5 issues to watch 3 years after Rohingya forced to flee

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A view of Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

WASHINGTON — It has been three years since more than 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar were forced to flee following attacks in Rakhine State, and despite some international court proceedings, there hasn’t been much change in their situation, which experts described as “bleak.”

“Basically we’re looking at a very very bleak big scenario,” Maung Zarni, a Burmese genocide scholar and human rights activist, told Devex. “That doesn’t mean we all wash our hands and move to a different issue, it only means we plan for less ambitious initiatives like making sure Rohingyas can reorganize their society … and be given a semblance of normalcy.”

Here is what you need to know about the situation today based on interviews with Rohingya and human rights experts.

A return is unlikely any time soon

While there had been efforts to negotiate conditions that would allow Rohingya to return to Myanmar, those fell apart and it seems unlikely that a safe, dignified, and voluntary return will be possible any time soon, according to advocates and experts.

That doesn’t reduce the desire of most Rohingya to return to their homeland in Rakhine State, but it is currently unsafe for them to do so, said Matthew Smith, CEO at Fortify Rights.

“Right now the perpetrators and those responsible for ongoing violations are still at large and the ongoing impunity poses a significant obstacle to safe returns,” he said, adding that the continued denial of citizenship and various restrictions in place are also obstacles.

“The infrastructure of abuse is still very much in place and because of that there is no shot at safe returns any time soon,” Smith said.

Legal action

There are two major international efforts underway to investigate the Myanmar government and some military officials for committing acts of genocide and to hold perpetrators accountable —  efforts Rohingya say are important, but processes that generally take a long time to reach a conclusion.

“Our populations want to be able to have our political rights to vote and to participate in the elections.”

—  Wai Wai Nu, executive director, Women’s Peace Network

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor is investigating alleged war crimes against the Rohingya people by Myanmar, and on Tuesday two members of the Myanmar military who had fled the country last month were taken to The Hague to participate in the inquiry.

The two men recorded interviews confessing to killing, and in one case, raping Rohingya Muslims, according to the New York Times. It is the first time that members of the military, alleged perpetrators of the crimes, have publicly confessed to the actions and the commands they received from military leaders, according to reports.

The Gambia also filed a case at the international court, asking the court to find that Myanmar violated provisions of the genocide convention and cease any violations. It also seeks to have the court require Myanmar to hold individuals criminally accountable, pay reparations to Rohingya victims, and reinstate their human rights.

In January, the international court released a provisional order based on arguments and a series of reports, saying that Myanmar must take steps to prevent further genocidal acts and must take steps to preserve evidence of wrongdoing. Canada and the Netherlands recently joined the case.

Despite that order, nothing has changed on the ground or to state policies toward the Rohingya, said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya who was imprisoned in Myanmar, along with her family, for seven years and is now executive director of the Women’s Peace Network and a fellow at the Simon-Skojdt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

At a U.S. House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee hearing last month, she said Myanmar’s leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has the power to change policies, remove restrictions on movement, and allow students to go to university, but has not.

A push for more U.S. action

With the third anniversary of the forced expulsion came a renewed push by human rights organizations to get the U.S. to take additional action — through a formal genocide declaration, renewed leadership, and economic sanctions.

A petition from Refugees International and a letter from 33 legal and human rights experts sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late last month urged the Department of State to declare the crimes against Rohingya a genocide.

“The declaration would recognize the crime for what it is, bring global attention, and could rally international pressure and it would signal solidarity to the Rohingya in Bangladesh,” Eric Schwartz, president at Refugees International, said at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing last month.

Doing so would counter the “narrative the U.S. doesn’t care about human rights,” Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation said at the hearing.

But not all support the effort. Zarni told Devex that while the push for the declaration is the “loudest narrative” right now, Pompeo and the Trump administration lack the moral authority for a genocide determination to be useful.

The U.S. uses legal terms when it “suits their interest,” he said, pointing to the Trump administration’s comments and actions about China’s treatment of the Uighurs — it is considering declaring those actions a genocide, according to reports. The Trump administration is “using the genocide label as a political tool to reshape the narrative to turn the rest of the world against China,” Zarni said.

There is also an effort underway for the U.S. to place additional sanctions targeting the military and military-owned enterprises, including the BURMA Act of 2019, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year. The Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act would impose sanctions, authorize U.S. assistance and establish a number of programs and strategies related to Myanmar.

The U.S. should impose financial sanctions on businesses associated with military officials, and pass the BURMA Act, Wai Wai said at the hearing.

Upcoming elections

Myanmar plans to hold elections on Nov. 8, but there are concerns that the elections may not be free and fair.

“Governments have a stake in this now, they risk complicity in the disenfranchisement of an entire group of people based on ethnicity or religion.”

— Matthew Smith, CEO, Fortify Rights

It appears likely that the Rohingya population will be disenfranchised in the upcoming elections, with systemic restrictions imposed, Fortify Rights’ Smith said.

“Our populations want to be able to have our political rights to vote and to participate in the elections,” Wai Wai said. If the government wanted to give Rohingya the vote, it wouldn’t be that challenging to do so, she said, noting that the government has past documentation that could be used to verify who should be allowed to vote.

International governments provide significant financial support for the elections and the European Union, United Kingdom, and U.S. should be “applying appropriate pressure while there is still time to ensure the elections are free and fair and should take appropriate actions” if they are not, Smith said.

Governments could do so in part by making their funding contingent on ensuring that everyone in Myanmar of voting age could vote, he said, suggesting that they consider pulling whatever funds have not yet been transferred unless the government indicates “with a high level of certainty” it is not excluding people.

“Governments have a stake in this now, they risk complicity in the disenfranchisement of an entire group of people based on ethnicity or religion,” Smith said.  

Rohingya needs

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and elsewhere need continued support and additional rights that will allow them to access education and work.

The situation in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has deteriorated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while there have been small numbers of people who have tested positive for the virus, there is a concern that the situation will get worse.

There are increased reports of child labor, child marriage, and trafficking, Allyson Neville, associate director for humanitarian response policy and advocacy at Save the Children, said at the hearing.

Many children are out of school in the camps, there is a limited available curriculum, and often children go to school in two-hour shifts, she said. This has the biggest impact on girls, as there is an increased risk of child marriage and adolescent pregnancies, she said.

About 300,000 of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar are of school age and have “no real substantive schooling,” Zarni said. A good number are high school or university age and could benefit from a scholarship program, creating opportunities rather than “rotting in refugee camps,” he said. Advocates should focus their efforts on getting governments or the World Bank to support such a program, he added.

The government of Bangladesh recently restored internet communications for Rohingya, which is a critical and important development, but it should never withhold service from Rohingya again, advocates said.

The government has sought to minimize the amount of time Rohingya spend in Bangladesh, which has resulted in making conditions difficult for them so they don’t get “too comfortable,” Smith said.

Rohingya need to be provided the right to work, to have freedom of movement, and access to education, Smith said. Today, Rohingya are not even allowed to work for aid groups in the refugee camps, he said.

Three years after the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, the Bangladesh government “should be in a position to formulate a long-term, realistic policy and strategy,” Zarni said. It needs to be realistic about the fact that Myanmar will not allow Rohingya to return.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.