Not nearly enough is being done for the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar
To understand how grim things are for Myanmar’s Ro- yas, consider what passes for good news amid the Burmese
army’s two-month program in northern Rakhine state, where most of them live. The flood of refugees to
neighbouring Bangladesh must soon dwindle, charity workers say, because the Burmese army is running out of
Rohingya villages to burn. For the moment, however, terrified Rohingyas continue to pour across the border. In the
week to October 14th some 18,000 arrived. In less than two months a total of at least 582,000 of them have taken
refuge in Bangladesh. That makes the current crisis one of the most rapid international movements of people in
modern history, eclipsing in its intensity, for example, Syrians’ flight from civil war over the past six years.
Bangladesh has permitted the hungry, exhausted and traumatised Rohingyas to enter, and has set aside land for
vast refugee camps. But aid agencies, by their own admission, are swamped. A third of the refugees are not
receiving a full ration of food; fewer than half of the 130,000-odd small children and pregnant or nursing mothers
are getting enough to eat. The un- sanitary conditions in the camps, many of which are not accessible by road, make
outbreaks of disease likely. Health workers are rushing to vaccinate all the new arrivals against cholera. They are
only halfway there. Longer-term needs are barely being met at all. Fewer than one school-age refugee in ten, for
instance, is receiving any type of schooling. Those overseeing the relief effort reckon 2,300 classrooms are needed;
20 were erected in the past week.
The government of Myanmar has said that the Rohingyas will be allowed to return home and has promised to help
them rebuild. But that is a meaningless pledge when the army is still burning their villages. Admittedly, Aung San
Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a past winner of the Nobel peace prize, does not have the authority to rein in the
army, which is a law unto itself. But she has failed even to criticise its blatant ethnic cleansing. Even if the army
were under civilian control, her government’s attitude does not inspire confidence. A few days ago the minister
charged with bringing the Rohingyas back suggested that they had ethnically cleansed themselves, to make the
And even supposing that the government is sincere in its offer to bring the Rohingyas home, and that the army
allows it to do so, the process will clearly take some time. Bangladesh and Myanmar are already arguing about
whether the UN should be involved. After a bout of violence sent hundreds of thou- sands of Rohingyas to
Bangladesh in 1991-92, it took five years to repatriate even a portion of those who wished to return.
All this suggests that there will be huge numbers of Rohingyas in Bangladesh for a long time to come. Outsiders
should exert whatever pressure they can on the Burmese army and government to stop the atrocities and allow
the Rohingyas home. So far, the rebukes have been absurdly mild. This week, for example, the EU ruled out future
visits to Europe by senior Burmese officers, and delayed a trade mission.
Meanwhile, a concerted effort to make the refugees’ lives more bearable will also be needed. Donors should
funnel more money and aid workers to the camps. The government of Bangladesh should give Rohingyas more
freedom to make a better life for themselves in exile. They should be allowed to take formal work, for example,
and to study at local schools and universities. It would be heaping one injustice on another to ignore the refugees’
long-term needs in the almost certainly forlorn hope that they will soon be back where they belong.
The Economist / Oct 21st 2017