No image, interview or adjective can capture the suffering of the Rohingya people, which I witnessed first-hand on a recent fact-finding mission with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Suffering that includes rape, murder and torture, is evidenced with burns and bullet wounds on frail bodies – even children’s.
However, real-time wall-to-wall press coverage definitely increased global awareness of the situation in Myanmar, that has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Iconic images, such as the heartbreaking photos of Rohingya powerlessly watching their villages burning from over the border, went viral. Normally stoic news reporters welled up. Usually indifferent celebrities tweeted and hashtagged.
The world has already done a lot to ensure that the refugee status of what is approaching a million Rohingya is not seen as permanent or inevitable.
The international community, driven by diplomatic efforts from various states and intergovernmental organizations including the OIC, must be commended for pushing for a solution. But now we have to get it over the finish line. That means making sure that when the Rohingya do go home, they do so as equal citizens in a post-Apartheid Myanmar.
Yesterday (January 23), Bangladesh and Myanmar, in a bilateral agreement, were due to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees to their ancestral homes in Rakhine State.
Although this has been postponed, no one can deny that any truly humanitarian solution to the Rohingya crisis must be for them to return to their homeland in Myanmar. Staying as a refugee in Bangladesh or anywhere else is not an option. Displacement is not a lifestyle choice, and the sooner it can be brought to an end, the better.
But the world must supervise the results of this promising agreement, to make sure the refugees are being repatriated to their homes—not to statelessness or, as some fear, death.
The way the Myanmar military government conducted its so-called “clearance operations”—a term so clinically inhumane it gives a taste of the mentality behind the ethnic cleansing itself—should raise concern over the safety of the refugees if and when they return and the living conditions there.
The OIC, which has various members affected by the crisis, has worked tirelessly. We knew that the media-fueled outrage would not last. News is a product that must innovate daily—the offering cannot be allowed to get repetitive or boring.
So when the cameras left, the real work began. We have urged our members, as well as Myanmar, to work together to resolve this crisis before it deepens.
One of the key requests has been for Myanmar to allow in United Nations investigators, international aid and members of the OIC Human Rights Commission and humanitarian officials. And it is this that can save the repatriation deal and get the Rohingya home.
The international oversight is essential, because sending refugees back to somewhere they have just run from is not usually framed as a neutral or even positive act.
We understand those concerns. As recently as last week, fresh refugees arrived, suggesting that many Rohingya still do not feel safe at home. And Myanmar has still not committed to ending the stateless position in which the Rohingya find themselves.
Beyond this, many Rohingya have stated that their original homes no longer exist, and fear that the camps they may end up in will be much worse than where they are now, on the Bangladeshi side of the border.
None of these concerns will be addressed until Myanmar ends its policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing against their own citizens. None of these issues will be resolved until we start listening to what the Rohingya want.
They want to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar, to be able to return to their own country certain of their safety, and with dignity. The safety of true citizenship. The dignity of equal access to healthcare, education and jobs. The dignity of freedom of movement within their own nation.
And none of this can be guaranteed without international observers. The global spotlight cannot be allowed to tilt away once again.
Author: Maha Akeel is Director of the the Public Information and Communication Department at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).