The Rohingya Refugee Crises

Dianova co-organized two panel discussions at the United Nations in New York to address the plight of the Rohingya

Rohingya refugees

Currently, some 900,000 Rohingya refugees are in camps in Bangladesh – – Photo: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0

By Kaitlin Drape – In the occasion of the 56th Commission for Social Development, Dianova International together with partner organizations member of the Subcommittee on Ending Xenophobia and Promoting Social Inclusion of the NGO Committee on Migration hosted two important side-events on the Rohingya refugee crises on February 5th at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  The panels discussed the escalating crisis of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, who have been subjected to violence and murder, expulsion, and a concerted effort of ethnic cleansing in their home country resulting in a displaced population of almost a million people.  As early as February 2017, OHCHR reported widespread human rights violations by the Myanmar security forces which amounted to crimes against humanity.  The situation escalated in August 2017 with an outbreak of violence and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, most of whom fled to Bangladesh.

The first panel entitled “The Future of the Rohingya” was co-hosted by the Embassy of Bangladesh and was moderated by Ms. Rashmi Jaipal, Main UN Representative of the American Psychological Association. Panelists included H.E. Mr. Masud Bin Momen, Permanent Representative from Bangladesh, Mr. Ashraf El Nour, Director of the International Organization for Migration Office of the UN, Ms. Li Fung of OHCHR, Mr. Ahmed Ullah, a Canadian activist who is Rohingya, and Mr. Mohammad Alkadi, a representative from Saudi Arabia.

The second panel “Conflict and Poverty: The Case of the Rohingya,” was moderated by Ms. Eva Richter, UN NGO Representative for the Poverty Elimination and Community Education (PEACE) Foundation and featured Mr. Arjun Jain, Senior Policy Advisor with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ms. Myra Dalgaypaw, a human rights activist from Karen State in Eastern Burma, and Mr. Adem Carroll, United Nations Program Director for Burma Task Force USA.

The plight of the Rohingya

Currently, some 900,000 Rohingya refugees are in camps in Bangladesh, and the country is trying to cope with the crisis of providing housing, food, clean living conditions, medical treatment and to prevent the spread of disease. This is straining the capabilities of the country.   Refugees are living inside plastic sheeting and tents, and there are food shortages, clean water and toilet shortages, and the potential rise of disease, said Mr. Jain, and the situation is precarious. He noted that Bangladesh and Myanmar have begun discussions about repatriation, and that he is grateful for that, but the conditions which exist in Myanmar are not sustainable for the refugees currently. Therefore, the return of the population “must not be rushed or premature.”  There must be assurances that they will not be placed in camps but have an opportunity to live in what he called “model villages” and have a decent way of life with access to services.  It is also critical that UNHCR and NGOs will gain access to the Rakhine State communities at that time to monitor the safety, health and well-being of the Rohingya.

Ms. Dahgaypaw, herself a displaced person, was a refugee for 17 years. She explained that in Myanmar, the country is run primarily by the military and there is a “carefully crafted government policy” of dividing the Myanmar people into separate ethnic groups. The population of Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, while the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim.  In the case of the Rohingya, they cannot own land and have been denied citizenship since 1982.  The military “are very successful with the divide-and-rule policy,” she said.  “As much as we blame Suu Kyi, we have to blame the military one hundred per cent because they’re running the country…running defense, running home ministries.  Suu Kyi is left with little work except for education and health.”  She noted that right now, aid is going to the government of Myanmar, but aid only reaches government-controlled areas, and the areas not controlled by the government do not see any portion of the aid.

Mr. Carroll spoke about the need to understand the root causes of the marginalization of the Rohingya people. Though outside investment and development have been seen in Myanmar, it is a state-controlled economy, and little economic opportunity filters down to the grassroots.  The World Bank has reported that 60 million Myanmar live without reliable electricity and face “harsh environmental conditions.”  Even before the Rohingya crisis, the Rakhine State poverty rate was 78%, double the national rate.  The crisis reached a breaking point recently as the government started a “land grab” within the Rakhine State. Government land grabs have been an issue for decades, he said, but Rakhine State had “not been on the government radar for land allocation until recent years.”  This seizure of land by the military has amounted to expulsion and ethnic cleansing, according to the UNCHR report.  And even now, Mr. Carroll acknowledged, “the government is selling off Rohingya land as we speak.”

Mr. Ahmed Ullah, a Canadian activist who is Rohingya, spent the first 12 years of his life in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.  He discussed that aid, safe repatriation, and an end to gender-based violence should be critical to ameliorating the Rohingya crisis.  He commented on the controversial attack by the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships, which was blamed for the August 2017 retaliation on Rakhine State by government forces. He acknowledged that, “It was unconstructive that ARSA attacked but it is a pretext for the government.”  Though repatriation is a crucial goal in the crisis, those who choose to return must be protected and given the ability to identify perpetrators of criminal acts against them such as rape or sexual assault.

H.E. Mr. Momen highlighted the need for a forward-looking approach for solutions to the dehumanizing crisis in Myanmar, which will require the help of the entire international community to ensure that displaced Rohingya can move beyond the camps and make sure that “necessary commitments and investments are made on the ground in Rakhine State for those who chose to return.”  No Rohingya should be forced to be repatriated against their will until confidence is restored on the ground.  As continued reports of mass graves come to light, it is crucial that the international community must commit to sustained engagement.  “The longer the situation exists, the greater the threats will be there and beyond until a durable situation is reached.”  Bangladesh cannot be by default the only option for solutions to the crisis, he said, since “the sheer number is a huge challenge” and it will need a large number of international actors to become mobilized.

Mr. El Nour of OHCHR reported that a massive humanitarian response is now underway as OHCHR teams are updating the emergency response plan and applauded the host country of Bangladesh “who took the brunt of this at national and subnational levels.”  Much progress has been made since August and there are significant staff and resources on the ground to prioritize the most urgent needs, with the first clear objective of saving lives. “Violence is still rampant” with the danger of human trafficking present.  He reported there are “clear tracking assessments now” to identity existing vulnerabilities but that the organization still needs to look deeply into the “different layers of the crisis.”

Activist Li Fung from the OHCHR emphasized that the crisis is a “result of decades of degradation of human rights and denied citizenship, freedom of movement and equal access.”  Rohingya children have not been issued birth certificates since 1990, and the Rohingya cannot vote, access healthcare or jobs.  “Horrific violence and violations have driven them out of their country.”  So addressing the root causes of the crisis is critical before repatriation can be considered advantageous to the Rohingya. Critical issues must be addressed to make that choice for the Rohingya a viable one.  “Citizenship and legal status is a central issue” and refugees have identified that as a “key factor for their return.”  At the moment, however, there is “no indication that conditions in Rakhine State are dignified enough for a safe return.”  A solution requires going beyond just survival, but providing social and economic opportunities for meaningful lives and education for Rohingya children.