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18 July 2016

Bangladesh: the UK’s next refugee crisis if we don’t act now

British MPs ignore Bangladesh at their peril. 

By Simon Danczuk

It is a peculiar feature of UK foreign policy that we only seem capable of focusing on one international crisis at a time.

For now the eyes of Westminster are fixed firmly on the civil war in Syria, the resulting migrant crisis and the spread of Islamic extremism across Europe.

No one will be anything but appalled by the deaths of 84 people in Nice on Thursday night.

But nearly 5,000 miles away in Bangladesh, a country with a population seven times that of Syria, a political powder keg threatens to erupt in a bloody explosion of violence.

Should that happen, the shockwaves will be felt much closer to home than many MPs realise.  

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As MP for Rochdale, representing more than 4,000 constituents of Bangladeshi origin, I was honoured to speak on the subject of democracy at the Sixth Council of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in March this year.

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Sadly, my address was less of a rousing speech and more of a solemn eulogy. That is because, to put it bluntly, democracy in Bangladesh is dead.

Amid an opposition boycott during the country’s last general election in January 2014, turnout was just 22 per cent. The ruling Awami League won almost 80 per cent of seats on a day that saw 21 people killed in unprecedented levels of violence even in a country where political passions have always run high.

Since the election, political intimidation, disappearances and a culture of fear have become commonplace. Human Rights Watch has criticised the authorities for use of excessive force, the police have been accused of extrajudicial killings and the judiciary has been used for political ends. 

ISIS and al-Qaeda linked groups have claimed responsibility for more than 58 killings since early last year yet the Government refuses to acknowledge their involvement. Gagging orders ban the media from publishing opposition statements and secular bloggers have been murdered by Islamic extremists.Entrepreneurs are crowded out as the Government hands contracts to a cabal of favoured businessmen, stifling investment in a country of 160million people. Economic growth, which should be in double figures, hovers around 6 per cent.

The Arab Spring taught us that disenfranchised people in tough economic times cannot be oppressed indefinitely. When freedom of speech is curtailed it creates a vacuum that can be, for some small groups of people, filled with extremist views. Violent protests in Bangladesh are escalating and people talk openly of civil war.

Such unrest would destabilise the region and result in mass migration on a scale that would make the influx of refugees into Europe in recent years look like a steady trickle.

The UK is home to the largest Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe, and our two countries share significant cultural, political and commercial ties.

When I walked the streets of Dhaka, complete strangers approached me to ask about their aunties and uncles in Ramsay Street, which lies at the centre of Rochdale’s vibrant Bangladeshi community.

We can be sure that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Bangladeshi refugees would seek the safety of the UK if the situation continued to deteriorate.

But I am not confident that our shambolic asylum system will be able to prevent a twisted minority importing political tensions and violent extremist beliefs.

As Britain asserts a bold, international, post-Brexit posture, our first job must be to take our responsibility for bringing peace, tolerance and democracy to this part of the Commonwealth more seriously.

As the situation in Bangladesh worsens, the voice of British politicians must get louder. Our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson must leave the talking to others and start acting. Economic sanctions may be the only way to rescue Bangladesh’s  secular democracy.

It is an ambitious and industrious young nation with great potential. It is up to us to intervene to ensure extremist chaos does not lay waste to that potential at great human cost.