Andrej Mahecic of UNHCR on the unfolding Rohingya refugee crisis and India’s role
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | September 29, 2017 | Geneva
The Rohingya crisis has jolted the world at a time when people have become somewhat immune to violent images of destroyed cities and persecuted refugees fleeing Syria, Nigeria and Yemen. Apart from heart-rending images floating around on news sites, like that of the moment when a mother discovers her days-old baby has died just after making it across the Naf river to Bangladesh, the reasons for such disbelief are two-fold: that Nobel peace laureate and Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was considered an apostle for human rights, could justify such actions, presumably, to cling on to power, and that a state could unleash such violence against its own people to the extent that it prompted the UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein to call the crackdowns a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. US-based human rights group Amnesty International has said that Suu Kyi and the military government are “burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State”.
The current cycle of violence was triggered on August 25 by coordinated attacks on some 30 border posts and an army base by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which is considered a terrorist organisation by Myanmar’s government. The military swooped down after the attacks by ARSA on the hapless, disenfranchised civilians. Satellite images have emerged that show scores of burnt-down villages while women have been raped, men butchered and infants smashed to death in front of their parents. There are reports that much of the ARSA is being funded and trained by expatriate Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and that they are associated with other violent groups like the Taliban and some armed outfits in Bangladesh.
Complicating the matter, the army has claimed that they have discovered mass graves of about 28 Hindu villagers suspected to have been killed by Muslim insurgents, though ARSA has denied the reports. The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar has said that more than 400 people have been killed. The government has said that these were all terrorists. Hindus and civilians from the Rohingya community – considered to be one of the most discriminated peoples in the world on communal/ethnic lines – have been caught in the crossfire. Bangladesh has been forthcoming with its intent to aid the fleeing people though its own purse strings are stretched to their limit as it is a least developed country.
The Indian government has said that it has about 14,000 Rohingya refugees in the country, though aid agencies peg the number at about 40,000. India has also said that it intends to deport the refugees, arguing in the supreme court that these people have links with the Islamic State and Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI. Human Rights Watch has urged India to follow the international principle of non-refoulement that prohibits sending back refugees to a place where their lives are in danger.
Governance Now spoke to Andrej Mahecic, senior external relations officer at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on the unfolding crisis.
What is the situation in the refugee camps in Bangladesh?
To date an estimated 4,29,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh. The two refugee camps in south-eastern Bangladesh (Kutupalong and Nyapara) currently shelter more than 70,000 refugees. Both sites are beyond saturation point.
Refugees continue to arrive daily. However, outside of the two established camps – already substantially overflowing – many people have received little meaningful help to date.
Priority in distribution is given to shelter materials and basic aid items as thousands of new arrivals are struggling to find even rudimentary protection from the elements. Many Rohingya refugee families are sleeping rough on roadsides and riverbanks. We are also witnessing remarkable generosity of Bangladeshi communities in Teknaf and elsewhere who have been welcoming refugees into their homes and sharing resources with them.
At the request of Bangladeshi authorities, we are speeding up the distribution of plastic sheeting to get as many people as possible under at least minimal of protection from monsoon rains and winds. UNHCR site planners are on the scene to try to help organise a 2,000-acre site allocated to new arrivals by authorities. Known as the Kutupalong extension, the new site is next to Kutupalong camp, which houses Rohingya refugees who arrived over several decades. It is managed by the government and supported by UNHCR.
On Saturday [September 23] we plan to begin distribution of kitchen sets, sleeping mats, solar lamps and other essential relief items to an initial 3,500 families who have been selected by community leaders. Refugee volunteers and contractors are helping newly arriving refugees moving into emergency shelter, but it is vital that our site planners have the opportunity to lay out the new Kutupalong extension in an orderly way to adequately provide for sanitation and to make sure structures are erected on higher ground not prone to flooding.
Is there any difference in the violence that you see after the August 25 crackdown and previous episodes of violence involving the Rohingyas?
UNHCR is gravely concerned about the latest escalation of violence in Myanmar.
UN field activities and aid delivery in Rakhine are temporarily suspended due to the prevailing security situation. The UN is in close contact with the authorities to ensure that humanitarian operations can resume as soon as possible.
What kinds of people are fleeing Rakhine state? Can you share some of their stories?
The majority are women and young children, with some elderly people among them. They arrive in poor condition. Most have walked for days to seek safety in Bangladesh. They are exhausted, traumatised, hungry and thirsty. Some say they have not eaten since fleeing their villages and have been surviving on rain or ground water. Some came empty-handed while others managed to salvage some items before fleeing.
Many refugees said their homes and villages were set on fire, forcing them to flee. Some reported that their family members were burnt, shot or slashed by knives. During their flight, many fled into the jungle or mountains, hiding and walking for days before reaching the land or river border.
The UN high commissioner for human rights has called the actions of the Myanmarese state a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Would you agree with the description given what you see?
Both the UN secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights in their respective roles have spoken about the violence in Rakhine state, formulating the UN’s position.
In its humanitarian and non-political role as the UN refugee agency, UNHCR has called for urgent action to address the root causes of the recent surge in violence, so that people are no longer compelled to flee and can eventually return home in safety and dignity.
State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has said that only “registered refugees” can return to Myanmar. How far is this prescription practical to implement? Who is going to guarantee the safety of the refugees if and when they return? Will UNHCR step in?
We do not know enough about this and what this would entail. A new repatriation process would require the Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities to further clarify the implementation modalities.
There have been multiple reports that the violent insurgency in Myanmar is being funded by Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. What are your reports from the ground?
You may want to direct this question to someone else. UNHCR has no expertise in such matters.
India has said that it won’t be violating any international law if it does deport the Rohingyas in India since it is not a signatory to the UN Refugees Convention 1951. Also, the government has argued that they are not refugees but illegal immigrants. What would be UNHCR’s take on the matter?
We’ve taken note of some media reports suggesting that the government plans to deport Rohingyas. UNHCR has not received any official communication from the government in this regard and there are no reported instances of deportations of UNHCR registered Rohingya refugees from India. UNHCR is in contact with the authorities to seek clarity on the government’s position in relation to these reports.
There are some 16,500 Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in India. Many of the Rohingya refugees have been in India since 2012 following the inter-communal violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar. UNHCR appreciates the protection afforded by India to this group and notes the country’s long, proud history of solidarity with people fleeing violence.
(The interview appears in the October 15, 2017 issue)
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