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One year on, 700,000 Rohingya still in Bangladesh

Members of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society collect trace message requests from Rohingya refugees who have missing relatives in Myanmar or other countries, at a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 3, 2018. Picture taken July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Saturday 25 August marks the first anniversary of the start of a Myanmar army crackdown on the Rohingya minority, which the UN has likened to "ethnic cleansing". Some 700,000 members of the Muslim minority have fled by foot or boat to Bangladesh, in an exodus unprecedented in speed and scale.

The offensive was sparked by raids by Rohingya guerrillas across Rakhine state but has affected thousands of people who are not involved in the armed groups.

There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel for the Rohingya, with  700,000 now living as refugees in Bangladesh.

“It is terrible,” says Said Hussain, who heads the Rohingya Organisation Norway in Oslo. “I myself I was in Bangladesh. I experienced the situation in the so-called 'refugee camps', at that time, it was in October, most of the people were still struggling for shelter.

The military were actually waiting for it to happen and they knew it was going to happen and used it as a pretext for a long-term plan to drive Rohingya people out.

Myanmar Rohingya crisis 24/08/2018 - by Jan van der Made Listen

“They left everything behind, their loved ones. They experienced many kinds of atrocities, including gang rape, witnessed killings, slaughter, but they escaped with their lives into Bangladesh."

They now live In a small area "like a concentration camp", he says. “But they are safe from [the] killing."

Activists say that Myanmar’s military operation appears to be the climax of a decades-long state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya:

“A year ago we saw the most horrific events unfolding, an unprecedented scale of military offensive," says Mark Farmaner, director of the London-based Burma Campaign.

“Although it happened immediately after a small armed Rohingya group had attacked a police station, the military were actually waiting for it to happen and they knew it was going to happen and used it as a pretext for a long-term plan to drive Rohingya people out of Burma.”

Strain on Bangladesh

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is itself a very poor country and has difficulties coping.

“It is very difficult for Bangladesh to cope with all these people,” says Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, an NGO that studies Rohingya.

“The camps are overcrowded [but] Bangladesh sees the refugee situation as a temporary issue, so they do not allow long-term programmes. And also there is no education programme for the children ... Bangladesh can be congratulated for having opened their doors, but at the same time it is important that Bangladesh also respects refugee rights,” she says.

UN to debate

Next week the UN will discuss the Rohingya crisis, and a report if an 18-month UN fact-finding mission will be published on Monday.

Many campaigners hope that the UN Security Council will refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to answer allegations of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. But this is unlikely to happen:

“Unfortunately, to date, the British government, which is the official lead on Burma at the UNSC, has taken effectively the same position as China: it will not support a referral of Burma to the ICC,” says Farmaner.

“Globally, human rights have fallen down the international agenda. The British government, which used to lead on human rights and specifically on Burma, is no longer a government that particularly prioritises human rights; the Trump administration isn’t one that prioritises human rights,” he says.

Many countries are simply not willing to take any action.

And veteran opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Su Kyi, whose party now rules the country, has been bitterly criticised for failing to speak out against the anti-Rohingya campaign.

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