Emergency Response Needed to Save Rohingya Lives

By Emily Thompson

Rohingya Muslims are attempting to flee persecution in Myanmar as security forces have been accused of mass rape, killings and the burning of thousands of Rohingya homes. The conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh continue to deteriorate, where food rations have been significantly cut and the Rohingya face even further oppression and suffering. Just a few days ago, a Rohingya community leader was hacked to death.

Thousands of refugees have attempted to escape these camps and are fleeing to neighboring countries including Indonesia and Malaysia in search of safety.

Indonesian authorities are now patrolling parts of the country’s westernmost province to prevent boats of Myanmar’s Muslim refugees from reaching the shore.

But even with such surveillance, more than half a dozen boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya people from Bangladesh arrived in Aceh province.

Almost 1,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have arrived by boat in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh in just the last week or so. They included five groups with women and children who were afloat for days. One batch of more than 240 people was twice denied landing by residents in Aceh Utara district. The group finally disembarked in Bireuen district.

Most of them left refugee camps in Bangladesh, where more than one million had fled following a crackdown by Myanmar’s army in August 2017. The refugees are escaping by the dozens in search of a better life. Most of the refugees have attempted to reach Malaysia, but many have ended up in Indonesia along the way. However, Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention and are reticent to open its borders, saying it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar.

More than 2,000 Rohingya are believed to have attempted the risky journey to other Southeast Asian countries in 2022, according to the UN refugee agency, and nearly 200 Rohingya died or went missing last year while attempting hazardous sea crossings.

350,000 refugees have ended up in Pakistan, 200,000 in Saudi Arabia, 150,000 in Malaysia, and many thousands more spread out throughout India, Thailand, and United Arab Emirates.

A UN expert has called for action to save the lives of refugees making dangerous sea journeys to Indonesia and elsewhere.

“The crisis will only worsen without addressing its root cause – the illegal military junta of Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, recently said in a statement.

Andrews commended the Government of Indonesia for offering safety, shelter and support to Rohingya refugees, a majority of whom are women and children in urgent need of nutrition and medical assistance. The expert called on countries in the region to follow Indonesia’s lead by safely disembarking Rohingya refugees who may arrive by boat on their shores.

“The Government of Indonesia should be congratulated for again upholding the rights of the Rohingya and facilitating disembarkation in line with domestic law,” Andrews said. “Butthey cannot do it alone. This is an emergency, and an emergency response is required, including a coordinated search and rescue operation to save the lives of those who may be stranded on overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels.”

Andrews expressed grave concern that the arrivals signal the beginning of significant numbers of Rohingya fleeing desperate conditions in Bangladesh.

“Frankly, who can blame them? Parents have reached a breaking-point as their children suffer from hunger and malnutrition and face the threat of increasing violence in the camps,” he said. “These families are not boarding overcrowded vessels because they want to, they are doing so because they are desperate and see no choice.”

Andrews also suggested that Indonesia should be more welcoming to the refugees and receive them with open arms as opposed to refusing them and forcing them to seek refuge elsewhere.

“No state should—as some have done in the past—refuse Rohingya refugees disembarkation or push boats back out to sea,” he said.

In July 2022, a report from Reuters revealed an extensive plan by the Tatmadaw to eradicate the Rohingyas. Over a year later, the Rohingya are in a dire situation and few countries are willing to accept them. If a solution isn’t found soon, the Tatmadaw will succeed.

Five European countries and Canada have just teamed up to join the genocide case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that accuses Myanmar of committing genocide against the Rohingya.

Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain filed a joint declaration of intervention in the case, lodged by The Gambia in 2019, according to the United Nations’ highest court. The Maldives has filed a separate declaration.

In addition, the third committee of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the annual resolution on the “situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar” by consensus, with the resolution co-sponsored by 114 countries.

While these moves are a long time coming, these commitments and resolutions mean nothing without concrete action. Now is the time for the international community to demonstrate resolve and commitment to prevent yet another genocide – not just by passing resolutions but by taking action on the ground and helping the Rohingya in a real way that saves lives and provides them safety and security.

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