In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign. Raging on since August 2017, the military-led offensive has caused the displacement of almost a million people, the destruction of at least 392 Rohingya villages and the internment of some 125,000 Rohingya in detention camps. While international authorities have placed pressure on the government to stop its atrocities, a recent update from the U.N.’s special rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, makes it clear that the situation is still dire. The U.S.’ response to the Rohingya crisis has been considerable, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done to ensure the safety of this vulnerable population.
A Coordinated Response in Bangladesh
Many Rohingya (745,000) have fled to the neighboring country of Bangladesh since the violence began. The Bangladesh government has cooperated with international bodies to ensure the reception and integration of these many refugees, but several challenges remain. For one, about 84 percent of the refugee population resides in a camp in the city of Cox’s Bazar; its location on the Bay of Bengal renders the area subject to monsoons and cyclones, which, combined with congested living conditions, increase the likelihood of death and disease. Additionally, many displaced women face sexual violence in both Myanmar and the refugee sites, and 12 percent of refugees experience acute malnutrition, creating an urgent need for adequate medical services.
In response to the Rohingya crisis, the United States has provided $450 million in aid to host communities in Bangladesh. The United States recently earmarked $105 million for the U.N.’s 2019 Joint Response Plan (JRP). This aid is important, as the JRP works to:
- Register and document all refugees, so as to provide them with the legal standing to engage in economic activity and receive further state services in Bangladesh.
- Improve disaster preparedness among refugee holding sites, which also entails creating an improved population density distribution.
- Create crucial health programs, such as food vouchers and mental health services. These programs have been particularly successful—the level of acute malnutrition, while still high, is seven points lower than it was in 2018 and women’s access to reproductive health services is on the rise.
Further Steps Needed
In contributing to the U.N.’s JRP, the United States mitigates the negative effects of the Rohingya crisis. However, the political conditions in Myanmar that caused so many to flee remain, largely because the government continues to carry out atrocities against the Rohingya people. The leader of the country’s military, General Min Aung Hlaing, has directly authorized the ethnic cleansing campaigns. According to Refugees International, this has essentially allowed Myanmar soldiers to impose a reign of terror on Rohingya villages. The group has documented “consistent accounts of Myanmar soldiers surrounding villages, burning homes to the ground, stabbing, shooting, and raping the inhabitants, leaving the survivors to flee for their lives.”
Myanmar continues to block humanitarian relief organizations from entering the country, which is a roadblock preventing a thorough response to the Rohingya crisis. Moreover, the government continues to deny the existence of military campaigns, which allows perpetrators to avoid punishment.
The U.S. has worked to place pressure on the Myanmar government so as to create accountability checks and dissuade other leaders from taking similar adverse actions against the Rohingya. For example, on July 16, 2019, the Trump administration placed sanctions on a number of military officials, including General Min Aung Hlaing. Countries and organizations can do more to halt the violence, though. Both the special rapporteur and Refugees International have called upon the U.S. and other members of the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or to set up an independent tribunal, which could try those responsible for the Rohingya crisis. While the ICC prosecutor has already taken preliminary investigative steps, a U.N. Security Council referral or tribunal establishment would put even greater political pressure on Myanmar.
While the Rohingya crisis was years in the making, its impact has been especially acute in the past two years. The U.S.’ response to the Rohingya crisis has included successful collaboration with the U.N., and raised hopes of bringing the perpetrators to justice. In so doing, it will save countless lives and move the Rohingya community in Myanmar one step closer to protection.
– James Delegal
Photo: Wikimedia Commons