Editor’s Note: Amanda Catanzano is the International Rescue Committee’s senior director for international programs policy and advocacy, and Nazanin Ash is the vice president of public policy and advocacy. The opinions in this article belong to the authors.
Since August 25, Myanmar’s military has waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya Muslims living in the country’s impoverished Rakhine state.
The intensity of these military operations has catalyzed one of the most rapid and massive human flows seen since Rwanda, with more than 600,000 Rohingya men, women and children fleeing to Bangladesh in just over two months. The international community anticipates the number to reach, and top, 1 million in coming weeks.
These refugees are arriving in Bangladesh in a desperate condition. At the time of publication, 40,000 children require life-saving treatment for malnutrition, according to International Rescue Committee research. Reports of indiscriminate bombings, targeted killings and sexual violence all but guarantee this need will grow.
After fleeing for their lives, these refugees continue the struggle for survival in Bangladesh. According to an International Rescue Committee assessment, nearly three-quarters suffer from a lack of food and 95% drink contaminated water – a recipe for a public health disaster, particularly in a country where overstretched clinics saw a tripling of patients over the past month.
The international community has failed the Rohingya people in this crisis, the latest miscarriage of justice in a troubled history marred by a lack of accountability and shifting responsibility for the safety and basic rights of a persecuted population.
Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the latest to visit Myanmar officials, on the heels of the ASEAN summit attended by President Donald Trump and Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader. The Rohingya crisis represents a critical test of US global leadership.
While Tillerson’s messages – including stronger condemnation of abuses and the need for a credible investigation – were an improvement on the deafening silence from the White House, the crisis will see no resolution – much less a comprehensive or lasting peace – until the international community addresses three critical factors:
To reverse this course, first the United States must spearhead an international effort to ensure accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
There has been no accountability for the persecution and violence that the Rohingya people have faced for generations. In a rush to normalize relations and declare the success of one of Asia’s newest democracies, the United States ignored accountability for Myanmar’s treatment of minorities, particularly the Rohingya.
Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar took important but incomplete steps to address the climate of impunity – which has emboldened the country’s military.
Tillerson was right to call for an investigation into human rights abuses, but he should define a criteria for evaluating the credibility and independence of such an investigation and propose an impartial body to lead it.
He also should have focused on negotiating full and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to reach thousands in continuing need in Rakhine state as well as access for independent investigators to monitor the crisis. He should have made clear that unless the Myanmar government meets those minimum demands, it could soon see robust, targeted, multilateral sanctions against the military and civilian leaders – with a clear timetable for implementation.
Moreover, Tillerson did not address the everyday indignities and suffering of the Rohingya in Rakhine that predate the latest violence and, as such, would do little to reverse the disenfranchisement the Rohingya people have experienced for decades – already highlighted by Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
The Rohingya, often referred to as the world’s most persecuted population, have endured decades of marginalization inside Myanmar – including the government’s refusal to recognize them as an ethnic group and their denial of citizenship, making them the world’s largest stateless group as well.
Much of the Rohingya population has been forced to endure an apartheid-like existence in government-controlled camps since large-scale violence erupted in 2012, and they face restrictions on basic aspects of their lives, including marriage and movement.
This is a recipe for deprivation: An International Rescue Committee assessment from late 2016, for example, revealed that Rohingya are up to 10 times more likely to contract deadly, but preventable, diseases due to the poor conditions of the camps.
Second, Bangladesh has hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees for years while also facing its own humanitarian and development challenges. The international community has largely remained silent on how these refugees should be treated while offering minimal support to Bangladesh, an all-too-common situation for poor refugee-hosting countries worldwide.
Given that refugees remain displaced for a decade on average, Bangladesh’s response necessitates long-term and substantial support from the international community. Last month, international donors in Switzerland pledged $344 million to this crisis, but such promises must quickly translate into concrete commitments. The World Bank’s recent indication of multiyear financing to address immediate and long-term needs is another promising development, but one that cannot become a blank check.
These investments should target critical policy change in Bangladesh, including expanding access for international nongovermental organizations in Cox’s Bazar to meet immediate needs, registering Rohingya people as refugees and allowing them to work and attend school.
Third, while poor nations continue to bear the overwhelming brunt of the world’s refugee caseload, wealthy nations are simultaneously stepping back from their commitments to resettle the most vulnerable refugees. Although Tillerson notably announced an additional $47 million while visiting Myanmar this week, the crisis requires both greater aid and a more comprehensive response.
There is no substitute for the powerful symbolic and life-changing nature of refugee resettlement. Over the last decade, the United States has welcomed more than 19,000 Rohingya refugees, including more than 3,000 last year.
But President Donald Trump’s drastic reduction of refugee admissions means only 1,000 Rohingya are expected to make their way to safety in the United States this year. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already voiced her skepticism of US commitments to help the Rohingya, noting that Trump “has made clear how he feels about refugees.”
Increasing resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable Rohingya not only saves lives, it will go a long way toward building trust in America’s commitment to support the countries most affected by the latest crisis.
The Rohingya people have suffered for far too long, both from the cruelty of Myanmar’s government and the silent complicity of global actors.
Now, the international community has an opportunity to right this wrong, not only by responding to the urgent humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees but also by addressing the root causes of their brutal repression. Doing so will not only save and change the lives of 1 million Rohingya but may be the only opportunity to make real the promise of a prosperous, inclusive democracy in Myanmar.
Tillerson’s visit was a welcome sign of renewed US focus on this longstanding crisis, but it must serve as only the first step in a long road to peace.