We must not let the Rohingya people slip to the bottom of the international agenda

On 2 December 2022 a group of approximately 180 Rohingya refugees boarded a boat in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Their intended destination was Malaysia, where many hoped to be reunited with family and loved ones, or to build a better life than the one available to them in the overcrowded, unsanitary and increasingly dangerous camps in Bangladesh.

They never made it.

In a statement issued on 25 December, the United Nations expressed concern that the boat had sank after it went missing in the Andaman Sea. Relatives of those onboard told the Guardian that they had little hope that their family members were still alive, and if confirmed it would bring the number of Rohingya refugees who have died on sea crossings to Malaysia in 2022 close to 400.

A crisis decades in the making

The Rohingya refugee crisis has been ongoing for over five years now. It began in earnest in August 2017 when the Myanmar/Burma army launched attacks on Rohingya villages and civilians which resulted in over 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh as thousands were killed and hundreds of villages were razed to the ground.

It was also a crisis preceded by decades of discrimination and targeted violence at the hands of the Myanmar regime.

The predominantly Muslim ethnic community that reside in Rakhine State on the western coast of Myanmar have been denied citizenship and other rights since 1982, and the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, had already carried out multiple waves of egregious violence against the community before 2017. However, with limited international intervention, this was permitted to escalate to what has now been deemed a genocide by a UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), among many others.

Attacks have persisted ever since, particularly in the aftermath of the coup of February 2021 in which the Tatmadaw did away with any façade of democratic rule and placed the country’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and many other civilian leaders either in prison or under house arrest.

Bottom of the agenda

Under these circumstances, it is clearly unsafe for Rohingya refugees to return to the country. Meanwhile, those that never left live under constant threat of further violence, whilst continuing to be denied citizenship rights such as the right to vote, to move freely, or to access basic services.

And yet, the international community still largely ignores the plight of the Rohingya. The 2017 violence did make international headlines, and there has been some attention on the country in the near two years following the coup, however in the midst of one of the largest global refugee crises in years, media attention has been drawn to recent developments in countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine, while long-running situations such as the desperate plight of the Rohingya have been all but forgotten.

All of these situations merit our attention and the different facets of the global refugee crisis must be considered together. But it is vital that unresolved crises such as that of the Rohingya are not pushed to the bottom of the agenda just because they have been ongoing for longer.

Without this, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will continue to languish in camps like those in Cox’s Bazar, facing a choice between returning to a home where they will likely face threats, violence and even killings, remaining in a place where they cannot build sustainable lives for themselves, or risking their lives by taking treacherous journeys to other countries like Malaysia.

A holistic response is needed

This is no choice at all. What is needed is a holistic response; one that provides much needed humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and other countries, but more importantly one that addresses the issues at the source by holding to account those who have caused so many to flee in the first place.

The blame for this crisis lies squarely with the Myanmar army. As long as they hold power in the country, not only will no Rohingyas be able to return home, but many others, including members of the majority Christian Kachin and Chin ethnic groups who have also faced widespread attacks, will continue to flee.

Some members of the international community have introduced multiple rounds of sanctions against the military and its enterprises, and on 21 December the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for an end to violence in the country and for the release of political prisoners.

These are good first steps, but more is needed. States must co-ordinate their sanctions so that the military feels their full effect, and the implementation of a comprehensive global arms embargo remains essential.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley

Featured Image: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons