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Ten Years for the Rohingya Refugees: Past, present and future

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The year 2002 marks the 10th anniversary of the flight of the Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State, Myanmar to Bangladesh. Discrimination, violence and forced labour practices by the Myanmar authorities triggered an exodus of more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims between 1991 and 1992. Over the years, approximately 232,000 refugees have been repatriated to Myanmar under the supervision of the UNHCR, and 21,600 remain in two camps.

The 10th anniversary comes at a time when the world is challenged with a growing number of refugees, and the right to asylum and funding for refugee assistance and protection are ever diminishing. The Rohingya refugee – unwanted in his/her land of birth, and no longer welcomed in his/her land of refuge – is mired in the consequences of this trend, facing an uncertain future.

Throughout their decade of exile, the Rohingya refugees have endured conditions that have fallen far short of the commitments guaranteed to them in the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. Today, the refugees still live in emergency-like conditions that are substandard and unhealthy. Not allowed to leave the camp freely, they have been confined to overcrowded, tight spaces, with insufficient water, inadequate shelter, and few educational opportunities. The majority of the refugees are malnourished. They do not have sufficient food to feed their families, nor are they allowed to work or farm. As a result, 58 percent of the refugee children suffer from chronic malnutrition, exposing them to disease and hampering their physical and mental development.

Over the years, the Rohingyas have confronted waves of aggression and intimidation. Many have been sent back to Myanmar against their will, in violation of the principle of voluntary repatriation. Though incidents of involuntary repatriation have declined in recent years, hostility and violence by camp officials persist.

Since 1992, Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland (MSF) has provided outpatient and in-patient care to the Rohingya refugees, operated feeding centres for malnourished children and mothers, and assisted in water and sanitation services. As a medical, humanitarian organisation, MSF is bound not only to attend to the medical and humanitarian needs of the refugees, but also to address the abuse and neglect of their rights. MSF feels obligated to convey the refugees’ experiences to the international community to encourage solutions that best preserve their human dignity.

The purpose of this report is to provide an understanding of the condition of the Rohingya refugee now and over the last decade. The report will first look briefly at the past, providing a short history of the Rohingya Muslim group and reasons for their flight from Myanmar. Next, it will examine the present humanitarian situation of the refugees in the camps and the issues surrounding their safety and protection. Finally, it will ponder the future of the refugees and what their options are, if any, for a lasting solution.

Interwoven throughout the document are some of the refugees’ reflections on the past, present, and future, extracted from conversations with MSF staff in recent months, and from a casual survey conducted by MSF in January 2002. It is hoped that the reader will take away from this report an image of the Rohingya refugee not as a burden nor ‘residual caseload,’ but as a human being, with hopes, needs, and rights.