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The Rohingya

A humanitarian emergency decades in the making

Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Myanmar
Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh. (Verena Hölzl/TNH)

In-Depth Stories:

The violent 2017 ouster of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh captured the international spotlight, but the humanitarian crisis had been building for decades.

  • At a glance: The Rohingya crisis

  • Nearly one million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh
  • UN rights probe says top Myanmar military commanders, and some civilian authorities, should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide
  • Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya
  • Aid groups say funding shortages and the coronavirus are aggravating conditions in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps. In 2020, aid groups are asking for more than $1 billion in donor funding
  • Government restrictions on refugees and aid groups are growing
  • Bangladesh and Myanmar have pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but no official returns have started

In August 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown that pushed out hundreds of thousands of members of the minority Rohingya community from their homes in northern Rakhine State. Today, roughly 900,000 Rohingya live across the border in southern Bangladesh, in cramped refugee camps where basic needs often overwhelm stretched resources. 

The crisis has shifted from a short-term response to a protracted emergency. Conditions in the camps have worsened as humanitarian services are scaled back during the coronavirus pandemic. Government restrictions on refugees and aid groups have grown, along with grievances among local communities on the margins of a massive aid operation.

The 2017 exodus was the culmination of decades of restrictive policies in Myanmar, which have stripped Rohingya of their rights over generations, denied them an identity, and driven them from their homes.

Here’s an overview of the current crisis and a timeline of what led to it. A selection of our recent and archival reporting on the Rohingya crisis is available below.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Rohingya say they are native to the area, but in Myanmar they are largely viewed as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Read more → Identity and belonging in a card: How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail toward statelessness

Myanmar’s government does not consider the Rohingya one of the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. Over decades, government policies have stripped Rohingya of citizenship and enforced an apartheid-like system where they are isolated and marginalised.

How did the current crisis unfold?

In October 2016, a group of Rohingya fighters calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, staged attacks on border posts in northern Rakhine State, killing nine border officers and four soldiers. Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown, and 87,000 Rohingya civilians fled to Bangladesh over the next year.

A month earlier, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had set up an advisory commission chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to recommend a path forward in Rakhine and ease tensions between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities.

On 24 August 2017, the commission issued its final report, which included recommendations to improve development in the region and tackle questions of citizenship for the Rohingya. Within hours, ARSA fighters again attacked border security posts.

Read more → The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency

Myanmar’s military swept through the townships of northern Rakhine, razing villages and driving away civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the ensuing weeks. They brought with them stories of burnt villages, rape, and killings at the hands of Myanmar’s military and groups of ethnic Rakhine neighbours. The refugee settlements of southern Bangladesh now have a population of roughly 900,000 people, including previous generations of refugees.

 

 

What has the international community said?

Multiple UN officials, rights investigators, and aid groups working in the refugee camps say there is evidence of brutal levels of violence against the Rohingya and the scorched-earth clearance of their villages in northern Rakhine State.

A UN-mandated fact-finding mission on Myanmar says abuses and rights violations in Rakhine “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”; the rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The UN’s top rights official has called the military purge a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the days after military operations began in August 2017.

Rights groups say there’s evidence that Myanmar security forces were preparing to strike weeks and months before the August 2017 attacks. The evidence included disarming Rohingya civilians, arming non-Rohingya, and increasing troop levels in the area.

What has Myanmar said?

Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya. It says the August 2017 military crackdown was a direct response to the attacks by ARSA militants.

Myanmar’s security forces admitted to the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din village – a massacre exposed by a media investigation. Two Reuters journalists were arrested while researching the story. In September 2018, the reporters were convicted of breaking a state secrets law and sentenced to seven years in prison. They were released in May 2019, after more than a year behind bars.

Myanmar continues to block international investigators from probing rights violations on its soil. This includes barring entry to the UN-mandated fact-finding mission and the UN’s special rapporteurs for the country.

What is the situation in Bangladesh’s refugee camps?

The swollen refugee camps of southern Bangladesh now have the population of a large city but little of the basic infrastructure.

The dimensions of the response have changed as the months and years pass: medical operations focused on saving lives in 2017 must now also think of everyday illnesses and healthcare needs; a generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living; women (and men) reported sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's military, but today the violence happens within the cramped confines of the camps.

The coronavirus has magnified the problems and aid shortfalls in 2020. The government limited all but essential services and restricted aid access to the camps. Humanitarian groups say visits to health centres have dropped by half – driven in part by fear and misunderstandings. Gender-based violence has risen, and already-minimal services for women and girls are now even more rare.

The majority of Rohingya refugees live in camps with population densities of less than 15 square metres per person – far below the minimum international guidelines for refugee camps (30 to 45 square metres per person). The risk of disease outbreaks is high in such crowded conditions, aid groups say.

Read more → Lost in translation: Language barriers and the Rohingya response

Rohingya refugees live in fragile shelters in the middle of floodplains and on landslide-prone hillsides. Aid groups say seasonal monsoon floods threaten large parts of the camps, which are also poorly prepared for powerful cyclones that typically peak along coastal Bangladesh in May and October.

The funding request for the Rohingya response – totalling more than $1 billion in 2020 – represents one of the largest humanitarian appeals for a crisis this year. Previous appeals have been underfunded, which aid groups said had a direct impact on the quality of services available.

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Satellite image showing rapid growth of the Kutupalong refugee camp
ESA Sentinel Hub
This timelapse shows the rapid expansion of Bangladesh's existing refugee settlements before and after August 2017.

What’s happening in Rakhine State?

The UN estimates that 470,000 non-displaced Rohingya still live in Rakhine State. Aid groups say they continue to have extremely limited access to northern Rakhine State – the flashpoint of 2017’s military purge. There are “alarming” rates of malnutrition among children in northern Rakhine, according to UN agencies.

Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine face heavy restrictions on working, going to school, and accessing healthcare. The UN says remaining Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities continue to live in fear of each other.

Additionally, some 125,000 Rohingya live in barricaded camps in central Rakhine State. The government created these camps following clashes between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in 2012. Rohingya there face severe restrictions and depend on aid groups for basic services.

Read more → The growing emergency on Myanmar’s newest battleground

A separate conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, has brought new displacement and civilian casualties. Clashes displaced tens of thousands of people in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State by early 2020, and humanitarian access has again been severely restricted. In February 2020, Myanmar's government re-imposed mobile internet blackouts in several townships in Rakhine and Chin states, later extending high-speed restrictions until the end of October. Rights groups say the blackout could risk lives and make it even harder for humanitarian aid to reach people trapped by conflict. Amnesty International has warned of a looming food insecurity crisis in Rakhine.

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Satellite imagery showing a camp at Hla Poe Kaung in northern Rakhine State
ESA Sentinel Hub
Satellite imagery shows a camp planned to house returnees in Myanmar was built over the razed and bulldozed remains of at least four Rohingya villages.

What’s next?

Rights groups have called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of committing atrocity crimes. The UN body has not done so.

There are at least three parallel attempts, in three separate courts, to pursue accountability. ICC judges have authorised prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to begin an investigation into one aspect: the alleged deportation of the Rohingya, which is a crime against humanity under international law. 

Separately, the West African nation of The Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice asking the UN's highest court to hold Myanmar accountable for "state-sponsored genocide". In an emergency injunction granted in January 2020, the court ordered Myanmar to “take all measures within its power” to protect the Rohingya.

And in a third legal challenge, a Rohingya rights group launched a case calling on courts in Argentina to prosecute military and civilian officials – including Aung San Suu Kyi – under the concept of universal jurisdiction, which pushes for domestic courts to investigate international crimes.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but three separate deadlines have come and gone with no movement. In June 2018, two UN agencies signed a controversial agreement with Myanmar – billed as a first step to participating in any eventual returns plan. The UN, rights groups, and refugees themselves say Rakhine State is not yet safe for Rohingya to return.

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Satellite imagery showing rapid construction of new buildings on Bhasan Char
ESA Sentinel Hub
This timelapse shows the rapid construction of new buildings on Bhasan Char, a silt island on the Bay of Bengal.

With no resolution in sight in Myanmar and bleak prospects in Bangladesh, a growing number of Rohingya women and children are using once-dormant smuggling routes to travel to countries like Malaysia.

A regional crisis erupted in 2020 as multiple countries shut their borders to Rohingya boats, citing the coronavirus, leaving hundreds of people stranded at sea for weeks. Dozens are believed to have died.

Bangladesh has raised the possibility of transferring 100,000 Rohingya refugees to an uninhabited, flood-prone island – a plan that rights groups say would effectively create an “island detention centre”. Most Rohingya refuse to go, but Bangladeshi authorities detained more than 300 people on the island in 2020 after they were rescued at sea. 

The government has imposed growing restrictions on the Rohingya as the crisis continues. In recent months, authorities have enforced orders barring most Rohingya from leaving the camp areas, banned the sale of SIM cards and cut mobile internet, and tightened restrictions on NGOs. Local community tensions have also risen. Aid groups report a rise in anti-Rohingya hate speech and racism, as well as “rapidly deteriorating security dynamics”.

Local NGOs and civil society groups are pushing for a greater role in leading the response, warning that international donor funding will dwindle over the long term.

And rights groups say Rohingya refugees themselves have had little opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their futures – both in Bangladesh’s camps and when it comes to the possibility of returning to Myanmar.

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