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The Rohingya are still fleeing persecution in Myanmar. What can be done to stop it?

Rohingya Muslims have suffered innumerable atrocities in Myanmar, only to face poverty, desperation and human trafficking as refugees in Bangladesh. John Yang talks with Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch for a broader look at their plight.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For three nights this week, we brought you stories about the Rohingya refugee crisis as seen from Bangladesh, on the refugees' hopes for return to their homeland in Myanmar, on the troubling practice of child marriage, and on the horrors of the human trafficking trade.

    John Yang brings us a broader look at their plight.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, to give us a deeper perspective on this, we're joined by Skye Wheeler. She is a researcher in the Women's Rights Program at the Human Rights Watch.

    Skye, thanks so much for being with us.

    There's a U.N. Security Council team on their way to Bangladesh and Myanmar. The U.N.'s ultimate goal is for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but what do the Rohingya think about that? How do they feel about that?

  • Skye Wheeler:

    When my colleagues and I have asked Rohingya about whether they want to return, they look at us like we're crazy, because they will have just described to us the horrific abuses they suffered at the hands of the Myanmar army and other security forces in their homes.

    We have documented more than 350 villages burned. We have documented widespread and at times clearly systematic rape of women and girls, as well as some truly horrific massacres. The situation has not changed. Rohingya are still arriving. They are still telling stories of horrific persecution, which, as you know, has been going on now for decades.

    So, on the one hand, this cannot be the end of the story. The Rohingya deserve to go home. They must go home, but they must go home with safety, with dignity, and when they want to go home. And, right now, it's just not safe enough.

    The Myanmar government is still persecuting these people.

  • John Yang:

    Our series on the Rohingya was brought to us Tania Rashid and Phillip Caller, talked — looked at some troubling issues.

    One was child marriage. Let's take a look at a clip from the piece on child marriage, and then we will talk about it on the other side.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Rehana was married at 12 to a 30-year-old man who promised to support her and her four sisters after her father fell ill and was unable to work. But a few weeks after the wedding, she discovered the truth.

  • Rehana (through translator):

    My husband lied to me. He said he was from Myanmar, but, actually, he was from Bangladesh and was already married to another woman with two kids. One morning, he went to work as usual and didn't come back. He's been gone now for six months and hasn't contacted me once. I think he's gone back to his other wife.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Rehana is six months pregnant with his child. It is illegal for Bangladeshi men to marry Rohingya refugee women, but there is little enforcement in the camps.

  • John Yang:

    The piece really made it clear that there are family pressures on this and there are also economic pressures on this. Does that make it difficult to attack this problem?

  • Skye Wheeler:


    There's no question that these families are doing this because they have to do it. They have been put in a situation of complete desperation, and they see very little choices.

    But child marriage is a very serious problem. In that case, you saw the story of Rehana, how she's lost autonomy, she's lost control over her own body, her own life. She probably wasn't able to make that decision truly willingly.

    But we found in our research on while marriage all over the world that this really is just the beginning of the problem. Girls who are married very young, almost always, they have worse health outcomes. They often have very serious problems with giving birth because their bodies are not ready for it yet.

    They often lose much of their education, if not all of the rest of it, after they get married. And they are often at risk of much higher levels of domestic violence. And this is a problem all over the world.

    It's a really serious issue, and it's something that needs to be tackled. And it's — like the sex trafficking, which your reporter also looked at, of Rohingya women and girls, it's yet another level of human rights abuses against this population who has suffered so much already.

  • John Yang:

    Let's take a look at the piece of that story about the sex trafficking.

  • Tania Rashid:

    This woman, whose name and face we conceal to protect her identity, started sex work out of desperation to feed her two children after her abusive husband left her for another woman.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The food handout is not enough. When my kids cry for rice, where will I get it from? I'm only doing this to support my family. I feel bad doing it, but I have to survive somehow.

  • Tania Rashid:

    She is one of four Rohingya women working in this brothel.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I see one, sometimes two men per day, for about 20 minutes, 15 minutes to one hour. They give me two to six dollars. The men come from different backgrounds. Some are poor, others are rich, they are mostly Rohingya.

    Occasionally, I see Bangladeshi men as a clients. They make me do bad things to them and make me work really hard. When I do it, I'm so ashamed, so I only take my pants off.

  • John Yang:

    This is just heartbreaking. What can be done about this?

  • Skye Wheeler:

    The stories that we heard about what happened to these women and girls in Myanmar are also heartbreaking. They have been denied access to health care for many years.

    The horrific stories of rape, I spoke to one woman who saw her kid's head bashed in by a soldier with the back of his gun. Another woman had to leave one child behind in a burning house because she could only manage to carry the other one.

    These people have been through horrors, and now they're in this enormous mega-refugee camp facing terrible conditions, including sex trafficking.

    The truth of the matter is, is that the U.N. Security Council's response to this horror, the ethnic cleansing, the crimes against humanity, has been inadequate. The Security Council is now on their way to Myanmar and to Bangladesh, as you mentioned, and this is a real chance for them to hit the reset button.

    We need to see U.N. Security Council sanctions against people responsible for what has happened. We need to see an arms embargo, and we ultimately need to see a referral to the International Criminal Court, so that eventually there is some accountability for these horrific crimes that are being committed against this population.

  • John Yang:

    Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch, thank you so much for being with us.

  • Skye Wheeler:

    Thank you.

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