When Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly this week, she focused on the humanitarian challenges of hosting 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State in Burma. They have arrived destitute, victims of a state-led campaign of ethnic cleansing that began after Rohingya militants attacked some 30 police outposts on August 25.
The situation of the Rohingya refugees is dire: they live in squalid conditions, crammed into a staggering sprawl of rudimentary shelters of sticks and tarps. Many lack food, medical services, and toilets. The rainy season makes everything worse.
The Bangladesh government is seeking answers on dealing with the influx. In her speech, Sheikh Hasina offered to create “safe zones” inside Burma where Rohingya refugees could return. Few details of this proposal have emerged, other than that the UN would supervise these areas.
It’s not clear whether those governments intending to assist the refugees would support this, but first a word of caution. “Safe zones” rarely if ever live up to their name, even with UN peacekeepers on patrol. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the safe area of Srebrenica, protected by UN peacekeepers, was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who promptly executed some 7,000 men and boys, and raped women and girls. In Sri Lanka, government-declared safe zones became kill zones: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam refused to let civilians leave and the military shelled the areas, killing countless civilians.
And even if such zones aren’t attacked, without effective humanitarian aid supplies and freedom of movement for those inside, conditions within “safe zones” could be as bad, if not worse, than in refugee camps across the border.
Human Rights Watch has previously laid out its numerous concerns for governments and organizations when considering creating “safe zones.” Given the Burmese military’s brutal and unrelenting campaign against the Rohingya, no one should be under any illusion that it will allow a “safe zone” to actually be safe.