Ro­hingya ex­o­dus puts thou­sands of chil­dren at risk

Many in ‘un­prece­dented in­flux’ are alone, vul­ner­a­ble to abuse

The Dallas Morning News - - News - Austin Ramzy, The New York Times

HONG KONG — More than half the Ro­hingya refugees who have fled Myanmar in the past three weeks are chil­dren, in­clud­ing hun­dreds who trav­eled with­out fam­ily mem­bers, putting them at par­tic­u­lar risk in cramped, muddy camps in Bangladesh, aid work­ers say.

The United Na­tions says up to 400,000 Ro­hingya have fled the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar since Aug. 25 and are strug­gling to find food, shel­ter and clean wa­ter in Bangladesh.

“The camps are to­tally over­crowded,” said Christophe Boulierac, a spokesman for UNICEF. “It’s very muddy and rain­ing ev­ery day.”

Of those who have made it to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, about half ar­rived last week, Boulierac said, plac­ing ex­treme pres­sure on the strug­gling re­lief oper­a­tions.

“Very frankly speak­ing, we are scal­ing up, but it is such an un­prece­dented in­flux,” he said.

As of Fri­day, UNICEF had counted 1,267 chil­dren at the camp who had been sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies. Amid the dis­or­der of the rapidly ex­pand­ing refugee set­tle­ments in Bangladesh, the un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren are at par­tic­u­lar risk for hu­man traf­fick­ing, sex­ual abuse, child la­bor and child mar­riage, Boulierac said.

UNICEF has set up 41 spa­ces for chil­dren to re­lax and play, some of which can be moved around the camps. The sites also make it eas­ier for aid work­ers to iden­tify which chil­dren have trav­eled alone or have been sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies.

The needs of the chil­dren in­clude food and nu­tri­tional sup­port, ba­sic health care and psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­ing. More than 18,000 chil­dren have re­ceived help through the child-friendly spa­ces since Aug. 25.

But with more than 230,000 chil­dren es­ti­mated to have ar­rived in Bangladesh, many more will need help, Boulierac said.

The U.N. Pop­u­la­tion Fund es­ti­mates that two-thirds of the refugees are women and girls, 13 per­cent of whom are preg­nant or breast-feed­ing. It has sent dozens of mid­wives to help with their needs in the refugee camps.

And the num­bers are likely to grow, Boulierac said. “The wor­ry­ing news is we don’t see any in­di­ca­tion that this in­flux is de­creas­ing.”

Re­newed crack­down

The Ro­hingya, a Mus­lim eth­nic group in Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myanmar, have been pushed out of the coun­try’s west for decades. They have been de­prived of ci­ti­zen­ship rights and are of­ten con­fined to vil­lages with lit­tle free­dom to travel and work.

Ro­hingya in Rakhine had al­ready been liv­ing un­der a harsh se­cu­rity cam­paign that came af­ter at­tacks by mil­i­tants in Oc­to­ber. An at­tack on Aug. 25 by a Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group known as the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army on po­lice posts and a mil­i­tary base in Rakhine touched off a re­newed mil­i­tary crack­down that led to the mass ex­o­dus.

The mil­i­tary and Bud­dhist vig­i­lantes have burned vil­lages and mas­sa­cred civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups and refugees. Bangladesh has also com­plained to Myanmar about re­ports of land mines placed along their shared bor­der, which have in­jured and killed civil­ians in re­cent weeks.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, the U.N. high com­mis­sioner for hu­man rights, called the mil­i­tary cam­paign “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing” and a clear vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law.

No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ates Malala Yousufzai of Pak­istan and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa have chal­lenged Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, to rec­og­nize the suf­fer­ing of the Ro­hingya. Suu Kyi won a Peace Prize in 1991 for lead­ing a long cam­paign against mil­i­tary rule in her coun­try.

Suu Kyi, who can­celed plans to at­tend the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly in New York next week, has main­tained the be­lief that the Ro­hingya are il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh. While the Ro­hingya trace their his­tory in Myanmar for gen­er­a­tions, the be­lief that they are for­eign­ers is widely held there.

Call for ac­tion

Muham­mad Yunus, the 2006 Peace Prize lau­re­ate, sent a let­ter with the sig­na­tures of 12 No­bel lau­re­ates and oth­ers call­ing for the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to take im­me­di­ate ac­tion to stop the mil­i­tary at­tacks on civil­ians. “The ar­gu­ments that the Myanmar gov­ern­ment is us­ing to deny Rohingyas their ci­ti­zen­ship are lu­di­crous,” the let­ter said.

De­spite the in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Myanmar, ef­forts to pun­ish its gov­ern­ment over the Ro­hingya cri­sis have been lim­ited.

This week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ari­zona, who is also chair­man of the Senate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, said he would kill fund­ing to ex­pand co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the U.S. and Myanmar mil­i­taries “given the wors­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and hu­man rights crack­down against the Ro­hingya peo­ple.”

Lack of ac­cess

Jour­nal­ists and hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tors have been largely barred from Rakhine. A group of jour­nal­ists were taken there on a gov­ern­ment-su­per­vised trip last week, and some re­ported see­ing Bud­dhist men leav­ing a Ro­hingya vil­lage they had just set ablaze.

The lack of ac­cess has forced hu­man rights groups to rely on satel­lite data and the tes­ti­mony of peo­ple who have fled to doc­u­ment the ex­tent of de­struc­tion in Rakhine.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said Thurs­day that it had recorded 80 large-scale fires in the state since Aug. 25, while the same pe­riod in the past four years had no blazes of such size on record.

Hu­man Rights Watch said Fri­day that 62 vil­lages in Rakhine had been tar­geted in ar­son at­tacks since Aug. 25.

“Our field re­search backs what the satel­lite im­agery has in­di­cated — that the Burmese mil­i­tary is di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the mass burn­ing of Ro­hingya vil­lages in north­ern Rakhine State,” Phil Robert­son, deputy Asia di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch, said in a state­ment Fri­day.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Ees­per­ate peo­ple from the Ro­hingya eth­nic group, in­clud­ing chil­dren, con­tin­ued to ar­rive by boat Satur­day on Shah Pari island, near Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. About 400,000 Ro­hingya refugees have fled from Myanmar in the past three weeks.

Adam Dean/The New York Times

Refugee camps for Ro­hingya in Bangladesh “are to­tally over­crowded,” said Christophe Boulierac, a spokesman for UNICEF. “It’s very muddy and rain­ing ev­ery day.”

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