Asia Pacific / Social Issues

Conditions worsening for 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar ahead of monsoon rains

Reuters, AP

Conditions in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh have deteriorated for nearly 700,000 Rohingya as aid workers race to strengthen shelters ahead of monsoon season, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Steve McAndrew, head of its emergency operations in the coastal area, said its clinics were scaling up to combat possible outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases feared with the rains that could arrive this month.

Desperation has grown among the Muslim Rohingya, who fled a military crackdown last August in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and many see scant chance of returning, he said in an interview Monday.

“It’s hot, it’s hard to find water and food, and the conditions are getting worse. And they are going to continue to get worse as the rainy season comes and then we have a monsoon season and cyclone season,” McAndrew said at his group’s headquarters in Geneva.

“The situation is getting worse, and it’s open-ended and there is no end in sight,” he said.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said last week conditions in Myanmar were not ready for a safe return of the Rohingya.

Rohingya are fleeing a “horrendous” situation, McAndrew said, while declining to apportion blame.

“People are losing their families, their villages are being destroyed. A lot of the people are saying they don’t even want to know what’s going on back home anymore. They seem to have just decided they will not go home.”

His agency is reinforcing the flimsy bamboo and plastic structures in which the Rohingya live in Cox’s Bazar so they can withstand the rains, and a new site is being prepared for those most at risk, McAndrew said.

“We believe we can move around 25,000 families about the first of May. … We have satellite maps of the potential flood zones and the gullies where we know they are going to get flooded out.

“We’re drilling wells, we’re putting in latrines, we’re working with the U.N. and other agencies preparing this site around the clock,” he said.

McAndrew, who headed the Federation’s operation in Haiti when cholera erupted there in late 2010, said of Cox’s Bazar: “We’re highly concerned about outbreaks in the upcoming rainy season, especially cholera and other water-borne diseases.”

The agency was pre-positioning medical supplies and preparing its clinics to treat cholera, which thrives in unsanitary conditions.

The Federation’s appeal of 33.5 million Swiss francs ($34.92 million) is only 55 percent funded, McAndrew said. “It’s just not enough in front of the scale of the needs.”

Also Monday, a lawyer from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority who focuses on the trauma, mass rape and trafficking of its girls and women urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the Southeast Asian nation to the International Criminal Court for “horrific crimes” against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups.

Razia Sultana, who has been working with Rohingya girls and women in refugee camps since 2014, told the council: “Where I come from, women and girls have been gang raped, tortured and killed by the Myanmar army for no other reason than for being Rohingya.”

Sultana was the first Rohingya woman to address the U.N.’s most powerful body on the plight of her people, who aren’t recognized as an ethnic group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Its government insists the Rohingya are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country and has denied them citizenship, leaving them stateless without basic rights including freedom of movement.

Sultana told a Security Council meeting on sexual violence in conflict that her own research and interviews provide evidence that Myanmar government troops “raped well over 300 women and girls in 17 villages in Rakhine state.” She added that with over 350 villages attacked and burned since August, “this number is likely only a fraction of the actual total number of women raped.”

“Girls as young as six were gang raped,” she said. “Women and girls were caught and gang raped in their homes, as they were running away or trying to cross the Bangladesh border. Some were horribly mutilated and burned alive.”

Sultana said the sexual violence involved “hundreds of soldiers and occurred across a vast part of Rakhine state.” She called that “strong evidence that rape was systematically planned and used as a weapon against my people.”

The pattern of mutilation after rapes not only terrorized the Rohingya people, she said, but indicated “a specific directive … to destroy their very means of reproduction.”

The Security Council is scheduled to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh later this month and Sultana told members they must meet with women and girls in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and work with Bangladesh authorities to stop the increased incidents of Rohingya girls as young as 12 being trafficked.

“Young women and girls are either being kidnapped, or promised jobs or marriage offers and then disappear,” she said. “Many see no future and are desperate to escape to a better life. They are easily trapped by false promises and then never seen again.”

Sultana, who coordinates the Free Rohingya Coalition and founded the group Rohingya Women Welfare, noted that Myanmar’s armed forces were put on a U.N. blacklist of government and rebel groups “credibly suspected” of carrying out rapes and other acts of sexual violence in conflict for the first time this year.

“In light of this and the ongoing impunity of the army, the Security Council must refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court without delay, for its horrific crimes against Rohingya, as well as for violations against other ethnic groups in the country, including in Shan, Karin, Kachin and other states,” she said.

Sultana also urged international pressure to end impunity, support political and legal reform, and stop the oppression of all ethnic peoples in Myanmar.

She said that “it is hypocritical to condemn the human rights violations and express horror at the new violence, while then also selling arms to Myanmar and seek explorative licenses to mine its natural resources.”

Pramila Patten, the U.N. special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ new report “shows that sexual violence continued to be employed as a tactic of war, a tactic of terrorism, and a tool of political repression in 2017” not only in Myanmar but many other countries.

She told the council that accountability is urgently needed to stop wartime rape “from being once again ‘normalized’ due to the frequency and impunity with which it is committed.”

Patten called on the international community to consider establishing a fund to pay reparations to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and to address the serious issue of alleviating the stigma surrounding survivors, “because stigma kills.”