Rohingya refugees face a bleak future, a year after fleeing persecution

With a repatriation deal in shambles and funding vanishing for a million refugees with ever-increasing requirements, Rohingya Muslims who fled brutal atrocities in Myanmar and sought refuge in Bangladesh face a bleak future, a year after the latest flare-up of the decades-old conflict. While massive humanitarian efforts are being made to improve the conditions in Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine, Arya Pimpale argues that a lack of adequate funding is a major impediment to the continuity of these efforts.

August 25, 2018 marked a year since Myanmar’s army began brutal military operations against the Rohingya community to drive them out of their villages in Rakhine, in what the UN called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. Since then, approximately 70,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to seek refuge, adding to the tens of thousands who fled in the first half of 2017.

The Government of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi has blatantly denied all accusations of torture, genocide, sexual violence and other mass human rights violations by several political leaders, the UN, and the International Criminal Court, and instead blamed the crisis on Rohingya ‘terrorist activities’. Earlier this year, it denied the UN’s request to conduct a fact-finding mission in the country and ignored the International Criminal Court’s request to exercise jurisdiction over alleged war crimes during the crisis. Recently, the report of the independent international fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council accused Myanmar’s top military generals of war crimes and demanded they be investigated and prosecuted for the same through the International Criminal Court. The Government of Myanmar dismissed these charges and stated that it has no obligation to respect the court’s ruling because it is not a party to the Rome Statute.

In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal for the possibility of voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya. This was followed by the agreement between the UN and Myanmar for a framework to start the process of repatriation. But the deal has been largely unsuccessful. Activist leaders of the community stated that the community has rejected the repatriation agreement due to the government’s reluctance to restore the community’s citizenship rights, guarantee their security after returning and provide compensation for all of their losses. In several instances, Myanmar has made it very clear that its stance on providing citizenship to the Rohingya will not shift anytime soon. Collective international pressure has made no difference thus far in shifting this stance.  Buddhists and non-Muslims in the Rakhine State have openly expressed their discontent with the repatriation of Rohingya. The situation in Rakhine is still unstable as the Rohingya are crossing the border into Bangladesh until this day. Remaining Rohingya in Rakhine live in fear, cut off from society, and prohibited from movement in barricaded camps. With that said, it is highly unlikely that the Rohingya will return to a hostile environment.

Currently, the Government of Bangladesh and host communities seem fairly supportive towards the Rohingya. But this sentiment could potentially shift to a more hostile one due to the economic, political and/or security implications of the crisis on local communities. The government’s announcement this year regarding its plans to move 100,000 refugees to the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char is a subtle indication of this. The management of camps has tied up about 2000 Government officials at an exorbitant annual cost. Tensions between the refugees and host communities are likely to increase with price hikes in local markets and rising competition for unskilled jobs.

A Joint Response Plan (JRP) established in March 2018 appealed for US$ 950.8 million for the period from March to December 2018. However, as of mid-August, only a third of the JRP has been funded. Governments and other international donors need to continue providing financial aid to enable humanitarian organisations to resume their programmes in Bangladesh as well as Rakhine.  While overall conditions in the camps have improved significantly since the crisis began, the camps are still dangerously congested, and shelters are poorly constructed with flimsy materials. The risk of flooding, infrastructure devastation and infectious disease outbreaks due to extreme weather conditions looms large. Challenges such as addressing critical health gaps, improving access to quality education and enhancing self-reliance of the Rohingya are yet to be overcome and require long-term funding. More information on the current situation in Cox’s Bazar can be found here.

In addition to this, there is also a growing concern that refugee camps could become breeding grounds for violent extremism. Several members and supporters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group that launched attacks on security posts in Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017, ultimately triggering the indiscriminate military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, reside in the camps. The militant group’s subsequent announcement that it will continue fighting for the political rights of the Rohingya and its attack on the Burmese state in January indicates that more attacks may follow. The likelihood of other extremist groups taking advantage of the fragile situation in the camps is also high. The Rohingya refugees, having faced mass atrocities and lacking citizenship rights, and access to quality education and employment, are thus highly vulnerable to radicalization.

Given the slim prospects for repatriation, the fragile condition of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladesh Government’s incapacity to manage the burden, the best way the international community can help is by providing timely and sustained political and economic support to the humanitarian response in Bangladesh. Long-term donor arrangements need to be set-up to avoid discontinuity in the humanitarian activities of the JRP. It is also vital that investments to support efforts to reduce the burden on local communities and the government of Bangladesh are increased in order to create an environment that is favourable to possible future local integration.

At the same time, it is imperative that the international community continues pressing for greater access to the Rakhine state to provide humanitarian and development assistance to the stranded Rohingya in Rakhine. It must also push the Government of Myanmar to improve the situation in Northern Rakhine and create conditions conducive to voluntary return. Sustained efforts to achieve liability from the Government of Myanmar, whether through the International Criminal Court or other mechanisms, remain crucial to end ongoing and prevent future violence in Rakhine.

Arya Pimpale is a MA graduate of International Studies from Leiden University and currently an intern with the Social Development Division of United Nations ESCAP, Bangkok, Thailand.

Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid