Myanmar's Rohingya crisis is even worse

When Bangladesh’s borders yielded to the mass of desperate people pouring in from Myanmar in late August, no one predicted the scale of the crisis to come. In the weeks that followed, almost the entire Rohingya population — estimated at 1.1 million inside Myanmar — sought sanctuary as homes and villages went up in flames. Every imaginable horror has been described by those who made it out alive; witnesses said soldiers slaughtered civilians, raped the women, tortured the elderly and burned children to death as they screamed for mercy.

The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees over the next two years, but rights groups warn that the process is beginning too quickly, and without adequate input from U.N. agencies risks forcing refugees to return against their will or facing further violence.

Myanmar’s military says security operations in Rakhine are a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign.

Bangladesh said the process would be delayed from a start date initially scheduled this week, as officials try to verify lists of people in Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camps who are eligible for return. Some of the refugees have issued demands such as citizenship status, accountability and the return of lost property before agreeing to return.

To ensure the right of refugees to return voluntarily, and in safety and in dignity, we call again on Myanmar to allow the necessary unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine State and create conditions for a genuine and lasting solution.

The sight of barefoot masses arriving on the shore can only be described as biblical. Well over 622,000 Rohingya have endured the dangerous passage from their homes in Rakhine to the relative safety of Cox’s Bazar, a district of eastern Bangladesh, over the past three months — the fastest refugee movement since the Rwandan genocide. Following a fatal attack on state security forces by Rohingya insurgents on Aug. 25, the Myanmar military unleashed a campaign of terror in the state’s northern townships. Many fled without any belongings at all. Those who could loaded children up in baskets, the elderly on their backs, live chickens and solar panels under their arms. They ran and walked for days, sometimes weeks. Arriving dehydrated, their feet seared and swollen, soldiers shot them from behind as they fled across a border stippled with landmines. More still drowned in the Naf River, a muddy waterway separating Myanmar from the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, as overloaded fishing boats capsized while ferrying them across one final obstacle.

In the early days of the crisis, once safely across they slept on the side of a road with no shelter from rain or sun. A protected forest between two existing camps was felled to make room. In what the U.N. has labeled a “critical humanitarian emergency,” the refugees are now packed into makeshift shelters built from bamboo sticks and tarpaulin sheets. There is little clean water, and there are few service roads. There is no easy way to empty their latrines, which they share with some 400,000 other refugees who arrived before them. Even as more make the crossing, thousands each week until all of northern Rakhine may well be emptied, there is no more land.

Almost every day brings some new and alarming revelation: This is the number of children who may starve; this is how many prepubescent girls were raped and require special care; this is the number of days before a cyclonic storm makes landfall. Each on its own distressing, the sum of those parts is an emergency so huge and horrific that few have fully grasped how bad it is, despite an early warning from the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, that Bangladesh was dealing with a “human-rights nightmare.” Setting aside, for now, the residual impacts of trauma, disease and displacement on almost the entirety of an already persecuted — and to a small degree radicalizing — population, humanitarian agencies are struggling simply to keep them alive. “We’re still at the front end of what is about to become the largest refugee response in recent memory,” says Michael Dunford, the Emergency Coordinator for the World Food Program in Cox’s Bazar. “The Bangladeshi government possibly didn’t know what they were signing up for, but thank God they did.”

The Rohingya are unique among the more than 65 million displaced people across the globe. Often referred to as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, they hold the distinction of being the largest group of stateless people, and perhaps the only one that has been almost completely uprooted. They are a predominantly Sunni Muslim minority that has lived in Myanmar for centuries, and while they have belonged there since 1947, when the partition of the British Indian territories etched a line between what is now Rakhine state and what was then East Pakistan, most of them were later rendered stateless by Myanmar’s former military junta. Decades of nationalist propaganda, often promulgated by rogue Buddhist monks, convinced much of the population that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, signaling a Muslim incursion.

Their plight has also significantly shifted the regional narrative of democratic progress. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent decades under house arrest before becoming Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader in 2016, has seen her legacy all but destroyed as she failed to stop or even acknowledge atrocities committed on her watch. In the wake of Suu Kyi’s spectacular undoing, a new hero has presented herself: Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, whose portrait is now strung on every roadside throughout Cox’s Bazar on vinyl campaign banners lauding “the mother of humanity.”

Perhaps in anticipation of the public’s eventual fatigue, the Hasina government will not recognize the Rohingya as refugees and says it wants them to return to Myanmar within 18 to 24 months. Suu Kyi has said she hopes to quickly reach a memorandum of understanding with Dhaka “which would enable us to start the safe and voluntary return of all of those who have gone across the border,” according to Reuters. The two governments aspire to an agreement similar to one reached in the 1990s, but humanitarian professionals are not likely to endorse this plan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both urged caution, while U.N. officials remain unconvinced that such a swift return could be safe, dignified and voluntary. “I think they might be looking with rose-tinted spectacles on this particular issue,” says Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the U.N. Senior Coordinator for Emergency Response in Cox’s Bazar. “Repatriation after this type of persecution just doesn’t happen in two years.”

The exodus was the fourth of its kind, and in both speed and scale it was the worst. A camp called Kutupalong was established in 1978, and swelled in the early 1990s amid another wave of violence. Other smaller camps were later formed, such as Balukhali, Leda and Nayapara, and some 3-400,000 Rohingya have been scattered across the district for decades. Those who remained in Myanmar lived in ever-deteriorating conditions; restrictions on travel, social services and employment amounted to apartheid, and worsened after deadly riots tore across the state in 2012. Security was then used as a pretext to further isolate them as aid stopped flowing, trade was discontinued and civil servants were no longer deployed to staff Muslim schools and clinics. More than 100,000 have been trapped for years in camps for the internally displaced near the state capital Sittwe, where tens of thousands became so desperate they fled on boats manned by human traffickers, many dying namelessly in the Andaman Sea.

On Oct. 9, 2016, an insurgent group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin attacked three of the Myanmar military’s border guard posts, killing nine officers and triggering a military lockdown across the state’s north. Within weeks, about 90,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh with accounts of rape, torture and extrajudicial killing. The U.N. concluded that the military had likely committed crimes against humanity as it carried out a brutal counter-terrorism operation; more than half of the women interviewed said they had been sexually assaulted, and a majority of those surveyed had seen someone die.

The following month, the U.N. Human Rights Council agreed by consensus to deploy an international fact-finding mission to northern Rakhine, but the Myanmar government will not allow it access. Buckling under international pressure, Suu Kyi has promised to implement a rehabilitation plan created by the Rakhine Commission, an independent advisory board chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Just hours after he presented her with his recommendations, on Aug. 25, the insurgents struck again, this time under the name Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA. The Myanmar army responded much as it had in the past, with savagery, and Suu Kyi was once again powerless to stop them.

So many people fled so fast that the entire shared border into Bangladesh was hemorrhaging human beings. About 100,000 are believed to have disappeared into villages where they had an acquaintance — undocumented, uncounted, unreached by aid. Pockets of terrain known as no man’s land, beyond the fence where Myanmar ends but not yet within Bangladesh, became crowded makeshift encampments. The thousands still squatting on these dirty and desolate river banks are kept alive on rice and red lentils delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few organizations allowed access to them. Once there, delivery is made even more complicated by additional stipulations. Forbidden from setting foot in a tributary near the village of Tambru, at exactly noon aid workers instruct refugees to create a human chain of about 40 boys and men standing in the muddy water to pass the goods from one side to the other.

Since the August attacks, aid within northern Rakhine has almost completely stopped. ICRC is the only organization allowed to enter the area of operations, where few Rohingya remain. Refugee arrivals slowed in late September, but surged again in mid-October amid what some aid workers assume is a devastating famine that could trigger a final influx. Khaleda Begum, a 50-year-old woman from Alishong village, says the few Muslims left behind are now so terrified of Buddhist vigilantes they will leave their homes for one reason and one reason only: to flee. “If our boys go out on the farm, they get shot,” she says while perched on the side of a paddy field near the Bangladeshi village of Anjumanpara, where she has just sat down after walking for nine days. “We couldn’t do anything, we just waited idly in our houses,” she says. “Then at midnight, they came.”

Upon their arrival in Bangladesh, a little more than a quarter of the refugees were vaccinated for measles and rubella in a massive drive targeting children from six months to 15 years of age, and a second round of catch-up vaccinations is well underway to reach its target of 336,943 children. Beginning in mid-October, more than 700,000 cholera vaccines were administered to vulnerable refugees, the largest and fastest drive ever attempted. But in a humanitarian response, even the most solid success belies failure. While there is now enough food and shelter to keep these roughly one million inhabitants alive, and while there are more than enough latrines to accommodate them, those facilities are not maintained.

The world looks different after a tragedy. Surveying the scene from a hilltop on a recent afternoon, light rain begins to fall. Just a short shower is enough to turn footpaths into perilous slopes, and streams into toxic pools. Even ordinary things, like drops of water, can cause terror. We left before dark, as is the rule, followed by a chorus of bloated and half-naked children who have picked up a few words of English here and there. Their singsong refrain is familiar to most who have ever been a stranger on a visit to a refugee camp. “Bye bye,” the children sing to our backs as we leave. “Thank you.”

Charitable Foundation Winston Churchill collects funds to help the people of Myanmar and collects humanitarian aid. Donate

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