Over a three decade career, I’ve been on dozens of humanitarian and human rights missions, but I don’t remember choking up on any of them -- until this current trip to Bangladesh.
Refugees International (RI) traveled to Bangladesh in May 2017, visiting the makeshift settlements for Rohingya refugees who have fled from neighboring Myanmar. More than 70,000 Rohingya have fled severe human rights abuses by the Myanmar military since October 2016, joining as many as 500,000 estimated Rohingya who have come to Bangladesh during decades of persecution in Myanmar.
On February 3, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report citing systematic violence by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya Muslim minority population. The report concludes that the systematic nature of the abuses by the government security forces “very likely amount to commission of crimes against humanity”.
During the annual May to October monsoon season, Myanmar experiences low-level flooding, which creates favourable conditions for rice cultivation, Myanmar’s leading crop. However, in July 2015, heavier than normal downpours combined with the arrival of Cyclone Komen created unprecedented flash floods, general flooding, and landslides, a national disaster that affected 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. An estimated 1.6 million people were displaced and more than 20 percent of Myanmar’s cultivated land was damaged.
In September, Refugees International returned to some of the hardest hit areas in Rakhine State, Sagaing Region, and Chin State to see how communities were recovering a year after the flooding.
More than one hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar in recent years. In May 2015, thousands were abandoned on boats on the Andaman Sea, after the discovery of mass graves in human trafficking camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border led to a crackdown on human traffickers. The primary desired destination for the Rohingya refugees has been Malaysia, where tens of thousands live unrecognized as refugees at risk of exploitation and in constant fear of detention. Their lives are generally better than in the home country they fled, but still far too vulnerable.
Refugees International (RI) was just on the ground in Malaysia exploring conditions for several Rohingya communities who are among the tens of thousands who have fled persecution in Myanmar in recent years. Their journeys were often more horrific than the conditions from which they fled and their lives in Malaysia are only better in relative terms. The truth of this reality is starkly illuminated in the story of two sisters, Amina and Khadija.*
This week I’ll be traveling to Myanmar where widespread flooding and landslides brought on by severe rain and a tropical cyclone have resulted in the worst disaster since Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. Of the country’s 14 States, 12 have been severely affected. More than 1.6 million people lost their homes and more than 1.4 million acres of farmlands were inundated.
Prior to Sri Lanka’s January 2015 election, it was impossible to turn on the television, look at a newspaper or walk down the street without being bombarded with images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his two brothers, Basil and Gothabaya, who between them dominated many of the key Cabinet positions. But the face of Sri Lanka has changed.
About two years ago I secretly met with a dozen stateless Rohingya refugees in a hotel room in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They were new arrivals from Rakhine State in Myanmar and had waded through shallow areas of the Naf River on the Bay of Bengal to escape violence and persecution. We met clandestinely because they were afraid that if they were identified as Rohingya, they would be arrested, detained, and sent back to Myanmar. Newspapers worldwide were reporting the expulsion of large numbers of Rohingya, and the refugees knew of others who had been spotted and deported.