Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Monsoons and Myanmar: A Race Against Time



By: Bonnie Worstell and Sara McNaughton, UNA-NCA Program Assistants

Yet another day passes, and the current administration has failed to verbally acknowledge an extremely important human rights issue. This drove Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and the Senate Human Rights Caucus to hold a panel on International Refugee Day, June 20th, 2018, to highlight the issues surrounding the Rohingya crisis.

The Rohingya, a small Muslim minority population located in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, are one of the most repressed people in the world today. The Burmese government has systematically driven the Rohingya out of Rakhine State, which has been their home for centuries. As the government refuses to grant them citizenship and the accompanying rights due to them by the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, the Rohingya consequently remain stateless. Although violence against the Rohingya has been constant during the last few decades, it has escalated significantly in the past few years. This violence includes the targeted killing, torture, and burning of entire Rohingya villages. Rohingya women and girls are particularly vulnerable to gender based violence, including rape intended to destroy reproductive systems and instill terror. Additionally, Rohingya are denied their ability to self-identify as Burmese since the government alleges that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In retaliation to government violence and oppression, a small group of ill-equipped Rohingya formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa). Arsa’s largest operation to date occurred on August 25, 2017 at a police station, resulting in the death of 12 Burmese officers. The security force’s counterinsurgency responded with disproportionate force, driving out an estimated 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar and murdering 7,000 more.

In collaboration with several UN agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Bangladesh has been host to a bulk of the Rohingya refugees by setting up temporary facilities to receive, register, and distribute aid to refugees. Bangladesh has made significant sacrifices to accommodate the refugees, allotting a few thousand acres of land dedicated to temporary housing. Additionally, as monsoon season approaches, there is an enormous risk to ill-equipped shelters, especially those in more vulnerable locations.

Jana Mason, panelist from UNHCR, emphasized that the approach to the Rohingya crisis must be two dimensional: first, the immediate needs of refugees must be fulfilled in Bangladesh. Second, it must be realized that their return will take time. Therefore, the establishment of long term investment into economic, social, and cultural needs, in both Bangladesh and in the Rakhine State, is vital to the Rohingya’s lasting well-being.

On June 6th, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UNHCR, and the Burmese government agreed upon a Memorandum of Understanding defining the desired end to be the return of Rohingya refugees to the Rakhine state. The means of implementing the conditions necessary for a safe and voluntary return is dependent on the coordination between the government and UN humanitarian agencies. Currently, according to a report by Refugees International, the “lack of clarity in coordination structure and lines of accountability among UN agencies has led to inconsistencies and delays in the provision of humanitarian services on the ground.” This coordination issue must be amended before moving forward, thus UN agencies are currently working on defining clearer leadership roles within their organizations.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also given the Burmese government a deadline of July 27 to respond to allegations of crimes against humanity against the Rohingya. The prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, argues that since the refugees have been pushed into Bangladesh, a member of the ICC, the ICC will have jurisdiction over Myanmar, despite the fact that it is not a member.

The government of Bangladesh deserves international recognition and praise for providing Rohingya refugees a place to flee. But, despite its merits, the Bangladesh government has adversely effected the situation by their failure to recognize Rohingya as refugees, and denying them rights to justice, education, health services, and freedom of movement. Due to the lengthy process of creating the proper conditions in Myanmar for the Rohingya’s return, it is probable that they will remain in Bangladesh long term. Therefore, it is important for UN Agencies, member states, and donors to pressure the Bangladesh government to grant the Rohingya refugee status so that long-term refugee programs such as education and job skills workshops can be implemented. Then when the time comes to return, they will be able to reintegrate into society. Additionally, they must pressure the government to remove bureaucratic barriers that make obtaining project approvals, visas for aid workers, and registration for NGOs complex and prolonged. The elimination of these barriers will result in a more efficient and timely response.

The most pressing issue of the moment is the quickly approaching, unforgiving monsoon season in Bangladesh. Moderate rains have already caused temporary housing to collapse, resulting in a few deaths. Since the government has restricted durable material usage in building shelters, refugees have been given additional tarp and bamboo, but that alone is not enough to withstand the fury of monsoon season. Ultimately, coordination and bureaucratic issues need to be resolved so aid workers can get the Rohingya to higher ground and help build stronger shelters.

The recent U.S. involvement has been underwhelming. Aligning with the “America First” policy, the current administration has ceased to make any kind of comment regarding the Rohingya crisis. By pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, U.S. global leadership continues to diminish with the loss of our voice on a key global stage.

We want to thank the panelists and hosts who organized the International Refugee Day Congressional briefing. In the midst of silence and lack of leadership coming from the current administration, your work needed now more than ever.