The hungry and desperate are now much more so. Last month, the rations to Rohingya living in the world’s largest refugee camp – Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – were slashed. Another drastic cut is due next month. This is, as a UN expert warned, a matter of life and death. The Rohingya have lived on a knife edge for too long.
Their suffering made global headlines in 2017, when the Myanmar military, supported by militias, launched a murderous campaign that took thousands of lives, forced 700,000 to flee Rakhine state for Bangladesh and was described by a UN human rights expert as genocide. In the last two years, what little attention has been paid to Myanmar has focused on the military’s coup and attempts to crush civilian resistance. But the suffering of the Rohingya began decades ago and continues to this day, even outside Rakhine state. Many had fled before, returning (not always by choice) when they were assured it was safe. It was not. They experienced discrimination and repression, military operations, pogroms and the stripping of their citizenship. The 600,000 or so who remain in Myanmar are confined to camps, subject to government violence and denied essential services.
“There was no peace … wherever they went,” the Guardian journalist Kaamil Ahmed writes in his new book, I Feel No Peace: Rohingya Fleeing Over Seas and Rivers. “The Rohingya have run from the Burmese troops who kill them to their Bangladeshi counterparts, who have policed their lives in a different way, looming over them in their exile then turning the screw when governments decide they need to return to Myanmar.”
Conditions in Bangladesh have become so poor that the number attempting dangerous sea crossings to Malaysia or Indonesia increased fivefold last year, to more than 3,500, at the cost of around a tenth of those lives. Earlier this month, a huge blaze tore through one of the camps at Cox’s Bazar, leaving an estimated 12,000 people without shelter – the latest in a series of fires endangering lives and destroying the meagre possessions that the refugees can still muster. It has been blamed on the armed gangs that menace, rob and murder inhabitants in the camps. Rohingya complain that Bangladeshi police have failed to root out the violence, and instead harass and extort from them.
Dhaka wants UN help to move more Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island highly vulnerable to cyclones. Officials portray it as an opportunity for a fresh start; refugees have described dangerous and prison-like conditions. The Rohingya have reason to be cynical about the UN, given the refugee agency’s previous treatment of them.
Bangladesh is an impoverished nation grappling with a major humanitarian crisis, and it needs help to do better. The support offered in 2017 rapidly dwindled, even before Covid, the Ukraine war and soaring food prices. The World Food Programme says it needs $125m (£103m) just to avoid further ration cuts in a community where malnutrition is already rife. The US has pledged $26m (£21m), but overall the response has been lacklustre. The UK’s promise of a £5m package does not come close to compensating for the cuts it imposed when it slashed the aid budget in 2021. What the Rohingya ultimately need is citizenship in Myanmar to safely return when they wish to, but failing that, resettlement would allow them to establish new lives and flourish instead of dwelling in perpetual insecurity. They need not only food now, but a future.
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