World Refugee Day 2021

On this World Refugee Day, nearly five months after the violent military coup in Myanmar, RFK Human Rights recognizes the increasingly dire situation and uncertain future that Rohingya refugees around the world face. The military junta’s violent crackdown on the civil disobedience movement has led to hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests, and has caused hundreds of thousands to flee. As concerns about the country devolving into a failed state grow louder, many Rohingya refugees face dwindling prospects of returning home. While unable to return, dire living conditions in camps outside of Myanmar have deteriorated due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decline in humanitarian aid, an increase in xenophobia, and waning goodwill from neighboring countries.

Since the Myanmar military—the same one now illegally ruling the country—committed genocide and other atrocity crimes in Rakhine State in 2017, Bangladesh has taken in more than 880,000 Rohingya refugees. However, the Bangladesh government has become increasingly hostile towards refugees and continues to commit serious human rights abuses against them. Bangladesh refuses to recognize the Rohingya as refugees, preventing them from accessing education, livelihoods, and the legal system, and continues to insist on near-term repatriation. Over the past two years, the Bangladesh government’s policies have emphasized securitization, including increased border patrols, the construction of dangerous fences in refugee camps, and crackdowns on refugees speaking out.

The risks are not unique to refugees living in Bangladesh. Refugees have also attempted to flee to India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. There, Rohingya refugees face forced returns, prosecutions for illegal entry, indefinite detention, government crackdowns, and dangerous living situations.

In Bangladesh, increased securitization and insistence on repatriation has been deadly for the Rohingya, with reports of at least 100 people being turned back into Myanmar at the border. The combination of fencing and lack of permanent shelters led to 84 fires in 2021 alone, including a particularly horrific fire on March 22 which killed several people and displaced nearly 50,000. A report by Refugees International found that refugees in camps in Bangladesh cite fires as the single greatest threat they currently face.

In addition to the fires, COVID-19 poses further risk to those in the camps, both the virus itself, as well as related measures. Citing the pandemic, in 2020 the Bangladesh government reduced the presence of humanitarian workers in the camps by about 80%, limiting important services such as infrastructure repair, psychosocial support, and gender-based violence prevention. These measures also prevented access to the already limited education opportunities in the camp and increased food insecurity.

In December 2020, the Bangladesh government started moving Rohingya refugees to an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal which is located in a cyclone path and prone to flooding. A recent Human Rights Watch report revealed that the government has been misleading the Rohingya refugee community about conditions on the island, raising serious questions and concerns about the voluntariness of their movement there. The island has frequently been referred to as a place of detention rather than refuge and those living there have no proper medical care or access to education. Those speaking out against the abuses or caught trying to escape back to the main camps have allegedly been tortured.

In both Bhasan Char and the main camps in Bangladesh, the government has committed serious human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol, the government is in violation of its obligations to the Rohingya and other noncitizens under customary international law and other international human rights instruments to which Bangladesh is a party. This includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires that the rights articulated in the Covenant apply to everyone regardless of their nationality or statelessness. Further, as a member of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO), Bangladesh should abide by the 1966 Bangkok Principles on the Status and Treatment of Refugees and recognize the Rohingya as refugees with full protection.

With the situation in Myanmar looking bleak, many Rohingya refugees appear to support protesters, but are still deeply concerned over the threats Rohingya continue to face in Myanmar. There are also growing fears of new large refugee flows in response to the escalating violence. Many Rohingya have expressed support for the National Unity Government (NUG), especially in light of their recent statement recognizing the Rohingya’s right to citizenship. While this is a welcome step, both the Rohingya and others in the international community have called for the NUG to go further in guaranteeing citizenship and protection for the Rohingya and to include other minorities, as well as ensuring accountability for past atrocities against the Rohingya.

With little hope for safe return due to the military junta, and a deteriorating situation in the camps in Bangladesh, the international community should open their doors to assist with the resettlement of Rohingya refugees and neighboring countries in the region should work to provide alternative pathways for refugees such as work or education visas. The failure of a unified international community to decisively hold accountable perpetrators of past serious human rights abuses including the genocide against the Rohingya left open the door for current attempts to destroy Myanmar’s fragile democratic gains. Now, global leaders must take coordination action against the junta in order to restore a civilian government and actively support accountability and justice for atrocity crimes. Ultimately, these steps are critical to move closer to enabling the Rohingya to safely and voluntarily return to Myanmar and enjoy their rights as full members of the polity.