No more aid and no real solutions
Six years ago, the world woke up to the genocide being committed against the Rohingya population of Rakhine state by the Myanmar military. While the persecution had been going on for some time, the military operations of August 2017 truly revealed its scale. Around 700,000 refugees fled to camps in Bangladesh, bringing with them horrific stories of mass executions, torture, rape, arson and infanticide. A top UN human rights official called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
In 2018, a UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar concluded that "senior generals of the Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes." Since then, a number of countries, including the US, have recognised the Rohingya genocide, and there is an ongoing case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Myanmar is meant to have submitted a written response yesterday (August 24) clarifying its position on the claims brought against it.
Despite the international recognition, the global outpouring of support (at the time), and the crisis in Myanmar that has now escalated into civil war – the world seems to have moved on. Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, known as the genocide's mastermind, now sits in the country's highest seat and bombs the people of Myanmar with impunity. Against this backdrop, Bangladesh is holding talks with Myanmar on refugee repatriation, with China acting as a mediator. Although concerns have been expressed, including by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who said there were reports of Bangladeshi authorities using "deceptive and coercive measures" to compel Rohingya refugees to return, there seems to be a consensus that the current situation has become untenable.
The continued donor funding shortfall for refugees is a major factor in this. So far, only 30 percent of the $876-million fund required for the 2023 joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has been met – the lowest amount ever raised. British, Australian and US governments have cut aid to Rohingya refugees by a staggering 70 to 80 percent over the last few years. The World Food Programme has reduced food assistance in the camps to a paltry $8 per month. That's less than Tk 30 per day, at a time when the cost of living spirals every day. It should come as no surprise that half of Rohingya children are anaemic, four in 10 children suffer from chronic malnutrition and stunted growth, and 45 percent of Rohingya families have insufficient diets.
These are hardly ideal conditions for anyone, let alone people fleeing traumatic and life-threatening situations. Add to that the chronic lack of safety and increasing security concerns in the camps, lack of access to education and training, and zero employment opportunities for a mostly young demographic, and it becomes clear why trafficking is on the rise. Even the most desperate people are not willing to trade in their hopes of a better future for food stamps and wire fencing in perpetuity. Six years and millions of dollars in aid later, the reality is that when you look at some of the most basic development indicators, there really isn't much to show for it.
The steady decline in international funding has also pushed up anti-refugee sentiment in Bangladesh. Certain media outlets have played an ambiguous role in this, oversimplifying a complicated security situation and resting the blame for drug trafficking squarely on the shoulders of refugees, even as money from the trade flows into the pockets of Bangladeshi drug lords, and allegedly, into the Myanmar military's coffers. Reports suggest that drug production in Myanmar has increased since the military coup, and smuggling to Bangladesh and India has gone up as well. Coupled with the volatile situation across the border and the constant threat of conflict spilling over – as last year, mortar shells fired from Myanmar killed a 15-year-old Rohingya boy in Bangladesh – one would have to be incredibly naive, to say the least, to believe getting rid of refugees is the ultimate solution to these issues.
Still, the fact is that it is not just Bangladesh's administration that wants out. Rohingya refugees have continuously expressed their desire for safe and voluntary repatriation, even organising protests in June to this effect. It seems almost ludicrous to even point this out, but most refugees, whether they are from Myanmar, Palestine or Syria, would prefer to return to a conflict-free homeland than be indefinitely confined to squalid camps. However, the lack of any real effort towards a peaceful federal democratic future for Myanmar, while paying lip-service for creating conditions for safe repatriation, has left activists feeling increasingly frustrated.
Rohingya refugees have continuously expressed their desire for safe and voluntary repatriation, even organising protests in June to this effect. It seems almost ludicrous to even point this out, but most refugees, whether they are from Myanmar, Palestine or Syria, would prefer to return to a conflict-free homeland than be indefinitely confined to squalid camps.
Since the coup, the military has managed to import at least $1 billion worth of international weapons. Arms and associated materials worth $267 million came from China, now playing the peacemaker in repatriation talks. While the biggest supplier was Russia, countries like Singapore and India have also sold arms worth $254 million and $51 million, respectively, without facing any real questions about these deals from their allies. For example, Justice for Myanmar has called upon the Swedish government to ensure Swedish weapons are not sold to Myanmar via India.
Earlier this year, it was found that companies from at least 13 countries, including the US, France, Germany and Japan, were assisting Myanmar's junta by supplying materials to manufacture weapons. A UN report also revealed how member states had done very little to limit the foreign currency Myanmar uses for arms procurement. While the US finally announced sanctions in June targeting two state-owned banks in Myanmar, and yesterday expanded them to include foreign companies helping the military junta to procure jet fuel, experts have identified a number of loopholes, with lax enforcement being the biggest issue. Leaked tax records from February also exposed how the world's biggest fossil fuel firms are continuing to profit from Myanmar's natural gas projects, which generates more than $1 billion in foreign revenue for the junta every year. This can hardly be reassuring for the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar. Estimates suggest that over 6,000 civilians have been killed since the coup, and these numbers could be massively underreported.
Would Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government (NUG) be more inclined to create safer conditions for repatriation? Its public declaration of support for "justice and reparations" for the Rohingya has been a welcome change of tone from a Bamar-dominated administration that had previously turned a blind eye. Although it remains disappointingly vague on Rohingyas' citizenship rights, many consider it the lesser evil. However, the complex political situation in Rakhine, where the Arakan Army is also a major player, means that leaving repatriation to the whims of the military is unlikely to yield sustainable solutions.
Too many of the actors involved – at local, national, regional and international levels – ultimately view this as "the refugee problem." All over the world, we seem to have used up our store of empathy for refugees, viewing them as drains on precious resources instead of people deserving basic human rights and dignity. As refugees live hand to mouth in overcrowded camps, "leaders" and "stakeholders" hold forums and high-level meetings in five-star hotels to discuss their rights and future, often without a single representative from the community present. There is no better proof of a system that is fundamentally broken.
It is high time for those with the power to do so to actually put the Rohingya in charge of their own fate. Without improving inter-community relations, and including the Rohingya in decision-making processes, there is simply no guarantee that they will not be expelled from their homeland and forced to become refugees again. While one hopes justice will come from the ICJ proceedings, the international community, especially donor and host countries, and those with bilateral relations with Myanmar, can do a lot more in supporting Rohingya refugees and ensuring justice.
Shuprova Tasneem is a journalist. Her X handle is @ShuprovaTasneem