No HOME, No HOPE For Rohingya

The Rohingya Muslim minority has fled repression in Myanmar for generations. In neighboring Bangladesh, refugee camps offer asylum, but life there remains bleak.

The United Nations considers the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Despite their roots, a 1982 law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. They are now considered illegal immigrants in Myanmar as well as in neighboring Bangladesh, the country to which as many as half a million have fled.

Five years ago, clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities left hundreds dead, mostly Rohingya. With their mosques and villages torched, 120,000 Rohingya were forced into makeshift camps inside Myanmar (also known as Burma). This time the assault was unleashed by the Burmese military, the feared Tatmadaw, which ruled over Myanmar for five decades before overseeing a transition that led last year to a quasi-civilian government.

What began ostensibly as a hunt for the culprits behind the border post attacks turned into a four-month assault on the Rohingya population as a whole.

The full extent of what happened in northern Rakhine state is not yet known because the government has not allowed independent investigators, journalists, or aid groups unfettered access to the affected areas.

The Rohingya are caught between two countries—and welcome in neither. More than 500,000 Rohingya now live in Bangladesh. Only 32,000 are officially registered, however, and no new Rohingya refugees have been registered since 1992—an apparent attempt to dissuade more Rohingya from seeking refuge in Bangladesh. That strategy hasn’t worked, but it means that there are close to half a million undocumented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh with no right or access to employment, education, or basic health care.

Bangladesh, already poor and overpopulated, shows no enthusiasm for hosting the Rohingya. Conditions in the camps are miserable, but the government has declined many offers of humanitarian aid. Many Rohingya, however, are too traumatized to go back to Rakhine, an area historically known as Arakan. One rape victim I spoke to recalled the chilling words of her army attacker: “He kept saying, ‘This kind of torture will continue until you leave the country.’”