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Humanitarian Experts Debate Intervention Strategies in Rohingya Crisis

By Candace Huntington

A year after over 700,000 stateless Rohingya fled a military crackdown in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, the refugee crisis remains one of the largest in the world — yet it doesn’t always receive as much international attention as other humanitarian catastrophes.

Along with the 400,000 Rohingyas already stranded in Bangladesh, this latest exodus means that well over 1 million Rohingyas are now crammed into one of the most crowded nations on Earth.

On July 19, humanitarian experts gathered for a Women’s Foreign Policy Group (WFPG) panel to discuss the ongoing crisis and the atrocities committed against the Rohingya — including large-scale killings and rapes that the U.N. calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” — with a specific focus on the impact that the crisis has had on women and girls.

Widely known as “the world’s most persecuted minority,” the Rohingya have faced deep-rooted, widespread repression in the region that has spanned decades. The majority-Muslim ethnic group has reportedly inhabited the land of Myanmar since the 12th century, mainly congregating in the Rakhine state on the nation’s western coast. Over 1 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar, yet the minority group has suffered extensive discrimination on the part of the Buddhist majority, leading to mass migration to neighboring states. Effectively denied citizenship in Myanmar under a 1982 citizenship law, they are one of the largest stateless populations in the world.

Members of the U.N. Security Council delegation visit the Kutupalong Refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh on April 29, 2018. The camp is currently the world's largest refugee settlement and hosts around 600,000 Rohingya refugees. (U.N. Photo / Caroline Gluck)

Several waves of immigration have taken place over the past century. The first wave occurred in 1978, followed by subsequent flows in 1982, 1992 and 2012. The majority of refugees migrated between 2015 and 2017. Bangladesh has taken in the brunt of refugees, even though the poor nation is not equipped to handle the influx and Rohingyas have been forced to live in massive camps that lack basic necessities.

Despite a fragile deal worked out between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the Rohingya to return home, many refuse to go back, fearing for their lives.

The camps are wholly dependent on the humanitarian aid that international NGOs and various governments provide since the conflict began. Sarah Craven of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) described the dire state of Cox’s Bazar, the southeastern waterfront town of Bangladesh where as of May 24, roughly 950,000 Rohingya had settled. Bangladesh is in the midst of monsoon season, which presents further challenges for the refugees and humanitarian organizations in the region. “There’s vulnerability in these overcrowded, insecure camps and as many as 200,000 may need to be relocated due to flooding in this position, with 30,000 who are already affected,” Craven said.

“The entire humanitarian system in Bangladesh is under a tremendous, tremendous amount of pressure that is nearly unparalleled. We say that with every crisis but then every crisis seems to continue to get worse,” Francisca Vigaud-Walsh of Refugees International said. “We haven’t seen this level — or the rapid scale of this emergency — since I would say South Sudan, when at its height you were seeing at some point 3,000 to 4,000 people coming into Uganda per day. It’s really somewhat unprecedented.”

Yet what sets this crisis apart is the particularly high frequency of gender-based violence cases. Vigaud-Walsh argued that “there hasn’t been an emergency where there has been such a highlight on sexual violence as a tool of war since probably Eastern Congo.”

The U.N. and other agencies have reported widespread and methodical cases of Rohingya women being brutally raped and gang-raped by Myanmar security forces, at times with their husbands and children watching helplessly before being killed.

Members of the U.N. Security Council visit Kuna Para, the so called “No Man’s Land” between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where around 4,000 Rohingya are staying. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault in the crowded refugee camps. (U.N. Photo / Caroline Gluck)

Even once they escaped to Bangladesh, these women’s plight is far from over. According to Vigaud-Walsh, over 50 percent of Rohingyas arriving in Bangladesh are women and girls, who resort to living in squalid, lawless refugee camps that leave them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, child marriages and sex trafficking.

“These women are living in very crowded refugee camps; they do not have access to safe and locked latrines, which puts them at risk for gender-based violence. They often have no ability to have a dignified space to change or to feel safe. They have a lack of access to menstrual management materials. So these are women who you can imagine have left their home in a rush, have fled, coming in this panic — they don’t have any way to restore their health or dignity.”

Birthrates have skyrocketed within the Rohingya community, with a projected 10,000 women who will give birth in the next couple months, 2,500 of whom are at risk for possibly deadly complications because of conditions in the camps.

UNFPA, as part of the U.N. joint response plan, has implemented programs to specifically target the issues Rohingya women and girls are facing. Since the start of the crisis, the organization has established 19 “women-friendly” spaces designed to be safe zones for women to receive a wide range of care, which Craven stressed are “incredibly essential in a hot, overcrowded, male-dominated camp.” Resources at these spaces include counselling, especially for victims of sexual assault, and opportunities to rest away from the chaotic camps. UNFPA has also established 18 clinics that offer sexual and reproductive health resources.

In addition, UNFPA has developed a midwife training program alongside the Bangladeshi government to help address the widespread at-home births in the Rohingya camps. Since UNFPA began operating in Bangladesh, it has successfully delivered 2,418 babies in their clinics, and it predicts that 1,5000 more will be born within the next couple months. It has also treated 14,000 cases of sexual assault.

While there are a significant number of organizations like UNFPA operating in Bangladesh, many lack the resources and funding to meet the sheer need of destitute Rohingya refugees.

“UNFPA is facing a funding gap of $3.7 million through our own efforts to address the crisis. That’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s a key amount of money, because these kind of small interventions, especially the psycho-social counseling — the treatment and the services — can make the difference between life and death for women.”

But many organizations within the humanitarian community have conflicting opinions on how to treat the trauma of gender-based violence and how to spread the word about the clinics established for women.

The safe spaces vary in quality. There aren’t nearly enough to serve all the women who are in need, and the safe spaces that do exist are often lacking in services that their parent NGOs claim to provide.

“Where these services do exist, I have serious concerns about the programming quality and the respect of guiding principles that underpin gender-based violence interventions,”

Vigaud-Walsh said. “Some examples of those are, in the initial stages, many of these women-friendly spaces were staffed by male caseworkers and managed by men. What woman is going to go and disclose to a Rohingya or a Bangladeshi male?” Vigaud-Walsh argued that the Bangladeshi government has actually made it difficult for NGOs trying to address these issues “through its undue burdens and restrictions.” Many of the services provided by NGOs to address gender-based violence aren’t considered “lifesaving” resources to the Bangladeshi government, which has slowed the process of getting help to these communities. Some NGOs have only just been approved to operate within Bangladesh, nine months after the first exodus of refugees.

Craven concluded that the main challenge is policy recommendations. “All of you came today because you care about this issue but unfortunately, when we come to talk about prioritizing in a conflict setting, the needs of women and girls are often on the bottom of the agenda.”

Candace Huntington is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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