Close to a million Rohingya live in squalid camps in Bangladesh, across the border from their native villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. For many, return to those homes is impossible — Myanmar’s authorities do not want the Rohingya back, while its armed forces or vigilante militias may have already razed those villages to the ground. Landmines dot the fields and roads of large swaths of Rakhine, while the Rohingya who remain still face harassment, abuse and arbitrary arrest by local authorities.
The bulk of the Rohingya exodus came in 2017, in the wake of a hideous campaign of slaughter, rape and destruction that was eventually designated a genocide by the United States and which forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the riverine border with Bangladesh, where earlier waves of Rohingya refugees had journeyed. For years, Myanmar’s state viewed the Rohingya as ethnic Bengali interlopers with no rightful claim to citizenship — no matter that the community has a rich and deep history in the country.
Now, while still grappling with the traumas exacted upon them in Myanmar, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are coping with new pressures. “Six years after the Myanmar military conducted a genocidal campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority, a wave of violence is sweeping through the camps in southeast Bangladesh where nearly a million Rohingya have sought refuge,” wrote my colleague Rebecca Tan. “Rohingya militant groups that once targeted the Myanmar military have turned against each other, their disagreements escalating into brutality amid the camp’s isolation and desperation.”
Tan’s reporting outlines the fear and abuse gripping the camps in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar area. Warring militant factions carry out abductions and murders, while critics say that Bangladesh’s own security forces charged with policing the camps are, at best, overwhelmed by or, at worst, complicit in the growing violence.
“In the warren-like encampment, where families are crowded into thin, tarpaulin shelters jammed along narrow alleyways, every shriek and every gunshot has rippled through the community,” Tan wrote.
The psychic toll is compounded by structural challenges. The entrenched nature of the Rohingya problem means that what global attention was afforded to it has waned. While Bangladeshi officials are pushing for the refugees to be repatriated to Myanmar, they find no real partner on the other side of the border, where many parts of the country are currently consumed by a civil war between Myanmar’s coup-plotting junta and a motley crew of opposition outfits.
The Rohingya refugees themselves are afraid to go back, even though they face deteriorating conditions and a shortfall in aid in Bangladesh. Disease and malnutrition is rife in the camps, while their temporary structures are vulnerable to frequent flooding. Last month, the U.N. World Food Program appealed for an emergency $125 million in funding, warning that food rations for the refugees could be cut by 17 percent should more aid not be mustered by the international community. (On Wednesday, the Biden administration pledged an additional $26 million in humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya crisis.)
The consensus among advocacy groups is that outside powers aren’t doing nearly enough. “Many Rohingya fled genocidal attacks more than five years ago and need reliable support, not cuts to the food on which they depend,” John Quinley III, director of the investigative group Fortify Rights, told Voice of America. “Rohingya we spoke with after hearing of the cuts in aid expressed fear about the future. The cuts on food aid will be dire and could lead to significant health consequences for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.”
In a recent interview, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina bemoaned the effects of the war in Ukraine, which has consumed Western attention and resources. “The war has made the situation more difficult,” she said. “The whole focus is now on the war and the refugees from the Ukraine.”
“Journalists have stopped coming,” Jamailda Begum, a Rohingya rape survivor whose husband was murdered by rampaging Myanmar soldiers in 2016, told NPR this week. “The world has stopped listening. I feel forgotten, and I still don’t have justice.”
In Myanmar, the Rohingya faced a decades-long campaign by the central state that systematically stripped them of their rights, including their ability to work, vote, and even travel. In Bangladesh, their status is as precarious, with local authorities unwilling to regularize the refugees in the camps. In the interview, Hasina renewed calls for the Rohingya to return home. “These people should go back to their own land,” she said.
Huge numbers of Rohingya are indeed trying to leave — just not for Myanmar. Recent months have seen a surge in refugees opting for risky journeys at sea, in desperate bids to find safe haven and work in Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2022 alone, the U.N. estimated that nearly 350 Rohingya lost their lives attempting to make the escape by sea. Those who survive are often exploited by people smugglers, vulnerable to harassment, rape and other forms of violence.
The plight of the Rohingya is powerfully documented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the leading institutions in Washington to maintain focus on the persecuted minority. It was from a podium at the museum last year that Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Biden administration’s determination of genocide for what befell the Rohingya in Myanmar in late 2016 and 2017.
The museum’s Rohingya exhibit chronicles through document evidence and eyewitness testimony not just the massacres and atrocities visited on the community, but the deep history that led to their ordeals — the ways in which earlier juntas, dominated by the ethnic Burmese majority, fanned anti-Rohingya hate and worked to downgrade and delegitimize the Rohingya’s status as citizens.
The picture now is all the more bleak. “I feel like I’m out in the middle of the sea, and I can’t find land,” said one Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, in testimony recorded by the museum. He is speaking in metaphor, but for many in his community, the experience is all the more literal.