Saturday 23 June 2018

400,000 terrified refugees huddled in camps show the lie behind Myanmar's brutality

As refugee numbers grow, the aid camps in Bangladesh are struggling to cope, writes Erin Kilbride

Rohingya women and children queue for aid at Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP
Rohingya women and children queue for aid at Balukhali camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

Erin Kilbride

Last weekend, a young mother in a refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border lifted her child's shirt to show me an untreated burn. The large, gaping wound covered more than a quarter of her two-year-old's back. When the Myanmar military set their house on fire three weeks before, she explained, a burning piece of plastic fell from the ceiling and pierced her child's body before she could reach him.

She and 11 members of her family fled their village that night, as the houses of everyone they knew burned to the ground. They joined the more than 420,000 Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar's northern Rakhine state in the past month, some walking for more than 15 days to escape the military's brutal offensive on Rohingya villages.

Aung San Su Kyi
Aung San Su Kyi

I visited the border region where hundreds of thousands are now camped, hoping to speak with Rohingya human rights defenders - the experts on the subject - about the violations they had documented in Rakhine and the risks they continue to face. Today, spread out over a few kilometres along the muddy border, thousands of people are packed together on steep hills, camping under tarps they bought themselves.

Conditions are wet and unsanitary. Food, shelter, and medical care are desperately lacking, especially given the severity of some of the injuries we saw arriving across the border. These included deep burns, bullet wounds and severe rashes on children. Some even lost limbs when they stepped on landmines in Myanmar.

Refugees have told me they watched the military set their villages on fire; most saw their homes burn down. Some reported seeing entire families in their neighbourhood killed, locked inside a burning home. Others told me about civilians dragged to the ground by soldiers and shot while lying face down.

The types of injuries showing up in Bangladesh corroborate stories of civilians shot from behind as they fled. The UN has called the military's brutal campaign a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

An estimated 60pc of the refugees living in muddy fields on the border are children. Walking through the makeshift camps, the majority of infants and toddlers I saw were naked, their parents having fled with only one set of clothes, which the near-constant rain makes impossible to keep clean and dry.

Hunger and medical care are top concerns for mothers watching their children become thinner by the day. One lifted her daughter's shirt to show me an untreated bullet wound on the five-year-old's stomach. Another woman had given birth on the journey; her 20-day-old daughter had yet to see a doctor or be properly cleaned.

Local Bangladeshis living in border towns are doing what they can to keep people alive. Groups of well-meaning volunteers are throwing packages of food and clothing from the tops of trucks, but the need is so great that hundreds rush to the moving lorries. I saw children and the elderly being stepped on as hundreds of hungry people rushed to one of the food trucks. Last week, a mother and two children died trying to reach an aid vehicle.

Local Bangladeshi human rights defenders are putting their work on hold to provide first aid to dehydration and minor injury cases, and to provide a safer, more systematic response to distribution.

One human rights group based in port town Cox's Bazar rented out a wedding hall and turned it into an emergency kitchen. Others are driving people to hospital.

In addition to the restrictions placed on international aid groups, the Bangladesh government has also begun restricting the work of locals trying to help. Last weekend Bangladesh police issued an order prohibiting Rohingya refugees from taking shelter in the homes of their friends or acquaintances - and locals have been asked not to rent houses to refugees.

Myanmar's government says its security forces are not indiscriminately murdering civilians, but rather are carrying out clearance operations against insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which it has declared a terrorist organisation.

The group attacked several Myanmar military bases in mid-August, to which the military responded with its most recent crackdown.

Myanmar's de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled a scheduled appearance at the UN last week, but in a televised address from Myanmar said her government does not fear international criticism. She claimed there have been no conflicts or clearance operations in Rakhine since September 5. This directly contradicts the first-hand accounts of refugees I have been hearing this week.

After Aung San Suu Kyi's speech, the UN Human Rights Council called for access to Rakhine, to investigate the abuses.

International access to Rakhine - for both investigations and aid - is critical, but the accounts of human rights defenders who have recently fled, and those still inside, should not be discounted. These are the people who have been documenting the situation on the ground in Rakhine state for decades, who know the patterns of abuse and systemic oppression of the Rohingya people.

Despite their expertise in the subject, they are also the voices hardest to access because of the Myanmar government's near-complete denial of access to Rakhine for rights workers and journalists.

Colleagues from Front Line Defenders and I who have visited Myanmar in recent years have all found it either incredibly risky or impossible to meet with Rohingya human rights defenders in the country.

Physical access to their region is denied by the military, and even speaking to activists about the subject in the capital of Yangon is too dangerous for them.

We work with HRDs in the country who are not Rohingya themselves but support the cause. Many have asked us not to publicise this fact because even showing solidarity for the Rohingya people is dangerous in Myanmar.

Human rights defenders on both sides of the border need to be protected, and their opinions elevated in all conversations about resettlement, repatriation, and protection for one of the world's most persecuted peoples.

Erin Kilbride is the media coordinator of Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based NGO

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