About 123,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since violence erupted in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state on Aug. 25.
“Those who have made it to Bangladesh are in poor condition,” said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Duniya Aslam Khan in Geneva. “Most have walked for days from their villages – hiding in jungles, crossing mountains and rivers with what they could salvage from their homes. They are hungry, weak and sick.”
About 30,000 have gone to existing refugee camps in Bangladesh, while others have sought shelter in villagers’ homes, schools, community centers and madrassas. The new arrivals joined about 200,000 refugees from Myanmar holed up in Cox’s Bazar, a fishing port in Bangladesh.
“We are running out of space in the existing settlements, and new arrivals are pitching camp wherever they can erect some plastic sheeting to protect themselves from the elements,” said Sarat Dash, the International Organization for Migration’s Bangladesh chief of mission.
Who are the Rohingya? The Rohingya are an ethnic mostly Muslim minority group living in Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar. The government says they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. A 1982 law prevented the Rohingya from gaining citizenship, which restricts their job opportunities.
The Rohingya face “severe restrictions,” including curfews and a heavy security presence in villages, along with needing official authorization to travel between townships and villages, reported the United Nations. Villagers described beatings, rapes and their homes getting burned allegedly by security forces, according to the report.
On Aug. 25, Rohingya insurgents attacked two dozen police posts and an army base. At least 12 members of the security forces and dozens of militants reportedly were killed. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the attacks “unacceptable” and expressed concern over escalating tensions.
Reaction from Nobel laureates: In December, Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2006 Muhammad Yunus wrote an open letter to the U.N. Security Council “to end the ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people.
Some of the same Nobel laureates again called for an end to the violence after the Aug. 25 flashpoint, including Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011:
Last year I joined many of my Nobel Laureate colleagues in condemning the violence in Myanmar. Again, we must call for the violence to stop!
— Leymah Gbowee (@LeymahRGbowee) September 5, 2017
Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel laureate, issued a statement: “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.”
— Malala (@Malala) September 3, 2017
Suu Kyi, a long-time human rights activist, was under house arrest from 1989 to 2010 while the country was under military rule. In 2016, Myanmar got its first democratically elected president, Htin Kyaw, who is now considered Suu Kyi’s proxy since she was constitutionally barred from becoming president.
In the first government statement since the recent refugee exodus, Suu Kyi said while speaking with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that her government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.”
The statement reported Wednesday also said there was a lot of fake news circulating which was the “tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”
Pope Francis, meanwhile, plans to travel to Myanmar from Nov. 27 to 30 and Bangladesh from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 to show his support for the Rohingya. “I would like to express my closeness to them and all of us ask the Lord to save them and to prompt men and women of good faith to help them and ensure their full rights,” he said.