This week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the ongoing crisis in Myanmar as “ethnic cleansing” against the country’s Rohingya population. Tillerson recently made a fact-finding visit to the Buddhist-majority country, formerly known as Burma.
“After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” Tillerson said. “These abuses by some among the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes have caused tremendous suffering.”

For those who have been working to assist the Rohingya refugees fleeing atrocities in Myanmar, Tillerson’s statement is a welcome change in tone.

GV Wire contributor Josef Namin is among them. He recently returned from a mission to aid Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.  Namin runs the non-profit Mercy Refugees House as a volunteer. His organization is funded by a Fresno-based foundation. He shared details from his recent trip, in this GV Wire exclusive.

Josef Namin and colleagues in Bangladesh aiding Rohingya refugees

GV WIRE: What was the purpose of your trip?

JOSEF NAMIN: We wanted to see firsthand and report on the dire situation of the refugees who are stranded in the border area. I went with a team of three people from Bangladesh plus a driver. A journalist was with us from Cox’s Bazar, a city within 2.5 hours of the border.

The Naf River (see video) runs along the border of southeastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar.  In the last six months over a hundred people have died while trying to cross the river.

Refugees arrive in Bangladesh after walking for days or waiting on the border for a long time and starving. People swarm the boats run by local fishers trying to help them and often times they drown in the river due to the large number of refugees in the boats.  We want the world to know more about the plight of the Rohingya refugees and take action so that they can put pressure on Myanmar’s regime to stop the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya Muslims.

There are no Bangladeshi boats run by the government and in fact, in the past, Bangladeshi border guards have tried to force the refugees to return back to their own country. We see this happening all over the world where the refugees are not welcomed and are forced to return back to the countries they are fleeing from.

GV WIRE: Describe the refugee situation in that area of Bangladesh.

JOSEF NAMIN: This was our second trip to the refugee camps and on each trip, we visited the camps several times. Our team, based in Cox’s Bazar, visits the camp on a regular basis. We are working closely with some 40 Rohingya who have some education and we are trying to empower them to help their own communities. So, we are in constant contact with them and are aware of their situation in various camps and along the border.

You have a situation where one of the poorest countries in the world has had to deal with over half a million refugees within a 6 month period. Bangladesh is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also one of the most corrupt. The Bangladeshi government is not even facilitating or helping NGOs to operate in their country to help the refugees. So, the lack of management results in extreme hardship for the refugees.  On the other hand, the Bangladeshi people have been very kind and generous in helping the refugees.  I saw, firsthand, people coming from remote parts of Bangladesh trying to bring food, rice, clothing, and other resources to help the refugees.

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The situation of the refugees is very dire. People, especially children, are malnourished. I interviewed a few doctors and they told me that they commonly see this among the children.  You have over 1,500 orphans whose parents were shot and killed by the Buddhists (vigilantes) or Myanmar army. We met families whose children were lost when they were crossing the border, elderly who could not walk, people who have been severely beaten and tortured. We have met and registered many women who were raped by the Buddhists and the Myanmar army. In the summer, they lived under the scorching sun and now they are facing cold nights with no blankets or proper camp or tents.

The UNHCR and other NGOs have not been able to cope or control the situation due to their lack of resources or will.  The international community must take swift action to address this situation.

GV WIRE: What do refugees tell you about the conditions in Myanmar?

JOSEF NAMIN: They are suffering from lack of food and shelter.  The mothers have no milk to give to their babies and the babies are constantly crying from hunger and lack of clothing. They also suffer from the lack of sanitary conditions and medical care.  The area is also among the places where you have to be careful about malaria. They are suffering from the lack of education that could help them on family planning, sanitary condition, health, and coping with mental pains and suffering.  The psychological pains as a result of their treatment by the Myanmar regime and their current situation have manifested in their physical ailment and sufferings to some extent and for that matter, they are suffering from various physical problems.

GV WIRE: How are refugees coping with this tragic situation?

They are not able to cope with it.  They spend their days under the hot and scorching sun. And they are hungry, with unsanitary conditions and a lack of drinking water. And their nights are spent in cold and dark makeshift camps if they are lucky.

GV WIRE: Do these Rohingya refugees have any hope of returning to Myanmar or are they permanently displaced? 

JOSEF NAMIN: There are many Rohingya refugees who have been in Bangladesh for the last 25 years and they are still in refugees status. The Bangladeshi government does not grant them the right to citizenship, the right to work, right to education, or anything.

The international community and especially the United State and the European Union must put more pressure on Myanmar government to change its behavior and stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.  The UNHCR should pay more attention to the refugees in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Also, the international community and Muslim countries should help the Bangladeshi government more in managing the refugee crisis.

Ideally, refugee management should not be handled only by the Bangladeshi army. The Bangladeshi government should give the refugees more rights and opportunities to work and move around. Currently, they are restricted to their camps and can not go to any cities for any reason, except for medical emergencies.

Unless there is international pressure on the Myanmar regime to restore to the Rohingya the citizenship they had before the military took over the regime, sad to say that there is no hope or future for the Rohingya refugees.  They want to go back to their own land and live there freely and peacefully like any other people in their own country.

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