishing itself overnight with no prior infrastructure, housing, or sanitation. Walking around the camp, which was possible on our visit because the rains had stopped and the mud was dry, what struck me most apart from the obvious destitution was the scale. Wherever we turned the camp was visible far into the distance. Given the speed of the exodus from Myanmar, it had not been possible to properly plan the camp, and with new people arriving all the time the camp was a sea of makeshift shelters stretching as far as the eye could see.
Upon arrival, we were keen to hear from the Rohingyas themselves about what they thought the camps most urgently needed, and so on arrival at Kutupalong camp we met a group of community leaders, both men and women.
The conversation started off as expected – they described how there was not enough of anything; space, water, education, sanitation, clothes, food, shelter. But perhaps what surprised us most was that despite the very real hardship they were experiencing, what they most wanted was citizenship. This was to be a recurring theme of our visit.
One encounter has particularly stayed with me. In our first meeting at the camp, I spoke with a young man aged 25, who had been born in the camp, as his parents had fled from Myanmar in an earlier displacement in 1992.
He recognised the need for more food and other supplies but said what he most wanted more than anything was citizenship, because then he could make his own way in the world. Unfortunately, this will not be easily achieved at present. The military in Myanmar have a long history of refusing citizenship to the Rohingyas, and Bangladesh is reluctant to give permanent residency to so many people in a very poor area of a low income country. International pressure to solve this particular issue is of the utmost urgency and importance.
Our next stop was at a school, which children attend in shifts due to a lack of places. Like all young children they were excited by visitors and keen to show us what they were learning. The teachers made much of the fact that the school was actually functioning because just a few short weeks ago it had to close to accommodate 600 newly arrived Rohingya pupils in a small area. As with all schools, it was a place of hope, but this glimpse of normality was short lived. On our way out, we noticed that two families were living under a single piece of tarpaulin, and this was a warning of what was to come.
We passed a large queue for food and saw the distribution of new shelter materials and basic household and personal items, including basic clothing packages.
We also visited a transit camp, recently established by the UNHCR, where new arrivals traumatised and injured by their experiences in Myanmar and long journey are given space to have their medical and personal needs assessed before moving to the camp. This showed the difference that international efforts are making to the lives of the displayed Rohingyas, and the contrast between the care and compassion showed by the staff, and the violence so recently suffered by the Rohingya in Rakhine state was heart-wrenching to consider.
We were moved and distressed by what we had seen, but we were determined to remain focused on what we could do to help the situation. Our discussions with the camp residents, local officials, UNHCR and NGOs left me with four issues to take up in Parliament.
Firstly, the UK and other international aid is essential in ensuring the basic needs of the Rohingya are met and that camp life can improve. In my role as Shadow Minister for International Development, I am determined to protect both an independent Department for International Development, and the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid against Tory threats to cut both.
Secondly, the camps need more space, and it is urgent that Bangladesh determines as soon as possible how this can be achieved.
Thirdly, staff and volunteers from UNHCR and NGOs are doing an amazing job servicing the camp and supporting the Rohingya. They don’t seek recognition for their efforts but their amazing work in difficult times circumstances should be acknowledged.
Fourthly, the underlying problem of the Rohingya is not only the violence and persecution they face in Myanmar, but also their lack of citizenship. Without citizenship, they cannot access the support and services needed to rebuild their lives in Bangladesh, as it is unclear whether the Rohingya will ever be able to return to Myanmar following the violence they have experienced at the hands of the Burmese military.
While my trip to the camp was in many ways a harrowing experience, it was a privilege to meet the amazing staff and volunteers at the camps, and to speak to some of the Rohingya refugees myself. It has re-affirmed my commitment to doing all I can to make sure the UK plays its part in these humanitarian crises.