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Understanding the Rohingya refugee crisis

Written by Caitlin Wake


Close to 125,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in the past two weeks and thousands more remain trapped in a situation the UN Secretary General warns could ‘destabilise the region’. This follows an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25, 2017 in which Myanmar troops were killed, prompting a violent counter response.

The situation has strained diplomatic ties, which are only set to deteriorate following reports denied by Myanmar officials that landmines are being laid to prevent Rohingya refugees from returning to Myanmar.

With diplomatic pressure mounting and high-profile figures weighing in – from the Pope and Malala, to Boris Johnson and Turkish President Erdoğan – attention must not shift from the needs of the victims of this conflict; the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar or have fled to neighbouring countries. Here are four things that put the situation in context.

1. The historical roots – and escalation – of the crisis are important

The situation in Rakhine state, Myanmar was dire for the persecuted Rohingya minority long before the most recent escalation of violence. When the Rohingya periodically make international headlines – like when thousands of ‘boat people’ were stranded at sea – the situation is often characterised as communal or sectarian violence.

Yet the deep and long-standing roots of the crisis revolve around a broader array of historical, political, social and economic issues. In 1982, the Government of Myanmar passed a law on citizenship that excluded the Rohingya from the list of recognised national ethnic groups. Besides rendering the Rohingya effectively stateless, the law provided a basis for discrimination against them.

The use of mass violence and discriminatory policies by the state has seen the situation worsen in recent years, with allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and access to essential services have further compounded the problem, creating the conditions for the current crisis and the radicalisation of disenfranchised Rohingya.

2. Neighbouring countries are turning a blind eye

Decades of persecution have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek asylum in neighbouring countries including Bangladesh and Malaysia. These countries have a chequered history of turning a blind eye to Rohingya asylum seekers entering and remaining in their countries, and in rarer cases refusing entry.

Bangladesh and Malaysia have been uneasy and restrictive hosts – their reluctance stemming from a range of historical and contemporary issues. The support they express publicly for the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar is far more generous than the reception they provide to those seeking refuge on their soil.

Research conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group explores how the response of the Malaysian state to refugees has contributed to the protracted displacement of many Rohingya. Stateless, living largely without humanitarian assistance and, for unregistered asylum-seekers, without documentation (and associated protection) from the UN, refugees are struggling to receive protection or meet their needs.

State policies in Malaysia and Bangladesh towards refugees have created a situation in which aid agencies are limited in the assistance they can offer those on the move. While support from the international community will be crucial given the scale of displacement, neighbouring countries need to provide greater protection to the new refugees, as well as the hundreds of thousands already living in protracted displacement.

3. The international community needs to hold Myanmar to account

Myanmar is undermining an effective humanitarian response to the crisis. It has an obligation under international humanitarian law to provide affected populations access to humanitarian assistance but it has restricted the access of humanitarian aid, journalists, human rights observers, and the UN. Restricting access is costing lives and leaving affected communities without lifesaving food, water and medicines.

Much international criticism has been directed at luminary Aung San Suu Kyi. Some suggest this criticism is misdirected given severe political and structural constraints. Nevertheless, she occupies a position of power and moral leadership, and has missed many opportunities to address the persecution of the Rohingya.

The development trajectory of Myanmar relies significantly on aid and trade from international stakeholders, whose pressure and influence is now needed to advocate for humanitarian access to the Rohingya. Support from Aung San Suu Kyi would add legitimacy to the calls for a humanitarian response and a resolution to the crisis.

4. What happens next depends on who shows leadership

Although there are no ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the crisis, there is an immediate need for neighbouring countries to allow asylum seekers entry, protection and access to humanitarian aid. In Myanmar, state officials must seek an end to the conflict and allow unfettered access to humanitarian actors and human rights observers.

In the medium and long term, the Government of Myanmar will need to work on establishing pathways to citizenship for the stateless Rohingya, ensuring there is no impunity for perpetrators of violence, and that all victims have access to justice . The absence of this will undermine prospects of reconciliation.

There is also a pressing need to address the structural poverty issues that underpin conflict in Rakhine State, including the development of essential services and infrastructure, and the use of natural resources and land. After decades of missed opportunities, Myanmar is at another crossroads. The country itself and the wider international community need to demonstrate leadership to resolve the immediate and long-term situation of the Rohingya.