Rohingya still a 'throwaway people'

Rohingya still a 'throwaway people'

Rohingya refugee children sell sugar cane during a monsoon rainfall at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia. (Photo courtesy of AFP)
Rohingya refugee children sell sugar cane during a monsoon rainfall at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia. (Photo courtesy of AFP)

The second anniversary of the Rohingyas' exodus from Myanmar has come and gone, exposing how Southeast Asia's biggest humanitarian disaster in recent times has become a festering wound that all see but cannot or will not salve, much less heal.

Having had a place to flee to -- the part of Bangladesh to the west of their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar -- was life-saving in the months after Aug 25, 2017, when streams of people were escaping military operations and, as has been confirmed subsequently, crimes of rape and arson.

But today, the state of the Rohingyas' "permanent temporariness" is starting to take its toll.

There is restiveness among the nearly 913,000 refugees -- most of them Rohingya -- now living in 35 overcrowded, overstretched and squalid camps in Cox's Bazar district, going by the accounts of humanitarian workers, journalists and analysts.

News photos showed a sea of some 200,000 Rohingya refugees holding a non-violent protest on Aug 25, calling for the return of their citizenship rights and their homes in Myanmar. Just days before, a third schedule for the return of some Rohingya fizzled out, after no one showed up.

A UN fact-finding mission is due to complete work shortly, gathering evidence useful for the prosecution of Myanmar's military for genocide and related crimes during its "cleansing operations" after armed attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), which sent the Rohingya fleeing across the border. This criminal trial-level evidence has been given to the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.

But the use of international mechanisms of accountability, ranging from the International Criminal Court (Bangladesh is a party to it even if Myanmar is not) to the International Court of Justice, remains at the level of discussion. While the UN Security Council can refer issues to the ICC, opposition from China and Russia is expected.

DEADLOCK

"So many things are broken and need to be rebuilt, foremost trust all round," Moe Thuzar, a fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said in an interview.

"The various issues surrounding Rohingya refugee living conditions, justice for the violations visited upon them, repatriation and resolution of the conflict in Rakhine state are in a state of deadlock," Su-Ann Oh, also of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said in her analysis of the Rohingya crisis after two years. "It is very likely that this standoff will continue into the medium- and long-term future."

Forced into statelessness by Myanmar's laws over nearly four decades and then by physical displacement, the Rohingya are a throwaway people who face a prison-like world -- the only choice being whether it is inside Myanmar or outside.

"What makes the situation even more complex these days is the attitudes in Myanmar that continue to view the Rohingya as 'others', the differences in how Myanmar authorities and the Rohingya view citizenship and ethnicity aspirations of the Rohingya, and the uncertain security situation in Rakhine state," Moe Thuzar said.

MYTH OF REPATRIATION

These assessments point to the fact that the Rohingyas' ejection from Myanmar is for good. Yet much of the world, Asean included, talk and act like repatriation will happen one day, even if the process is rocky or slow.

"The international community and Bangladesh have stop protecting the myth that they are going back," Fiona MacGregor, a journalist who has been covering the Rakhine issue, said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand this month.

But deviating from the repatriation "script" is a tall order for many countries, as this would require them to discuss the idea of third-country resettlement that they have little political stomach for. At present, 99% of the world's refugees are not taken in for resettlement.

"The international community failed the Jewish people. It failed in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan. Now it is failing in Rakhine, the Rohingya people," Sam Naeem, a Rohingya activist and interfaith campaigner, said at the September launch of a report called "Tools of Genocide: National Verification Cards and the Denial of Citizenship of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar".

"The assumption for Rohingya repatriation stems from the reality that the current global climate -- with regard to irregular migration, particularly that arising from situations of conflict or persecution -- has little appetite for third-country repatriation," Moe Thuzar pointed out. "Bangladesh has also made it clear that this is a heavy burden on the country's resources."

As it is, humanitarian groups worry about Bangladesh's plans to relieve congestion by moving refugees to Bhasan Char island. Bangladeshi diplomat Shahnaz Gazi called the Rohingya the "world's most persecuted minority" at the FCCT event. But she also said: "Just because it's an island, doesn't mean it's a bad place. We will not do anything to make their situation even more difficult."

In early September, Bangladesh ordered a shutdown of mobile phone services and a stop to the sale of SIM cards in the camps.

Then there are the realities that come with keeping nearly one million people in situations where, apart from lacking basic services, they have little rights left. They cannot work, they cannot freely move about. Their children do not get formal education.

Some 55% of the refugees are children, and 52% are women and girls, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh. Births, said to number at 60 each day, are not being registered, so children do not have identity papers to apply for refugee status.

"Older children and adolescents who are deprived of opportunities to learn or make a living are at real risk of becoming a 'lost generation', ready prey to traffickers and those who would exploit them for political or other ends," said a July briefer by the UN Children's Fund (Uniced).

About 16% of children between 3-14 years old and 81% of those aged 15-24 have no access to education, according to figures cited by the UN's ReliefWeb information service on global crises and disasters.

The year 2019 has seen Asean play its most visible role yet in the Rohingya crisis. But this role does not figure in discussions among Rohingya campaigners.

Asean sent its secretary-general to Rakhine in December 2018. In March this year, an Asean team carried out an initial needs assessment visit in what the current Asean Chair, Thailand, called "the first ever mission to Rakhine".

Is Asean's role under-appreciated? Perhaps so, "because no immediate results that meet the international humanitarian community's main concerns, as well as those of the Rohingya, are visible", Moe Thuzar said.

At this point, the international community might as well be another planet for the Rohingya. But making this connection real to the refugees and give them "a sense of agency" is crucial, not least if international prosecution is pursued, said Kingsley Abbott of the International Commission of Jurists in Bangkok.

"The world sees in us nothing," Ambia Perveen, a Rohingya medical doctor who is with the European Rohingya Council, said at the FCCT discussion. "Everybody's saying 'you are Muslim, go to the Islamic countries', or 'go to the Middle East countries'. At the Parliament for Europe, 'go to Asia'. Asia says 'local problems, we cannot intervene'. Aung San Suu Kyi has also made a beautiful pitch in front of the international community. So our fate is played by everyone -- unfortunately."


Johanna Son, Bangkok-based editor/founder of the Reporting Asean programme, follows Southeast Asian issues.

Johanna Son

Filipina journalist

Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, is a Filipina journalist and editor who covers issues relating to Asia and Asean. She has been based in Thailand for 16 years.


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