Interviews with health workers who have treated Rohingyas survivor in Bangladesh corroborate allegations of sexual violence by the Myanmar military
A new report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented widespread sexual violence committed by the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, and Myanmar security forces against the Rohingyas.
The massive campaign of violence in August 2017 drove more than 720,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Doctors, nurses, mental health experts, and other health professionals, who provided direct medical services to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps, gave accounts of the huge physical and psychological toll of sexual and gender-based violence on Rohingya women, girls, men, boys, and transgender and gender fluid people.
The research builds on PHR’s work documenting human rights violations in Myanmar for more than 15 years.
Following the August 2017 “clearance operation” carried out by Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist civilians in Rohingya villages across Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, PHR teams conducted forensic examinations of survivors in what is now the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
The research teams gathered qualitative and quantitative data documenting the grave human rights violations committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar armed forces, including long-term disabilities resulting from the 2017 attack.
PHR’s new report, “Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Neglect: Observations of Health Care Providers Treating Rohingya Survivors in Refugee Camps in Bangladesh,” presents qualitative data gathered through interviews with 26 health care workers from a variety of humanitarian organizations — who provided direct care to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for some period between August 2017 and August 2020.
PHR sought the perspective of health care workers in order to provide an independent corroboration of the patterns of violence sustained by the Rohingya community and to avoid potentially re-traumatizing interviews with survivors.
While the refugee crises created by the conflict in Afghanistan and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar may appear to be disconnected, they are both part of a major migration upheaval in South Asia that the COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated. Already living on the margins of society, Afghan and Rohingya refugees have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Host countries and the international community need to do more to help alleviate the unique challenges that the pandemic has caused for both of these populations.
Before the pandemic, Afghan refugees in Pakistan already faced disadvantages in access to education, healthcare, banking and financial resources, and property. They have also been subjected to police brutality and arbitrary detention by security forces. While Pakistan does technically have birth right citizenship, this right has been routinely denied to the children of Afghan refugees born in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan backed away from his original plan to revise this policy due to political backlash. Given the additional uncertainty around whether these children may be granted Afghan citizenship (many have never set foot in Afghanistan), the risk of statelessness is enormous and carries serious repercussions for the already dire legal and human rights situation faced by Afghan refugees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Though Islamabad lifted its lockdown measures, the initial shutdown caused major disruptions to the day labor sector in which many Afghans work. Restrictions on public gatherings limit already scarce economic opportunities, demonstrated by the closing of a major vegetable market in Islamabad that employed many of the Afghans residing in a nearby refugee camp. Additionally, the constant threat of deportation continues to have a profound effect on the psychological health of Afghan refugees who are now dealing with the additional anxiety of pandemic-related uncertainty. Additionally, the initial closing of key Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings meant that asylum seekers fleeing violence in Afghanistan would find seeking refuge in Pakistan much more difficult and dangerous, making them significantly more vulnerable to human traffickers and exploitation by criminal networks.
Bangladesh, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, is also home to the world’s largest refugee camp. Across the Cox’s Bazar area of southeastern Bangladesh, nearly one million Rohingya refugees who fled targeted violence in neighboring Myanmar now live in overcrowded, unsanitary camps. As the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads through Bangladesh, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) country representative Paul Brockmann reflects on the current situation for Rohingya refugees, and the medical and logistical challenges COVID-19 will pose to the medical humanitarian response.
Running medical activities in the world’s biggest refugee camp is challenging enough at the best of times. Maintaining these amid the biggest global health crisis of our time is nothing less than Herculean.
MSF has been rapidly scaling up our facilities to respond to COVID-19 in Bangladesh, with isolation beds available in our projects in Cox’s Bazar district. We have rolled out tailored COVID-19 training for all staff, on everything from basic infection prevention and control measures to protocols on managing patients with COVID-19. An effective medical response to COVID-19 requires more than isolation beds, however. We need sufficient staff and medical supplies to protect them and to treat patients, to ensure continuity of care for our other patients, and to ensure effective community engagement and trust.
One of the immediate impacts of the pandemic has been the erosion of trust. Bangladeshi and Rohingya people are understandably frightened. Rumors and misinformation are rampant, and this is endangering people’s access to care. Tragically, one widely believed rumor amongst Rohingya refugees is that if they are found to have COVID-19, they will be taken from their families and killed.
These fears are keeping people in need of essential (non-COVID-19) treatment away from clinics. Over the last few weeks, we have seen a stark decline in patient numbers. Our facilities have emptied; we are seeing half the number of patients we would normally.
Before COVID-19, our Kutupalong hospital normally saw 80 to 100 patients a day for wound dressings—many for chronic wounds, which need regular cleaning and dressing every two or three days to prevent infection. At present, our medical staff are only seeing around 30 of these patients a day. Without treatment, dressings are likely to become soaked and dirty, risking infection, which can lead to sepsis and possibly even death. Community engagement and empowerment.
There has been zero motivation on the part of the authorities concerned in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s allegations directed at Bangladesh at the United Nations General Assembly, where it claimed that Bangladesh is harbouring terrorists in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, are not only baseless and laughable, but an attempt on the part of Myanmar to defame Bangladesh’s humanity in sheltering the Rohingya.
Our neighbour to the east talking of the Rohingya issue as a “bilateral problem” has no basis; the Rohingya issue is Myanmar’s problem alone, and has occurred as a result of its inhumane treatment towards them.
By now, it has been well established that Myanmar will do anything it possibly can to avoid responsibility for the Rohingya crisis; it has been three years since the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees landed in Bangladesh, arriving in hundreds of thousands after being forced to flee their homes in Rakhine State due to the brutality of the Myanmar army.
Since then, Bangladesh has made repeated calls to safely expatriate the Rohingya to their homeland, but there has been zero motivation on the part of the authorities concerned in Myanmar to ensure that the Rohingya — its own citizens — can return safely and are can enjoy the same rights and dignity afforded to any citizens of a country.
It is about time the world took notice of and paid attention to these underhanded tactics employed by Myanmar, who are stooping to new lows now while continuing their atrocities towards their minorities and turning a blind eye towards repatriation.
The government of Bangladesh this week called on the international community to establish “safe zones” within Myanmar to allow for the Rohingya to safely return to the country of their birth. This is not likely to happen, but it does signal a welcome evolution on the part of the government of Bangladesh on the Rohingya situation.
When the latest Rohingya crisis erupted in the second half of 2017 and hundreds of thousands of refugees poured over the border from Myanmar into Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the Dhaka government misunderstood the situation and miscalculated its response. It assumed the situation would be temporary and that the issue could be resolved by negotiating with Myanmar to take the refugees back.
The government of Myanmar did come to the negotiating table and agreements were signed in January 2018, but those agreements were not worth the paper they were written on. The relocation of the refugees to Myanmar could only happen if this were safe, according to international law, and fortunately this was and remains the commitment of the government in Dhaka. Where the Bangladeshi leaders miscalculated was in assuming that their counterparts in Myanmar were negotiating in good faith and that they would create the conditions necessary for the return of the Rohingya.
Three years on, the legal and security environment for the few remaining Rohingya in Myanmar is at least as precarious now as it was at the peak of the refugee crisis. There are no more villages being burnt to the ground, but that is only because there are no more villages left to burn. There are no more large-scale assaults being directed against Rohingya civilians, but that is only because the majority of those who are still in Myanmar are held “safely” in internally displaced people’s camps. Most of the Rohingya refugees I have spoken to in the camps in Cox’s Bazar would dearly love to return to their native villages in Myanmar, but they will not do so if they cannot trust that they will be safe. And they rightly conclude that they will not be safe if they return under current conditions.
A group of Rohingya women kept on a remote Bangladeshi islet in the Bay of Bengal for months have been on hunger strike for the past five days, demanding that they be taken back to their families living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, southern Bangladesh.
Some 306 Rohingya, including at least 33 children and more than 100 young girls and women, have been confined to the Bhasan Char islet off Bangladesh’s southwestern coast since early May.
They were moved to the island after being stranded in the Bay of Bengal for weeks during a failed attempt to migrate to a third country.
Bangladesh, which is host to over a million Rohingya refugees, hopes to relocate the persecuted community to the tiny islet despite widespread criticism of its plan.
“The Rohingya people are living like prisoners on that island. They are facing many problems, and the authorities have taken away their mobile SIM cards to keep them in complete isolation,” Ansar Ali, a Rohingya living in the Kutupalang camps in Cox’s Bazar, told Anadolu Agency.
“We’re in extremely worried for them, especially the young women who have been separated from their families for more than four months and are leading an unsafe life on the island.”
Bangladeshi authorities cite the coronavirus risk as the reason for not taking the refugees back to the crammed Cox’s Bazar camps, home to more than 1.2 million Rohingya who fled the August 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
However, Khin Maung, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh-based Rohingya Youth Association, said the people on the island have been in isolation for more than three months and “should be immediately reunited with their families.”
A Bangladesh navy official told Anadolu Agency that most of the Rohingya on the island are desperate to return to the Bangladesh mainland.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly Saturday, Bangladesh’s prime minister reiterated her call for the global community to actively step up to solve the Rohingya issue and the crisis it has caused in Bangladesh.
“More than three years have been passed but not a single Rohingya could be repatriated. The Rohingya crisis was created by [neighboring] Myanmar and the solution lies in Myanmar,” Sheikh Hasina said in her virtual speech at the 75th UN General Assembly.
“Bangladesh has a painful experience of genocide, crimes against humanity on its people, and a struggle for independence, and such an experience motivated Bangladesh to support the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people and also motivated it to allow and provide shelter to over 1.1 million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” she continued, referring to the Rohingya who crossed the border starting in August 2017, fleeing a genocidal campaign in Myanmar.
She urged the world community take a more effective role to find a peaceful solution to the Rohingya issue.
She described Bangladesh as a peace-loving nation, highlighting its contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions.
For the sixth time, she said, Bangladesh was the country providing the most peacekeepers to UN missions.
Hasina expressed hope that a COVID-19 vaccine will soon be available in the world as a “global public good.”
Hasina also spoke for the rights of the Palestinian people and reiterated Bangladesh’s support for the Palestinians.
Representatives of the international community in Bangladesh concluded a two-day visit in Cox’s Bazar and the Rohingya camps on Thursday, during which they reiterated their support for the country on this issue.
Restating their commitment to the Rohingya response, they repeated that the solution to the protracted crisis lies in Myanmar, and that requires for the root causes of the problem to be addressed, according to the office of the United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh.
The international community representatives included the UN resident coordinator, ambassadors of the United States and the European Union, the British high commissioner, the head of humanitarian aid of the Canadian high commission, and the country director of the World Bank.
“After months of necessary Covid-19 restrictions, we are here with our partners to reaffirm our solidarity with Bangladesh and support for the Rohingya refugees and the communities generously hosting them. We have seen how the decisive action taken by the authorities has slowed the spread of Covid-19, and with the support of the international community, an effective and life-saving response continues,” said Mia Seppo, the UN resident coordinator.
US Ambassador Earl Miller said: “The Rohingya crisis remains an important priority for the United States just as it is for Bangladesh and our other international partners, and even more so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The international community continues working toward solutions and the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of Rohingya people to Myanmar, he said.
During discussions with the delegation, the Rohingyas shared how the Covid-19 situation is impacting their daily lives and how they see the future.
“Refugees have continued to play a critical role in helping their own communities protect themselves against Covid-19. They are the backbone of the response and their contributions should be fully recognized,” highlighted Canada’s head of humanitarian aid, Phedra Moon Morris.
Bangladesh will bring the unresolved Rohingya crisis before the world leaders today (Saturday) apparently reminding everybody of the failure to find a durable solution to the crisis amid Myanmar’s non-fulfilment of repatriation pledge, officials said, reports UNB.
Bangladesh will also seek genuine efforts from the global community to help Rohingyas return to their place of origin in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, they said.
The global leaders are staying home and joining the various sessions of the UNGA virtually due to Covid-19.
“Bangladesh will raise the Rohingya issue in the 75th UNGA. Bangladesh will seek continuation of world efforts to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis,” Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had placed a five-point proposal in the 72nd UNGA seeking a solution to the Rohingya problem immediately after starting ethnic atrocities against Rohingyas in Myanmar since August 25, 2017 but the proposal remains largely unaddressed.
The international community appreciated the proposal placed by the Prime Minister, a senior official said adding that Bangladesh still sticks to the proposal.
This year, Bangladesh will also highlight the accountability issue, especially the ongoing legal procedures at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Bangladesh says the Rohingya problem has been created by Myanmar and the solution also lies with Myanmar, and Myanmar’s stability and economic growth could be negatively affected if the Rohingya problem is not resolved.
Not a single Rohingya has gone back to Myanmar for lack of confidence and trust deficit between the persecuted Rohingya and the Myanmar government.
To improve the confidence, Bangladesh suggested Myanmar many options, for example, ‘go and visit’, allowing Rohingya leaders to visit Rakhine province or allowing non-military civilian observers from Myanmar’s friendly countries like ASEAN+, or China, Russia or India or any country of their choice so that Rohingya feel assured of their safety and security, DrMomen said.
Seeking a solution to the Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh has called for solidarity and cooperation with each other to achieve peace and security in Asia, making it a harmonious region of lasting peace and common prosperity.
“We believe that peace and security in Asia can be achieved through dialogue and cooperation, where all states coexist peacefully and their people live in peace, freedom and prosperity,” said Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen on Thursday.
Dr Momen made the call while delivering his statement at the Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The Foreign Ministers of CICA Member States and Observer States took part in it.
He said the Asian countries should carry forward the solidarity and cooperative spirit of helping each other in difficult times, promote the CICA agenda, enhance political and security dialogues and cooperation, and strengthen mutual trust.
“In this confidence-building conference of CICA, you’ll agree with me that it’s time for Myanmar to interact with their displaced people for confidence-building measures for a meaningful and durable solution,” Dr Momen said.
The Foreign Minister said Myanmar’s stability and economic growth could be negatively affected if Rohingya problem is not resolved. “This problem has been created by Myanmar and solution also lies with Myanmar.”
Despite the threat to Bangladesh economy, ecology, and overall societal impact, the country gave shelter, on a humanitarian ground, to nearly 1.1 million persecuted people fleeing massacre in Myanmar, their homeland.
Dr Momen said Bangladesh is keen on solving the crisis through constructive diplomacy with good neighbourly spirit.
“Myanmar is our friendly country and, therefore, Bangladesh signed three instruments with Myanmar for repatriation. Myanmar agreed to take them back after verification,” said the Foreign Minister.