Rohingya refugee children walking in Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — Aid actors are increasingly vocal in their calls for an improvement in Rohingya rights and humanitarian access ahead of repatriation. The public advocacy could signal a change in the way the aid community plans to use its collective voice to address the Rohingya crisis moving forward.

The two United Nations agencies at the negotiation table are urging the Myanmar government to hurry up and make good on several repatriation requirements, including access in Rakhine state and freedom of movement for all communities. The joint U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and U.N. Development Programme statement uses the word Rohingya five times. That act alone is a sign of progress, according to Liam Mahony, author of a 2018 report that slams the deafening silence of the international community ahead of last August’s campaign of violence.

For years, said Mahony, those same agencies and many others were complicit in helping to erase the Rohingya name from Rakhine state, where they are widely referred to as “Bengali” and viewed as illegal immigrants. The approach for too long was to use development support as a cure for conflict without acknowledging that it also served to strengthen a system of discrimination against Rohingya, according to the report by research and analysis group Fieldview Solutions. These are just a few of the ways a culture of secrecy and “quiet diplomacy” within the U.N. and international NGOs played into today’s ongoing human rights abuses against the ethnic minority, the report says.  

Last August, a small group of Rohingya militants attacked police posts, killing 12. The Myanmar military retaliated with a brutal campaign against the civilian population, carrying out mass rape, murder, and arson across villages and sending some 700,000 Rohingya fleeing for their lives. In the wake of the crackdown, the increased use of the word Rohingya within Myanmar is just one small step in the right direction, according to Mahony. But aid actors on the ground are now facing further complicated questions as they determine what their advocacy role can and should look like ahead of a repatriation plan fraught with shortcomings.

Already under fire for the secretive nature of the negotiation, UNHCR has been clear that the signing of the memorandum of understanding which governs the repatriation process and does not refer to refugees as Rohingya, according to a leaked draft  — “will not, in itself, allow Rohingya refugees to return home to Myanmar,” said Aoife McDonnell, reporting officer for UNHCR Myanmar.

“Nonetheless, this MOU is a first and necessary step aimed at creating such conditions and for helping to create improved and resilient livelihoods for all communities living in Rakhine State, which the U.N. does not believe are currently in place,” McDonnell said.

UNHCR and UNDP are still waiting on government travel authorization to deploy staff to Maungdaw in northern Rakhine, where they hope to start work on needs assessments.

A careful line

In a region where aid groups are already either denied access to communities or are serving Rohingya inside internally displaced people camps, the writing is on the wall for what repatriation will look like without strong pushback from the international community, Save the Children’s Myanmar Country Director Michael McGrath told Devex.

“It’s important to remember that more than 128,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State have been effectively detained in open air prisons for more than five years,” McGrath said. “These communities were initially created under the guise of being temporary and followed a previous outbreak of violence, however in reality they are anything but temporary.”

In June, Fieldview Solutions’ Mahony, an expert in civilian protection and human rights, visited Myanmar at the request of aid groups there to talk through their approach to the situation. “There’s a real awareness [from aid groups] that they're really stuck doing what the government wants them to do, and in the end, the situation is not advancing for the Rohingya in any way,” he said. “I just don't think that there's a lot of clarity about how to break out of it.”

A reversal of what he deems to be past complicity requires that internationals inside Myanmar “start to do things that the Myanmar government and military do not want or expect them to do,” he said, like publicly sharing information about what happens inside Rakhine state and insisting on human rights and humanitarian principles as prerequisites for their involvement. But while he urged groups he met with to cross the careful line of promised political neutrality that so often governs aid work, he also recognizes the contradiction actors on the ground now face.

“And a lot of the analysis in my report now is the same analysis I provided to the U.N. in 2015 about the problem of quietness and silence when you're in this sort of situation, of being complicit.”

— Liam Mahony, expert in civilian protection and human rights at Fieldview Solutions

It’s certainly possible for groups to refuse to serve new camps if that’s the repatriation direction taken by the government with the facilitation of UNHCR and UNDP.

“But, in fact, they know that they are serving exactly those kinds of camps in Sittwe,” Mahony said of existing IDP camps outside the capital. “They're facing a paradox of saying, ‘we would never do this in the future,’ but they haven't been able to figure out how to pull out of the [camps] they've been [working] in for six years.”

Save the Children has taken a publicly vocal stance since last August, publishing a report detailing the horrors Rohingya children have experienced in Myanmar, as well as a joint legal statement that assesses whether the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state places the government of Myanmar in breach of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The children’s rights group monitors “operational and strategic risks” for their advocacy while recognizing that speaking out is crucial to their role in protecting children in conflict, McGrath said. Mahony’s critical report “accurately describes the process, in many contexts, where humanitarian actors feel unable to speak out on human rights abuses for fear of losing access to the communities they serve,” McGrath added. “However, we agree that all actors could have pushed the boundaries more.”

Médecins Sans Frontières, which has not had access to northern Rakhine in over a year and is unable to run its medical activities there, has also issued various strong public statements and reports, including a recent release that doesn’t mince words: “Myanmar continues to block humanitarian access in Rakhine state.”

“Our aim with public advocacy is to support our medical objectives,” said Scott Hamilton, a field communications officer for the medical NGO. “We hope that our public communications and advocacy in and about Myanmar, including our recent press release and December’s mortality survey, speak for themselves in this regard.”

Aid groups that have circulated public reports condemning atrocities committed in Myanmar or the government’s refusal to grant access have not been punished in the country — despite worries of retaliation, Mahony said. But this could largely be because severe limitations on humanitarian access in northern Rakhine mean no one is able to work there effectively. To date, MSF continues to call for “immediate and unfettered access” to an area where the group previously treated thousands of patients per month.

Prediction and action

Mahony was previously commissioned to write two reports on the situation in Rakhine — one in 2015 for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and one in 2017 for U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Neither was circulated to anyone, he said.

“And so all the criticism that you read in the [2018] paper … It was almost all very self-evident in 2015 already. And a lot of the analysis in my report now is the same analysis I provided to the U.N. in 2015 about the problem of quietness and silence when you're in this sort of situation, of being complicit with, especially, the issue of the imprisonment that was going on in central Rakhine state.”

Aid groups and U.N. agencies have most recently applied themselves to pushing back against the Myanmar government’s plans for “camp closures,” a description that does not accurately depict what the government has proposed in Rakhine. In reality, the plan is to make the camps look more like a village, while still restricting freedom of movement.

The fact that international actors have decided together not to support the government’s term  — some are calling it ghettoization instead, others reclassification — is another promising step forward, according to Mahony. Rohingya are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar, and the U.N. has so far been unable to negotiate their right to freely study, work, travel, and access health services in the country as a means of safe repatriation.

“The on-site transitioning of existing camps toward a village or a permanent camp-like setting without meaningful consultations with IDPs, and without addressing the [Rakhine advisory] commission’s other recommendations on fundamental issues of freedom of movement, citizenship status, and access to livelihoods and services, does not offer dignified solutions to displacement,” UNHCR’s McDonnell told Devex.

The U.N., which received the brunt of the criticism in Mahony’s report for the global body’s silence in the years leading up to last August,  is “fully unified around a clear strategy for Rakhine,” McDonnell said, including the voluntary, safe, and sustainable returns of refugees, and the comprehensive implementation of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State recommendations to address the root causes of the crisis.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.