(New York) – The United Nations, other multilateral organizations, and countries with influence should press the Burmese government to urgently allow humanitarian aid to reach ethnic Rohingya Muslims at risk in Burma’s Rakhine State. They should also ensure that adequate assistance reaches the more than 270,000 Rohingya and other refugees who have recently fled to Bangladesh.
The Burmese military’s abusive campaign against the Rohingya population was sparked by an August 25, 2017 attack by militants belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which targeted about 30 police posts and an army base. In addition to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, tens of thousands remain displaced within Burma. Another nearly 12,000 people, mainly ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslims, are also displaced in Rakhine State.
“The humanitarian catastrophe that Burma’s security forces have created in Rakhine State has been multiplied by the authorities’ unwillingness to provide access to humanitarian agencies,” said Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “The United Nations, ASEAN, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation need to ramp up the pressure on Burma and provide more assistance to Bangladesh to promptly help Rohingya and other displaced people.”
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch that Burmese government security forces had carried out armed attacks on villagers, inflicting bullet and shrapnel injuries, and burned down their homes. The killings, shelling, and arson in Rohingya villages have all the hallmarks of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”
International aid activities in much of Rakhine State have been suspended, leaving approximately 250,000 people without food, medical care, and other vital humanitarian assistance. Refugees told Human Rights Watch that while many people from Maungdaw Township could escape to Bangladesh, tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya are still hiding in the areas surrounding Rathedaung and Buthidaung Townships.
The Rohingya in Burma
For decades, the Burmese government has considered the Rohingya, most of whom live in northern Rakhine State, to be foreign nationals from Bangladesh. Just over 1 million Rohingya live in Burma, and they make up a large portion of the country’s relatively small Muslim population. The Rohingya have long faced systematic discrimination in Burma based on their exclusion from citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. As a result, the Rohingya are one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
Since the Rohingya lack citizenship, Burmese police and border guards, and local officials, systematically subject them to a barrage of rights-abusing restrictions. Government laws, policies, and practices prevent Rohingya from freedom of movement to leave their villages; restrict their right to livelihoods; interfere with their privacy rights to marry and have children; and obstruct them from access to basic health services and education.
Even before the recent violence, “[f]ood security indicators and child malnutrition rates in Maungdaw [Township] were already above emergency thresholds,” said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Burma. As a result of official restrictions and recurrent military operations against Rohingya communities causing massive displacement, those now affected have been highly dependent on food and other aid distributed by UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations.
Hostility against aid agencies has grown following government accusations that international aid workers supported the Rohingya militants because some high-energy biscuits distributed by the World Food Program were found in an alleged militant camp in July 2017. Some supply warehouses of international aid groups were reported looted in September, while national and international staff of the UN and international nongovernmental organizations have faced intimidation, according to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.
The Rohingya in Bangladesh
About 34,000 officially registered Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh, plus an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 who are unregistered. Another approximately 87,000 people arrived after fleeing military attacks in Rakhine State from October 2016 to March 2017, following ARSA attacks in October. After the state crackdown following the August 2017 ARSA attack, aid workers in Bangladesh think the number of new arrivals will swell to over 300,000.
During the current crisis, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials have informally allowed Rohingya into the country. The officials told Human Rights Watch that their primary focus was helping those entering Bangladesh from the no-man’s land area, assisting people with emergency rations, providing medical care, and assisting with sanitation and water needs. They said they were unable to provide assistance to those entering Bangladesh from the many unmonitored points of entry.
Crossing the Naf River during the monsoon is dangerous, and according to border guard officials and other sources, more than two dozen people have drowned trying to cross the border. Those who make it across can only huddle in makeshift tents to seek shelter from the constant downpour of monsoon rains. Hospitals are operating well beyond capacity, and health officials say they fear disease outbreaks as a result of overcrowding and poor sanitation.
A 17-year-old Rohingya refugee in a hospital in Bangladesh with a bullet wound to his arm told Human Rights Watch that he had no idea what will happen to him after he is discharged. He said he had “no family, no friends, no contacts, and no money in Bangladesh.” Border guard officers said that they had already encountered many such cases of unaccompanied children lost in the confusion of flight.
Some Bangladeshi officials have said that the Rohingya refugees are not welcome, noting the severe monsoon flooding in many parts of the country. Since 2016, authorities have proposed to relocate undocumented Rohingya residing in Bangladesh to an uninhabitable atoll in the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladesh has rebuffed international assistance in the past, out of fear that it might serve as a pull factor for Rohingya refugees. However, as is evident from thousands pouring in every day despite the lack of adequate food and shelter, people escape to save their lives. As far as Human Rights Watch is able to determine, the government has largely abstained from pushing back those fleeing Burma. However, the lack of sufficient international support for Bangladesh has contributed to appalling conditions in the border areas.
“The humanitarian situations in Burma and Bangladesh will continue to deteriorate so long as Burmese security forces are carrying out mass atrocities in Rakhine State,” Bolopion said. “The UN Security Council should publicly hold an emergency meeting and demand that the Burmese authorities stop the violence against the Rohingya population and allow aid to flow in, or face sanctions.”