an­drej ma­he­cic of unhcr on the ro­hingya refugee cri­sis

An­drej Ma­he­cic of UNHCR on the un­fold­ing Ro­hingya refugee cri­sis and In­dia’s role

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Shree­rupa Mi­tra-jha

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 only to re­main in 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 in­ter­com­mu­nal 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.

“UNHCR ap­pre­ci­ates the pro­tec­tion af­forded by In­dia to this group and notes the coun­try’s long, proud his­tory of sol­i­dar­ity with peo­ple flee­ing vi­o­lence.”

Photo cour­tesy: unhcr.org

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