On Friday, August 25, the world marks the six-year anniversary of the date the Myanmar military launched a campaign of mass atrocities against the Rohingya in Bangladesh's bordering Rakhine State, triggering the largest exodus of people across international borders in this century.
The military generals responsible for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated against Myanmar's Rohingya population remain unpunished more than half a decade later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared in the build up to the anniversary this week, emphasising that some 1 million affected refugees still have little hope of returning home safely.
The genocidal campaign saw an estimated 25,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced to what has since become the world's biggest refugee camp in Bangladesh.
More than 730,000 Rohingya who were forced to flee their homes under unspeakable duress now live in the sprawling camps of Cox's Bazar, plus residual populations from earlier movements under tightening measures implemented by security forces and growing violence by armed groups. Some 600,000 more remain in Myanmar, their movement widely restricted by junta authorities under a system of apartheid, according to HRW.
In a statement released on Sunday, HRW condemned the United Nations Security Council's failure not only to hold those responsible for such atrocities to account, but also to maintain adequate aid to support the victims.
"Rohingya on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border are trapped in stateless purgatory, denied their most basic rights, awaiting justice and the chance to go home," said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at HRW. "Instead of addressing these issues head on, UN Security Council inaction and government aid cutbacks are leaving Rohingya in even more desperate straits."
HRW noted that the 2023 UN Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has so far received just 29 percent of the US$876 million sought in donor contributions, prompting the World Food Programme to cut Rohingya food rations by a third since February. Refugees now receive just $8 per month through the programme, fuelling growing epidemics of malnutrition and disease.
At the same time, their welcome in Bangladesh has by now well-and-truly been exhausted. Hostility among the host community is now ascendant, and authorities have been accused of harassing, oppressing and exploiting refugees in their care-subjecting them to arbitrary detention and violence and strictly restraining their freedom to move, work and study within the camps. Bauchner noted in May 2023 that "[a]buses by police in the Cox's Bazar camps have left Rohingya refugees suffering at the hands of the very forces who are supposed to protect them."
Earlier this month, the NGO Fortify Rights published a report detailing some of these abuses, based on statements from more than a dozen victims of torture, beatings and extortion. The accounts revealed the ways in which Bangladesh police have exploited Rohingya refugees, using them as "human ATMs," according to Fortify Rights CEO Matthew Smith, "by inflicting severe physical and mental pain to demand corrupt payments."
Another 30,000 Rohingya have been forcibly relocated to the isolated silt island Bhasan Char, where they face similar issues of restricted movement and food and medicine shortages.
The Bangladesh authorities, for their part, have initiated steps with the Burmese military junta to return the Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State, claiming repatriation is the only solution to the compounding crises they face. HRW denounced this position as premature and dangerous.
"Moving ahead with repatriating Rohingya now would mean sending refugees back to the control of a ruthless and repressive junta, setting the stage for the next devastating exodus," said Bauchner. "Building conditions for the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of Rohingya will need a coordinated international response to establish rights-respecting civilian rule in Myanmar and achieve justice for past atrocities."
Instead, HRW called on the UN and concerned governments, including those in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Australia, to increase aid funding and resettlement opportunities while continuing to insist that conditions for the safe, sustainable, and dignified return of Rohingya to Myanmar do not currently exist.
"I dream of being able to go back to my own country Myanmar, to my village and home, with full rights of citizenship and everything else that a person deserves," one refugee told HRW.
Another refugee interviewed by HRW said: "We have lost six years here. I am human. Why have I been treated this way throughout my life?"
Steep declines in funding are forcing humanitarian actors to focus on only the most critical of humanitarian needs, said UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
"In Bangladesh, funding shortfalls are already adversely affecting the wellbeing of nearly one million Rohingya refugees. Any further cuts to the Rohingya response will severely impact access to food, shelter materials, cooking fuels, sanitation facilities, and livelihood activities," said UNHCR in Bangladesh.
A dignified and sustainable return to Myanmar remains the primary solution to the crisis, the refugee agency stressed. Many Rohingya refugees say they want to return to Myanmar but only when it is safe for them to do so voluntarily; and the international community must now renew its efforts to make that possible.
International stakeholders will have a chance to boost support and commitments to the Rohingya at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December.
As of mid-August, funding for the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis totalled less than a third of its $876 million overall appeal.
"The Rohingya response is facing a severe funding crisis, illustrated by two recent cuts in food assistance. There is an urgent need to invest in collective efforts to allow Rohingya to become self-reliant as they cannot, and do not wish to, remain dependent on humanitarian aid," said UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh Johannes van der Klaauw.
Goodwill comes crashing
In March, the value of the food vouchers for camp residents was reduced from $12 per person per month to $10, and in June, to just $8; the equivalent of 27 cents a day.
"The ration cuts are our last resort. Many donors have stepped forward with funding but what we have received is simply not enough," Dom Scalpelli, WFP Country Director in Bangladesh, said last month.
"It is absolutely critical that we give the Rohingya families back the full assistance they deserve. The longer we wait, the more hunger we will see in the camps - already we are seeing more children being admitted into malnutrition treatment programmes."
Over 950,000 Rohingyas remain stranded in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh. Most of them fled their homes in northern Myanmar following widespread and systemic attacks in August 2017 by the country's armed forces that former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".
UNHCR said that the WFP food assistance is the "only reliable source they can count on to meet their basic food and nutrition needs."
"But since the start of the year, this lifeline has been under severe pressure due to reduced donor funding."
Alongside fresh food assistance, WFP implements nutrition programmes for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five years of age.
Despite this additional support, vulnerable households are still struggling to make ends meet. The only solution to prevent the situation from deteriorating further is to restore the full rations for the entire Rohingya population immediately, UNHCR said.
Meanwhile the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Thursday (Aug. 24) said the international community must not forget the Rohingya people or their host community in Bangladesh in the face of competing crises.
He said humanitarian appeals for supporting the Rohingya, both in Myanmar and in the camps in Bangladesh, need greater support and funding.
"At the same time, third countries should expand Rohingya resettlement programmes or provide temporary protection, particularly in the region. And international efforts must be redoubled to reverse course in Myanmar and to ensure accountability and justice," Turk said.
The Bangladeshi perspective
The massive influx of refugees in 2017 was not the first time Bangladesh witnessed such an event. Bangladesh has been housing Rohingyas facing persecution and violence in Rakhine since 1977. More than 2,00,000 Rohingyas made their way into Bangladesh between 1977 and 1978. Further, in the early 1990s, about a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to the neighbouring lands of Bangladesh when military presence in Rakhine increased, bringing with it forced labour, rape, and torture, according to the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, a New Delh-based think tank.
Ever since the Rohingya started fleeing from the crimes against humanity in Rakhine, Bangladesh has kept its borders open to fleeing Rohingya refugees, which is regarded as a sign of the country's goodwill. With international support, Bangladesh has improved and expanded its existing refugee camps, negotiated with the Myanmar government, and is currently vaccinating children as well as registering the Rohingya population.
Since late 2020, Bangladesh has relocated around 20,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char and plans to move roughly 1,00,000 to the newly emerged silt island, a solution intended to address the overcrowding in mainland camps in Cox's Bazar, although it has come in for criticism as well.
However, the country's willingness to budge on the issue of employment opportunities for the Rohingya, or even to provide proper education facilities, is understandable. Despite robust economic growth, the country remains overpopulated itself, and is only about to graduate out of the group of Least Developed Countries.
Against this background, it has been forced to hitch its bet with China, as a way out of the crisis, since no other country appears to have the influence needed to sway Myanmar's rulers one way or the other.
"Our priority is that they (Rohingyas) will return to their homeland. Myanmar is also willing to take them back," said Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen, noting that Myanmar needs to ensure safety and security of the Rohingyas after their return to their place of origin.
The foreign minister said the government remains in a firm position regarding their repatriation to Myanmar, as reported by our sister newsagency UNB.
"So, discussion is underway. We are always hopeful," he said, adding that some countries and international organisations recommended the Bangladesh government to give Rohingyas training and skills, and keep them here (see next story).
Under the Chinese plan, Myanmar may take back the Rohingyas living in the Cox's Bazar camps to their own villages in North Maungdaw and nearby places instead of any camps or model villages. Such an indication was communicated to Bangladesh by the Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Deng Xijun during his visit to Bangladesh earlier in August. Before coming to Dhaka on Sunday, Xijun went to Myanmar and discussed ways of implementing the repatriation of the Rohingyas with U Ko Ko Hlaing, Myanmar's union minister for international cooperation, and Lieutenant-General Yar Pyae, member of the State Administration Council Union and chairman of the National Solidarity and Peacemaking Negotiation Committee, on July 28.
In May this year, a group of Rohingyas for the first time visited Rakhine State. After returning to the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar, some of them said they were not willing to return. They demanded that they be settled back in their original villages with safety and citizenship guaranteed. Some of them, however, had agreed to return.
Based on the demands of the Rohingyas, Bangladesh government raised certain issues with the Chinese authorities. For example, the Rohingyas should be taken to the villages and all of a family be repatriated together. Also, there should be arrangements ensuring their livelihood, education and freedom of mobility.
The issue also came up, it is understood, during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, where the two leaders were at the time of writing.
Regarding the Rohingya issue, Xi wants to resolve the Rohingya issue through tripartite engagement of China, Bangladesh and Myanmar and assured that they will always support Bangladesh to this end.
"China will help Bangladesh in bringing a permanent solution to the Rohingya issue. ---we don't want instability in the region," he was quoted as saying by the foreign minister.
Bangladesh prime minister said that her government wants to repatriate Rohingyas to their homeland citing that they are becoming threats for the peace of the region as many of them are engaged in illegal drugs and arms trading.
"Peace is imperative for development," she said.
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