Rohingya crisis deserves notice

Day by day, the effects of coronavirus on society’s most marginalised are laid bare. From dollar-a-day Afghan day labourers forced to pick between face masks and food to Thais driven to suicide after failing to secure baby milk, the price of contagion is pushing many of those on society’s margins off the edge.

And perhaps globally, no one has been made more marginal than the Rohingya. As the targets of systemic violence and persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in recent years they were forced to endure the largest human exodus since the Vietnam war.

Over 900,000 Rohingya are living in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh alone. The 600,000 thousand remaining in Myanmar are “extremely vulnerable” to state-sponsored violence.

In January, the United Nation’s top court ordered Myanmar authorities to prevent genocidal violence. The call fell on deaf ears, with the UN reporting at least 32 killed civilians in March.

And then came the virus, which should have halted the renewed flareups in violence, but didn’t. On Wednesday, an outgoing UN human rights envoy for Myanmar warned of new war crimes in the country.

“While the world is occupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine state, targeting the civilian population,” envoy Yankee Lee said.

Myanmar was already ill-equipped to handle the epidemic.

In March, Human Rights Watch warned: “years of conflict, neglect, and abusive policies by Myanmar’s government and military have left hundreds of thousands of displaced people sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe.”

And now, with neighbouring states already struggling to care for their own disposed, the Rohingya are faced with the prospect of yet more calamity.

On April 8, Bangladeshi authorities moved to restrict services at refugee camps to only the most “critical” while slashing aid workers by 80%.

And with the camp in Cox’s Bazar packing more than 100,000 people per square mile, Prof Azeem Ibrahim, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, warns that up to 200,000 people could die — “an order of magnitude more than those killed by the Myanmar military”.

To make matters worse, the country denied entry to trawlers carrying 500 Rohingya in the Bay of Bengal, with the country’s foreign minister declaring: “No more Rohingya will be allowed in.”

Bangladesh is one of the poorest and densely populated countries. And despite publicity urging the world to act against the Rohingya genocide, neighbouring states have been unwilling to put their money where their mouths are in providing safe haven.

After all, Bangladesh had earlier rescued a boat left adrift for months after attempting to enter Malaysia, with dozens dying in the process. Malaysia continues to ban entry to such vessels due to coronavirus fears, going so far as to dispatch military patrols to drive them back out.

Bangladesh has since slammed the knee-jerk reaction to make the Rohingya stranded in the Bay of Bengal an exclusively Bangladeshi problem.

“It is deplorable that whenever any humanitarian disaster occurs at sea due to Myanmar, it has become a tendency on the part of a few international organisations to urge Bangladesh to shoulder the burden instead of approaching others,” the country’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen told Anadolu Agency.

He added there are eight countries around the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea “equally obligated” to give shelter to the Rohingya.

“These people are human beings and global leadership must come forward to save them.”

He is correct.

Amnesty International has warned that Covid-19 cannot be used as a pretext for governments to abandon their responsibilities towards refugees.

Asean has long dragged its feet on sufficiently pressuring Myanmar to halt crimes against humanity, falling back on the failed assumption that a crisis destined to spill beyond its borders is an “internal affair”.

In allowing Myanmar to shrug its obligations to create an environment where the Rohingya can return home and enjoy the rights entitled to all people, the endless cycle of fight or flight could continue.

Leaving a million-plus people to choose between a desperate life in an ill-equipped refugee camp or to remain stateless, persecuted and cut off from social services in the land of their birth can only serve to fuel the coronavirus cauldron.

The world over, societies have gone into lockdown to protect themselves from the pandemic.

If only the international community could do half as much to stop a man-made catastrophe.

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