Rohingya refugees: still far from home
After years spent in host countries, some hostile to their existence, Rohingya refugees are taking to the streets to demand a resolution. While many are desperate to return home to Myanmar, there remain major barriers to peaceful reintegration. Chief among these is the fact that the army that unleashed such violence against them is now in control of Myanmar. While they wait for an opportunity to return, refugees continue to fight for better treatment in the countries they have made their temporary homes.
In late June, Rohingya refugees living in vast camps in Bangladesh said ‘enough’. Most have been there for several years, and they want to go home. While voicing their gratitude towards those who have helped them in Bangladesh, they expressed their resolve to ‘return to our birthplace as soon as possible’. The ‘Let’s Go Back Home’ campaign was launched.
The United Nations (UN) considers Myanmar’s Rohingya people the most persecuted minority group in the world. Their oppression is not new: in their homeland they have faced targeted discrimination for over 50 years at the hands of the government and Buddhist nationalists.
Since 1982, they have been denied citizenship. They have long been demonised as migrants in their own country, and this vilification enables violence. The current crisis that turned more than a million people into refugees erupted with a government crackdown in October 2016, undertaken in response to armed attacks on police posts that left nine police officers dead in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, home to most Rohingya people.
The crackdown was violent. By December 2016 hundreds of people, including children, had reportedly been killed. Villages were set alight and women and girls were sexually assaulted. Around 69,000 people left Myanmar between October 2016 and January 2017, seeking shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.
But worse was to come. A second phase of military violence began in 2017, during which roughly 24,000 Rohingya people were killed, 115,000 homes were burnt down and as many as 18,000 women and girls were raped. This was a sustained attack that, it seems clear, amounted to crimes against humanity and genocide. To escape the violence, multitudes fled across South and Southeast Asia. In exile, their struggle continues.
Life as a refugee
Since August 2017, more than 750,000 refugees have crossed into Bangladesh, joining over 200,000 Rohingya people who were already there, having escaped earlier attacks. The world’s largest set of refugee camps, home to an estimated 900,000 people, was born as a result in the Cox’s Bazar district.
Life in refugee camps is plagued by hardship. In camps in Bangladesh, refugees are not allowed to build permanent structures, so they have established dwellings using flimsy materials like bamboo and tarpaulins. Shelters are packed closely together, creating a fire hazard. In 2021 alone, there were over 150 fires, the largest of which destroyed some 10,000 shelters. The camps are also vulnerable to floods and mudslides during the monsoon season.
The densely populated nature of the camps facilitates the rapid spread of disease, a particular problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recurrent gang violence adds to insecurity, and fear of forced relocation is a constant concern among refugees, who remain at the mercy of state authorities.
In India, the situation is even worse. As Rohingya people are mostly Muslim, they have been caught up in the broader current of growing anti-Muslim sentiment, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party whipping up Hindu nationalism for electoral advantage. Recently dozens of Rohingya people have been detained and there have been several deportations, creating understandable anxiety among refugees.
India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and views Rohingya people not as refugees but ‘illegal immigrants’. Currently 1,000 refugees are imprisoned across India on the grounds of illegal immigration. In the past month, 2,000 to 3,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from the Jammu and Kashmir region fearing arrest, deportation and separation from their families.
Women and children first?
As with most crises, women and children – who make up the majority of refugees in Bangladeshi camps – are suffering the worst. Ever since their arrival, children have been denied access to formal education. Some schools used to discreetly admit Rohingya children, but the swell of arrivals in 2017 resulted in tighter controls, restricting access to schools.
Women and children are at high risk of human trafficking and exploitation. Gender-based violence among refugees takes many forms, from domestic abuse and early marriage to the pervasive threat of rape and sexual violence.
Many refugees have mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, as a result of the trauma they have endured. Chronic illness and infections are also major problems, but since the majority of Rohingya people are not recognised as refugees in Bangladesh, they cannot access proper healthcare.
Civil society at the forefront
Civil society is doing what it can to improve conditions in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Humanity Auxilium, for example, provides physical and mental healthcare to patients in Cox’s Bazar, reaching over 80,000 people. It also offers training to develop skills to help build financial and economic independence. The Norwegian Refugee Council has provided vital emergency response following floods, helping clear roads and rebuild shelters.
Many initiatives focus on children. Partners Relief and Development has worked with Rohingya people since 2012, enabling children to attend schools and supporting families through monthly food deliveries. Save the Children has built a primary healthcare centre offering 24-hour care and providing psycho-social support. It has also set up learning centres and distributed teaching and learning materials to bridge the education gap so many Rohingya children experience.
Bangladeshi civil society organisations (CSOs) are heavily involved. BRAC, an international development CSO based in Bangladesh, has provided the largest civil society support programme for newly arrived Rohingya refugees, reaching over 660,000 people. The Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST Foundation) is also playing a big role as a first responder, providing food, water and medical services to help meet immediate needs alongside basic education and training services.
Rohingya refugees are no passive recipients of aid. They are organising to improve their community: the most common source of employment for refugees is volunteering. Whether through bricklaying or firefighting, refugees are striving to make their temporary communities better, often with civil society support.
But challenges abound. Despite having provided significant help, the Bangladeshi government has fallen short when it comes to respecting rights. Following protests in August 2019, when 200,000 Rohingya refugees gathered to mark the anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar, the Bangladeshi military increased its presence in refugee camps and imposed a curfew. The government also introduced a ban on the use of SIM cards and restricted internet access, supposedly on security grounds – a measure that was reversed a year later.
Several CSOs were banned or suspended due to their role in helping organise protests, while activists were subjected to intimidation and questioning. Bureaucratic barriers, such as complex processes to gain project approvals, further limit the operations of CSOs and their partners. The government has shut down communal facilities and schools set up by the community.
This forms part of a broader crackdown the Bangladeshi government is mobilising against domestic civil society, and clearly Rohingya organisations are not immune from the bigger problem of Bangladesh’s collapsing civic space.
CSOs are also experiencing shrinking funding from donors. This is a particular problem for local organisations, which are overshadowed by larger international agencies. The same power dynamics can result in a lack of consultation with community leaders both by international organisations and the Bangladeshi government, which can lead to poorly planned and executed responses that are not aligned with the needs and aspirations of Rohingya refugees.
For real, effective change to take place, all stakeholders – and especially Rohingya people and local CSOs with on-the-ground knowhow – must be involved in making decisions.
The pursuit of justice
Welfare without justice can’t be enough. Rohingya people are actively seeking to bring those responsible for the atrocities committed against them to account.
The Free Rohingya Coalition coordinates grassroots boycotts and pushes for economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Myanmar military and its collaborators. On social media, the #Black4Rohingya hashtag offers a rallying point for those supporting the Rohingya cause.
Historically, Myanmar’s non-Rohingya majority has expressed little sympathy for the plight of Rohingya people; however, the 2021 military coup may well be changing that. People in Myanmar are now on the receiving end of tactics of military violence that were honed on minority groups and Rohingya people in particular. In opposing military rule, many people are finding common cause across ethnic lines, potentially opening up new routes for justice in the campaign to restore democracy.
But while the military remains in power in Myanmar, most advocacy efforts are taking place at the international level, centring on calls for the international community to recognise the crimes against Rohingya people as genocide. In 2019, the UN’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar concluded that the government of Myanmar was not meeting its obligations under the Genocide Convention.
Following this declaration, the government of The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the UN’s international law court – which ordered Myanmar to implement emergency measures to prevent the genocide of Rohingya people.
But military leaders who have committed or commissioned gross human rights violations could still evade justice. This is where the International Criminal Court (ICC) comes in.
Since Myanmar has not ratified the Rome Statute, the international convention by which states accept ICC jurisdiction, progress has not been straightforward. An ICC investigation can be triggered by the UN Security Council, but the deadlocks that characterise this body make this unlikely. Only in March 2022 did the USA, one of the Council’s five permanent members, declare that the military had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya people.
However, space opened up because unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh has ratified the Rome Statute. In November 2019, ICC judges authorised the opening of an investigation on the grounds that alleged ‘crimes against humanity of deportation’ took place across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The ICC is currently building a case and civil society is working to support ICJ and ICC processes by documenting experience of atrocities.
But ICC processes take a long time and obstacles against successful prosecution abound. Rohingya people therefore continue to take action on multiple fronts. In another response, Rohingya groups have filed a US$150 billion dollar lawsuit against Facebook over the platform’s alleged leading role in spreading the hate speech that fuelled anti-Rohingya violence in 2016 and 2017.
Voices from the frontline
Maung Sawyeddollah is founder and executive director of the Rohingya Students Network, a global network of Rohingya students and young people based in Cox’s Bazar.
We are bringing a case against Facebook because we believe Facebook used the genocide in Myanmar for business. We would normally send a letter to Facebook and ask them for help to fund Rohingya education camps. But they refuse to compensate for what they did, and so we had to take the legal way. We are getting help from Victim Advocates International, an organisation of lawyers.
The long-term scenario is complex. We left our country, Myanmar, in 2017 and are still facing systematic violence there. We were a minority and had to leave because of the violence towards us. We are now living in Bangladesh but continue to fight in various arenas to get the justice our people deserve.
The threats and dangers are constant. For every single activity we want to do, there is some kind of opposition. A big part of society is opposed to the kind of work we do. We are respected by the government of Bangladesh and allowed to do our work freely, although I think they are now changing their minds. I think our Going Home Campaign, which we launched a few weeks ago, will make our relationship a bit harder.
We continue to demand our rights, and many people speak up online and advocate for our rights, but the audience we really need to listen to us, those responsible for the persecution we suffer, and those we need to sort out our situation, are sitting in government chairs in Myanmar and won’t address our demands because they simply don’t want us.
We need as much international help as we can get. We need the international community to pressure the government of Myanmar so that they accept all of our demands for basic needs and rights. We need them to accept Rohingya people in Myanmar.
What we expect from the world is to help us create the right conditions to put pressure on Myanmar’s power holders, the main stakeholders to solve this crisis. There are many ways they can help us. For instance, as the USA helped us by declaring our situation as genocide; other big powers should do the same. We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Maung. Read the full interview here.
‘Let’s go back home’
During the 2019 protests in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees demanded conditions be put in place for their safe repatriation. The sentiment remains: Rohingya people want to go home – but they demand assurances they can do so safely and on their own terms.
On 19 June 2022, protesters launched the ‘Let’s Go Back Home’ (Bari Cholo) campaign. Their demands include repatriation to Myanmar at the earliest opportunity, the cancellation of the 1982 Citizenship Act, guarantees of dignity and security for Rohingya people in Myanmar and an end to persecution.
While the campaign has support from the Bangladeshi government, it faces significant barriers when it comes to ensuring safety. In response to the ICJ order, the Myanmar government issued two presidential directives but these, according to Human Rights Watch, provide insufficient protection. The structures that have marginalised Rohingya people for decades remain fully in place.
Myanmar’s Rohingya people continue to be stateless. The military junta has reiterated the pre-coup government’s Buddhist nationalist view that does not consider Rohingya people as one of Myanmar’s recognised ethnic groups. The same generals who led the surge of violence against Rohingya people are now leading the country. Even if the government gave express assurances of safety, these would not be believable coming from a junta that continues to violently suppress protesters.
We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!
If Rohingya people are to return to Myanmar, it must therefore be to a civilian-run country that recognises them as citizens and guarantees their rights. But there seems no quick end in prospect to Myanmar’s military rule. The danger – as with so many refugees around the world who get stuck in camps for year after year – is of Rohingya people staying in limbo, with host countries increasingly displaying compassion fatigue or outright hostility. This could lead to forced and unsafe repatriation, while funding dries up as multiple crises unfold around the world.
The clock is ticking. Rohingya people need durable solutions and meaningful action, and they need them now.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Myanmar’s rulers must remove all discriminatory policies and repressive measures that marginalise Rohingya people and endanger their rights.
The Bangladeshi government should allow civil society to operate freely and refrain from restricting organising efforts by Rohingya people
International organisations should consult with Rohingya people and local civil society to help find long-term solutions to the crisis.
Cover photo by Ro Mehrooz/Twitter