As the world’s attention returns to mark the plight of Rohingya refugees who have languished in camps in Cox’s Bazar for more than two years, it is worrying that the almost 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar have been all but been forgotten. The great majority of them are confined to camps in central Rakhine state, or huddled in often partially destroyed villages across the north. They continue to eke out a precarious existence, denied citizenship of the country they were born in, and denied access to livelihoods, education, health care and freedom of movement.
More than 740,000 Rohingya crossed from Rakhine State into Bangladesh to flee a savage campaign of violence unleashed by the Tatmadaw, Border Guard Police and militias in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on 25 August 2017. Thousands of Rohingya were killed, including hundreds of children, many in the most brutal manner imaginable. Women and girls were raped, families dodged bullets as they piloted homemade rafts across the Naf River.
The world’s media has since mainly focused on the teeming refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, home to almost a million refugees. For good reason: confined to makeshift huts and dependent on aid handouts, a profound sense of hopelessness prevails. The 500,000 children in the camps see no way to make a life for themselves in Bangladesh, or to return home. As one child told us: “We are just passing life by, there is no joy. If I think of that my head spins round and round.”
But while conditions are dire in Cox’s Bazar, it is critical to remember that the crisis continues for those remaining in Rakhine state. Those who live in northern parts of Rakhine state are essentially confined to their villages through a web of laws and local orders. They face curfews and the prevailing fear of harassment, beatings or worse from soldiers, the police and militias.
Perhaps most desperate of all are the 128,000 Rohingya, more than half of them children, who have been confined since 2012 in the de facto detention camps. The camps are often subject to flooding, cut off by checkpoints, under the control of Camp Management Committees that regulate every aspect of their lives, and dependent on aid handouts.
I have visited them many times and they are among the worst places to live and to bring up children I have seen in a long career of humanitarian work. Whole families are crammed into a single room in a five-family ‘longhouse’ bordered by endless lines of latrines in a sea of mud. Children receive a few daily hours of instruction from lightly trained volunteer teachers. Seeking medical care involves waiting for days to get permission and paying for an armed escort to reach Sittwe General Hospital, where Rohingya are confined in a ward with barred windows.
Reversing this oppression for Rohingya people in Rakhine State is vital for those still living here, but also for the refugees in Bangladesh. It is impossible to ask anyone to return to a country where they are denied citizenship, security, and other basic necessities of life. The very first step towards returning refugees is creating an environment where all people can have a reasonable hope of living in dignity.
The only solution is to dismantle the systems of repression in Rakhine State. Abolish the cruel and divisive categories of citizenship based upon race and religion, so that all people have an equal right to live, work, study, seek health care and travel freely. Task the police with ensuring security for everyone, so that they are seen as genuine guarantors of the peace for all communities. Government officials, community and religious leaders must speak the language of tolerance, those responsible for crimes against humanity must be held to account.
Focus on the real threats, such as the extraordinarily high levels of malnutrition in Rakhine state. Or the barriers that all – particularly the Rohingya – face in accessing quality education. Plug the gap in child protection and mental health expertise to address the chronic problems of domestic violence, abuse of children and depression that plague a society riven by conflict.
Perhaps most importantly, government and military leaders must broaden conceptions of what it means to be from Myanmar. The Rohingya, Hindus, Muslims and persons of Chinese and South Asian descent have all suffered discrimination for decades. The gross rights abuses unleashed on the Rohingya have also been felt by ethnic Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Karen and other communities. The crisis faced by the Rohingya is emblematic of exclusionary policies that have divided Myanmar for decades.
Two years have passed since unspeakable violence swept Rakhine State – it is high time to start addressing the root causes. Ending the humiliation and hardship faced by the Rohingya does not need to come at the expense of the welfare of other communities. With goodwill, compassion and respect for the humanity of people regardless of ethnicity or religion, it is possible to envisage a better future all people.