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An overview of the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Rohingya people

The concepts of nostalgia, reminiscence and sentimentality are all interwoven in the makeup of our personal identity, revealing just how close our sense of self can be tied to physical places and happy memories. But what happens when our physical sense of belonging is taken away from us again and again?

The Rohingya people are an ethnic group and Muslim minority in Myanmar, described by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority in the world”. The Rohingyas history in Myanmar is long, with historians estimating that the group have resided in the Rakhine state as early as the 12th Century. Previously known as Arakan, the Rakhine State is one of the country’s poorest areas, lacking access to basic education and health care. Descendants of Arab traders, it is estimated that there are around one million Rohingya people still living in Myanmar today.

Living in a majority-Buddhist country, the Rohingya people have faced years of agonising persecution. After Myanmar’s independence following World War II, a citizenship law came into effect in 1982, denying the Rohingya people citizenship after decades of exclusion.

By 2017, Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya people led to the largest and fastest refugee influx which neighbouring countries had ever seen, with the United Nations describing the military offence as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Violence ensued as the country attacked the population of almost one million people. Over 288 villages were burnt down, countless women and children were raped. An estimated 745, 000 Rohingya people have attempted to flee the torture and more continue to try till this day.

Whilst the Rohingya people have faced persecution for decades, the 2017 wide scale attacks on civilians was on a scale that had never been seen before. Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyl, a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, has repeatedly refused to label these events as genocide or even acknowledge the issue. Whilst this happened almost four years ago, it was only this year that Myanmar was ordered to take emergency measures to protect the Rohingya people from persecution, following an international court case lodged by Gambia on behalf of numerous Muslim-majority nations.

After decades of systematic persecution, the Rohingya people began to flee from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Whilst other surrounding countries also received small numbers of refugees, Bangladesh is home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya people, as of 2020. The journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh is dangerous and uncertain and has quickly become a monetary opportunity for smugglers and human traffickers. Fleeing by both land and sea, the trail is treacherous, long and sometimes never-ending.

After fleeing their home country and enduring relentless trauma, the Rohingya in Bangladesh continue to face hardship, still not having a safe or permanent place to call home. What awaits them is life in the district of Cox’s Bazar, home to the largest refugee camp in the world, the Kutupalong-Balu Khali Expansion Site. As of 2019, an estimated 909 000 Rohingya refugees live in 34 camps throughout the district, with the Kutupalong-Balu Khali Expansion Site a temporary home for over 626 0000 Rohingya refugees.

The standard of living is not an improvement for the Rohingya people living in these refugee camps. Whilst they are not in a country that are actively persecuting them, they are far from living in a welcoming home. The sites lack access to basic health standards with an estimated 60 percent of the water contaminated and the risk of disease outbreaks high. An estimated 400 000 Rohingya children are without education, barred from enrolling in schools outside the camp and the Bangladeshi and Myanmar school curriculums banned for them.

2020 has brought further threats upon the Rohingya people’s pursuit of freedom. The global pandemic and spread of COVID 19 has significantly impacted the lives of those in refugee camps as well as the individuals still attempting to flee. With crowded conditions within the refugee camps, COVID 19 poses an even more dire effect on an already vulnerable group of people. To stop the spread of the infectious disease into these refugee camps, Bangladesh has announced that no more Rohingya refugees will be accepted into the country. As a result, several boats containing hundreds of refugees have been intercepted and turned away. Still stranded at sea, one boat of nearly 400 people stated that over 100 people had already died before being intercepted. The concern is increasing for the refugees stranded at sea, with threats of deadly cyclones developing as the months go on.

As a further COVID 19 precaution, the Bangladeshi government has banned the entry of most aid workers into the camps, citing social distancing rules. With over 80 per cent of aid workers unable to enter the camps, the small improvements that had slowly been instigated have now come to an indefinite and hopeless stop.

To further prevent the spread of COVID 19 in Rohingya camps, Bangladesh has also initiated a new plan, which sees refugees sent to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the Bay of Bengal to quarantine. This off-shore method has been instigated despite the fact that Cox’s Bazar already has testing facilities which successfully quarantined 400 refugees this past April. At the moment 29 Rohingya refugees have been quarantined on the island, with no access to aid and no understanding of when they will be, or even if they will be transported back to refugee camps on the main island.

Bhasan Char poses a threat, not only to incoming refugees, but to thousands of Rohingya people already in Bangladesh. In recent days, Bangladesh authorities have proposed plans to relocate over 100 000 refugees to the tiny island to reduce pressure on the Kutupalong-Balu Khali Expansion site. This is despite the local’s concerns that the island erodes every year during monsoon season. With minimal infrastructure and doubt surrounding if the island is even habitable, Bangladesh authorities have given little assurance that the refugees will be safe there. Whilst they have assured the press that there will be no forced relocations, it is questioned who would willingly choose to move there.

The new proposals for the relocation of Rohingya refugees reiterated the fact that there is no end in sight for the Rohingya people. No solid answer has been agreed on in regards to long term plans for the community. For decades, these people have been systematically persecuted, and after fleeing their country have not received enough international support. In a time when so many of us take for granted the role home has played in our concepts of self-identity, the Rohingya people make us question what happens when you are not welcome in your own home.

This article was originally published in the 2020 issue, HOMECOMING.


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