Imagine one day you are outside your village home, playing with your little sister and your farm animals, when all of a sudden you hear gunfire and see armed men burn down your house, rape your mother, and you watch your neighbors get slaughtered as their children look on. That is the reality of the Rohingya.
Almost 6 years ago, the Rohingya refugee crisis began as families fled Rakhine state in Myanmar, a place that has been home to their forefathers for generations, predating Bangladesh and Myanmar's independence. The sheer horror felt by these people, scampering through paddy fields, their lives on their backs and children in their hands, leaving their homes and livelihoods behind, does not come close to anything any of us living a privileged life have felt. As we observe World Refugee Day, it is easy to focus on the trauma and hardships of these people solely, and not delve deeper into the causes and nature of this ethnic cleansing to discuss what policy decisions can solve this humanitarian crisis.
In 1982, when a Myanmar junta passed legislation that recognized 135 ethnic minorities throughout the land, it deliberately excluded the Rohingya, thus setting the scenes for an impending crisis. In the background of Aung San Suu Kyi winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for bringing democracy back to her land, 250,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine state suffering from forced labor, rape, and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese army. In 2017, the situation reached its breaking point when in one month alone, the Rohingya casualty estimates were at 6,700, with that number escalating to 25,000 in 2018. Fast-forward to 2021, over 1.3 million Rohingya, refugees and local community members, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, where there are now more Rohingya in Bangladesh than in Myanmar.
This year the refugee crisis has entered its fifth year, with the pandemic adding to the struggles of the Rohingya people. As the Bangladeshi government has begun relocating the refugees to a camp on an isolated island off the coast, an outbreak of the Covid-19 virus is a serious concern to both local and international agencies. Aid workers in Bangladesh and abroad have been in lockdown several times over the past year, and this situation has been made worse by rising cases within the camps and the local city of Cox's Bazar. Several reports have also come out, exposing Myanmar for using the pandemic as a pretext for harassing and extorting the Rohingya held in detention camps where they are requesting to return to their homes in the Rakhine State to self-isolate. But Myanmar has continually denied these allegations. Recently, the accommodations at Bhashan Char have gained approval from a United Nations team. However, there are several concerns about the island's viability regarding tropical storms and rains and floods associated with the low-lying piece of land.
During this complex refugee crisis amidst an unprecedented public health emergency, the local community's efforts to maintain the reputation and wellbeing of its own people have gone mostly unreported. There seems to be a significant socio-economic impact of the influx of people into Bangladesh, resulting in tensions rising amongst the host communities and the refugees, making the situation difficult for all parties. However, in the midst of so many complications, Bangladesh can boast a GDP growth of 5.2% during the pandemic, with a GDP per capita of $2,227, surpassing its neighbors India and Pakistan.
So, what policies need to be implemented to solve this humanitarian crisis?
Firstly, and most crucially, the Myanmar military and security forces must be held accountable for crimes they have committed against humanity. The massacre and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya have to be recognized as a genocide by international human rights agencies and the world powers. International sanctions and penalties should be put on Myanmar, and strict monitoring of Rakhine state and the military regimes should be the first order of the day.
The ongoing persecution in Rakhine state has to be stopped. Several hundred thousand Rohingyas still remain in Myanmar and every day, more and more flee across the border, telling horrifying tales of abuse, lack of freedom of movement and access to healthcare and livelihoods, echoing the words of those who fled before them.
The repatriation of the Rohingya seems, although a dim prospect, a sustainable one. The safe and voluntary return of the people back to their land should see an easing of the humanitarian crisis and better diplomatic relations between the countries. Myanmar had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNDP and has established welcoming centers for Rohingyas who choose to return. However, the root causes of the problem still exist as Rohingya are still not recognized as citizens of Myanmar.
Amongst the many things the year 2020 has taught us, we have learned that justice delayed is justice denied. Awareness must be raised about the crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar and its leaders, who have to be held accountable. We are yet to hear any apology of any sort coming out of Myanmar, but rather, we see a show of support for Myanmar's military from the country's de facto civilian leader Suu Kyi. Although the United States has recently been tackling several domestic issues regarding its socio-economic policies, it is still a beacon of democracy for many countries of the world. A strong U.S.-led movement to promote human rights in the region and enacting sanctions on Myanmar would go a long way to reaching the high levels of accountability required in this situation.
Recognizing Rohingya citizenship and guaranteeing that the people have fundamental human rights is the only way forward. Also, addressing the sheer prejudice and penalizing the heinous crimes of the Burmese military is another significant step to be taken. Bangladesh is a developing nation faced with challenges of a growing economy, rising religious fundamentalism, and the threat of global warming. The continuous support provided by the Bangladeshi government to the refugees may steer away resources from local communities that are in desperate need of state support, especially in a pandemic. Along with the backing from the government, international organizations, and human rights agencies, there is a lot to be done to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya and provide justice to a people who are in dire need.
Ahnaf is an aspiring economist with a Bachelor's degree in Economics and International Business from Georgia State University. He is highly motivated to one day be at the forefront of policymaking that helps improve the livelihoods of the less fortunate in the developing world.
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