Who will be the Rohingya champion? – The Diplomat
I have spent nearly 30 years exposed to emergencies and humanitarian crises. Yet standing in our “hospital on the hill” in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, now the largest refugee camp in the world, I was fascinated by the scale of this improvised setting. A jumble of humanity crammed into precarious bamboo and plastic shelters, all contained within miles of barbed wire fences.
As we mark the fifth anniversary of the brutal campaign of violence by the Burmese army, I remember a Rohingya mother of six who said, “The army was brutally killing Rohingyas and burning our houses… now we live here in the refugee camp. It’s five years of life in distress…”
The plight of the Rohingya – persecuted in Myanmar, living in confinement in Bangladesh, trafficked and living illegally in Malaysia and elsewhere – is quickly becoming a pressure cooker that no one seems inclined to put out.
The approach to aiding Bangladesh, the only country to open its borders and offer refuge to more than a million Rohingyas, is increasingly unsustainable, with funding harder to come by. Five years later, the humanitarian response must move from a minimal offer of emergency services to an offer better suited to the reality of long-term resettlement.
For Bangladesh, this change in policy remains unacceptable. With good reason, Dhaka wants the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar, which stripped them of their citizenship 40 years ago. It’s also what almost every Rohingya I’ve spoken to wants. But the country has been at war with itself since the military seized power in February 2021, and in Rakhine tensions between the Myanmar military and the Rakhine army are rising. Our teams on the ground know firsthand that the conditions of those who remain in Rakhine are unacceptable, and a safe repatriation to this region is simply not yet a responsible option.
Moreover, throughout the region, the Rohingya are treated as illegals and exploited by those who seek to profit from their precarious status. In Malaysia and Indonesia, those arriving by boat are turned back at sea, some left adrift for months and others dying of heat and starvation. In April this year, more than 500 Rohingya escaped from a detention center in Malaysia, allegedly due to poor living conditions and lack of access to medical services.
Bangladesh feels that the burden of responsibility rests unfairly on itself alone. I agree with Bangladesh. Regional states become part of the problem, prioritizing securing their own borders rather than persevering to find solutions together. It feels like ASEAN is running out of steam, has nothing new to try and no one wants to defend what has become a thorny political issue.
The latest outbreak of scabies in the camps and the growing number of dengue fever cases are symptomatic of the emergency health needs of the population, while the year-on-year increase in mental health and non-communicable disease consultations at Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) testify to the protracted nature of the crisis. At Cox’s Bazar, our mental health professionals have told me how emotionally draining it is to know they can’t change the root cause of people’s mental health issues. At the end of a psychosocial session, our patients return to an existence without prospects, in overcrowded and increasingly dangerous camps.
It’s easy to say that this answer was a success. He reduced the loss of life, alleviated the worst suffering and created order out of chaos. But we have to ask ourselves: Are we becoming complicit in a system of containment (or repression) for a population that has nowhere to go?
The reality is that we are replacing Myanmar’s failures to right its wrongs. We are also trying to deal with the cost of political inaction, a helpless failure of the collective progress of the States of the region and the international community to find lasting, even temporary, but better solutions.
In all of this, the Rohingya remain extremely grateful to Bangladesh for giving them refuge, as desperate as their situation seems to be. They do not see themselves as stateless, but rather deprived of the right to citizenship in a state and region that they historically identify as their own. The majority say they want to return, but they don’t risk a repeat of history where their children can be taken away at any moment, never to be seen again.
Looking out from the Doctors Without Borders hospital on the Hill, I realize that we all have to struggle with the overwhelming feeling that this cannot be solved. There are things that can be done. A good start would be to end the draconian refugee policies practiced throughout the region.
The new Australian government could set the tone for humanity and solidarity, starting with the Rohingyas. They may seek to open resettlement pathways for Rohingya from Malaysia and Bangladesh. Australia could recalibrate its support for the fight against human trafficking in the region to be more accommodating to people who qualify as refugees and deserve additional protections.
Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia need to be more accommodating to refugees. They cannot be treated as irregular economic migrants. While both are extraordinarily vulnerable, refugees seek refuge from persecution and need special protection.
Diplomatic channels with Myanmar must remain open and a stronger and more coherent regional and international approach with Myanmar must be developed, with China in the lead. China can lead the negotiation of the safe return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh, but it must consider how the Rohingya will be compensated for loss of property and livelihoods in these negotiations. Returns must be more than a political front and must solve the problems of the Rohingya themselves.
Short of a meaningful and safe return to Myanmar, I worry about what the future holds. How long can people live with so little protection and hope? Trauma is cumulative. After 40 years of statelessness and injustice, I fear that the care we provide only succeeds in keeping people alive to live in despair.