Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis Contents



1.In the past several months1 the international community has watched as a huge human tragedy unfolded for the Rohingya people living in the northern Burmese state of Rakhine.2 In a culmination of many decades of discrimination, marginalisation and abuse, a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”3 has been perpetrated by Burma’s security forces against the Rohingya under the guise of an appropriate response to militia violence in the summer.4

2.In October 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked three police outposts in northern Rakhine State, killing nine policemen and taking weapons. In August 2017, ARSA attacked 30 such outposts, this time with firearms, killing 12 soldiers. These latter attacks were the trigger for what the UK Government has described as “completely disproportionate” and “brutal” clearances of Rohingya communities by Burma’s military, alongside violent attacks by local vigilantes.5 Estimates of Rohingya casualties vary from the Burmese Government’s figure of 4006 to estimates of between 9,000 and 13,700 published in December 2017 by Medecins sans Frontieres.7 These fatalities are in addition to a catalogue of reported atrocity crimes, involving rape (including of children), torture and other violence against civilians, the destruction of hundreds of communities and the deployment of landmines along the Burma/Bangladesh border.


3.Authoritative figures for the displacement of the Rohingya over the years, and in some cases their return, are very hard to identify. Estimates vary with some putting the number of Rohingya displaced since the 1970s, at around 2 million. A timeline of the more recent crises is set out below.8

2017 Humanitarian Response Plan September 2017-February 2018

4.As a result of the most recent violence, over 655,5009 Rohingya people have been forced to flee into Bangladesh in a matter of months amounting to a total migration of over 868,000 Rohingya from Burma to Bangladesh since 2012.10 The Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner, Khondker M Talha, described the latest episode to us as: “in the history of mankind, the fastest displacement of a persecuted population”.11 In October, a joint statement from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNICEF, called the Rohingya crisis, “staggering in its scale, complexity and rapidity” and “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency”.12 In its report, the Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out that Bangladesh received more refugees in three weeks than mainland Europe received from across the Mediterranean in the whole of 2016. The scale and pace of the emerging humanitarian situation in the refugee camps in Bangladesh poses an enormous set of challenges to the host country and the international humanitarian relief system. These include all the well-documented threats and risks of large, temporary populations of traumatised people suddenly living in close proximity. Of course, the biggest challenge falls on the displaced Rohingya themselves in trying to maintain their well-being, family life, security, some dignity and a little hope for the future, in dire circumstances.

International community

5.In the past 18 months, the UK has participated in, and committed to, a number of substantial international and multilateral initiatives on humanitarian crises and the treatment of refugees and displacement; in particular, the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 and the UN’s New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants of September 2016. DFID also produced its own new Humanitarian Reform Policy in October 2017 which refers to these developments.13 The plight of the Rohingya in Burma has provided the international community–countries, NGOs and civil society–with an early opportunity to assess whether the work behind these multilateral initiatives, and the consensus achieved, has made a difference to the world’s ability to respond effectively to humanitarian crises; especially those involving displacement.

Debate and inquiry in the House

6.There was an Urgent Question on 5 September 2017 on Violence in Rakhine.14 The House held a debate in October 2017 entitled “The persecution of the Rohingya by the Myanmar Government”, on the initiative of the Backbench Business Committee, to consider the question, “That this House agrees with the statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the treatment of the Rohingya by the Myanmar Government amounts to a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”15 Evidence taken by the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the month informed the proceedings. During the debate the Chair of this Committee announced our own inquiry into DFID’s work in Bangladesh and Burma, which would commence with scrutiny of the UK’s response to the Rohingya crisis. Since taking evidence, there has been a further debate on the crisis, in Westminster Hall, on 28 November.16

7.We raised the matter of the Rohingya initially with the then Secretary of State, Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, on 24 October, during oral evidence on DFID’s priorities.17 We took further evidence, on 14 November, from Human Rights Watch, Dr Champa Patel from Chatham House, the Burma Campaign UK, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, the UNHCR, the International Rescue Committee and World Vision; and, on 22 November, from the Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner in the UK and Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for International Development, and for the Middle East at the FCO, accompanied by senior officials from both departments. We had invited the Burmese Ambassador to give evidence without receiving a reply. However, during the evidence session on 22 November we received a letter from the Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) in London via email which we have treated as written evidence.18 We welcome the report, on the violence in Rakhine State, from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which focuses on the foreign policy aspects of the crisis, and we do not try to cover the same ground (for example, the definition of the atrocities committed by the Burmese military and security personnel) but there is doubtless some overlap.

8.We also received a number of written submissions from a range of organisations.19 We are grateful to everyone who took the time to contribute to our work.

Predecessor committees’ reports

9.Our predecessor committees have examined the UK Government’s provision of humanitarian and development aid to Burma on two occasions in the last 10 years: Democracy and Development in Burma published in March 2014;20 and DFID assistance to Burmese internally displaced people and refugees on the Thai-Burma border, published in July 2007.21 In this report, we take account of the evidence offered to those two earlier inquiries in terms of: the lessons arising from work in 2007 that might be applied to this latest displacement; and the warning signs of the current situation, clearly evident in 2014, that seemed to go unheeded.

This report

10.This report is the first output from our wider inquiry into the work of DFID in Bangladesh and Burma. It seeks to examine the UK government and DFID’s response to the crisis in the context of the UK’s new humanitarian reform policy, the UK Government’s overall position and, in particular, in the light of the commitments made in the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit Communique and within the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.22 This report follows the commitments outlined in the World Humanitarian Summit Communique, taking into account the recent report by colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee23 and with reference to the “responsibility to protect” agreed by the 2005 UN World Summit.24

1 The particular events that led to this report, commenced in August 2017.

2 The ruling military junta changed Burma’s name to Myanmar in 1989. There is mixed practice on which name is used, including throughout our evidence. In accordance with the UK Government’s approach, “Burma” has been used throughout this report.

3 Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, 11 September 2017, United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner. See also (1) HC Deb 17 October 2017, cols 764-812, when the House of Commons debated and resolved a motion agreeing with this statement; (2) Summary and paragraph 13 of the First Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, HC 435; and (3) US Department of State, Efforts to Address Burma’s Rakhine State Crisis, 22 November 2017.

4 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. (DBB017)

6 The Burmese Ambassador also asserted that, since the October 2016 attacks, over 160 civilians had been “gruesomely” killed, and over 210 people abducted, by “the terrorists”. He wrote that these civilians were targeted for collaborating with the Burmese authorities and “speaking to the media about the true situation”. Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. (DBB017)

7 Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) conducted six surveys of refugees escaping the violence, who reported eight deaths for every 10,000 fleeing. MSF Australia Executive Director, Paul McPhun, said that “Extrapolating the data, essentially we can say that …our most conservative estimate is that between 9,000 and 13,700 people died.” Mr McPhun added that about 71 per cent died violent deaths, “so they were shot, they were burnt to death and … this was the result of the military campaign during that period”. The rest died of starvation or other causes fleeing the violence according to the NGO. The organisation also said at least 1,000 children under the age of five were among the casualties.

11 Q49

14 See HC Deb, 5 September, Vol 628, Col 25ff

15 See HC Deb, Tuesday 17 October 2017, cols 765ff.

16 See HC Deb, Tuesday 28 November 2017, cols 64WHff

17 DFID’s Priorities HC 485, 24 October 2017, QQ 7-13

18 Letter to the Chair from HE Kyaw Zwar Minn, Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 22 November 2017. (DBB017) See also Department for International Development (DBB020) which provides a commentary on the Burmese government’s version of events.

19 Published on our website and listed at the back of this report.

20 Op. cit., Ninth Report, Session 2013–14, HC821

21 Ibid, Tenth Report, Session 2006–07, HC645

23 Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, First Report, Session 2017–19, HC 435

15 January 2018