A DOCTOR who is also a Labour MP has spoken of the “heart-breaking” and “horrendous” scenes she witnessed at the Rohingya refugee camps earlier this month.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who represents Tooting in south London, spent three days among the Rohingya in Bangladesh and witnessed first-hand the suffering of refugees who fled Myanmar.
She told Eastern Eye about her experiences, including stories she had heard of women being dragged away by their hair and gang-raped; men being mutilated and murdered; and children and babies being captured by soldiers and thrown into fires.
“The trauma of what they have gone through is just unbelievable and the magnitude is unfathomable,” she said on Tuesday (28).
“There is a look in their eyes that just said it all.” Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled their homes in Rakhine state, Myanmar, after being subjected to extreme violence by the military in late August.
Dr Allin-Khan met some children who were apparently so traumatised that they were unable to talk, besides saying “they killed them all”.
“The level of pure evil that [the refugees] had experienced and the heartache they had lived through and were still living was palpable,” she said.
Details were revealed last Thursday (23) of a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh to potentially repatriate hundreds of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Rakhine. All refugees would only return if they wished it, both countries agreed.
However, Dr Allin-Khan fears the refugees would be “going back to their deaths” if they crossed the border.
“I have a great deal of reservations about the repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar,” she said. “Forcible repatriation would strip them of their refugee status in Bangladesh and they could be potentially vulnerable in awful camps over there.
“They would be a stateless population without any rights. I do worry that they would be going back to their deaths.”
The doctor travelled to the country with UK charity Christian Aid and MedGlobal, a humanitarian response team.
She treated many patients from the camps and recalled some of the health problems she witnessed.
Some patients had physical trauma from their treatment while living in Rakhine. Others had injuries related to how they had made the long journey over to Bangladesh. There were additional on-going health problems due to the conditions in the camp – children were malnourished, some people had chest infections from breathing in camp fire materials and others were suffering from diseases caused by a lack of clean water.
Dr Allin-Khan described the living conditions in the camps as “absolutely awful”, attributing it to a lack of resources.
There were not enough shelters to house the overwhelming number of people – rights groups estimate that more than half a million refugees have arrived in Bangladesh in the past few months, she said.
The sanitation levels were so bad that some avoid eating and drinking during the day, so they don’t have to use the toilets in front of “thousands” of people.
“It was worse than I ever could have imagined,” Dr Allin-Khan recalled. “I had seen footage and spoken to NGOs about what had been going on, but it was much worse than that.”
On Monday (27), the UK government announced that it will provide £12 million additional aid to Bangladesh. Dr Allin-Khan praised the government’s efforts but said that in her view, more needed to be done.
“I applaud the government for contributing to Bangladesh, but even if you look at the amount going there, they themselves are spending $130 billion a month on the relief efforts for basics,” she explained. “The money from the international community doesn’t go anywhere near being able to support them and Bangladesh already has a stressed economy.
“About 22 per cent of Bangladeshi people already live below the poverty line.”
The London-born politician brought up the crisis in a Westminster debate on Tuesday (28), when she urged an independent assessment to see whether “genocide” was taking place in the country.
“I am calling for a ministerial delegation to go out to the region, and call it what it is,” she said. “While debating with foreign minister Mark Field as to what we would call it, I said, ‘while we sit by and debate semantics, people are dying.’ Our failure to act in the face of genocide goes against everything that means to be British; courageous, generous and caring.”
Despite attempts to correspond with foreign secretary Boris Johnson, including in a debate on Monday (27), Dr Allin-Khan said she has yet to speak to him concerning the refugee crisis and the potential ongoing genocide.
“Humanity has no borders,” she said. “We have a duty to act and speak out against crimes against humanity.
“Each child’s life is worth the same as a life here in Britain or over there in Bangladesh or in Myanmar.”
The mother-of-two said it was especially “heart-breaking” to speak to other mothers who had lost their children in “horrific” circumstances.
She said several women told her they had to choose between going back into the fires to try and rescue their children who were being burnt alive, or fleeing with their remaining children.
“I couldn’t even sleep [after hearing their stories],” she admitted. “I’ve promised them that I would come back and tell their story and that is what I am doing.
“As a mother, my overwhelming feeling was that we have a duty to protect children and families all over the world.”
Dr Allin-Khan hopes to return to the camps but also hopes she can cross the border into Myanmar to witness what is happening first-hand.
“I’m coming back with eye-witness primary evidence after this trip and I want to do this over the border. There is a lot of denial going on and I want to be calling it out like I am now,” she said.