As the World Fiddles, Myanmar’s Rakhine State Burns and Rohingya Flee to Bangladesh to Escape Ethnic Cleansing

Credit: Valerie Amos Visits Myanmar

As the World Fiddles, Myanmar’s Rakhine State Burns and Rohingya Flee to Bangladesh to Escape Ethnic Cleansing

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh At the same time governments from around the world convened in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from December 10-12, 2016 for the 9th Annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), a crisis was continuing along the southeast border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, where 30,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived since mid-October.

Reports from the region have confirmed the onset of horrific violence by the Myanmar army against Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar. According to sources in Myanmar, the violence was initiated as a response to October 9th attacks on three border posts which killed nine policemen, allegedly by a group of terrorists which included Rohingya.

The recent violence represents the latest chapter in a long history of discrimination and violence against the minority group, which some observers have described as ethnic cleansing. According to international organizations, stories from the refugees have been remarkably consistent in describing the violence, which has included widespread killings, the raping of women, and the burning of homes.

The Myanmar government has blocked aid to Rakhine State, while aid to refugees in Bangladesh has been insufficient. The International Organization of Migration (IOM), the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh are responding to the greatest extent possible to the new arrivals, who are destitute and traumatized, but their efforts are not sustainable without more assistance. The head of UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar recently accused the Myanmar military of mass killings. On December 15, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights characterized the Myanmar government’s response to the violence as callous.

The current Rohingya inflows are the latest from Myanmar into southeast Bangladesh, which hosts from 200,000-500,000 Rohingya refugees. Thirty-three thousand are housed in registered camps, with the remainder living in makeshift, unofficial camps or in local communities.

UNHCR has developed a plan to close the official camps by resettling its inhabitants, who have lived there as long as 20 years, or by integrating them into the community. As of yet, nations have been unwilling to accept a significant number of the refugees. In desperation, some of the Rohingya have constructed boats and attempted to reach Thailand and Malaysia by sea, often with tragic consequences.

One Rohingya family interviewed by CMS staff in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a city on the Indian Ocean about 92 kilometers from the Myanmar border, provided a snapshot of the horrific situation faced by the refugees. A mother with three children, one a toddler, had walked 12 days from their village in Rahkine state—about 100 miles—with nothing but the clothes on their back. They had crossed the border over mountainous terrain and through forests in order to avoid the Bangladesh border patrol. The father was missing, presumably killed by the Myanmar army. Two other family members were in transit, their whereabouts unknown.

The family described how soldiers entered their village and first took away the wealthy men, to torture them for their money and then kill them. Women were taken to open fields and raped. Entire villages were burned to the ground.

How did the family survive the ordeal? Bangladeshi families along their route, many of whom share the Muslim faith and speak the same language, provided them with shelter and food. While heartening that this family made it to safety, it is disturbing that they were forced to do so without protection from the international community.

In fact, there have been reports that Bangladeshi border guards have returned boats crossing the Naf River, one of the boundaries between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The official position of the Bangladesh government is to keep its border closed to the refugees, fearing a large inflow.

To be sure, the Bangladesh government has allowed Rohingya to enter their country over the years and to remain, although many are kept in formal or informal camps, without the ability to work legally and to become permanent members of local communities.

In June, the government conducted a census of Rohingya in the country, the results of which will soon be announced. Those counted in the census will receive an information card, which can be used as an identity document. Although the card will not grant access to public benefits or work authorization, it theoretically protects them from deportation, although many are fearful it will be used to relocate them to certain areas.

Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government and the global community must do more to address this crisis. Bangladesh should keep its border with Myanmar open and allow UNHCR to provide full support to them and recognize them as refugees. In addition, the international community must provide aid to Bangladesh, international agencies and NGOs and local groups to deal with the new population. They also must continue to pressure the Myanmar government, and its Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi, to permanently stop the violence and allow the Rohingya population to return to Myanmar in safety.

Speaking at the GFMD in Dhaka on December 12, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard of the United States called for the protection of the Rohingya refugees, but it is yet to be seen how the United States, and the world, will put words into action to address the latest crisis.

The lesson here is that words are empty without action. As the United Nations over the next two years pursues agreement on global compacts to protect migrants and refugees, member states must adhere to international principles already in place. Lofty speeches alone will not suffice, and a process that ignores the reality of refugees fleeing persecution ultimately will be exposed as a futile political exercise.

In the end, nations should refrain from closing their borders or deploying deterrence schemes and must work together to protect vulnerable populations on the move. In order for the compacts to be groundbreaking, they must actually break new ground and bind nations to respond collectively to refugee and large-scale migration flows with protection measures. The situation of the Rohingya is a case study in the world failing to meet this standard.

December 22, 2016