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The evolution of the Rohingya refugee crisis

This articles explain the emergence of a Rohingya refugee crisis, reflecting on the latest conflict that erupted in August 2017

Since the interview with Marie McAuliffe about the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, events have taken a turn for the worse. Following a new outbreak of violence at the end of August 2017, more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh, most ending up in informal camps and spontaneous settlements such as the huge makeshift ‘city’ at Kutupalong. During a United Nations Security Council meeting in September 2017, UN secretary-general declared the Rohingya conflict to be ‘the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency’ and ‘a humanitarian nightmare’.

Since the summer of 2017, the vast majority of refugees have been heading to Bangladesh to join the 300,000 Rohingyas who had left Myanmar in preceding years. During the 2015 conflict, thousands of Rohingya had also fled by boat to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with many drowning or dying of starvation after being abandoned at sea by smugglers.

The latest violence followed attacks on police and military outposts in Rakhine state by insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (formed in 2013 after deadly riots between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012). The Myanmar army, flanked by Buddhist nationalist extremists, responded by burning down more than 200 villages and driving people out of northern Rakhine. It was estimated that between 1,000 and 3,000 Rohingya were killed during the first two weeks of conflict. The disproportionate retribution on the part of the Myanmar state suggested this was not just a counter-offensive but an operation aimed at depopulating the region of an already persecuted minority. In fact, Myanmar’s defence commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing declared in September that the ‘Bengali problem’ was a longstanding ‘unfinished job, despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it […] We openly declare that absolutely, our country has no Rohingya race’.

Bangladesh has hardly welcomed the Rohingya with open arms. On previous occasions the country had refused to offer asylum to the Rohingya and had repatriated thousands of them back to Myanmar. Moreover, Bangladesh does not have any legislation to deal with refugees and is not party to the 1951 Geneva Convention. In other words, Rohingya find themselves in a similar situation once in Bangladesh: without rights and unable to seek formal employment, move freely or receive higher education.

McAuliffe ended her interview on a cautiously optimistic note, suggesting that the outcome of the 2015 general election in Myanmar – which saw the victory of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and noted campaigner for human rights Aung San Suu Kyi – opened up the possibility of moving towards a solution. However, the new de facto leader of Myanmar has been roundly criticised by the international community for her failure to prevent ethnic cleansing and her refusal to accept that the Rohingya are a persecuted minority.

The United Nations has also been accused of prioritizing development in Rakhine state over pressing for the recognition of Rohingya rights. Until recently the UN representatives in Myanmar never mentioned the word Rohingya in its press releases, while the organization was alleged to have attempted in the past to block human rights activists from visiting sensitive Rohingya areas. Past reticence to confront the Rohingya issue has been compounded by Myanmar’s geostrategic significance and rich natural resources, which meant that the country’s powerful international allies previously thwarted any effective UN Security Council resolutions against human rights violations.

According to Ashraful Azad of Chittagong University in Bangladesh, ‘the ultimate solution lies in the granting citizenship and ensuring equal rights in their ancestral home’. Countries that refused to resettle Rohingya refugees back in 2015, such as the United States, similarly argued that Myanmar should recognise Rohingya as citizens. But is it now too late? And would granting citizenship rights really have resolved the longstanding inter-ethnic and religious tensions that have been politicised by nationalist groups and largely ignored by the international community?

Today the Rohingya exodus is one of the few refugee crises within the Global South to have received sustained attention in the West. Why is this? Is it because it raises fundamental questions about the treatment and rights of ethnic and religious minorities? Or does the scale and seriousness of the situation simply make it exceptional? What, then, of other extremely critical cases around the world such as refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan or the massive displaced population in Colombia? Why is there so little news about these cases in the global media?

© European University Institute
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