I was part of a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its Human Rights Commission that visited the Kutupalong and Balukhali refugee camps outside Cox’s Bazar town in southern Bangladesh last week on a fact-finding mission on human rights violations committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and the humanitarian needs in the refugee camps. No amount of reading about the tragedy and seeing images of the camp can prepare you for the overwhelming sight of the vast slums that expanded spontaneously to four times their original size within four months, or for the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. No wonder it is now known as the fastest growing refugee emergency in the world.
Rows and rows of shacks, huts and tents made of bamboo and plastic sheets or gunny sacks cover the slopes of muddy hills near the border with Myanmar. This is where more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have escaped to since August 2017 from the hell that raged in Rakhine State where they lived in Myanmar, added to the 300,000 who came after similar waves of violence in the past. This means that more Rohingya now live in Bangladesh than in their homeland.
They showed us the bullet scars on their frail bodies, the burns and the injuries. No one was spared — men, women, old and young, and children, even infants, were shot at and thrown into the fires by the Burmese army and Buddhist mobs. When asked why they were attacked, they said it was because they registered themselves in their ID documents as Rohingya, which the Myanmar government refuses to recognize, instead of Bengali, which is what it insists on calling them.
The tears that flowed down their agonized faces, and the cries from the torture they suffered, and the loved ones they lost, spoke volumes. Listening to the women in particular was heart wrenching. Many saw their fathers, husbands and children killed in front of their eyes, and they were viciously tortured and raped. More than half the refugees in the camp are female. About 70,000 pregnant women sought refuge in the camps, and more than 36,000 orphaned girls and boys of all ages. Almost 55 percent of the population are children under the age of 17.
A fact-finding mission to a refugee camp in Bangladesh exposes the full horror of these people’s plight, and the international imperative to end the racism, oppression and discrimination that forced them to flee there.
The locals were the first to take them in and provide them with whatever little they have in the way of shelter, food and medicine before the international organizations and NGOs came in and provided health clinics and basic education. Nevertheless, there are worries that funds and aid will start to dwindle eventually. There is not enough as it is.
There is nothing here of life’s basic needs — clean water, sanitation, enough food and clothing. Recently there were outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. But the Rohingya would rather live here than go back home because they know they will be killed. They were discriminated against in Rakhine because of their race and religion, denied their basic rights, including citizenship, and it was made clear to them they were not wanted. At least here in the camps they are somewhat safe, even if they are homeless, cold and hungry.
Based on the testimonies recorded from a wide range of Rohingya victims, the OIC Human Rights Commission believes the situation bears the hallmark of an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing, which is a crime against humanity under international law and must be stopped by all means.
Myanmar signed an agreement last November with Bangladesh for the repatriation of the Rohingya. The agreement is supposed to be implemented this month. The Bangladeshi government would like to ensure a sustainable and voluntary return of the Rohingya to live in safety, security and dignity, but there has to be monitoring and guarantees. It is also not clear who would be accepted back or where they would be allowed to live, since their villages were razed. The international community should continue to pressure Myanmar to end the violence against the Rohingya and all discriminatory policies and practices, ensure free and unfettered access to humanitarian aid agencies, and more importantly address the root causes of racism, oppression and discrimination, including the issue of citizenship, which was revoked for them in 1982.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer.