As the graphic stories of mass murder, sexual abuse, and pillaging began to dry up, so did the international community’s focus on the Rohingya’s plight. But with over 650,000 of the minority currently displaced inside Bangladesh — where they fled to escape a brutal onslaught from the Myanmar military — the suffering, and indeed the conflict, is far from over.
Cox’s Bazar, a fishing port in southeast Bangladesh, now unwillingly finds itself at the heart of the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. With the physical and mental scars of violence and harassment their only possessions, entire families have been packed into tarpaulin sheds, with water, food, and sanitary resources stretched thin. Almost half are children — some unaccompanied, and some parenting their younger siblings. Their destitution makes them vulnerable to sex and child traffickers, criminal and drug gangs, and radicalization. Meanwhile, the strains of hosting the Rohingya community is beginning to show on Bangladesh’s already fragile economy, as the threat of disease and inclement weather looms.
“They are living in limbo, stuck between the past and present,” said Iffat Nawaz, head of external relations and communications at BRAC, an international development organization based in Bangladesh. “It all happened so quickly that the Rohingya community often cannot differentiate from the atrocity of their past to the reality of the present.” Indeed, it’s been less than six months since the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, began its indiscriminate, and disproportionate, “clearance operations” against the ethnic group, after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — a Rohingya insurgency — attacked police posts in Rakhine state.
The crackdown led to at least 6,700 Rohingya deaths in the first month alone, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), with further reports of widespread rape, and entire villages burnt to cinders. It adds to decades of persecution and marginalization at the hands of the Myanmar military and state, who consider the Muslim ethnic group as “Bengalis.” As such, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982. With fervent religious nationalism egged on by the country’s revered monks, the Rohingya have regularly come into conflict with Buddhist Rakhine groups. And there’s been little reprieve.
Since late August, as the refugees fled on foot and by sea from the latest atrocities, Western diplomats and international organizations have bumbled over how to respond. Announcements on halting funding and training for the Tatmadaw were gradual, while travel bans for the perpetrators, and even sanctions have been in discussion. Meanwhile, most attention focuses on Myanmar’s de facto leader, and democracy heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has no control over the military, but has been passive — and some say, complicit – in the clampdown. Yet, whilst many have dithered over her fall from grace and dawdled over whether the atrocities amount to genocide or ethnic cleansing, the crisis continues to unfold and threatens to worsen in Bangladesh.
Inside Cox’s Bazar, densely packed makeshift shelters and sewage systems have provided fertile ground for diseases including measles and diphtheria, which have sent aid workers on a race against time to vaccinate the thousands across the camps. Meanwhile, the settlements are continuously at risk of flooding and landslides, given the rapid and extensive digging and deforestation that took place to build the camps in the first place, alongside Bangladesh’s notoriously cyclonic weather. But despite rapid and admirable response of national and international aid agencies, ample food, water, maternity, child, and healthcare supplies remain precarious — particularly when some 48,000 Rohingya babies are projected to be born this year, according to Save the Children.
But the social effects of housing a large displaced population are just as concerning. Many of those in refuge — including orphans who have had to bear witness to their parents’ murders — suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and are in desperate need of psychological support. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations have sighted opportunistic sex and child trafficking gangs operating around the camps, with regular reports of missing woman and children. That only adds to fears facing women in the camps, alongside stories of mothers marrying their daughters off to strangers to secure better lives. Indeed, BRAC — which is operating in Cox’s Bazar — notes that gender-based violence services cover less than 50 percent of the settlements.
While opportunistic traffickers seek to take advantage of the humanitarian crisis, drug and criminal gangs offer an escape for adolescent males with idle thumbs and a growing inurement to violence. Likewise, ARSA militants who have also fled could take advantage of the pools of disillusioned young men in the camps for recruitment, and stage reprisal attacks against the Tatmadaw. That risks igniting already strained Myanmar-Bangladesh relations alongside further stoking tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in both nations, warns the International Crisis Group.
But even without radical agents, social tensions are running high between the Rohingya and the host community. The area around Cox’s Bazar already suffers from low economic growth, and the influx of refugees has added further pressures. As resources have been channeled toward the refugees, locals have noticed price inflation in local staples, including rice, fish, and bamboo, which has been used in the construction of the settlements. Wages for low-income work has also fallen, whilst schools have also experienced disruption.
“The sympathetic shoulder which was offered by the host community at the beginning of the crisis is not as broad as it used to be,” says Nawaz. And with Bangladeshi elections slated for late 2018, tensions linked to the refugees are always at risk of being politicized.
Clearly while basic food, water, and healthcare reinforcements remain essential, graduating toward sustainable long-term support is now crucial. First, psychiatric experts are key to rehabilitating the trauma victims and vulnerable women and children. BRAC also emphasizes the importance of skills and education facilities for youth, both to continue their mental development and to free up adults to move into employment. Expanding security will also become increasingly important, not only to stave off traffickers and violence within the camps, but also to mitigate rising tensions with locals. Relatedly, aid agencies must consider how their endeavors interact with the host community, by engaging them in the humanitarian process whilst also supporting their livelihoods, to help dispel sentiments of being left out.
Supporting the situation at Cox’s Bazar is ever more important given the breakdown of the Rohingya repatriation deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The agreement was meant to see refugees begin returning on January 23, but it is clear from inside the camps that the Rohingya would not return to Rakhine state unless there were clearer guarantees around their security and citizenship rights. Indeed the Suu Kyi-endorsed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan, recommended developing a path toward citizenship, improving humanitarian access, and boosting security in its August report. But a panel led by Suu Kyi to implement its findings has been largely ineffective so far, as reflected in U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson’s recent decision to relinquish his membership. Meanwhile overturning a legacy of communal mistrust between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state is very much a decades-long venture.
And so, with a safe return for the Rohingya — and a resolution to the conflict — in Myanmar far off, humanitarians, and the wider international community, must have another eye on the long-term situation in Bangladesh. The conflict and humanitarian crisis is far from over; it has merely evolved, and the international response ought to do so too.
“The scale is so large that to ensure we are giving attention to each critical issue… the national and international support has to continue,” says Nawaz. “Their voices are still unheard and their traumas need spaces to heal.”
(Additional reporting provided by Iffat Nawaz, head of external relations and communications at BRAC)