The plan to start repatriating Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State was halted last week amid international alarm. Human rights groups had called the plan “dangerous” and “premature”. While the news is a huge relief for international organisations and Rohingya refugees, the need has never been more urgent for the international community to protect and support the world’s most persecuted minority.
WHAT IS HAPPENING INSIDE RAKHINE STATE?
Tensions in conflict-affected Northern Rakhine are still high in a country where anti-Rohingya sentiment is raging and access to this region is extremely restricted.
The flow of refugees fleeing from Myanmar has decreased, but new arrivals continue to give accounts of widespread fear and intimidation in Northern Rakhine State.
The evening before Bangladesh was due to start returning Rohingya refugees, a reportedly abandoned Rohingya village in Northern Rakhine State was set ablaze, and gunshots were heard from the other side of the border moments before the fire started.
In addition, more than 100 Rohingya refugees were still crossing into Bangladesh last week, with chilling testimonies: some Rohingya said that the discovery of dead bodies in the forest had prompted them to flee their homes.
There are currently an estimated 180,000 Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and those who have recently escaped speak of being unable to go to work or to reopen their shops and markets or to pursue their livelihoods.
RESTRICTED ACCESS OF GREAT ALARM
It is a serious concern that access to Rakhine state remains severely restricted. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called again for the unfettered access of humanitarians, journalists and international observers to the conflict-scarred Northern Rakhine State.
Only a few international organisations such as the International Red Cross and some UN staff have officially been granted some access but this is well short of the access required. In December, two journalists were arrested in Rakhine State as they were preparing a report on Myanmar’s military crackdown.
UNICEF has deplored not knowing “what the true picture is of the children who remain in northern Rakhine”, speaking of a “deeply troubling” situation where an estimated 60,000 children are exposed to “high levels of toxic fear”, some separated from their parents since the start of the conflict last August.
Similarly, last December, Dominik Stillhart, the director of ICRC’s operations, was on a 3-day mission in the region during which he described the area as one where “life has stopped”, where villages are “completely destroyed”, and where “people do not move and markets are closed.” In some areas Rohingya refugees are still subject to movement restrictions and curfews.
The lack of unhindered access granted to international organisations and the media in Rakhine State raises grave concerns and certainly does not create the conditions whereby Rohingya refugees would be willing to return, and to a place where they witnessed and suffered atrocities just a short time ago.
THE LESSONS FROM CENTRAL RAKHINE
Many refugees rightly fear being interned in displacement camps indefinitely. In truth, one only needs to look at the grim situation experienced by Rohingya refugees in Central Rakhine State to understand the root of this fear.
Five years on, after a conflict erupted in Central Rakhine State between the Myanmar’s army and the Rohingya, more than 128,000 Rohingya are still displaced in overcrowded and squalid camps. With next to no access to basic services in internally displaced people (IDPs) camps and few opportunities available to ensure a livelihood, Rohingya IDPs in Central Rakhine state are struggling to live decently, a situation which is exacerbated by the chronic discrimination and segregation to which Rohingya refugees are exposed outside the camps.
In short, without any home, farm or fishery to go back to, Rohingya returnees would rely entirely on humanitarian aid agencies whose presence is currently only very partially tolerated in Northern Rakhine.
The general humanitarian situation in Rakhine State is alarming: nutrition levels among children were already above emergency levels before the latest exodus began and is only likely to have worsened since the beginning of the latest conflict. The World Food Programme recently warned of food shortages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The vaccination coverage in Rakhine State is also one of the lowest in the country and according to the World Health Organisation, there are only 5 health workers per 10,000 inhabitants in Rakhine State. The minimum recommended is 22.
WITHOUT INTERNATIONAL MONITORING, ROHINGYA REFUGEES WILL NOT RETURN
Although Bangladesh has vowed to work together with the UNHCR, the UN and other international organisations have scarcely been invited to take part in the repatriation talks. Yet, most refugees will only agree to return to Myanmar if the UNHCR is involved in discussions and is granted sufficient leeway to ensure that their return is safe, voluntary, and operates in accordance with international refugee protection standards.
Rohingya refugees have been given little information on the details of the repatriation plan envisioned by Myanmar and Bangladesh. Moreover, the Myanmar government has agreed on a plan to repatriate all refugees within a two-year timeframe on the basis that all Rohingya refugees would be willing to return to Myanmar, a dangerous assumption which risks coming into breach with the principle of non-refoulement embedded in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
According to a Médecins Sans Frontières survey conducted in 2017, almost two thirds of Rohingya refugees interviewed expressed fears to return home in the foreseeable future and a similar number said they were unaware that they could refuse the proposition to return to Myanmar. Likewise, the International Rescue Committee showed in a recent survey that few refugees were willing to return to Myanmar, especially given the absence of guarantees that living conditions for Rohingya refugees will improve.
TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY
Another equally important issue is transparency and acknowledgement of what has happened since the start of the current crisis and how Rohingya are treated inside Myanmar.
Can Rohingya refugees be expected to return to Myanmar when the military and the government have not acknowledged the scale and nature of the atrocities committed?
Earlier in January, Myanmar forces recognised for the first time the killing of 10 Rohingya at Inn Din village in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township, but this admission, as termed by Amnesty International and other Human Right Groups, is only the “tip of the iceberg”. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) recently estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya had been killed in just one month, among whom 730 were children who had been shot, burned or beaten to death. The numbers are likely to be higher. The Myanmar’s government and the army have repeatedly denied allegations of mass killings, rape and torture.
THE BASIC RIGHTS DENIED THE ROHINGYA
Days before the scheduled start of the repatriation plan, Rohingya refugee leaders submitted a list of demands which it asked the Myanmar government to fulfill prior to planning the return of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. These include being granted citizenship rights and recognised as Rohingya, reclaim the lands which they once occupied, enjoy freedom of movement, and receive compensation for destroyed homes, mosques, schools and other properties. The group also insisted that Myanmar forces be held accountable for the atrocities it committed.
Without guarantee that Rohingya will be granted citizenship, justice, and safety, it is unlikely that Rohingya refugees will return.
THE CONDITIONS INSIDE THE BANGLADESH CAMPS
Currently, more than 680,000 Rohingya refugees are hosted in Bangladesh, of whom nearly 400,000 are children. The burden is heavy on Bangladesh, with an estimated minimum cost of 800 million to 1 billion dollars a year to accommodate and feed Rohingya refugees who found refuge in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
The UN and partners have launched a response plan that lasts only until February, after which more funding will need to be secured to help the government of Bangladesh cope with the needs of the Rohingya.
The living conditions in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are appalling, the camps are overcrowded increasing the risk of the rapid spread of communicable disease. Refugees are particularly vulnerable to diarrhea and cholera, including other diseases such as measles and diphtheria. The latter has already claimed 35 lives and close to 4,000 people are suspected to have contracted the disease.
The shelter situation is equally concerning as makeshift tents have been built in haste on muddy hill sides, where landslides and flooding could occur at any time during heavy rain.
An entire generation is lacking sufficient access to basic educational facilities and many girls and women are exposed to human trafficking, smuggling abroad and forced marriages — an issue largely under-reported.
The need to not turn our gaze away from the plight of Rohingya refugees has never been so great.
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