A year after fleeing Burma, Rohingya refugees face uncertain future

Rohingya refugees at the border of Burma and BangladeshCredit HLA HLA HTAY AFP Getty Images Rohingya refugees at the border of Burma and Bangladesh.  | HLA-HLA HTAY/AFP/Getty Images

One year after the Burmese government launched a brutal campaign of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, human rights activists are calling for increased international efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugees.

"It has be[en] one year since the men, women and children were traumatized and essentially wiped out of their native lands," said the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma.

"Nearly a million indigenous Burmese are now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh today… the time for talking is over, and the time to act is now," the coalition said in an Aug. 24 statement. It urged the U.S. government to issue an official genocide declaration and impose sanctions on the Burmese government.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Burma (Myanmar). The Burmese government refuses to use the term Rohingya, and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship and numerous other rights since a controversial law was enacted in 1982.

On Aug. 24 last year, a small group of Rohingya militants attacked several Burmese police posts, leaving a dozen security officers dead. The next day, the Burmese military launched renewed attacks against the Rohingya, burning villages and killing civilians in a military campaign later declared by the United Nations as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

More than half a million Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh, where they remain in overcrowded refugee camps.

Catholic Relief Services has warned that the refugee settlements "have grown rapidly and spontaneously, leading to extremely congested shelters vulnerable to flooding, landslides and other hazards. The risks are especially high with the arrival of cyclone season."

According to the BBC, nearly 100,000 people in the refugee camps have been treated for malnutrition.

In the last year, it is estimated that more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Burma, taking shelter in Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh, where they joined some 200,000 Rohingya refugees who had previously been displaced from their homeland.

While the Burmese government has recently claimed that the Rohingya are peacefully returning to their homes, U.S. journalists visiting the area argued that this was not the case.

Catholic Relief Services is working with Caritas Bangladesh to help provide refugees with supplies including blankets, hygiene products and clean water, as well as to train the community to help avoid trafficking and violence.

In the coming months, CRS and Caritas are focusing on the creation of more durable shelters and safe environments for women and children.

Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the United Nation's refugee agency, stressed that one year after the mass exodus of Rohingya from Burma, it is clear that international cooperation is necessary to achieve a solution.

"The collective international responsibility for protecting and finding solutions for these refugees must remain a priority for all countries in the region and beyond," he said at a press briefing Aug. 24.

"Kutupalong settlement in Cox's Bazar shelters today more than 600,000 refugees, making it the largest and most densely populated refugee settlement in the world," he said. "This brings daily challenges of delivering shelter, water and sanitation and access to basic services, as well as protection considerations such as the safety of women and girls."

In a 2017 trip to Bangladesh, Pope Francis met with a group of Rohingya and offered them his prayers and condolences for what they had endured.

"In the name of all who have persecuted you and persecute you, that have done you harm, above all, the world's indifference, I ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness," the Pope said in a Dec. 1, 2017 meeting with Rohingya.

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Although there's "little we can do because your tragedy is very hard and great," he told them "we give you space in the heart."

He explained that according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created man in his image and likeness.

"All of us are in this image, also these brothers and sisters, they too are in the image of God," he said.

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