The Uneasy Future of Rohingya Muslim Refugees in the World of 2020

Cherise Kim, Editor

Three years ago, the world was shocked to learn the news of the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a minority Muslim group primarily residing in the majority-Buddhist nation of Myanmar. In August of 2017, Myanmar military forces began entering Rohingya villages at random, killing indiscriminately and then leveling their structures to the ground. Global outcry quickly followed. Despite a sharp decrease in media coverage, the crisis is ongoing in 2020. In light of the political and public health firestorm of 2020, what does the future hold for this particularly vulnerable population?

The persecution of the Rohingya people within Myanmar can be traced back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when British colonialism controlled the region. To increase profits from rice cultivation, Britain implemented policies to encourage migrant labor which then led to a threefold increase in the Muslim population within Burma during the subsequent decades. The introduction of Muslims en masse to the majority-Buddhist people of Burma did not go over well, fueling religious and ethnic tensions between the Rohingya and the broader Burmese populace. These only worsened throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, with the vast majority of Rohingya residing in the disproportionately underdeveloped Rakhine State within Myanmar. Despite many being able to trace their Myanmar heritage back several generations, the Rohingya are considered to be illegal immigrants in Myanmar and have been systematically denied both citizenship and voting rights. [1]

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, once hailed as a leader of human rights and awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been decried internationally for the government’s treatment of the Rohingya. In spite of the commitment Suu Kyi made upon her election in 2015 to end military rule through constitutional changes, the military began a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya barely two years later. After a lawsuit was brought against Myanmar and its military at the Hague, Suu Kyi stood behind military leaders and personally defended their actions during the case.

Despite international outrage, however, her ironclad grip and godlike status within Myanmar has not diminished in the slightest; the November 2020 Myanmar general elections saw Suu Kyi’s party winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the legislature. [2] This has several implications. First, it is clear that neither Suu Kyi nor her party are going anywhere anytime soon. Second, the results of the election indicate that a majority of the voters of Myanmar are either apathetic toward or supportive of her actions against the Rohingya.Ultimately, as long as Suu Kyi remains in power, it will not be safe for many Rohingya to return unless there is a drastic shift toward affirming the rights of the Rohingya within Myanmar. This development would have to include granting citizenship to the Rohingya minority as well as all of the rights afforded therein.

As of today, the Rohingya people are still stateless; many who fled now reside in refugee camps within the neighboring country of Bangladesh, which is estimated to host over a million Rohingya refugees. As of December 3, 2020, Bangladesh has now begun the process of relocating many of these refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal despite UN opposition. [3] Considering the strength of popular support for Suu Kyi and her party within Myanmar and, more importantly, the Myanmar government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the persecution they’ve committed, it does not seem likely that political and social conditions will improve enough for the Rohingya to return safely in the near future. 

The global coronavirus pandemic, which has brought even the world’s most highly developed nations to their knees, complicates the crisis even further. The densely populated and often unhygienic conditions of refugee camps enable the rapid, large-scale transmission of COVID-19. People living in these camps have little to no ability to social distance, as well as limited access to hospitals and health services. Many already have weakened immune systems due to past outbreaks of other diseases inside the camps. The disruption of food, medicine, and other supply flows from humanitarian organizations is also a major concern; supplies such as face masks or other personal protective equipment are already in low supply globally. [4]

As of now, it is apparent that the Rohingya humanitarian crisis has not improved since it first began three years ago. Many of the actors involved in this crisis — Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the United Nations — have come to a consensus regarding the ideal fate of the Rohingya: repatriation to Myanmar. However, political conditions within Myanmar make repatriation nearly impossible and the internal conditions of refugee camps leave refugees virtually defenseless against the COVID-19 pandemic.. Repatriation cannot occur until the conditions improve and the Rohingya are allowed to coexist peacefully and equally amongst the Myanmar people. 

However, when considering not only Suu Kyi and her party’s vice-like grip on government and military operations, but also the conditions that enable them to remain in such high esteem among the people, this idealistic coexistence remains a far-fetched daydream. For now, it is imperative that Bangladesh cease its exportation of Rohingya refugees, while working to improve conditions in refugee camps in the face of a pandemic which is poised to inflict irreparable damage on refugee populations.

[1] Albert, Eleanor and Maizland, Lindsay. “The Rohingya Crisis”: Council on Foreign Relations, 2020.

[2] Mahtani, Shibati and Diamond, Cape. “Suu Kyi’s godlike status drove her Myanmar election win. It threatens to rip the country apart.” Washington Post, 2020.

[3] Alam, Julhas. “Bangladesh Begins Relocating Rohingya Refugees to Island” Associated Press, 2020.

[4] Barua, Amit and Karia, Rutu Hitesh. “Challenges Faced by Rohingya Refugees in the COVID-19 Pandemic” Annals of Global Health, 2020.