Rohingya refugees rebuild their makeshift house in preparation for the approaching monsoon season in Bangladesh in April 2018. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad, File)

What Will Happen to the Rohingya People Now?

May 8, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

They survived what the United Nations and the United States have called ethnic cleansing. Now, the nearly 700,000 Rohingya people who have fled the military-led violence in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh face an uncertain future.

In Myanmar, the government continues to deny the mass killings, and is building what human rights groups describe as prisons for Rohingya who return. But in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, conditions are bleak and political pressure against them is mounting.

The international community, from the U.N. to the U.S., supports repatriation — returning the Rohingya people to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Late last month, Myanmar’s leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, invited a U.N. delegation to Rakhine State. Her government is now vowing to help refugees return to Myanmar.

But actual repatriation efforts have been minimal, human rights advocates say. In November, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh first announced a plan. But it was opposed by many refugees, and ultimately delayed. In April, the U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh signed a memorandum agreeing that repatriation must be “safe, voluntary and dignified.” Myanmar has yet to sign that memorandum, and discussions between their government and the U.N. remain ongoing, according to Farhan Aziz Haq, deputy spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

During the U.N. Security Council’s four-day visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, which wrapped up last week, members stressed the importance of repatriation. “What we really want is to speed up the process of the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary and dignified manner,” said Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi, the permanent representative of Kuwait to the U.N.

But many Rohingya refugees are wary of going back. While the population has called Rakhine State home for generations, Myanmar’s government views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and has denied their citizenship. In 2012, after violence erupted between Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhines, the majority ethnic group, the government confined 120,000 Rohingya to ghettos and camps, and imposed restrictions on all aspects of their lives.

In a letter addressed to the U.N. and obtained by FRONTLINE, Rohingya living in the camps listed demands that must be met before they consider returning to Myanmar, including citizenship, rehabilitation of their land, and freedom of religion, education, health and movement.

So far, the government has done nothing to meet those demands, advocates say. The transit camps built to house returnees have been described by Human Rights Watch as “open-air prisons” — wooden buildings concealed behind barbed wire fences.

Those who do return must prove that they formerly lived in the region, which advocates say is difficult, since many fled with nothing and their homes were destroyed. Since the Rohingya fled, Myanmar’s authorities have embarked on a major operation to clear their burned villages and build new infrastructure, according to an Amnesty International report published in March.

“Repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar is not possible because the situation in Rakhine State hasn’t changed,” said Andrea Giorgetta, Asia desk director with the International Federation for Human Rights. “They don’t want to go home until their safety in Rakhine State is guaranteed, and until they are granted the same rights as all Burmese citizens.”

In Bangladesh, the Rohingya are also finding themselves unwelcome, advocates say. The government has placed restrictions on their movement, making it almost impossible to leave the camps. One of Bangladesh’s biggest concerns, experts say, is that they will stay long-term in the country.

“They [Bangladesh] certainly don’t want to allow these people to leave the camps and enter the workforce,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the National War College. “Wages are already some of the lowest in the world and they have their own economic problems, so there’s a lot of political pressure on them to not allow any kind of integration.”

The Bangladeshi government is now considering a controversial plan to relocate refugees from the camps to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal where they could be at the mercy of floods, storms and the threat of human trafficking.

Even so, months since the onset of the crisis, refugees continue to cross the border from Myanmar. Since the start of 2018, almost 8,000 people have entered into Bangladesh, according to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, which coordinates international humanitarian aid in the camps.

“The crisis is not over. The structures, the institutions, the persecution, the acts of violence that forced people to flee still exist now,” said Andrea Gittleman, a program manager at the U.S. Holocaust Museum who co-wrote a report on the attacks against the Rohingya. “And the main perpetrator against the Rohingya — which is the Burmese military — is still enjoying relative impunity and is still active in Rakhine State in the places where these crimes have happened.”

Daniel Sullivan, a senior advocate for human rights at Refugee International, who traveled to the camps in April, said he will never forget meeting a Rohingya woman who had recently arrived from Myanmar. He said that her son had left for Bangladesh months ago, but she stayed behind because she felt too ill to make the journey. Ultimately, she said, she felt she had no choice but to flee.

“They still face harassment by security forces,” Sullivan said. “They’re not allowed to go out fishing or farming to pursue a livelihood, so they’re stuck there and they are fearful … Even knowing the dire conditions in the camps right now, she still chooses to come to Bangladesh because the conditions in Myanmar continue to be that bad.”

In the meantime, monsoon season is quickly approaching — and with it the threat of mudslides and disease for the Rohingya men, women and children who call the camps home.

“They have nowhere to go. They are unwanted,” Gittleman said. “They are too afraid to go home, but also they would face devastating living and health conditions if they were to stay. They really have no good options.”

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