Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is a fellow with the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies. He currently advises Amnesty International USA as its Bangladesh and Pakistan country specialist and serves as an advisor to the Global Human Rights Program for the Institute for Regional and International Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a concentration on comparative international education and global studies. Zakaria’s research interest lies in the intersection of education, democracy, and human rights.
The crisis of the Rohingya who fled Burma/Myanmar in 2017 to Bangladesh is now in its sixth year. It is a poignant reminder of the need for sharper international attention to human rights abuses and situations of displacement. The Rohingya fled from their homes in Myanmar as a result of genocidal actions of the nation’s military and broad social, economic, and political discrimination. Seeking safety in neighboring Bangladesh, these displaced people have encountered difficulties that call for collective compassion, support, and well-thought-out strategies towards a long-term solution. Despite shifting global priorities, the Rohingya predicament is a foremost humanitarian concern, demanding a multifaceted strategy. This blog post explores the intricacies of the Rohingya situation, spotlights the evolving obstacles, and delineates a comprehensive path ahead.
The roots of the Rohingya crisis stretch back decades. Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, rendering them stateless and exposing them to systematic discrimination and persecution. The world’s attention was jarringly drawn to their plight in 2017 when Myanmar’s security forces launched a brutal crackdown, marked by extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arson, and forced displacement. Thousands perished, and over 740,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh.1
Cox’s Bazar, a city in southeast Bangladesh, was transformed into one of the world’s most densely populated refugee settlements. This inundation strained both local resources and international aid agencies. The crisis showcased the dire consequences of a prolonged conflict on both the displaced and host communities.
Challenges and Evolving Realities
Humanitarian challenges in the refugee camps persist. Access to health care, clean water, education, and livelihoods remains inadequate. The shortage of funding has taken a toll, recently forcing the World Food Programme to cut rations from $12 to $8 per refugee per month, exacerbating food insecurity. Amidst the crowded camps, security concerns loom large. Armed groups and criminal elements pose threats, creating an environment of instability and unease. Factional politics within the camps further complicate governance and decision-making processes, delaying effective strategies.
Gender-based violence is a particularly harrowing challenge. Women and girls within the Rohingya community face sexual violence, trafficking, and exploitation. Limited access to health care and reproductive services compounds their vulnerability, necessitating targeted interventions to ensure their safety and well-being.
Repatriation: A Complex Journey
The ideal solution to the crisis is repatriation—the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. A bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017 aimed at facilitating repatriation, but its implementation has been mired in difficulties. The 2021 military coup in Myanmar dealt a severe blow to any progress made, as the new regime is unlikely to prioritize repatriation or justice for the Rohingya.
China’s involvement has further muddied the waters. Economic and political interests make China a key player in Myanmar. While recent repatriation talks signal potential progress, concerns about the safety and viability of return remain, as conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State remain uncertain. The international community’s vigilance is paramount to ensuring that repatriation efforts prioritize the Rohingya’s safety, security, and rights.
Pursuing Justice and Accountability
The quest for justice and accountability is a central aspect of resolving the Rohingya crisis. International courts, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have been engaged to hold Myanmar accountable for human rights abuses. The ICJ case, initiated by the Republic of the Gambia, marks a significant step towards justice for the persecuted Rohingya population.
However, these legal avenues involve considerable challenges. Myanmar’s lack of cooperation hinders the legal process. The absence of jurisdiction over Myanmar in international legal frameworks compounds these obstacles. Pursuing justice requires not only legal measures but also diplomatic pressure, targeted sanctions, and collaboration among international actors.
The Way Forward: A Comprehensive Approach
Experts propose a comprehensive strategy that tackles the Rohingya crisis from multiple angles:
- Comprehensive Approach: Collaborative efforts involving governments, international organizations, NGOs, and civil society are imperative. This approach should address immediate humanitarian needs while also addressing the root causes of the crisis, such as restoring citizenship rights, combating discrimination, and promoting social cohesion.
- Safe Repatriation: While repatriation is a goal, it must be pursued with caution. Prioritizing the Rohingya’s safety, security, and rights is paramount. Engaging regional and international partners in negotiations is essential to create a conducive environment for their return.
- Empowerment: Providing education and skill-building opportunities to Rohingya youth is pivotal. Quality education equips them with tools to rebuild their lives and contribute to the development of their communities. Vocational training and livelihood programs foster economic independence and hope for the future.
- Justice and Accountability: Sustaining efforts for justice and accountability is crucial. Supporting ongoing legal processes, exploring targeted sanctions, and diplomatic pressure all contribute to holding the perpetrators responsible for their actions.
- Support for Pro-Democracy Movements: Pro-democracy movements in Myanmar need international support. Political stability is vital for repatriation and long-term stability in the region.
- Inclusion and Collaboration: Including Rohingya refugees in decision-making processes is pivotal. Collaboration between the displaced population and host communities is essential for peaceful coexistence and effective solutions.
- Documenting Experiences: Documenting victims’ experiences is vital for healing, reconciliation, and preventing future conflicts. Governments and NGOs must allocate resources for such efforts.
The Rohingya crisis underscores the imperative of a holistic and sustained approach to address both immediate and long-term challenges. Repatriation, justice, empowerment, and regional cooperation form the bedrock of an effective strategy. Despite the shifting global landscape, the plight of the Rohingya must not be relegated to the periphery of international concerns. By prioritizing the safety, security, and well-being of the Rohingya population, the international community can set a precedent for addressing similar crises worldwide. The path to resolution is multifaceted, requiring unwavering commitment, collaborative efforts, and a shared belief in human rights and dignity.
Author Note: This blog post is drawn from the American Institute of Bangladesh’s policy paper, "Rohingya Crisis: Current Challenges and the Way Forward."