Press Briefing: Rohingya Refugees and Activists Address Rohingya Crisis Five Years On

Listen to a full audio recording of this call here and read the full transcript here.

To mark five years of the Rohingya crisis, Refugees International hosted a media briefing with the help of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants on August 23, featuring Rohingya leaders from inside the refugee camps and the diaspora as well as policy experts.

In August 2017, Myanmar’s military regime executed a campaign of killing, maiming, and sexual violence against the Rohingya, displacing more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh. Five years later, nearly 1 million Rohingya continue to live in dire conditions in the largest refugee settlement in the world.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government formally determined that the Myanmar military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against ethnic Rohingya Muslims. However, there continues to be inadequate funding for the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and Rohingya living there face frequent flooding and fires. Rohingya also remain one of the largest stateless populations in the world since the Myanmar government refuses to offer Rohingya citizenship, and they are without legal status in neighboring Bangladesh.

The speakers at the media briefing highlighted conditions of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, outlined ongoing challenges Rohingya face, and spoke about the need for holistic and actionable solutions to address the root causes of displacement for Rohingya.  

The briefing was moderated by Wai Wai Nu, former political prisoner and founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Peace Network in Burma. Throughout the briefing, she raised the difficult conditions that Rohingya face. “The deteriorating living conditions in the camps leave people with no choice but to leave the country or the camps. People are losing hope in the refugee camps. There is a stronger need for the international community to have a more comprehensive response to the Rohingya crisis that address root causes and improve the immediate living conditions, security concerns in the refugee camps. Our speakers today actually has reminded us how important it is for the international community not to lose sight of Rohingya genocide, and [to step] up with the meaningful support,” said Wai Wai.

Wai Wai also spoke about the importance of including Rohingya voices. “Not having the voices of Rohingya at the center could cause misunderstanding and frustrations within the communities.” Wai Wai underscored that any decisions should include Rohingya themselves.

Rohingya women activist Umme Salma, who lives in the Kutupalong refugee camps, talked about the importance of education. “Due to systematic marginalization, …continuously lack of quality education, and income hours, …Rohingya girls have been victimized by domestic violence and child marriage.” Umme said that in Myanmar they could be whatever they wanted after graduation. “But here in the camps, there is no hope, no choice” so parents are turning toward early child marriage. Lastly, Umme said that “We need formal education with the certificate. Education is a fundamental human right for every Rohingya child. It has been five years and we are not getting any opportunities for formal education.”

And Rohingya activist Khin Maung, who also lives in the Kutupalong refugee camps, spoke about the need for real solutions and to address the root cause of the refugee crisis. The international community talks about “gender-based violence always, but they did not make any mechanism [of] protection…we all have responsibility to find out a solution. …Bangladesh has provided a critical lifeline, but we don’t want to depend on the Bangladesh government forever. …There is much [that] Bangladesh can do, but they cannot provide the long-term solution that our people need. We must look to the root cause of the crisis in Myanmar. But we cannot return to a place where we will be forced to flee again. …We cannot return to a place where we have no citizenship. …Rohingya are treated as a foreigner in their own land,” said Khin Maung.

Refugees International Deputy Director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East Daniel P. Sullivan also spoke about the need to address root causes and offered some solutions, like the BURMA Act which was introduced in 2021-2022. It is a “clear, direct sign to the military junta that the United States is serious about addressing root causes and also includes authorization of further humanitarian aid. …[Currently,]  the humanitarian response in Bangladesh for the Rohingya is less than 25% funded, so there’s clearly a need for sustained and increased funding. …The most immediate thing that is available to address these, and that captures a lot of these issues, is the BURMA Act that is before the U.S. Senate.”

Wai Wai stated that the “BURMA Act has almost everything that we need, and that would allow the [Biden] administration to effectively support the Rohingya community in Burma and Bangladesh.”

Cover Photo Caption: Men build a mosque in a Rohingya refugee camp on January 23, 2020 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images.