When taken up, the rod of violence
breeds danger and fear.
Seeing people in strife,
I will tell you how I experienced terror.
Seeing people like fish in a pool with little water
competing with one another.
As I saw this, fear came.
The world was entirely without substance.
Every direction was in tumult.
Wanting a haven for myself,
I didn’t see any place unoccupied.

It’s easy to imagine the above lines written by a Rohingya refugee caught between the guns of Myanmar and the ramshackle camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They weren’t. They were spoken by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, around 2,500 years ago as he went out into the wider world and saw the terrible toll of human violence and inter-communal conflict (SN 4:15, Attadandasutta; author’s translation).

On March 1, Bangladesh announced that they will no longer be accepting refugees from Myanmar, presenting a new challenge to the homeless Muslim minority who have fled brutal government-sponsored violence in majority Buddhist Myanmar. The total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh now approaches 1.2 million people, with no clear solution to their plight in view.

“Victims must not be forced to wait in the purgatory of international inaction,” Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur to the United Nations on Human Rights in Myanmar, told the international body’s Human Rights Council on March 11. Lee was reporting on the severe challenges the Rohingya face in the refugee camps, where the traumatized and destitute community faces poverty, unemployment, lack of access to education, and predation from drug dealers and human traffickers.

Every direction was in tumult.

The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar stated, in late 2018, that high-level officials should be prosecuted on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for violence against the Rohingya, also citing the Burmese military’s “contempt for human life” and “for international law generally.” Referring to that report, Lee reiterated her position that it was time to hold them accountable at the International Criminal Court.

Last year the UN brokered an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh in which Myanmar agreed to create conditions conducive to the “voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees.” Many international observers, such as Refugees International, were highly alarmed by the idea. Since the agreement was signed, said Lee, the conditions for repatriation have not been met. As for the Rohingya themselves, most remain opposed to repatriation without greater guarantees of their rights and freedoms upon return.

Lee also said on March 11 that she had received a report earlier in the month that 24 Rohingya houses in the town of Buthidaung in Rakhine State, where most of the remaining Rohingya live, had recently been burnt down. Myanmar officials claimed, without evidence, that the owners—living in deprivation after decades of systemic discrimination in Myanmar—had torched the houses themselves.

Those are not the only signs that Myanmar remains hostile to the Rohingya’s rights in Rakhine State. Since the government forces conducted ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their home there, business interests with ties to the military have been quick to set up shop in the area. “Revenues from natural resource extraction needed for vital services and development being diverted to the military and its allies undermines the civilian government, democratic reforms, the peace process, sustainable development, and the realization of rights,” said Lee.

At the same meeting of the Human Rights Council where Lee spoke, testimony was heard from two Rohingya refugees, Hamida Khatun from Shanti Mohila and Muhub Ullah from the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. Khatun, a survivor of the genocide, told of the atrocities she had witnessed and said she had “three requests for the international community: first, justice including compensation; second, to return home in safety and security including citizenship; and third, access to education.”

Yet according to Yasmin Ullah (no relation) of the Free Rohingya Coalition, an international group of activists, foreign governments have shown little resolve to provide what the Rohingya seek—a “protected return to a protected homeland in Myanmar.” Ullah, herself a Rohingya, was smuggled out of Myanmar when she was three years old and now lives in Canada. “It does not appear that there is a will among the Western nations to forcibly return the Rohingya to some kind of internationally administered zone, which would be a just and effective solution,” Ullah told me. She also pointed to China’s role as a major regional player backing Myanmar.  

China, hard at work at establishing a China-Myanmar economic corridor, has been supporting what the government has claimed is a legitimate counter-insurgency. Both they and Russia have moved to block UN attempts to hold Myanmar accountable and to pressure Myanmar to safely repatriate the Rohingya. China is a power few want to antagonize. Even relatively mild conflicts with China have had increasingly serious consequences. (Canada’s recent move to extradite a Chinese business executive to face criminal charges in the US, for example, is widely seen as having resulted in acts of vengeance from the Chinese government, including the detention of two Canadian citizens and the execution of a third.)

Despite China and Russia’s provision of cover for Myanmar’s human rights abuses, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen recently called for their help in establishing “safe zones” in Myanmar for the Rohingya, predicated on the guarantee of Burmese citizenship upon their return. China dismissed any such hopes as “fake news.” The government of Myanmar, for its part, has invited the Rohingya to return to militarized “transit camps” surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Myanmar has made this offer in return for the Rohingya relinquishing their claims to equal rights by accepting ID cards that classify them as foreigners, not citizens, in the country where their ancestors have lived since before it was called Burma.

Outside of Bangladesh and Myanmar, many of the countries with the capacity to accept the Rohingya are not willing to receive large populations of Muslim migrants. India has recently been embroiled in controversies over an effort to revoke citizenship from millions of people in the predominantly Muslim province of Assam as well as an attempt to pass a bill that accepts only non-Muslim immigrants. China, meanwhile, is interning Muslim Uyghurs in massive “re-education” camps, which have been called the sites of the “largest mass incarceration since the Holocaust.” In Europe, the influx of Muslim refugees has already provoked a crisis of management in recent years, and the Trump administration’s open hostilility to both refugees and Muslims has resulted in a 91 percent decrease in Muslim refugees entering the US since the 2016 election.

Considering this international climate, the Rohingya are likely to be in Bangladesh for some time. Yet conditions in Bangladesh are also a mounting cause of concern.

I will tell you how I experienced terror.

“The more time they spend in the camps, the worse it’s going to get,” Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer and activist who received the International Women of Courage Award in early March from the US Department of State, recently stated in a conversation with Reuters.

“Yes, they are getting food. But that is not enough. It’s like a zoo where the people are just being fed and grown. There’s no education. There’s no future,” she said.

Maung Zarni, a Burmese Buddhist and longtime activist for human rights in the region, told me that Bangladesh should be lauded for their generosity in allowing the refugees into their country. Yet he has serious concerns about the direction the current government is taking.

“They are refusing to accept international proposals to substantially improve the infrastructure of Rohingya life in Cox’s Bazar,” he said. “In the past year, Turkey has offered to help build better living quarters for the refugees, and Canada has offered to help create educational pathways for Rohingya children, but both were turned down.” According to Zarni, Bangladesh appears to fear that making life more livable for the refugees would encourage more Rohingya to enter the country from Myanmar.

“This ignores the fact that they are not leaving Myanmar out of desire for what’s in Bangladesh,” said Zarni. “The majority of Rohingya have made it clear that they want to return to Myanmar. They are only in Bangladesh because they were driven out.”

The world was entirely without substance.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has proposed voluntarily relocating some 100,000 or more Rohingya to the tiny, uninhabited island of Bhashan Char in the Bay of Bengal, saying it will relieve pressure on the camps in Cox’s Bazar and provide opportunities for work. Yanghee Lee joined many human rights groups and Rohingya activists in voicing serious qualms about the plan, however, saying it could create a “new crisis.” After visiting it in January, Lee said, “There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable.”

Bhashan Char, which means “Floating Island,” is a spit of land made of accumulated silt. Locals from neighboring islands are skeptical of the relocation plan, telling Human Rights Watch and others that part of the island is eroded by monsoons every year, causing fatalities and cutting it off from the mainland, and that pirates have taken over the surrounding waters. Bangladeshi officials demur, saying the island has been secured and that the homes and cyclone shelters are better than what is available to many Bangladeshis.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that because Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country, “measures are being taken for their temporary shelter in Bhasan Char. They’ll stay there until they are repatriated.” Reuters also reported that Hasina, speaking at a press conference in the capital city of Dhaka, said the island could host as many as one million people in the future, hinting that her ambitions might go beyond resettling a portion of Rohingya there.

One of Hasina’s senior advisers told Reuters that, once on the island, the Rohingya would be able to leave only if they wanted to go back to Myanmar or were selected for asylum by a third country.

“It’s not a concentration camp, but there may be some restrictions. We are not giving them a Bangladeshi passport or ID card,” said  H. T. Imam, an adviser to Hasina, adding that the island would have an encampment of 40–50 armed police personnel.

Although some are tempted by the hope of improved conditions, most Rohingya are opposed to the move to Bhashan Char, which attracted widespread criticism from human rights workers and activists from the start. Human Rights Watch has compared the island to “a prison.” Zarni agreed, saying the motives of the Bangladeshi government are “beyond cynical . . . they are sinister.”

“Hasina is called ‘the mother of humanity’ on billboards you see driving in from the airport into Bangladesh,” he said. “If that is so, why has she allowed her government to abandon the Rohingya to these conditions? Why is she allowing the government to attempt to move them to an uninhabitable island?”

Most Rohingya are fearful of relocation to Bhashan Char. Ullah joined Zarni in expressing skepticism. “They’re going to be so detached from the rest of the community; there will be dangers that will grow unchecked. Policymakers sitting at the table forget there is actual human cost to these decisions.”

Wanting a haven for myself, I didn’t see any place unoccupied.

While a long-term solution to the Rohingya crisis remains out of sight, there is still much that can be done to improve their lives in Bangladesh. The international community can ease their plight by helping Bangladesh to care for them. There are already some Buddhist groups helping them, such as the Korea-based Join Together Society, which in January took part in delivering 100,000 gas stoves to the refugee camps. Others help by supporting aid groups and pressuring our governments to support humanitarian projects that build the kind of infrastructure the Rohingya need, like schools for their children. According to the UN, 60 babies are born every day to the Rohingya refugees in the camps. We should do everything we can to ensure they will find a haven, not a shrinking pool of water.

Aid organizations:

  • Yasmin Ullah recommended giving to People Empowering People, a grassroots, volunteer-run aid organization founded by a Rohingya.
  • BRAC, a group founded in Bangladesh, was ranked the No. 1 nongovernmental organization in the world by NGO Advisor. The group is focused on health, education and the protection of women and girls. As well as employing a significant amount of locals, BRAC has trained a number of Rohingya refugees as volunteers.
  • IOM, the United Nation’s migration agency, manages camps and shelters in Cox’s Bazar. They provide healthcare and sanitation and the group is scaling up programs to protect girls, women and others vulnerable to trafficking. IOM employs both local Bangladeshis and Rohingya refugees.
  • Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières) has worked in Bangladesh since 1985. Staff members are treating ailments including severe dehydration, diarrheal diseases, violence-related injuries, and cases of sexual violence. According to the group, they have provided one million medical consultations in the camps since 2017.
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