Stranded in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya people face an uncertain future. A repatriation deal plans to change that.
A ugust 25, 2017. A day that changed the lives of many in Myanmar. An insurgency group calling itself ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacked around 30 security posts across Rakhine State in western Myanmar, killing 12 servicemen. The Myanmar military responded with wholesale attacks on the Rohingya Muslim population, driving people from their homes and killing at will.
Myanmar justified its response as proportional “clearance operations” against a dangerous terrorist threat. The UN branded it “ethnic cleansing”. Amnesty International went further, calling it “crimes against humanity”.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that as of January 7, 2018, over 647,000 refugees, almost all Rohingya, have fled Myanmar, and are currently housed in sprawling refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. Kutupalong camp is home to around 569,000 people.
The refugees brought tales of fleeing unimaginable cruelty. Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that a minimum of 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the month of violence after August 25. Rape was allegedly commonplace, with Human Rights Watch reporting a high prevalence of “gang rape” by members of the Myanmar military.
One Rohingya woman recalled how the Myanmar military swept into her village one night and started to burn down homes. All the men had been killed, the women had been raped, and the babies had been thrown into fires. “They said Rohingya, you are not a citizen of this country, you don't belong to this country,” she told the BBC, “when I remember what happens, my heart pounds and I want to die - I can't cope with it.”
Living through this crisis exacted a terrible toll. “Most families that I met in the camps have a member who has been raped, killed or is missing. The trauma involved is on a scale that many of my UNHCR colleagues – veterans who have been in humanitarian work for decades and seen many refugee crises – have never seen before,” Matthew Saltmarsh, senior external relations officer at UNHCR, told The World Weekly.
Life as a refugee is a daily struggle for the Rohingya. In November, surveys of water supplies in the camps found that 86% tested positive for E-coli, suggesting “human faecal contamination." This crowded and unsanitary environment, combined with low routine vaccination rates amongst the Rohingya, has proven to be a breeding ground for disease.
An outbreak of diptheria has infected more than 4000 people, killing at least 31.
The government of Bangladesh and international organisations have taken action. The World Health Organisation (WHO) released that in December 316,000 Rohingya children were vaccinated against diphtheria and other preventable diseases. Plans are in place to eventually inoculate 500,000 children in the camps and surrounding areas.
Disease is only one of a wider array of threats to refugees. The 380,000 Rohingya children who have arrived since August 2017 are particularly vulnerable. Human traffickers have reportedly descended on the camps, exploiting the desperation of children left malnourished and traumatised by their ordeal.
Despite a far-reaching 2017 aid campaign, international agencies maintain that the Rohingya still require significant support. “The clock is ticking,” says Mr. Saltmarsh, “the monsoon season starts from March and there is an enormous amount of work to do in strengthening shelters, moving families to higher ground and preparing for possible further disease outbreaks.”
Amidst this uncertainty, on Tuesday Bangladesh and Myanmar set out plans to repatriate all Rohingya refugees within two years. Beginning on January 23, at least 150 people per day would be processed by the Myanmar government, and sent to “temporary settlement” camps in Rakhine state. “Those who lived here fled to the other side under various circumstances and the government has a responsibility to receive them back,” said Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement.
Both governments are anxious to resolve the crisis. Observers argue that initial goodwill towards the refugees in Bangladesh is waning. “The crisis is straining already weak systems of healthcare and education, and putting an economic and environmental burden on the region,” Lee Jones, reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London, told TWW.
Nevertheless, international organisations have attacked the deal, focusing particularly on the complete exclusion of international oversight to ensure refugee rights are protected. “With memories of rape, killing and torture still fresh in the minds of Rohingya refugees, plans for their return to Myanmar are alarmingly premature,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
The international community has been almost entirely excluded from Rakhine state. Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights, announced on December 20 that her investigation into Myanmar had been blocked from accessing the country.
Discrimination in Myanmar against the Rohingya overshadows the prospect of returning. Referred to as illegal “Bengali” migrants, the state has routinely denied them citizenship, rendering them stateless. “They don’t even call us Rohingya. Until they consider us citizens we won’t go back,” Noor Alam, who has been a refugee in Kutupalong for five months, told Reuters.
This situation could change. The Myanmar government maintains it will implement the UN-backed 2017 Rakhine Advisory Commission findings, which included recommendations to restore equal citizenship for the Rohingya.
Experts, however, believe that the repatriation deal questions this commitment. “There have been no credible guarantees that Rohingya refugees will have their rights respected if they return, and they seem to, by and large, have not been consulted at all,” Richard Weir, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, informs TWW.
Equally, the UN has demanded more clarity on where the Rohingya would be permanently settled. Previous violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in 2012 led to the authorities establishing internment camps. Whilst Buddhists largely kept their rights, 120,000 Rohingya remain in these camps to this day. “We don’t have access to healthcare, to education, there are restrictions on travelling… it’s like being caged without a roof,” a 34-year-old Rohingya living in Mrauk-U township told Amnesty. Many fear that these “apartheid” conditions will be replicated for repatriated refugees.
'We have nothing'
Last summer’s terrible violence renders the idea of returning impossible for some Rohingya. Noor Mohammed told IRIN how in 1991 he fled the abuses of the Myanmar army to Bangladesh – along with 250,000 other Rohingyas. Whilst most returned, continued discrimination, culminating in the events of 2017, has convinced him and others to never go back. “Our future has been destroyed,” he said “there was never any peace for Muslims in our areas.”
Indeed, the spectre of further violence lingers over Myanmar. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is widely seen as still beholden to the military, with the constitution according the latter sweeping powers such as “the right to take over and exercise state sovereign power." Previously lauded as a figurehead of democracy, her muted response to the Rohingya crisis has drawn sharp international criticism.
The Myanmar military has denied any abuses connected to the Rohingya. A rare acknowledgement of excess last week included the crucial qualifier that 10 captured Rohingya murdered by the military had been "terrorists."
Without accountability, some argue, the military could feel empowered to repeat the actions of 2017. “Those responsible need to be brought to justice, but for that to happen there needs to be an independent, international investigation,” Charmain Mohamed, Amnesty International’s head of refugee and migrant rights, told TWW. “To date, the international community has failed to send a strong message… that the appalling abuses security forces have inflicted on the Rohingya population will not go unpunished.”
Above all, analysts are concerned that if Rohingyas continue to be abused by the Myanmar state, they could fall prey to militant groups claiming to better protect their interests. ARSA paints itself as a defender of ethnic Rohingya rights. The group’s insurgency attacks resumed in the new year when five Myanmar security forces were injured in an attack on a security post. ARSA has also been accused of killing civilians, claims the group denies. “This fight is out of desperation,” Abu Abdul Wahed, an ARSA recruiter in Thailand, told the Dhaka Tribune, “We have never been considered citizens, always marginalised and ignored.”
For some Rohingya, ARSA can seem a rare symbol of hope. “They [ARSA] showed everyone last October and this year, that the Myanmar army cannot get away after everything they have done,” said one Rohingya woman arriving in Bangladesh, “We are not going to be treated like we do not matter.”
For others, ideas of armed resistance pale before more basic concerns. “We have nothing. We can’t eat, so how can we fight?” said Hasina Begum.