Anne Main speaks on Rohingya refugee crisis in Commons debate

17th October 2017
Anne Main recounts her experiences visiting Rohungya refugees in Bangladesh and tells MPs a ‘tide of misery’ has been inflicted upon the region by the Myanmar military.  

Four minutes is not long enough to illustrate the suffering that I saw in Bangladesh only three weeks ago, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).

I pledged to the people whom I met in the camps—mostly women and children—that if nothing else, we would come back and give them a voice that could be heard. We went with a delegation from the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, and we spent two days in Cox’s Bazar. We were not prevented from speaking to anyone. We went there with Bengali Sylheti speakers who could translate very well for us, and we asked questions of anyone we liked. Their stories were all the same. There were stick-thin children who looked as if they were literally within days of dying. There were women who were unaccompanied by their menfolk because they had been slaughtered, brutally attacked or separated from them, beaten up and taken away.

We visited both the Kutupalong camp and the Balukhali camp. In the Balukhali camp, we talked to workers in an aid hospital about the wounds that people showed as they came in. Many were gunshot wounds. While we were there, an elderly man was brought in, his face gashed and bleeding. He was distressed and had been beaten up. A few minutes later, his son was carried in, covered with a tarpaulin, within moments of losing his life.

 

Four minutes is certainly not enough. I congratulate my hon. Friend and her colleagues who went out to see the suffering for themselves. I received a delegation in my constituency from my local imam because so many of our Muslim populations in this country have been appalled by the reports that have been coming back. I thank my hon. Friend on their behalf for what she has done, and for acting as an advocate for them today.

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for what she has said, but we cannot possibly say enough. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) is absolutely right: the time to stop doing nothing is now. We must start doing things and start speaking up. Let me put in a plea for contributions to the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee, whose headquarters I visited with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. We have some good stories to tell. The DEC is ensuring that the aid goes to the right places, and the British Government have a lot to be proud of.

Let me go back to what we saw. We saw the most brutal attacks. We were taken to the border, and could locate the points where landmines—we saw pictures of them—had been laid. We saw the body of a man being dragged out of the flooded camps. The Bangladesh Government cannot be congratulated enough for how much they are doing, but the tide of misery is overwhelming.

 

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She has talked of a tide of misery. Alas, the tide of misery does not just flow across the Bay of Bengal from Rakhine to Cox’s Bazar; it also flows from Rakhine down to Malaysia and other countries, where we have seen horrific evidence of the trafficking of the Rohingya people. People come down from the Bay of Bengal and pick them up in Rakhine—

 

Order. I know that the former Minister has a lot to add to this, but I want to get everyone in. Interventions must be very short. Do not take advantage of other Members, please.

 

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Time is very short, and I wish to keep within my limit so that others can make their points.

I must emphasise that the stories we heard were consistent. Any claims in the newspapers that the Rohingya are doing this to themselves are lies, fabrications and absolute fantasy. That is not true. No woman wants to trek with eight small children after one of her sons has been stabbed through the chest, her breasts dried up because she cannot feed her child, and with only some semolina to keep her going for days. The Rohingya are not doing this to themselves. If the world sucks up that nonsense, that lie, that fabrication, we are complicit; and we cannot be complicit.

We saw where those people were stranded in no man’s land, within yards of the border. We heard too many stories that were consistent: people were being machine-gunned from behind to drive them across, and the landmines were to stop them going back. These people have been brutalised. There are thousands of unaccompanied children. It has been said that there are 80,000, although it is hard to give an accurate figure because the number increases every day. Apparently there were 11,000 last Monday.

When we were last told, there were 80,000 pregnant women and 13,000 unaccompanied children. There are real issues of safeguarding and trafficking, and of disease. We used the latrines on the site; believe me, it was a relief to go back and wash off the slop and stench we had experienced those days—only to go back and see the people the next day, sitting there with no more than a piece of plastic over their heads. Some of them did not even have that: some had an umbrella, some had nothing.

We cannot turn a blind eye. We cannot pretend it is not happening. It is so easy once we are back to forget the sheer horror of it, but for them this is not just about now; it has been happening for years. As the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who so eloquently opened the debate, said, this has a very long history. But for those babies and children we saw, who are at any moment liable to be taken away with typhoid or one of the other diseases just waiting to rampage through that camp, we have got to say the world must join with Bangladesh on this.

I cannot say any more than that: the Bangladeshis have done their utmost, with a third of their own country underwater, and with rice harvests being lost. One should go there and look at the poor quality of the site; when we were there, an elephant trampled down the camp and there were landslides. This site is so fragile, yet Bangladesh has extended its arms to be as welcoming as it possibly can be. So I will not hear a word said against what they have been doing, but the rest of the world could do so much more. As the hon. Lady said, we must encourage our neighbours who feel this is someone else’s problem, because it very much is our problem.

I did not hear any anger from these people; they want to go back, but they do not want to go back to be driven across the border again and again and again. They want some degree of resolution to their plight, and I hope by talking about it on the Floor of this House today we can ensure their voice is heard by the world, because that is what I pledge. That is all I could say to the people I met: “We will make sure your stories get back.” And today I know the two colleagues who joined me are making sure their stories have got back, and the hon. Lady who opened the debate has spoken eloquently, and I know she is summing up—and I am sure that across the House today we will show that we will not accept this any longer.

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