Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Myanmar (Rakhine State), Asia

The Rohingya are a Muslim-majority ethnic group inhabiting Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, near the border of Bangladesh. The origins of the Rohingya are highly contested – most claim historical status in the region from the twelfth century, although the Myanmar government repeatedly refers to them as ‘illegal immigrants’. Since the end of the colonial era, the Rohingya have been routinely subjected to worsening oppression and discrimination, rendering them the “most persecuted minority in the world,” according to the United Nations.

Myanmar (officially called Burma until 1989) has imposed a series of discriminatory policies that effectively bar the Rohingya from participating in civic life. Since 1949, most Rohingya have been denied citizenship, and a series of laws since then have reinforced and intensified this. As a result, they are a stateless people, meaning they are not protected by the civic laws of any country. The Rohingya are also extremely limited in their ability to marry, secure employment, or access education. 

In recent years, the situation has sharply escalated and roughly one million Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) has intensified their crackdown on the Rohingya, embarking on a colossal ethnic cleansing campaign. The Rohingya have experienced extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labour, and many of their villages have been burned to the ground. Many had no choice but to flee to Bangladesh, where they are living in precarious refugee camp settlements in Cox’s Bazar.

In 2019, the UN approved a resolution condemning human rights abuses against the Rohingya, calling on the Myanmar government to prevent violence. Meanwhile, the Myanmar government routinely denies any allegations of misconduct in the Rakhine State. In Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent trial in the International Court of Justice, she stated there was “no genocide in Rakhine,” and refused to acknowledge the Rohingya.

How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defense of those who have no voice?

Nobel Women’s Initiative in an Open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

Key Facts

Estimated 10,000

people killed

Over 878,000

Refugees in Bangladesh

140,000 people

trapped in camps

Deaths: Myanmar has only reported 400 deaths since the beginning of the recent crackdown, but human rights organizations estimate that the number could be over 10,000. 

Bangladesh: 909,000 people are trapped in Bangladesh with little rights. Majority of these refugees are women and children. Approximately 40% of them are under the age of twelve.

Kutupalong Refugee Settlement: Population of 626,500. This is the largest refugee camp in the world and holds the majority of the Rohingya refugees.

UNHCR: The United Nations have provided significant resources to Rohingya refugees, as well as providing assistance during the monsoon season (May-September). UNHCR has passed a resolution on the situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. The Council urges Myanmar to take all measures necessary to reverse and abandon policies, directives and practices that marginalize Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

R2P: “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” doctrine as customary International law. The United Nations and other states have a responsibility to intervene in Myanmar, whether diplomatically or forcefully.

The Key Actors

The Situation


Genocide, sectarian violence and violation of International Law

Adviser’s suggestions:

The situation is currently static. With the recent and sudden escalation of the situation in Afghanistan, the geopolitical attention has shifted towards the Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban administered so called “Islamic Emirates.” The world community has overlooked the gruesome situation Rohingya’s are in for the past 70 plus years.


Current Situation:

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State has comprehensively recommended creating conditions that are beneficial to the Rohingya people’s safe and sustainable return will require whole of society engagement. These include lifting restrictions on freedom of movement, reconfirming that internally displaced Rohingya can return to their own villages and providing a clear pathway towards citizenship.

Timeline of the crisis

After the first Anglo-Burmese War, the British incorporated the Arakan (Rakhine) region into their empire. During the British colonial rule, they encouraged tens of thousands of Bengali migrants to move to Arakan to work as migrant labourers.

During the British colonial rule, they encouraged tens of thousands of Bengali migrants to move to underpopulated Arakan to work as migrant labourers. This is one of the main examples the Myanmar government uses to justify barring the Rohingya from becoming citizens – they claim the Rohingya are not native, but the product of British colonialism.

A wave of anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots across Rangoon (Yangon) and other major cities broke out, leaving 204 dead. Throughout the British rule, the various ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, were pitted against each other through the ‘divide and rule’ policy.

During the Campaign in Burma, the Rohingya fought alongside the British while the Burman and Rakhine ethnic groups sided with the Japanese. This caused anti-Rohingya sentiments across the country.

After over a century of colonial rule, Burma gained their independence. Under the 1948 Union Citizenship Act that was passed on the same day, the Rohingya were not recognized as one of the “indigenous races of Burma.”

Upon a successful military takeover, the country’s constitution was purged and a military junta was established. The military promoted nationalism based on the country’s Buddhist identity and classified the Rohingya as the common enemy to unite the rest of the nation.

In 1978, the Burmese government embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign called Operation Naga Min (Dragon King) against “illegal immigrants.” They particularly targeted the Rohingya, who they referred to as illegal Bengali immigrants, subjecting them to rape, murder, and arbitrary arrest. Months later, after an agreement with Bangladesh, 180,000 Rohingya were repatriated to Burma.

The 1982 Citizenship Law stripped the rights of most Rohingya, effectively rendering them stateless.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Military Forces) engaged in another ethnic cleansing campaign in December, 1991 called Operation Pyi Thaya (Clean and Beautiful Nation) to expel so-called “foreigners” in northern Rakhine State. Between 200,000 and 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh.

Three Rohingya individuals were accused of allegedly raping and killing a Rakhine Buddhist girl. That month, Buddhist mobs initiated retaliatory violence against the Rohingya, leaving 98 dead.

Religious violence in Rakhine State left over two hundred Rohingya dead and close to 150,000 homeless.

Radical Buddhist monks instigated anti-Muslim riots and campaigns across the country, leaving dozens dead.

By April 2013, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled or lost their homes. While many remained displaced within Myanmar, thousands crossed into neighbouring Bangladesh. 

A constitutional referendum allowed the Myanmar government to eradicate Rohingya identification cards and revoke their right to vote.

Between January and May of 2015, an estimated 30,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat, attempting to seek refuge in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. Many nearby countries refused their entry, leaving 8,000 stranded at sea.

Assaults on border guards and Myanmar officials in the Rakhine State left nine police officers killed. A military crackdown ensued, which sent an estimated 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

In an interview with the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi said “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on…I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”

ARSA attacks on at least 20 police outposts killed 12 security officers led to military ‘clearance operations’. These operations included burning down whole Rohingya villages, triggering a mass migration of Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The UN stated that ethnic cleansing had occurred against the Rohingya. In the weeks before, an estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh.

After circulating news of security officers killing innocent Muslims, raping young women and setting houses on fire, Suu Kyi finally broke her silence. She stated she wanted to “…find out why this exodus is happening.” This left many disappointed by her leadership.

The Myanmar government announces that approximately 200 Muslim villages situated in Rakhine have been abandoned. The UN Secretary-General calls the crisis “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a … human rights nightmare.”

Global leaders and international organizations promise $344 million to fund humanitarian relief programs for the Rohingya refugees. However, the figure was still $90 million less than what the UN needed to adequately address the crisis. The United States also threatened to sanction Myanmar, adding that US aid cannot be used to fund the Burmese military’s campaign against the Rohingya.

Bangladesh signed a deal with Myanmar to return hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. This agreement has been criticised, as it is unclear whether Myanmar is in a position to house Rohingya with no threat of persecution.

Myanmar announced a deal with two UN agencies for the return of refugees from Bangladesh. The Rohingya are concerned that the agreement is not comprehensive enough to guarantee their safety.

A UN report accused six Myanmar generals of genocide and war crimes and called for them to face trial at the International Criminal Court. Myanmar rejected the findings.

Two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in jail for violation of state secrecy laws. They believe that their reporting on the military’s violence against the Rohingya led to their framing by the police.

Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to start the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. This announcement came less than a week after the UN warned that the genocide was still in effect in the region.

Two years since the last exodus of Rohingya refugees, over 900,000 individuals remain in Bangladesh. They live in bamboo homes, unchanged from their first arrival. Many of them survive off humanitarian aid and are unable to find employment.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Myanmar government and military human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. 

The International Court of Justice unanimously ordered Myanmar to prevent acts of genocide against the Rohingya. The Myanmar government responded by stating there is “no genocide in Rakhine.”

A wooden boat carrying 297 people, including 14 children, landed in Indonesia. The refugees said they left southern Bangladesh in late March or early April for Malaysia, but were turned away by both the Malaysian and Thai authorities due to coronavirus restrictions. This was the biggest arrival of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia since 2015.

Despite widespread public outcry, Bangladesh relocated more than 1,600 Rohingya refugees from Chittagong to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. While Bangladesh claims this is necessary to alleviate overcrowding in the refugee camps, human rights groups cite safety concerns over the flood-prone island. 

The Tatmadaw detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other
members of the NLD and subsequently claimed power. Despite roadblocks, telecommunications barriers, and curfews, massive protests have broken out across the country in opposition to the coup. The coup will likely result in further devastation for the Rohingya, as the military has been the main driving force in the ongoing genocide.

UNHRC, in their 47 Regular session, has adopted a resolution (A/HRC/47/L.11) that calls for a decisive end to the grave violations of human rights and violence perpetrated by the Burmese military on the minority Rohingya Muslim community.

Dhaka has proposed Moscow to take a trilateral approach in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. Dhaka wants Russia, China and Myanmar military to strategize a solution. While this initiative had begun while Aung San Suu Kyi was Chancellor, the project was halted by the military coup.

UNICEF is working with the national governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to provide COVID-19 vaccine.

The Convention was signed on 28 July, 1951 in the aftermath of World War II, establishing the definition of who qualifies for international protection and the rights of asylum seekers. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed concern that governments are violating the convention’s principles by pushing people back from their borders, eroding protections, and seeking to outsource their responsibilities. Myanmar is a particular concern for the UNHCR.

A climate of fear has spread across Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya camps as militant groups and criminal gangs compete for control, refugees and humanitarians warn.

Women report being harassed, kidnapped, attacked, or extorted by men they believe are affiliated with Rohingya militant groups or gangs.

Roughly 48,000 registered Rohingyas will be vaccinated within three days with the help of the United Nations agencies.

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many States in Southeast Asia to tighten their borders, leading to the highest numbers of refugees stranded at sea since the region’s “boat crisis” in 2015.

India’s stance on the Rohingya crisis has raised questions about its democratic credentials as its response to the crisis has evolved swiftly. India announced the violent conflicts between the Buddhists and the Muslim minorities in Rakhine state as Myanmar’s ‘internal affair’ and gave cold shoulders to the fleeing refugees.

Head of Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh Ambassador Rensje Teerink has said the Rohingya issue will not disappear from the agenda until a lasting solution is found even though the world is now facing challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and a situation in Afghanistan.

Flooding, fires and COVID bring fresh challenges for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, UNHCR says.

The World Bank wants the South Asian nation of Bangladesh to prepare a Refugee Policy Review Framework (RPRF) allowing Rohingya freedom of movement and other privileges, including education and jobs, like those enjoyed by Bangladeshis.

Gambia, a small African country, has taken Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for the Rohingya genocide. Gambia has been trying to convict Myanmar of crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in favor of OIC. Gambia represents the whole Africa symbolically in this regard.

Eight months after the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government, the Tatmadaw’s policies have taken Myanmar back in time to the 1980’s when the military ruled unchallenged.

Terrified farmers and families with children in Myanmar are fleeing into India as the military junta that seized power in a February coup continues to seek out and eliminate resistance along the country’s border.

The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, has targeted areas that are home to thousands of armed civilians who call themselves the People’s Defense Force.

To ease pressure from the clogged camps and to address the social, environmental, and security concerns, the Bangladesh Government has initiated the Bhashan Char project. Despite this, it is arguable that Bangladesh’s approach trumps that of the UNHCR in engaging in the Bhashan Char.

A US commission on religious freedom has said that it is “gravely troubled” over the recent wave of violence against the minority Hindu community in Bangladesh and urged the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to launch a crackdown on extremist elements that fan anti-Hindu sentiments.

Violence has been on the rise in the country’s sprawling cluster of refugee settlements, with armed gangs vying for power and kidnapping opponents.

Bangladesh police arrested 172 Rohingya in recent weeks after a crackdown sparked by the brutal murder of a prominent community leader, the force said Monday.

Former U.S. ambassador and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson heads to Myanmar on a private humanitarian mission that will focus on pandemic support

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