Minister of State, last week you visited Bangladesh, where you spoke with government leaders about the Muslim minority, the Rohingya, who have fled from Myanmar. Do you see progress in overcoming the refugee crisis in the country?
I certainly sensed a great deal of optimism during my visit. Bangladesh and Myanmar are discussing the repatriation of the refugees. The large neighbouring countries of China and India are helping to build housing. However, there will be a long way to go before the Rohingya can return to Myanmar. Many of them do not trust that they will be safe and welcome there.
As a result, a million refugees will continue to need help in Bangladesh in the short term. This is an enormous challenge for the country and the international aid organisations there. I have the greatest respect for all those involved. A political solution must be found in the medium term. That means Myanmar must create the prerequisites for the permanent, safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya to Rakhine State. The international community is willing and able to help with this.
Although Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement on repatriation, progress has been slow. How optimistic are you that a solution to this crisis in Asia can be found quickly?
Various United Nations agencies are working tirelessly on this matter. Germany is one of the most active member states in this regard. We are a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and from 1 January 2019 we will also be a member of the Security Council. Along with the EU and other partners, we will ensure that this crisis remains at the very top of the international agenda. A swift solution would be in the interest of those affected, but we need to remain realistic. It seems that the main fear in Bangladesh is that the country will be left to cope with a million refugees on its own as soon as new crises catch the international public’s attention.
What do you think could be an effective solution? Myanmar is not willing to recognise the Rohingya as citizens.
Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of prejudice against the Rohingya and opposition to their return among both government and society in Myanmar. We need positive incentives to overcome this – but international pressure is needed, too. We are also speaking with Myanmar’s immediate neighbours, influential countries such as India and China, about how they can become even more involved in the solution process and thus help to change the way people think in Myanmar.
What else can Germany and Europe do?
Germany has helped the Rohingya in Bangladesh by providing over 20 million euros in humanitarian assistance so far, as well as an additional four million euros in transitional aid, for example to build schools. Further humanitarian assistance, stabilisation and development cooperation measures are planned now that the federal budget for 2018 has been approved.
The EU, other European countries and multilateral donors are also providing significant amounts of aid. During my visit to Dhaka, members of aid organisations told me that once refugees’ basic needs had been met it was vital to create prospects for the longer term, for example through education and employment opportunities. However, money alone is not enough. We need to take a coordinated diplomatic and political approach.
Niels Annen is Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office.
This interview was conducted by Hao Gui.