More than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled military attacks in Myanmar remain in Bangladesh camps as future repatriation and resettlement plans remain unclear.
Across the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, close to a million Rohingya Muslim refugees remain in limbo — without a clear future.
Voluntary repatriation plans last month were postponed amid security concerns about ongoing abuses and a lack of international monitoring.
The Myanmar government has allowed tightly controlled trips for international media in recent months, but access to areas where alleged atrocities were carried out has been denied.
In Bangladesh, published footage of a resettlement compound on the remote Bhasan Char Island was also being viewed with concern.
“The UNHCR has not been let on the island to do a risk assessment of the flood conditions but many say the island is prone to flooding and dangerous that means that thousands of Rohingya refugees could potentially be on a flood prone island and that’s a very dangerous situation,” said John Quinley III, a human rights worker for Fortify Rights.
The concrete compound with barred windows awaits an estimated 100,000 refugees who will be transferred from Cox’s Bazar onto the remote silt island, built up by Chinese construction crews and the Bangladesh navy.
With the Bangladesh election set for December 30, any move to repatriate people or relocate refugees to the remote island will be postponed until 2019.
The long-term impact on the Rohingya population are yet to be felt, but analysts say the prolonged denial of education for the school-aged children will be damaging.
“Rohingya in Rakhine that Fortify Rights has spoken to say that the situation on the ground right now is an apartheid state. They have no freedom of movement, no formal access to education, Rohingya students in Sittwe that want to go to Sittwe university cannot go there,” Quinley added.
The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presents a bleak assessment of the future for children on either side of the border, speaking of a lost generation of children and youth.
UNICEF said it was widening education programs in the Bangladesh camps, currently for children up to the age of 14, to try to meet the needs of older children. A UNICEF spokesman told VOA that “programming for youth including education at post primary level remains a clear gap which urgently needs to be addressed by increasing both the range of services and access opportunities for youth. The lack of education and economic opportunities exposes this population to multiple risks including drug abuse, and gender-based violence and extremist views.”
UNICEF points out that even more basic than education needs are the health challenges faced by the Rohingya: “Despite nine massive vaccination campaigns since October 2017 until May 2018 (delivering over 4.2 million doses of vaccines), routine immunization since June 2018 remains a challenge. The children are still vulnerable and at risk of a potential disease outbreak. Continued health support is critical to assist the refugees and especially children to survive in the crowded refugee camps. ”
And while the life in the camps can be hard, it is not clear if the Rohingya will ever have anywhere to go back to in Myanmar.
Authorities in Myanmar say land that has been burned becomes government managed property, casting into doubt the ownership of more than 200 Rohingya villages that were burned to the ground in the past year and a half.
Rohingya lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung said official records can prove rightful ownership, provided they are requested.
The 78-year-old activist just won the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity – a global humanitarian award – for his dedication to fighting for equality, education and human rights for the Rohingya people in Myanmar, in the face of persecution, harassment and oppression.
With a background as a law clerk for more than two decades in Rakhine state, Kyaw Hla Aung is adamant that land ownership should be easily proven for returning Rohingya citizens.
“They have all the documents, all the records in the land record office in the home ministry,” he said. “The international community should ask the government to show all these records.”
“They are not only confiscating the land in Rakhine state but also in Shan state, Kachin state and in the midst of Burma in Karenni state as well,” he added.
Accountability and justice are other key factors in delaying any form of voluntary return.
“Rohingya that we have spoken to say they won’t go back to Rakhine state until there’s restored citizenship rights and accountability for the atrocities that have occurred,” said Quinley.
Analysts see the ongoing restrictions and attacks as a pattern indicating deliberate actions to eliminate a group.
Officials in Myanmar have consistently denied allegations of abuse and repression against the Rohingya, saying its military has conducted legitimate operations against terrorists.
Earlier this month, (Dec. 13) the U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 1091, declaring the crimes carried out during the Myanmar military clearance operation as genocide.
“The most recent wave of persecution began in August of 2017, when Burmese security forces and civilian mobs began a horrific wave of attacks,” said Chairman Ed Royce, on the house floor.
“Mass murder, rape and destruction of villages throughout Rakhine State has been documented.”
Activists say the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslims has all the earmarks of a genocide, including lack of access to education, an action by the state government, that was increased since the 2012 communal violence in Rakhine state.
“The government is making us illiterate so that they can allege that these people are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh because they don’t know anything about the world,” explained Kyaw Hla Aung.
At a news conference this month, Rosario Manalo, chair of Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry, stated that the commission had found “no evidence” to support allegations of human rights abuses in the four months since it officially opened its investigation.
“We will clarify how we collected the evidence later. But for the time being, allegations are still allegations. There is no conclusive evidence,” the former deputy foreign minister of the Philippines added, during the press conference.
The commission started their investigation Aug. 15, and is to submit its findings to the Myanmar president’s office by August 2019.
Rights groups are condemning investigation commissions that have been set up by the Myanmar government.
“The Myanmar commission’s dismissal of the extensive documentation of gross human rights abuses against the Rohingya makes abundantly clear that it is not serious about seeking justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The U.N. Security Council should stop giving credence to this commission and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC).”
The ICC ruled in September that it has jurisdiction over alleged deportations of Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh as a possible crime against humanity.