Back From the Field: Burma & Bangladesh

WHEN: September 10-September 29
WHERE: Bangladesh (Dhaka and Cox's Bazar Districts); Burma (Yangon Region and Rakhine State)
RI TEAM: Sarnata Reynolds, Statelessness Program Manager; Melanie Teff, Senior Advocate & European Representative

In June of this year, what began as inter-communal violence between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Burma's Rakhine State evolved into large-scale, state-sponsored violence against the stateless Rohingya. On June 10, a state of emergency was declared, after which the Burmese military became involved in acts of violence and other human rights abuses against the Rohingya, including killings and the widespread arrests of male Rohingya. Ten humanitarian workers who were assisting IDPs were also detained. Since that time, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, including members of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.

Neighboring Bangladesh has closed its border to fleeing Rohingya and has ordered humanitarian groups not to assist new arrivals or the roughly 200,000 Rohingya who were already living in the country as unregistered refugees. Many are also worried that the roughly 70,000 Rohingya IDPs in Burma will not be allowed to return to their homes. Of particular concern is a situation of forced segregation and protracted displacement that is developing in the state capital, Sittwe, where Rohingya who lost their homes in the violence have been moved into camps. All Rohingya, displaced or otherwise, are subject to movement restrictions which prevent them from accessing their livelihoods.

Over the course of the mission, RI's team traveled to Bangladesh and met Rohingya refugees from northern Rakhine State, who reported being entirely cut off from humanitarian assistance since June. They also visited camps for displaced Rohingya and Rakhine inside Burma, where access has been heavily restricted in recent months.

The team's interviews with displaced families, civil society, and humanitarian organizations, uncovered a number of areas of concern, including the following:

  • The basic needs of many displaced Rohingya – such as water, health care, sanitary facilities, and education – have not been met. This is due in part to a severe lack of currently available humanitarian funding, as well as a reluctance among donor countries to fund operations in the Sittwe camps and thereby facilitate the segregation and marginalization of the Rohingya.
  • Another emergency exists in northern Rakhine State, where Burma's Ministry of Border Affairs is refusing to allow humanitarian access to areas that have relied on NGOs for decades. Refugees who fled these areas of northern Rakhine State reported appalling human rights abuses suffered by their communities, and described how the lack of assistance was causing health and nutrition levels to deteriorate, and even resulting in some deaths.
  • The border between Bangladesh and Burma remains closed in direct violation of international refugee law and the principal of non-refoulement. This decision must be reversed so vulnerable Rohingya can flee to safety. At the same time, Burma's central government must ensure that perpetrators of violence in the Rakhine and Rohingya communities are brought to justice, and provide security while the communities are reintegrated.
  • Rohingya families in Sittwe have been forcibly separated from the wider community. This policy may have been intended to forestall clashes, but it is perpetuating inter-ethnic mistrust and preventing Rohingya and Rakhine from rebuilding their homes and livelihoods. This segregation must be reversed quickly, and be replaced with a process of reconciliation and reintegration.
  • To prevent future violence and displacement, it is vital that any long-term plan for Rakhine State include a fair and transparent process for resolving issues of citizenship for the Rohingya, as well as economic development for all communities.