Weekend Essay: Rohingya refugees are being forced to suffer even more

The effects of an unconscionable cut in food rations could be catastrophic and long-lasting

Reuters/AFP/Nick Donaldson
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This week, just a few weeks before the start of Ramadan, a fire displaced 15,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh after escaping attacks by the Myanmar military.

Images of the raging fire captured the attention of people around the world. Unfortunately, an even more dangerous threat to the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has generated little to no attention – the lethal impact of international indifference that has led to an unconscionable cut in food rations for the refugees.

Last week the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were told that the World Food Programme (WFP) had cut their food rations by 17 per cent. Even worse, without a commitment of new funding from the international community, food rations may be cut even further in just a few weeks, forcing the Rohingya to try to make do with food rations valued at $0.27 per day.

The reason for this nightmare is simple – UN member states have short-changed the WFP’s food ration fund for Rohingya refugees by $125 million. The Rohingya, who are commonly referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority, are now being forced to suffer even more.

This week I spoke with desperate families in the camps who had already been forced to cut back on essential food items due to a spike in prices. Indeed, even before the announcement of cuts, food rations were already woefully inadequate for the Rohinyga confined to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Forty per cent of Rohingya children are currently suffering from stunted growth; 51 per cent of Rohingya children and 41 per cent of pregnant and breastfeeding Rohingya women are anaemic; 45 per cent of all Rohingya families in the camps are living with insufficient diets.

WFP staff report that the impact of these cuts could be catastrophic and long-lasting. Malnutrition and adverse health outcomes could spike in the community and the development of Rohingya children could be severely impaired. Perversely, the present rations cuts will drive up future budgetary needs, compelling the WFP to implement supplementary programmes to deal with acute malnutrition.

This is shameful. Many UN member states have offered rhetorical support for the Rohingya. But Rohingya families cannot eat political rhetoric. Frankly, governments that continue to refuse to provide adequate funding for Rohingya food rations should spare us their hollow expressions of concern and support.

For decades the Rohingya have faced discrimination, persecution and violence in western Myanmar. Rohingya women have been targeted with sexual and gender-based violence. They have been systematically denied citizenship and deprived of basic rights, including freedom of movement. Decades of persecution and state-sponsored violence led to attacks in 2016 and 2017 that pushed more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they joined Rohingya that had arrived years earlier. The more than 600,000 left behind in Myanmar continue to be denied basic rights, none more so than the 130,000 who remain confined in internment camps.

The February 2021 military coup further dimmed hopes of a safe, dignified and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar in the near future.

In December 2021, I visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Living conditions were dire. Substandard housing and severe overcrowding threaten the health and lives of camp residents. Armed groups have murdered community leaders, and girls and women face the constant threat of sexual and gender-based violence.

More refugees could soon seek dangerous ways out

Rohingya refugees, unable to leave the camps, told me about restrictions on small-scale economic activities, leaving them entirely reliant on assistance from the international community. I spoke to aid workers who, despite valiant efforts to provide sustenance and support to refugees, were concerned about widespread malnutrition and other adverse health impacts.

The impact of the ration cuts will extend beyond dietary and health concerns. I was told that the cut in food rations has already increased tensions in the camps, making life even more dangerous. Women and adolescent girls are facing the heightened risks of trafficking and forced marriage. Domestic violence may rise.

More refugees could soon seek dangerous ways out. According to the UN refugee agency, last year more than 3,500 Rohingya people made perilous boat journeys across the Indian Ocean to try to escape deprivation in Bangladesh and persecution in western Myanmar. This is a 360 per cent increase over the previous year. More than 300 people are believed to have drowned or died from hunger or dehydration. Thousands more undertook dangerous overland journeys to try to reach Malaysia or other locations. If the rations cuts are not quickly reversed, these numbers are certain to rise as people decide it is better to gamble their lives at sea than slowly starve in refugee camps.

The WFP’s rations cuts are a symptom of world indifference and a chronic underfunding of the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. In 2022, donors provided only 63 per cent of the $881 million required for humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. The UN is expecting this unconscionable trend to continue in 2023.

Last week I sent a letter to every UN member state, pleading that they respond to the WFP’s appeal for food ration support and fully fund the UN’s Rohingya refugee response plan. Previous donors to the Rohingya refugee response – led by the US, UK and EU – must reaffirm their commitment to the Rohingya and renew or, even better, increase their contributions.

Those who have failed to provide any support for the UN appeal for the Rohingya in Bangladesh must step up. According to public data made available by the UN, Japan and South Korea were the only Asian countries to provide more than $1 million in funding for Rohingya refugees, contributing roughly $15 million and $2 million, respectively. Members of Asean, the regional intergovernmental body in South-east Asia, are notably missing from the list of donors, outside of a $50,000 contribution from Thailand.

Tragically, member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have provided little to no funding to the UN Rohingya response plan. It was reported that the lone financial contribution from an OIC member to the 2022 Rohingya emergency response plan was a $1 million donation from the UAE.

The OIC has been among the most vocal supporters of the Rohingya. They have demanded accountability for the Myanmar military for its crimes against the Rohingya and lead an annual Human Rights Council resolution on the situation of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar. In 2019, the Gambia brought a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice on behalf of the OIC alleging violations of the Genocide Convention in relation to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya.

Vocal support for the Rohingya is important, but thousands of malnourished Rohingya children and their families need action, and they need it now. The fire that destroyed 2,000 Rohingya refugee shelters this week was extinguished. But hunger and desperation, fuelled by world indifference, continues to rage in the camps. It is long past time for the nations of the world to come to the aid of a people who desperately need our support. It is literally a matter of life and death.

Published: March 10, 2023, 6:00 PM