Terrible tragedies, such as the massacres in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Aleppo and now Myanmar produce a collective “never again” from the international community.
Six months since the crisis in Myanmar began, almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar to seek shelter in Bangladesh.
The UN has described the situation as the world’s “fastest growing refugee crisis,” and the Myanmar military offensive as “a textbook example of ethnic cleaning,” and “bearing the hallmarks of a genocide.” Yet for all the outrage from the international community, we are still a long way from bringing the plight of the Rohingya to an end.
This issue has particular significance for me. The Rohingya crisis was the subject of my first speech in the European Parliament. Last month, I participated in an official EU mission to Bangladesh, during which our delegation visited the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar.
Among the sprawling rows of makeshift shelters and huts we heard the stories of women and children, each of them echoing the experience of thousands of people taking shelter there.
Many of them had been raped or tortured, or had family members killed in front of them. They had seen their homes and villages burned. One little boy showed me the four letters he had inked onto his arm - the initials of four friends who he probably will never see again.
Unthinkably, after all they have been through, they are at risk of suffering what some are calling a “catastrophe within a catastrophe” when the cyclone and monsoon seasons begin.
Of course, amid the tragedy we also saw first-hand the fantastic work that aid agencies are doing, ensuring that the Rohingya have basic provisions of shelter, food and medicine. But while aid agencies can try to keep them alive, they cannot give them their lives and homes back.
The Rohingya are citizens of nowhere - and not just because they have been forced to flee across the border. It’s also because a 1982 law decreed that the Myanmar government does not regard them as citizens. Under such circumstances, the international community must be their voice.
But what of the EU response to the crisis thus far? Well, in 2017 the EU allocated €51m (£45m) purely for the Rohingya crisis in both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Furthermore, the EU will provide more than half of the total amount of aid decided last October at a UN Conference.
In addition, the European Parliament has voiced strong concerns about the situation of the Rohingya for many years - this is by no means a new problem despite its comparatively recent rise to prominence.
Last week, I wrote to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini ahead of last Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers. The letter, signed by more than 60 MEPs, urged the ministers to exert significant pressure on the Myanmar military. We called for access for the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact-Finding Mission to Rakhine State, in order for it to carry out investigations into human rights violations. We also insisted that if any returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar take place that they must be voluntary, dignified, safe and informed - and with full UN supervision.
To this end, I am pleased that the foreign ministers called for Myanmar to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and for targeted sanctions against senior Myanmar military officers.
But we need to be bolder; we need a coordinated international response to this crisis.
How can we achieve this? The sad truth is that the refugees will not be going home any time soon. Why? Because as recent Amnesty International findings outline, the very system of apartheid that they fled still exists.
So we need to continue to provide Bangladesh with humanitarian assistance alongside a longer-term strategy to provide education and job opportunities for refugees, thereby integrating them into the host community. It would also reduce the risk of a “lost generation” devoid of a future.
While targeted sanctions are welcome, arbitrarily applying sanctions on Myanmar could only see it backslide on the democratic progress it has made in recent times. We need the perpetrators to be held accountable, not the whole population.
As an international community we need key regional actors - in this case China and India - to put aside their own economic and geopolitical interests, condemn this ethnic cleansing and apply diplomatic pressure on Myanmar.
The Rohingya children described their future to me as “black”; there was no optimism for the future. I immediately thought of a meeting I had with the Myanmar Ambassador to the EU before Christmas: he flat-out denied any targeted persecution of the Rohingya. It was a reminder, again, that standing by in the hope that the immediate actors in this situation will reach a solution themselves is not an option.
When I take part in a delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, I will take the stories of those refugees with me. Because if we don’t continue to speak out for the Rohingya, they might become another tragic refrain in the litany of “never agains.”