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MEPs call for an end to Rohingya persecution

21 May 2015

by Gavin Drake in Strasbourg


Next stage: newly-arrived migrants sit inside a truck that is to take them to temporary shelter, in Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia, on Wednesday 

Next stage: newly-arrived migrants sit inside a truck that is to take them to temporary shelter, in Simpang Tiga, Aceh province...

THE European Parliament has called on the Burmese authorities to change their policy towards the Rohingya people, to "take all necessary measures to end persecution of, and discrimination against, the Rohingya minority", and to "give Rohingyas equal access to Burmese citizenship."

In a joint motion proposed by all seven political groups in the Parliament, MEPs demanded that the Thai government holds "immediate, full, and credible criminal investigations into the mass graves of Rohingya Muslims", and for those responsible to be brought to justice. They also demanded an end to "any complicity with the criminal gangs trafficking Rohingya people and other migrants in Thailand."

Moving the debate, the Italian MEP Ignazio Corrao described the Rohingya people as "the most persecuted minority in the world", and said that "the surrounding countries would all be happier were they to simply disappear from the face of the earth."

Rohingya people who reach southern Thailand are at risk of "concealed camps" where "refugees are tortured, and made to phone up their families to demand ransoms," the German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, one of the co-authors of the motion, said. Thailand, and other neighbouring countries had to take action to ensure that the "slave-like exploitation" of the Rohingyas was stopped, she said.

The London Conservative MEP Charles Tannock welcomed the offer from the President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, to grant permanent refugee status to all Rohingya refugees; but said that "the only long-term solution is to end the factors leading to [their] persecution.

"We should do much more to press for changes in Burma-Myanmar as it seeks to open up its markets and seek EU aid and investment."

The Yorkshire and Humber MEP Amjad Bashir, who defected from UKIP to the Conservatives in January, said that recent news was a "testament to Myanmar's human-rights record", and was "unworthy of a nation seeking to be part of the international community. Firm action needs to be taken until Myanmar takes action to allow minorities to come out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century."

He also demanded that Myanmar's neighbours "meet their obligations under international maritime law to rescue the refugees."

The London Green MEP Jean Lambert described the treatment of the Rohingyas as "a form of ethnic cleansing". The Rohingya people, she said, "need the state's permission to marry and to have children. They have no protection from sectarian violence, and they have been victims of state violence and persecution. It is no wonder that many have sought sanctuary across borders where they face further risks of being persecuted."

Responding to the debate for the European Commission, the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, said that the plight of the Rohingya refugees was "very painful for all of us".

He said that the EU was watching "the unfolding humanitarian crisis" with "great concern", and called for "urgent action from all the countries involved, in line with their obligations and international human rights standards."

He continued: "One of the root causes is the status and worth of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and the under-development of Rakhine state, where most Rohingyas originate. This needs to be urgently addressed by the government of Myanmar.

"Only an improvement of the overall human-rights situation, including the status of the Rohingyas, can put an end to the exodus of this minority, which has been going on for a number of years, and which has recently increased dramatically."

The international Anglican mission agency supporting those who work on the sea, Mission to Seafarers (MTS), called on more to be done to support fishermen and other merchant sailors who are often involved in rescuing migrants from unseaworthy boats.

"All of the focus of public scrutiny and debate is, of course, about the plight of the poor exploited migrants - men, women, and children who are paying a terrible price for their attempts to get to freedom and safety," the agency's director of justice and public affairs, the Revd Canon Ken Peters, said.

"They are the tragic victims of war, religious persecution, and heart-breaking brutality. This leads them to make such pitiful, desperate deals with criminal gangs, who are running people-trafficking rackets along the coasts of war-torn states, particularly from Libya, and more recently from Burma.

"Yet, in the background of these crises, there are hundreds of merchant seafarers whose moral and legal duty is to intervene in human tragedies at sea, and attempt rescues, in the absence of coastguard and naval intervention. Seafarers put lives first. However, this, too, comes at great risk to their personal safety, and indeed to their mental well-being.

"The Mission to Seafarers is working with seafarers who have been so traumatised by major incidents of shipping disasters involving great loss of human lives, that they need our help and support with post-traumatic stress counselling.

"The perilous predicament of seafarers should be emphasised, because without them many more lives will be lost. The world expects so much of seafarers in these rescue operations, but doesn't give them a thought in terms of the danger that this places them in."

Canon Peters made his comments as MTS joined two other international maritime-welfare organisations in a joint statement which drew attention to the 40,000 migrant lives saved by merchant seamen, on 800 ships, during 2014. "Their role in the large-scale rescue of migrants should be recognised and commended," they said in their statement.

"However, EU governments are still relying on the kindness of seafarers and the legal obligations upon them to cope with a human tragedy of an unprecedented scale, instead of committing sufficient resources to save migrants' lives. Merchant ships and crews are not equipped or trained to deal with large-scale rescues."

On Wednesday, MEPs discussed the European Commission's recent proposals for a common migration policy and a system of relocation of asylum-seekers, with compulsory quotas for member states. The European Parliament had called for such a system for a number of years, but it has been rejected by the European Council.

The Commission has long sought to introduce a common migration policy in the face of opposition from the heads of government. The Commission's latest proposals were published as its response to the Mediterranean migration crisis, and goes further than the heads of government agreed at their summit last month.

The Commission's proposals were welcomed by most MEPs, including the Green's London MEP Jean Lambert, who said that she was "really, really upset that my own country is not willing to participate, and not willing to step up on this occasion".

The Labour London MEP Claude Moraes also welcomed the Commission's proposals, saying that the Parliament should "turn its fire" on the Council for making the "tough choices on resettlement" a low political priority.

But the Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, Timothy Kirkhope, a former immigration minister in Westminster, criticised the Commission for covering two types of migration in its proposals. "Economic migration and asylum are two different issues, with separate challenges, and this joint strategy blurs lines which should be clear," he said.

Mr Kirkhope also rejected the key proposals for migrants to be distributed around EU countries based on a compulsory quota system. "We have a moral duty to assist one another, but I do not believe this assistance should undermine the key principle of international asylum law, that an individual should be able to seek sanctuary in the first safe country reached," he said.

"True solidarity is offering assistance because it is the right thing to do, not through compulsion. I do not believe that quotas and forced relocation is sustainable, democratic, or fair to the individuals in question."

He said that the Conservative Government's approach to immigration was about "mixing humanitarian responses with responsibility and security."

Nigel Farage, who was mocked in the debate by other MEPs for his short-lived resignation after the General Election, said that the Commission's proposals should be replaced with an Australian-style points system, "so that we can choose who comes to live, work, and settle in our countries".

In an earlier debate, Mr Farage had said that the so-called Islamic State would use the Mediterranean migration crisis to send "half a million jihadis" to Europe. "I was laughed out. People said I had no evidence for it," he said. "But now even the Libyan intelligence agencies are saying that ISIS are not only making money from transporting people, but they are beginning to directly send us their terrorists.

"We have to have a rethink. We can't allow our compassion to imperil our security."

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