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Facing Myanmar’s brutal persecution, Rohingya refugees still can’t return home

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have long been persecuted by their government, primarily for their Muslim faith amid a Buddhist majority. A million of them have fled the violence to camps in neighboring Bangladesh, which is tiring of their presence. Amna Nawaz talks to Refugees International's Dan Sullivan about genocide and the hostile conditions in Myanmar preventing Rohingya from returning home.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Rohingya people of Myanmar have long been persecuted by their government, principally for their Muslim faith in that Buddhist majority country.

    In fact, most have been driven out and now live in camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, the violence they have been fleeing continues, and their temporary home is no longer as welcoming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the past few years, about one million members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have escaped violence and persecution in their home in Myanmar, fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Many have ended up in what were supposed to be temporary camps just outside the city of Cox's Bazar, which borders the Rohingya's native Rakhine State in Myanmar.

    For an update on the plight of the Rohingya, and their prospects for going home, I'm joined by Dan Sullivan. He is the senior human rights advocate for Refugees International and recently visited the region, talking to Rohingya people there.

    Dan, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Thank you. Good to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, much of the world focused on this region last year, after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had fled into Bangladesh. Since then, what has changed on the ground?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    We have moved on from the very worst of this human rights abuses and atrocities we have seen in recent years, where you had hundreds of thousands of people fleeing across the border, to where there's less people coming.

    And so the conversation has sort of shifted from condemnation to talk of, how can we get these people home? And that's understandable. But what's getting missed is, it's not just that Myanmar has failed to create the conditions that are safe for return. They're actually actively pursuing policies that are making the situation worse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How are they making it worse? What's happening on the ground that's causing people to still flee after all these months?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Well, talking to people who had just arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar just a few days before, they told me about ongoing and stepped-up harassment, arbitrary arrests, forced labor.

    So there's been a general increase in insecurity. And that's related to a separate kind of conflict with another group of — another ethnic minority group.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That the Myanmar security forces are carrying out against another group?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes. That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK.

  • Dan Sullivan:

    But that's also led to a further crackdown on the Rohingya who are there.

    And, meanwhile, they're continuing to live there without being recognized for citizenship and basic rights to move around. So their ability to move around, pursue livelihoods has been restricted.

    And there's even more restrictions on outside humanitarian aid getting into the people who really need it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So in your new report, you document a lot of stories that you hear, including one in par of a 70-year-old woman named Noora John.

    Tell me some of the details of her story. And how consistent were they with, the accounts of some of the other people you talked to?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    She had just recently come across, though she was there in the height of the ethnic cleansing campaign that was happening in what a U.N. fact-finding mission said should be tried as genocide.

    And she described what is, unfortunately, very familiar from past conversations I have had with refugees about mass rapes happening, people being killed, and villages burned. And she survived that and was unable to flee at that time, and now has been able to flee, but talks about how conditions really haven't improved and are getting worse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, these are folks you were able to talk to in Bangladesh, but there are still several hundred thousand members of the community who remain in Myanmar.

    What is life for them like there? Do you have access to their communities there?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes, access is very restricted to the Rohingya who have continued to live in Rakhine State, particularly in Northern Rakhine State.

    And that's where aid is not being allowed in. It's very restricted. There's only a couple groups, World Food Program and Red Cross, that are able to get in. And there's also just not eyes on the ground for what abuses are happening.

    We had refugees telling us about seeing food dropped off, and then, as soon as the international folks left, it was being confiscated. So there's — there's a lot of abuses going on that we're hearing about. But the international community's not really being allowed to go in and see how bad it really is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I guess one of the biggest questions people have, which was, there was a deal, right, to repatriate many of the people who had fled to Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Both governments had agreed to that plan.

    Why did it fail? And what would happen to them if they were to go back?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes, this is part of that conversation of, how can we move people back?

    The government of Bangladesh has a million people that they're supporting. They want to see people go back. The Rohingya themselves want to go back. Myanmar wants to put on a face as if they're willing to take them back, although we see on the ground that they're not making the moves to — for that to happen.

    So the latest that happened, there was an agreement between the government of Myanmar and the government of Bangladesh to return people in November of last year. And the governor of Bangladesh even brought buses ready to bring people back. But nobody showed up. There are no Rohingya who are volunteering to go back, knowing the way conditions are now and hearing from people who continue to come over about how bad those conditions are.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the U.N. fact-finding mission. And you mentioned a very important word to this conversation, which was genocide. That's a legal determination that has to be made.

    Has the U.S. made that same determination? And what would change if they were to?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    No, the U.S. has not made a determination.

    The U.S. has — the State Department carried out a very thorough investigation which outlaid all the atrocities that have happened and largely echoed the fact-finding mission. But they fell short of making a determination of whether crimes against humanity or genocide happened.

    And that's important, because you make that determination, and then there's requisite action that should come along with it. And that's what we haven't seen. And what we need to see is a coordinated global strategy towards this.

    And so we would love to see an actual determination and these steps taken, a presidential envoy appointed to go after this. I mean, I think it's telling that the president of the United States has not yet directly addressed what's happened to the Rohingya.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Daniel Sullivan of Refugees International, thanks so much for being here.

  • Dan Sullivan:

    It's a pleasure.

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