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

1-2 million

people displaced

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).

The Key Actors

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.”

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.

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