Nine months ago, the first of more than 74,000 ethnic minority Rohingya streamed into Bangladesh, seeking refuge from abuses in Myanmar. The influx of refugees and the harrowing stories they carried brought needed international attention to the abuses taking place in Myanmar. But less focus has been given to the humanitarian crisis and inadequate support the situation exposed not only for the new arrivals, but also for the 33,000 Rohingya officially recognized as refugees and as many as 500,000 undocumented Rohingya already living in Bangladesh.
The Government of Bangladesh has long refused to recognize the vast majority of Rohingya in the country as refugees and has been reluctant to do more to address their humanitarian needs or to accept international assistance to do so. The response has improved in recent months, but significant gaps remain, particularly regarding needs for food, adequate shelter, and protections against gender-based violence and trafficking risks. Many Rohingya continue to live in crowded conditions in makeshift shelters - some within heartbreaking sight of their homeland - vulnerable to high winds and heavy rains of the ongoing monsoon season. Recent pledges by the Government of Bangladesh on the global stage are encouraging and should be implemented along with ideas for better coordination being discussed by international humanitarian agencies. For more durable solutions, bilateral and multilateral engagement along with pressure when necessary on the Government of Myanmar on the issues of safe returns, accountability, and citizenship will be crucial for addressing the root causes of the plight of the Rohingya.
Over the decades of persecution in Myanmar, more Rohingya have gone to neighboring Bangladesh than to any other country.
The Rohingya ethnic minority has faced decades of persecution in Myanmar, living with heavily restricted rights, including on their freedom of movement, marriage, and even their ability to have children. Despite the presence of Rohingya in the country for several generations and past recognition of Rohingya rights to vote and serve in high political office, the Government of Myanmar refuses to recognize them as citizens. The 1982 Citizenship Law failed to list Rohingya among the 135 recognized ethnic groups, and the current government continues unreasonably to view the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The lack of citizenship renders the Rohingya one of the largest stateless populations in the world, a status which leaves them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, detention, and abuse.
More than a million Rohingya live in Myanmar today, with another million estimated to be living in other countries. Since 2012, despite broader democratic reforms, the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar has deteriorated, with 120,000 displaced in 2012 still living in squalid displacement camps in the country and another 168,000 estimated to have fled, many by sea to Malaysia. Refugees International (RI) has covered these dynamics in past missions to Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand. For further background see RI’s past reports.
Over the decades of persecution in Myanmar, more Rohingya have gone to neighboring Bangladesh than to any other country. Ahead of the latest inflows last year, an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingya were living in Bangladesh (an estimate made difficult by their unofficial status). Only 33,000 Rohingya are officially recognized as refugees, those living in one of two official camps set up in the 1990’s (Kutupalong and Nayapara). The Government of Bangladesh officially refers to the remainder of Rohingya in the country as Undocumented Myanmar Nationals (UMN), considered illegal foreigners under Bangladeshi law.
In October 2016, Rohingya began fleeing to Bangladesh in the newest flow of refugees, an exodus sparked by a widespread crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces. The crackdown came in reaction to an attack by a previously unknown group of Rohingya militants on border guard posts, resulting in the deaths of nine officers. The response by the Myanmar security forces was disproportionate and brutal, affecting the entire population of northern Rakhine State, the vast majority of which has never engaged in violence of any sort. Access to the area was heavily restricted both to humanitarian aid and outside journalists and officials. But a series of reports by independent international human rights groups, based on interviews with Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh and satellite images of burned villages, revealed a series of abuses, including torture, disappearances, wholesale destruction of villages, and mass rapes. A February 2017 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity, spurring the UN Human Rights Council to establish a fact-finding mission in March 2017. The security crackdown officially ended in February 2017, but abuses continue to be reported and the Government of Myanmar continues to restrict access and deny that widespread abuses took place.
To the Government of Bangladesh:
- Expand protection services to Rohingya in Bangladesh by:
- Establishing temporary police outposts and developing camp management systems to protect and support Rohingya in makeshift settlements;
- Expanding the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) mandate beyond official refugee camps in order to provide protection by presence activities and counseling services in the makeshift settlements, with a particular focus on gender-based violence (GBV), including by opening a UNHCR field office in the city of Teknaf in southern Bangladesh;
- Promoting access to the legal system for all persons in line with Bangladesh’s constitution, along with training local officials and conducting awareness campaigns on access to the legal system and the risks of human trafficking.
- Approve a longstanding World Food Programme (WFP) request to expand its electronic food voucher system beyond refugees to the so-called Undocumented Myanmar Nationals (UMN) community and new arrivals who entered in late 2016, to ensure more equal and efficient distribution of aid.
- Lift restrictions on the use of more durable building materials in the makeshift camps and provide training so that makeshift shelters are better able to withstand the high winds and heavy rains of the monsoon season. Ensure contingency plans are in place for rapid replenishment of shelter materials in emergency cases.
- Release the results of the census of Rohingya in Bangladesh carried out in 2016 and conduct further surveys to update information as needed to better identify requirements and best use of resources.
- Fulfill a pledge made at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the United Nations in 2016 to deliver information cards to Rohingya in Bangladesh that provide protection and access to basic services, including freedom of movement, access to livelihood, and informal education opportunities.
- Ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol and extend protections to the Rohingya population in Bangladesh by recognizing them as refugees or ensuring access to a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) Process and resuming resettlement to third countries – especially for particularly vulnerable individuals.
- Support the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission by allowing access to recently arrived Rohingya for collection of reports of treatment experienced in Myanmar.
- Continue to pursue high-level engagement, and pressure where necessary, with the Government of Myanmar on the treatment of the Rohingya, particularly on the issues of safe repatriation, accountability of abuses, and ultimately a path to citizenship.
To international organizations and others supporting the humanitarian response:
- Encourage the Government of Bangladesh to support a more equitable and efficient needs-based sectoral approach to supporting Rohingya in Bangladesh. This should include a focus on vulnerabilities among persons of concern rather than the current allocation of aid based on government-imposed distinctions between government-recognized refugees, Undocumented Myanmar Nationals (UMN), and “new arrivals.”
- Increase emergency food rations during the monsoon season (June-October) and improve surveying and coordination of food distribution to ensure individuals in need are not overlooked and to avoid duplication of efforts.
- Work with the Government of Bangladesh to expand educational opportunities for Rohingya in Bangladesh by increasing the number of learning centers, providing a path to higher education through the accreditation of the informal education system, and allowing Rohingya access to local Bangladeshi public schools.
To the U.S. Government:
- Provide additional funding to address the most immediate needs and greatest protection risks faced by both new arrivals and longer-term Rohingya populations in Bangladesh, including funds for food assistance, shelter, and health, and means of addressing threats of GBV and human trafficking.
- Urge the Government of Bangladesh to meet its pledge to provide information cards and expand protection for the Rohingya, to resume third country resettlement, especially among the most vulnerable, and establish a more efficient needs-based humanitarian approach toward Rohingya in the country.
- Press the Government of Myanmar to ensure accountability for abuses, safe returns of Rohingya to Rakhine State, and ultimately a path to citizenship; link any further enhancements in U.S.-Myanmar relations to concrete and verifiable progress in each of these areas.
Dan Sullivan traveled to Bangladesh in May 2017, visiting a number of makeshift camps housing Rohingya men, women, and children who fled abuses and oppression in Myanmar.