Syed Zafar Mehdi

Global response to Rohingya crisis astonishingly slow

July 8, 2018 - 11:52

In the crammed and dingy refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, where almost a million Rohingya refugees are currently languishing in impoverished conditions, women who were gang-raped by Burmese security forces nearly 10 months ago are now giving birth to babies.

These newborns are reminders of the inconceivable horror the Rohingya Muslim women have faced, and to conceive them is unquestionably an act of bravado, notwithstanding the stigma and sacrilege attached to it.

As per conservative estimates, there are around 905,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar presently, although some human rights bodies have put the figure higher. The exodus of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state started in October 2016, following the crackdown by trigger-happy Burmese security forces. Almost 200,000 of them fled to neighboring Bangladesh and settled in Cox’s Bazar, which has now become famous as home of Rohingya refugees.

However, things took nasty turn in August last year when more than 720,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh en masse to escape persecution, murder, arson and rape. The savagery in Rakhine was described by the United Nations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The atrocities were widely documented by human rights bodies, including gang rapes, cold-blooded killings, torture and destruction of properties belonging to Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were burnt down between August 25 and November 25, according to sources, in a systematic ethnic cleansing.

Some stories were particularly harrowing: gun-toting soldiers snatching infants from their mothers and throwing them into blazing fire or unruly mobs setting houses ablaze and burning people alive. Although there are no official figures for those killed, Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) put the figure at 6,700, including 730 children. Unfortunately, we may never know the exact figure.

The agony of Rohingya Muslims has not ended yet. They continue to live in deplorable conditions in Cox’s Bazar overfilled camps. It has become a colossal humanitarian crisis and the global response to this crisis, termed as South East Asia’s Srebrenica, has been astonishingly slow. Activists have strongly condemned the lack of firm response from the international community.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who visited Bangladesh last week, confessed that nothing could have prepared him for the “scale of the crisis and extent of suffering” he witnessed there. Speaking to media in Cox’s Bazar, UN chief said the violence Rohingya Muslims had faced in Myanmar since last August, was probably one of the most “tragic stories of systematic violation of human rights ever recorded”. “It is unacceptable that these people who have suffered so much in Myanmar now have to live in the difficult circumstances that these camps inevitably represent,” he said, urging the international community to “translate” its solidarity into sufficient support for them.

Mohammad Rafique, a Rohingya activist, in his poignant blog post said they have been expelled from their country, stripped of their nationality under the directorship of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is attempting to write them out of history. “What we see are blatant human rights abuses, Islamophobia, disaster and death facing our extended families and friends in Myanmar and Bangladesh,” he wrote.

Presently, one of the biggest challenges facing these refugees is the monsoon season which brings torrential rains and threat of cyclones, landslides and flash-floods. Some humanitarian workers in Cox’s Bazar told Tehran Times that no adequate measures have been taken to ensure the protection of refugees from flashfloods and landslides. The focus is primarily on providing them essential supplies.

Another issue of grave concern is the condition of children in Cox’s Bazar camps. Nearly 30 percent of refugees living in these makeshift camps are below five, and many of them are suffering from acute malnutrition, which experts fear could affect their physical growth and intellectual development. Some of them are battling psychological trauma after witnessing the savagery with which their family members were murdered, raped and burnt. The orphaned children are at the risk of sexual abuse and human trafficking, believe experts.

To prepare a unified database for documentation, protection and identity management, Bangladesh government and UN’s refugee agency have started a joint verification process for nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. According to a statement issued by the UN, the verification will play a key role in establishing their identities and their places of origin in Myanmar, which will help in facilitating their voluntary repatriation.

UN refugee agency has maintained that the repatriation must take place in “safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting solutions”.

On November 23 last year, Myanmar and Bangladesh had signed a bilateral repatriation agreement, according to which the process of voluntary repatriation had to begin in 60 days – around January 22. But, the plan was delayed since the logistics were not in place.  

In June, the government of Myanmar inked an agreement with the UN to expedite the process of Rohingya repatriation, but the memorandum of understanding (MoU) was kept under wraps. Rohingya community leaders, after seeing the leaked MoU, rejected the agreement, saying it did not address their concerns.

So, as it appears, the time is still not ripe for their repatriation. The international community needs to extend unconditional support and solidarity to the persecuted Rohingya refugees and put more pressure on the Myanmar government. It is a worst humanitarian crisis, and the world needs to come together to address it. So far the response has been very slow.

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