Cox’s Bazar, a city in Bangladesh, used to be known for its fishing ports and sandy beaches. Now, it is known for holding the world’s largest refugee camp with over 860,000 Rohingya living in it as of May 2020.
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority group from the Rakhine state in Myanmar. Since the 1970’s, the Rohingya have faced discrimination from the Burmese government, and recently that discrimination has culminated in a full-blown genocide. This crisis has been criminally underreported in the media. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres refers to the Rohingya as the “most discriminated people in the world.”
The Rohingya have been essentially stateless for years because the Burmese government excluded the Rohingya from their national census in 2014. From then on, they have been considered as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even if a Rohingya was born in Myanmar and could trace its family tree back several centuries. This results in a lifetime of second-class citizenship, where a Rohingya needs permission to marry, seek work, education, and child planning services, move houses, or travel outside the Rakhine state. Critically, the Rohingya do not have the right to vote, and this disenfranchisement means that they have no way to improve their situation through legislation and representation.
The Rakhine State is also the least developed state in Myanmar. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate of the Rakhine is 78 percent, more than twice as much as the national average of 37.5 percent. Rampant poverty, subpar infrastructure, and lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine have aggravated the tension between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
All of that tension finally came to a head in August 2017, when a Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for over 30 attacks on Burmese police and army posts. The government quickly labeled ARSA as a terrorist organization and subsequently created a campaign to remove ARSA from Myanmar. According to Doctors Without Borders, the initial crackdown resulted in 6,700 Rohingya being killed, with another 2,700 dying from disease or malnutrition soon after. Despite claiming to be only targeting ARSA, the overwhelming majority of the deaths were civilians. In fact, one of the most common crimes against the Rohingya was the battery, assault, and gang rape of young Rohingya girls and women. Even as Rohingya were fleeing, it was reported that they were shot at their backs and blocked off from the border to Bangladesh by rows of landmines. A UN report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights classified these violent actions towards the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent.”
Where are the Rohingya now? About half a million are still located in Myanmar, and many others have died at the hands of the Burmese army or during the dangerous journey to reach a safe haven in a neighboring country. While some may have made their way to Thailand, Pakistan, India, or Nepal, the majority of the Rohingya who fled are now in one of the several refugee camps in Bangladesh. While the Bengali government is receptive and supportive of the refugees, Bangladesh is a nation that is already severely stressed for resources for its domestic population, let alone with the massive groups of refugees that were flocking to the border from Myanmar.
With the Cox’s Bazar camp extremely overcrowded with a density of 10.7 square meters per person, Bangladesh has ceased accepting Rohingya refugees as of March 2019. The ultimate goal is to have the Rohingya repatriated to Myanmar, but the problem is Myanmar has not made significant efforts to ensure the Rohingya will receive better treatment and citizenship upon their return. Aung San Suu Kyi, former Nobel Peace Prize recipient and leader of Myanmar, has been under fire in the international community for the past few years for her response to the crisis. While at first her tactic was to ignore the violence against the Rohingya, more recently she has completely denied that the Rohingya face any discrimination at all.
A UN report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights classified these violent actions towards the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent.”
She has been urged by the UN and many leaders of other countries to expand measures to repatriate and support Rohingya, but so far, their pleas have been unfruitful. In fact, it seems that steps have been taken to prevent any Rohingya from returning to Myanmar. Many of the abandoned Rohingya villages in the Rakhine state have been cleared and burned, with the intent for new structures to be built in their place. Furthermore, despite the dreary environment within refugee camps, most Rohingya have expressed that they do not want to return to Myanmar, even though they know that Bangladesh does not have the resources to support them indefinitely. Without a guarantee that the violence and discrimination towards them will stop, and that they will be granted full citizenship, many Rohingya do not feel that it is safe to return.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current concern for the Rohingya is how to keep the virus from spreading inside refugee camps. Lack of universal internet access within the camps means that the Rohingya are not fully aware of the global fatality of the virus, nor are they equipped with the knowledge or tools to effectively combat the spread should someone in the camp be infected. A large percentage of the refugees are children, who are more likely to contribute to the spread of the virus. Furthermore, with the pandemic shaking the rest of the global community, plans for repatriating or relocating the Rohingya have been put on the back burner. It is risky for large groups of people to travel across international borders, but with the potential of the virus running rampant in a crowded environment with a population that lacks access to sufficient medical care and proper sanitation, it is pertinent that a solution be found for the stateless Rohingya.
There are certain measures that need to be taken before the Rohingya can be safely repatriated to Myanmar. Most prominently, there needs to be an increase in awareness of this issue. While the world is focusing on crises in Yemen and Syria, there is noticeably less awareness of the Rohingya crisis. In addition, the Rohingya need more support from other nations. Many heads of state may be reluctant to show support of the Rohingya in fear of souring their relationship with Myanmar, but until there are more critical eyes on Myanmar and its law enforcement, they will be able to continue their mistreatment of the Rohingya population.
More powerful and influential nations should take inspiration from the Gambia, the first nation to file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar for genocide. Furthermore, the United Nations needs to increase its involvement in improving the conditions for the Rohingya’s return. That can include any number of measures from placing peacekeepers on the ground in the Rakhine state to creating institutions for the support and socioeconomic growth of the Rohingya. The UN will also need to leverage agreements with the Burmese government to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and to grant them citizenship, and sanction Myanmar should their egregious treatment of the Rohingya continue.
These are only some of the changes necessary for the Rohingya to be able to return to their homes and live dignified and safe lives. These changes cannot happen overnight, nor will the animosity and suspicion of the Rohingya from the Burmese instantly disappear, but it is a step in the right direction that can be taken now. The international community must come together to do so.