Explained: The Rohingya refugee crisis


Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee from their homes in Myanmar.

But who are the Rohingya? What is happening to them? Is it genocide and what can be done about it?

We answer all of your questions below. Use the menu at the top to navigate to the different sections.

:: The Rohingya

Amnesty International describes the Rohingya as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”.

More than one million people from the mainly-Muslim minority group lived in Myanmar at the start of 2017, with the majority in Rakhine State.

He began raping me. I started to scream but then another solider came and pointed a gun at me.

Rohingya refugee

The government of Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, claims the Rohingya people are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship, leaving them stateless.

The Rohingya – who have their own language and culture – say they are descendants of Muslim traders who have lived in the region for generations.

The systematic discrimination against the Rohingya people has left them living in deplorable conditions and segregated, with limited access to schools, healthcare and jobs, according to Amnesty.

Tensions between the minority group and the mainly Buddhist Rakhine population erupted into rioting in 2012, driving tens of thousands from their homes and into displacement camps.

:: What’s happening?

The UN has described the latest mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” and “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

A wave of refugees began fleeing the country in late August after Myanmar’s response to an attack by Rohingya militants on more than 20 police posts that the government said left 12 members of the security forces dead.

Amnesty International said security forces then went on to carry out a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning”.

There were reports of sexual violence against Rohingya women and entire villages being burned to the ground.

More than 600,000 people have fled the violence, bringing the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to around 900,000.

The Myanmar government said at least 400 people have been killed, describing most of them as “terrorists”.

But UN estimates in September put the death toll at least 1,000.

:: Refugees’ stories

Many Rohingya have died making the journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Some have been attacked. Others have stepped on landmines. Hundreds have drowned.

My youngest boy was swallowing water. We got separated. After a while, his dead body floated up in front of me.

Rohingya refugee

Those that survive have given harrowing accounts of death and violence, including hundreds of cases of rape, which is sometimes used as a military strategy.

Tap or click the images below to see individual stories.

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:: Is it genocide?

Analysis by Sam Kiley, Foreign Affairs Editor

The Rohingya situation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, according to the United Nations’ human rights chief.

But it’s not yet officially genocide. One can only wonder why not given the definition of the crime in Article II of the Genocide Convention.

It states that “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Myanmar’s government seems to have met at least A-C of the above criteria. Read more of Sam Kiley’s analysis.

:: About Myanmar

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was long considered a pariah state while under the oppressive rule of a military junta before it was dissolved.

The UN reported systematic human rights violations during the dictatorship of the former British colony following a coup in 1962.

The installation of a nominally civilian government in 2011 and the freeing of then-opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest had improved the country’s human rights record.

But there has been continuing criticism of its treatment of ethnic minorities.

Amnesty International said the Rohingya have faced increased violence, discrimination and religious intolerance.

Fighting between the army and ethnic armed groups has escalated in northern Myanmar and the country’s government reportedly increased restrictions on humanitarian agencies to displaced communities.

Scores of prisoners of conscience were released but restrictions on freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly have remained, Amnesty said.

:: Aung San Suu Kyi

She was described as “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades” when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

But Myanmar’s de facto leader has faced international criticism for failing to directly condemn violence by the country’s security forces.

This month she visited the Rakhine State capital Sittwe – the first time she had travelled to areas of Myanmar hit by ethnic violence since the Rohingya began fleeing the country.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told Sky News: “Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese government need to make it very clear that the military action should stop.”

Ms Suu Kyi, 72, was awarded the peace prize as a champion of Myanmar’s democratic opposition during years of military rule and house arrest.

:: Who’s helping?

The UK government has pledged £47m since the end of August to help provide emergency supplies for those fleeing violence in Myanmar.

More than £5m was also donated by the British public to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

Paolo Lubrano of Oxfam has warned the crisis is “becoming way beyond our capacity” with the risk of widespread disease including cholera and tuberculosis in the expanding refugee camps.



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