Special Policy Contribution – Policy Researcher Amy Reidy

The stateless Rohingya ethnic minority has been described as some of ‘the world’s most persecuted people’. Recently their plight has been gaining international attention as thousands risk their lives to escape the systematic discrimination they face in Myanmar by fleeing to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Although this journey by sea is treacherous and Rohingya refugees suffer horrendous abuse at the hands of smugglers and human traffickers, the alternative of staying in Rakhine State is sadly just as ominous. 

After outbreaks of sectarian violence in 2012, 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and roughly 10,000 Rakhine Buddhists were driven from their homes and now reside in government-controlled camps near the state capital of Sittwe. These internally displaced people (IDPs) live in overcrowded, dilapidated shelters, and often do not have access to basic services including education, healthcare, clean water and sanitation. The Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camps without government permission- a regulation which authorities claim to be for their own safety and to prevent further inter-communal violence between the Muslim minority and the native Rakhine.

Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur Ms. Yanghee Lee visited some of these camps where she described the living conditions as “abysmal”, and she was told by Rohingya inhabitants that they felt their only options were to remain in the camp and die, or try to leave by boat. Yet most of these IDPs simply do not have the means to leave Myanmar in search of a better life elsewhere.

Due to their movement being severely limited and the high level of poverty in this isolated state, it is extremely difficult for displaced Rohingya to earn a livelihood; therefore they rely heavily on humanitarian agencies to provide them with food and basic living supplies. Residents of these camps also depend on NGOs for medical treatment and educational opportunities. Yet despite the crucial role these organizations play, their work is frequently restricted due to the political context of the state. For instance, in 2014 the Myanmar government suspended the activities of Doctors without Borders, the principle healthcare provider in Rakhine, following unfounded allegations that the organization was favoring Rohingya Muslims over Rakhine Buddhists.

Preventing vulnerable IDP communities from receiving these kinds of life-saving services is a denial of their fundamental human rights and the international community needs to take action to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Hence, STAND Canada is calling for pressure to be put on the Government of Myanmar to guarantee that humanitarian aid organizations have full access to all displacement camps in Rakhine. STAND is also recommending that the Canadian Government urges authorities in Myanmar to improve the deplorable conditions of existing displacement camps and to begin the process of resettling IDPs to permanent homes in the safer parts of the state.

The significance of these recommendations was highlighted this summer when Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Komen and major flooding caused serious damage throughout the country. The state of Rakhine was declared a ‘natural disaster zone’, and the effects of the storms were particularly detrimental to IDP camps as the flimsy temporary shelters could not withstand the harsh weather conditions. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes and humanitarian organizations had to work relentlessly to deliver emergency relief aid to the 21,000 displaced people in Rakhine affected by the flooding. Yet this disaster was not entirely unheralded and ahead of this year’s monsoon season, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (ONCHA) had urged the Myanmar government to relocate 10,000 IDPs living in camps situated in low-lying coastal areas that are highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. This request was rejected by the Chief Minister of the Rakhine State who declared that Rohingya IDPs would not be relocated until they comply with the citizenship verification process and self-identify as Bangladeshi, a condition which the majority of Rohingya strongly object to as it means renouncing their claim to their ethnicity.

These terms of resettlement are unacceptable. Regardless of ethnicity, religion or official citizenship status, no person deserves to endure the inhumane conditions which the displaced Rohingya are subjected to. After the utter devastation caused by the recent flooding, it is clear Myanmar needs to begin addressing the immediate and long-term needs of IDPs in Rakhine. However, this is not their burden alone to bear, and STAND believes it is crucial that Canada and other international actors support the Government of Myanmar to implement holistic solutions to this situation, while also holding the state accountable if they continue to neglect these extremely vulnerable communities.

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