Cyclone Amphan highlights Rohingyas’ vulnerability
Cyclone Amphan — believed to be one of the strongest cyclones in living memory — raged over the Bay of Bengal last week, inflicting a huge amount of damage to human lives and settlements all along the coast of the bay.
One of the places least equipped to cope with the onslaught of the cyclone was Cox’s Bazar, where more than 1 million Rohingya refugees are huddling together in a very precarious situation, with poor infrastructure, cramped living conditions and, since the outbreak of the global coronavirus epidemic, increasing isolation from the rest of Bangladesh.
The extent of the damage the cyclone has wreaked on the camps is not yet fully understood. Nor is it fully understood if the cyclone will have undermined the efforts to maintain a cordon sanitaire around the camps to prevent the spread of the virus into this immensely vulnerable population. But international observers fear the worst on both counts.
Even after they escaped the clutches of the “clearing operations” waged against them in Myanmar by the military of that country, and even though they received a relatively warm welcome in Bangladesh, the Rohingya were always only one crisis away from disaster. Now they are faced with two at a time, while their Bangladeshi hosts are struggling to keep their own people safe and have virtually no resources to spare to protect the refugees.
Nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists have always known and have long warned that the Rohingya situation will only ever get worse if left unattended, and that only the international community has the resources to bring the lives of this community onto a sustainable path. The twin crises of the pandemic and the cyclone now demonstrate this and also call for an urgent response.
The unavoidable is upon us: If we care to prevent the utter destruction of these people after they barely survived the genocide against them by Myanmar, the UN must take full responsibility for the administration of the camps in Cox’s Bazar. And, through the UN’s channels, the international community needs to fund the building of proper infrastructure for long-term settlement in the area by such a large number of people; provide proper health care facilities to meet the needs raised by the pandemic for the next 12 to 18 months; and form a plan to set this new community on a path toward economic sustainability and integration with the economy of Bangladesh and the rest of the world’s trading system.
Even though they received a relatively warm welcome in Bangladesh, the Rohingya were always only one crisis away from disaster.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But even that will not be enough. Bangladesh itself will also need to be helped with the funding and knowhow to be able to adjust to having Cox’s Bazar as a permanent and normal part of its economic and political structure, so that the local people who have so graciously given shelter to the Rohingya do not end up as losers in this arrangement. We do not want to see a situation where the Rohingya are protected, but the locals do not themselves see any benefit and even lose out from helping the refugees in their hour of need.
To do so will mean accepting that the Rohingya are not likely to return to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. And that would be an admission of failure on behalf of the UN system, as it will have once again failed to prevent a genocide with the forced removal of the Rohingya from their ancestral lands in Myanmar. But all this is already a fait accompli. This would be nothing more than recognition of fact. And it is precisely that failure — to prevent that genocide from happening when we, in the international civil society, had been warning it was about to happen for the whole of the past decade — that now imposes upon the UN system the moral obligation to recognize the facts as they are in order to help the Rohingya at least avoid complete annihilation.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim