In the squalid camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in Myanmar, the heat is sweltering and unforgiving inside the tin-roofed makeshift huts. Encased by barbed wires, there is no escape; the outside world is a dwindling hope to the families imprisoned there.
Aye Mura, a young mother, told the Guardian, “It’s impossible to sleep and the smell of the clogged drains is sickening,”
Cash-strapped and with limited work options, she said that she frequently sells her food ration cards to save money so that she can send her daughter to school in another nearby camp.
A 23-year-old man, Mohammed, who has been trapped there for seven years, lamented, “The only difference between a prison and the Rakhine camps is that in prison, at least they know how long their sentence is.”
These are the voices of the Rohingya – a Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, who were expelled from Sittwe after their homes were destroyed in 2012. During this period, more than 100,000 of them fled to Malaysia.
Despite living in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya people, who have resided primarily in Rakhine State, have been derided as illegal immigrants. Denied citizenship and classified as a stateless people because of systematic bigotry, they are disallowed the right to freedom of movement, education, medical care, and other basic necessities. Conflict has persisted for decades as they petitioned for equal rights.
In late 2016, after decades of persecution and political tension, violence erupted in the country with many human rights organisations accusing the government of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The United Nations reported that human rights violations had taken place, including extrajudicial killings, infanticides, and gang rapes.
By 2017, the country became the scene of a bloody crackdown by the government, forcing the Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh. To date, over 900,000 Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh camps and settlements, and around 740,000 of those arrived from August 2017 onwards.
The Rohingya are not legally recognised as refugees in Bangladesh or other neighbouring host countries. This lack of legal status, coupled with the absence of international political momentum to resolve the underlying discrimination and violence they faced in Myanmar, entraps them in a cycle of abuse and suffering.
International humanitarian organisation, MSF (Doctors Without Borders), has continued to serve Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Between August 2017 to March 2019, they conducted over 1.2 million outpatient consultations, more than 21,000 inpatient admissions, over 47,000 pregnancy-related consultations, and have attended to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. In addition, they have provided more than 193 million litres of chlorinated water, constructed five water networks, and installed a faecal sludge management system.
Emergency Coordinator at MSF in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Arunn Jegan, said, “Rohingya refugees living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar district remain vulnerable to health risks; they reside in overcrowded, tight spaces and continue to live in emergency-like conditions, which increase the threat of potential outbreaks of contagious diseases. Refugees are not allowed to move outside the refugee camps and are almost entirely reliant on health and other services provided by humanitarian organisations. Many refugees report feeling unsafe at night, and the threat of sexual or physical violence within the camps.
“There is an inadequate provision of secondary level healthcare, including mental health and chronic illnesses. MSF remains one of the main organisations providing inpatient services for paediatric, neonatal and adult patients. Many Rohingya lived through traumatic experiences while fleeing the violence in Myanmar. This, together with the lack of jobs and an uncertain future, has clear and visible effects on their collective mental wellbeing.”
It was estimated that at least 10,000 Rohingya people have been killed. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the crisis as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, a Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations said that having fled Myanmar, over a million Rohingya are now living in Bangladesh, and smaller numbers have absconded to other countries in the region.
“I think the biggest reason why reports by Amnesty, the UN, etc, have not had that much impact on the Myanmar government’s actions is that there haven’t been major consequences for top Myanmar leaders,” he explained.
“Southeast Asian states generally are unwilling to really push Myanmar hard and enforce consequences – you saw this dynamic at the recent ASEAN summit. China, Japan, India – the major regional powers are also reluctant to apply any real pressure on Myanmar. And leading democracies like the US, although critical, have been slow to do anything really multilaterally about Myanmar. Many, I think, are still hoping, probably wrongly, that Suu Kyi will take real steps to address the crisis.”
Kurlantzick believes that repatriation talks have continued to stall, in part because the Myanmar government cannot provide a safe environment to do so. “For the crisis to be fully addressed, Myanmar would have to create a safe enough environment where refugees would be willing to return, and that seems unlikely – especially given that the military remains the most powerful actor in Myanmar, and is largely unchanged in its actions or makeup from the junta days,” he said.
A recent report by Amnesty International has revealed new human rights abuses by the Myanmar military since January 2019, which included extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances.