With the monsoon season upon them, there are serious concerns about the safety of the Rohingya refugees stranded on the muddy hills of the border area between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The United Nations refugee agency and its partners have been ramping up efforts to help Bangladesh’s bid to mitigate some of the expected impacts of the rainy season of May and June, during which, according to an initial risk analysis, at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees could be in grave danger from landslides and floods.
Those on the ground fear the rains will cause loss of life, destroy the bamboo and plastic shacks, block access roads, and potentially turn the area into a breeding ground for contagious disease. The government of Bangladesh has acknowledged and committed to addressing these concerns, while the UN and its humanitarian partners have set up an emergency preparedness group to coordinate these efforts.
A ministerial delegation from the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are visiting the refugee camps on Friday to assess the situation on the ground and determine ways to provide more assistance to Bangladesh and help the Rohingya end their ordeal.
Several Muslim countries and NGOs have been working on the ground and delivering humanitarian aid but, with over a million refugees and hundreds more arriving every day, the situation could explode into a deadly catastrophe, especially when considering the possibility of cyclones, which are common in this region at this time of year.
An OIC delegation visited the camps in January following the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar into Bangladesh after Aug. 25, 2017, when the military and Buddhist mobs torched their homes, wiped out their villages and persecuted them in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. The UN described the military offensive in Rakhine, which provoked the exodus, as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The OIC delegation heard first-hand accounts from the Rohingya of acts of torture, rape and murder perpetrated against them. The bullet scars on their frail bodies, the burns and injuries were clear evidence of persecution. No one was spared — men, women, old or young, children and even infants.
The government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship and even excluded them from its 2014 census, refusing to recognize them as a people. It sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
With over a million Rohingya refugees and hundreds more arriving to the border area between Bangladesh and Myanmar every day, the situation could explode into a deadly catastrophe.
Before August 2017, there were already more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps, makeshift settlements and with host communities, who had previously fled following similar waves of violence against them. With the arrival of this latest influx, it means that more Rohingya now live in Bangladesh than in their homeland. As of last month, there were more than 1.1 million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh. The UN says the Rohingya’s situation is the “world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.”
The annual conference of the foreign ministers of the OIC member states is being hosted by Bangladesh this weekend. The Rohingya crisis will be front and center of their deliberations.
The Bangladeshi government would like to ensure a sustainable and voluntary return of the Rohingya to live in safety, security and dignity, but there has to be monitoring and guarantees. Following international pressure, Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh last November for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state. Transfers were due to begin in January but there have been repeated delays at Myanmar’s end.
Unless the government of Myanmar gives the Rohingya their denied citizenship rights, there will be little progress. The repatriation agreement still has many aspects that have not been worked out. It remains uncertain whether the Myanmar authorities are sincere in their claim that they will take back Rohingya refugees, and if they will do so in a safe and dignified manner. Although Bangladesh has indicated it would like to start with the return of 100,000 Rohingya, there are reports that Myanmar wishes to begin with 4,500 Hindus who are also refugees in Bangladesh. This does not inspire confidence in the Myanmar government’s intentions. In any case, the UN has expressed concern about the return of refugees given the situation in Rakhine.
After seeing for themselves the conditions facing Rohingya refugees in the camps of southern Bangladesh, as well as the homes they fled in Myanmar, members of the UN Security Council this week called for them to be allowed a safe return.
Speaking to the press at the end of a four-day visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Security Council members highlighted the need to establish conditions within Myanmar that would allow the “safe, voluntary and dignified return” of refugees, as well as accountability for the human rights violations that prompted the exodus. They also reiterated the need to ensure refugees’ security.
International oversight is essential because sending refugees back to where they have just escaped torture, and where it has been made clear to them they are not welcome, needs a lot of ground work and help for the community to heal. So far Myanmar has not been cooperative in agreeing to let international human rights and humanitarian organizations reach Rakhine State or even enter Myanmar to investigate conditions and provide assistance, so it remains doubtful if they will allow observers to monitor the repatriation process and ensure that the Rohingya Muslims are not be subjected to another round of violence and persecution.
- Maha Akeel is director of the Public Information and Communication Department at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twitter: @MahaAkeel1