Rohingya refugees on Saturday marked the anniversary of a deadly military crackdown in their Myanmar homeland that drove 700,000 of the persecuted minority into Bangladesh, stateless and confronting a grim future.
Raids by Rohingya militants on August 25 last year across Myanmar’s Rakhine state spurred an army crackdown which the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”. Waves of Rohingya fled by foot or boat to Bangladesh in an exodus unprecedented in speed and scale.
Rohingya activists in Bangladesh’s refugee camps vowed to mark the “black day” with prayers, speeches and song. The latest influx has placed enormous pressure on Bangladesh’s impoverished Cox’s Bazar district, which quickly grew into the world’s largest refugee settlement. The squalid camps already hosted generations of Rohingya expelled from Rakhine and the latest arrivals pushed numbers close to one million.
Abdul Malek, a 27-year-old refugee who fled an attack on his village last year, said the plight of the Rohingya was far from over. “This one year is just the beginning of many more to follow,” he told AFP in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar says it is ready to take back those who fled. But it refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, falsely labelling them “Bengali” illegal immigrants. A deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh to start sending them back has stalled. Fewer than 200 have been repatriated so far.
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week said it was up to Bangladesh “to decide how quickly” repatriation can be done, while insisting the “terrorist threat” posed by Rohingya militants remains “real and present”.
The Rohingya say they will not return without a guarantee of their safety, citizenship and compensation for homes and land torched. “We don’t want to [go] back without justice and without our rights and a proper guarantee that we won’t be driven out again,” 18-year-old Aman Ullah told AFP in Cox’s Bazar.
The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship decades ago by Myanmar and have been hunted from the country in successive convulsions of violence. Access to healthcare and freedom of movement remains out of reach for the stateless people in Rakhine. And the Rohingya exodus from western Myanmar continues today, with refugees still trickling over the border throughout this year.
The UN and international rights groups say conditions are not ready for them to go back. “It may be decades until they can safely return to Myanmar, if ever,” Medecins Sans Frontieres head of mission in Bangladesh, Pavlo Kolovos, said in a statement.
Calls have mounted for Myanmar’s military to be held responsible for the campaign, with security forces accused of torture, rape and murder. The U.S. has sanctioned two army brigades and several commanders who oversaw the expulsion, in which thousands are estimated to have died. But Myanmar says it was simply defending itself and bristles at international calls for justice.
Humanitarian agencies spearheading the relief effort in Bangladesh say just one third of the roughly USD 1 bn needed for the refugees until March has been raised.