As Monsoon Season Nears, Dangerous New Crisis Looms for Myanmar Refugees in Bangladesh, United Nations High Commissioner Warns Security Council
More than five months since the start of the violence that forced 688,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar into Bangladesh, a dangerous new crisis loomed, while restrictions on humanitarian access to the conflict areas posed a serious concern, the Security Council heard today, as it was briefed on the most recent developments in the region.
With the monsoon season set to begin in March, an estimated 107,000 refugees were living in areas in Bangladesh that were prone to flooding or landslides, warned Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stressing: “We are now in a race against time as a major new emergency looms.”
Tens of thousands of particularly vulnerable refugees needed to be urgently relocated, the foundations of existing shelters needed to be strengthened, bridges needed to be built and reinforced, and new land must be found and made available, he underlined.
Although the influx of new refugees into Bangladesh was now significantly reduced, the conditions were not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, he continued, emphasizing that preserving the right of return and pursuing the conditions that would enable it to be exercised must remain a central priority.
Education and skill development opportunities would be critical to avoid the deep despair that could set in when refugees were abandoned on the margins of society, he said, underscoring that failing to do so would lead to disillusionment and radicalization, while also exposing refugees to protection risks, including sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and other forms of abuse.
In Myanmar, there was little sense of whether humanitarian needs were being met, said Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, who noted that most humanitarian organizations that previously worked in Rakhine were currently not allowed to enter the area. Further, the United Nations did not have sufficient access to make a meaningful assessment of the humanitarian or human rights situation.
He stressed that humanitarian access to the affected areas of Rakhine should be immediately granted, while expressing concern that fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States had escalated in recent months, which had cast a shadow on peace negotiations and provoked serious human rights and humanitarian concerns. As in Rakhine, the Government had severely restricted humanitarian access in many of the most critical areas, which meant that the United Nations was unable to verify the number of people affected.
The Russian Federation’s representative stressed that, although the situation in Rakhine State continued to be complex, overall, it was under control thanks to the efforts of the Myanmar authorities to improve the socioeconomic situation of the state. He warned that using labels and attempting to use contradictory and subjective media reports only moved a solution further away.
The representative of the United Kingdom lamented that Rohingya refugees had suffered violence, including rape, murder and the burning of their villages. Further details emerged last week of atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces, and even now Rohingya fled starvation. What was happening was ethnic cleansing, he said.
The United States representative said powerful forces in the Myanmar Government had denied the ethnic cleaning in Rakhine State, but were denying access to anyone who might witness their atrocities. The Government should allow food for the starving, medical care for the wounded and psychological services for the sexually abused. The world was watching and waiting for Myanmar to act.
The representative of Myanmar said that his country was fully aware that it had the primary responsibility to protect its own people, noting that the Government and the Union Enterprise had been providing food and household needs to all communities in Rakhine, in addition to building infrastructure and business activities for economic development in the region. Concerning allegations of human rights violations, the Government would not condone any such abuses and if there was concrete evidence of such crimes, action would be taken.
He highlighted that his country and Bangladesh had made significant progress in their bilateral efforts for the repatriation of displaced persons, and according to the physical arrangement agreement for repatriation signed by the two sides in January, Myanmar would receive 300 returnees a day. That number would be increased based on the progress of the returns and reviewed in three months, while the number of transit caps and reception centres could be increased as the repatriation process progressed.
Bangladesh’s representative said that, despite claims otherwise, the influx of Rohingya into his country continued unabated, underlining that some 1,500 new arrivals had crossed in the first 10 days of February. Those arrivals cited persistent threats from security forces and armed vigilantes, acute food shortages, the destruction of and denial of access to local markets, the forced closure of businesses and alleged abductions of girls and young women, as well as sexual violence and enslavement as reasons for their continued exodus.
Also speaking today were the representatives of the France, China, Sweden, Peru, Ethiopia, Netherlands, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Kazakhstan, Bolivia and Kuwait.
The meeting began at 10:13 a.m. and ended at 12:43 p.m.
MIROSLAV JENČA, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, briefing the Security Council on the situation in Myanmar, said that it had been five months since the start of the violence that had forced 688,000 Rohingya across the border. The Secretary-General had laid out priorities that provided an important framework for assessing the situation. An end to the violence and an improvement in the security situation was needed. Although large-scale acts of violence had subsided, concerns persisted over threats and intimidation against the remaining Rohingya population from Bamar and Rakhine communities, as well as from there military and security forces in Rakhine State.
Humanitarian access in the affected areas of Rakhine should be immediately granted, he said. The majority of humanitarian organizations that previously worked in Rakhine were not allowed to enter the area, and the United Nations did not have sufficient access to make a meaningful assessment of the humanitarian or human rights situation. As a result, there was little sense of whether humanitarian needs were being met. Refugees and internally displaced persons must be returned to their places of origin or choice in a voluntary and safe manner. The Secretary-General had underlined the importance of implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, as a key element for a safe and dignified return. In line with the Council’s presidential statement of 6 November 2017, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten concluded her first official visit to Myanmar in December 2017. In her consultations, she advocated for the swift adoption of a joint communiqué of the Government of Myanmar and the United Nations on the prevention and response to conflict-related sexual violence.
He also expressed concern that fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States had escalated in recent months. That had cast a shadow on peace negotiations and provoked many serious human rights and humanitarian concerns. Such concerns included the situation in Tanai, Kachin, where many civilians had been killed or injured, while as many as 5,000 civilians were reportedly unable to leave the area where the fighting was ongoing. As in Rakhine State, the Government had severely restricted humanitarian access in many of the most critical areas. The United Nations was therefore unable to verify the number of people affected.
FILIPPO GRANDI, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, briefing via videoconference from Geneva, said that it had been six months since the current rapid, chaotic outflow of more than 688,000 refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh began, driven by violence and destruction following decades of deep repression and exclusion. That movement was now significantly reduced, but continued, with some 1,500 Rohingya refugees having arrived in Bangladesh already in February. The Government of Bangladesh, together with highly skilled national and local organizations, as well as the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, had mounted an impressive response, yet conditions remained overcrowded and precarious for many, with significant risk of disease outbreaks, including diphtheria.
“We are now in a race against time as a major new emergency looms,” he warned, noting that the monsoon season would start in March and that an estimated 107,000 refugees were living in areas that were prone to flooding or landslides. Tens of thousands of particularly vulnerable refugees needed to be urgently relocated, the foundations of existing shelters needed to be strengthened, bridges needed to be built and reinforced and new land must be found and made available. The Kutupalong area in Cox’s Bazar was now the largest refugee settlement in the world, with its own character, economy and emerging social structures. “From the very early days when refugees were first arriving stunned, exhausted, often injured and traumatized, their resilience was also striking,” he said. Resolving the crisis meant finding solutions inside Myanmar, while humanitarian action and funding must be sustained and longer-term support was required to help the Government of Bangladesh.
Education and skill development opportunities would be critical to avoid the deep despair that could set in when refugees were abandoned on the margins of society, he said, stressing that failing to do so would inevitably lead to disillusionment and radicalization, while also exposing refugees to protection risks, including sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and other forms of abuse and exploitation. Yet, the causes of the crisis originated in Myanmar and a genuine search for solutions must finally start. The conditions were not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees, yet preserving the right of return and pursuing the conditions that would enable it to be exercised must remain a central priority. The construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation. “An end to violence and destruction of property and granting humanitarian access throughout Rakhine State — as called for by the Secretary-General — were critical, basic steps,” he emphasized.
Humanitarian access remained extremely restricted, he continued, noting that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had not had access to affected areas of the northern part of Rakhine State, beyond Maungdaw town, since August 2017 and its access in central Rakhine had also been curtailed. Refugees must determine the timing and pace of returns, and in that context, building their confidence was key. Addressing the root causes of the violence and systemic discrimination that had driven hundreds of thousands from their homes repeatedly over decades and securing solutions to the current crisis, would require substantial support to both Myanmar and Bangladesh. International political engagement, technical expertise and financial resources would be needed on both sides of the border, including for humanitarian and targeted development activities. If solutions were successfully pursued, there was the potential for significant dividends across the wider region, helping prevent violent extremism, foster stability and spur economic development.
JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) said that the Council had stated in November 2017 that the Rohingya refugees should be allowed to return to their homes voluntarily and with dignity. The Council had a duty to ensure that those words were matched by action. Those refugees had suffered violence, including rape, murder and the burning of their villages. More details emerged last week of atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces, and even now Rohingya fled starvation. What was happening was ethnic cleansing, he said. He welcomed the Myanmar Government’s willingness to work with that of Bangladesh on the issue of return. The conditions in Rakhine did not yet allow for the safe return of refugees. The November 2017 presidential statement remained the guiding framework for the actions that needed to be taken. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh must cooperate fully with the United Nations and UNHCR, which was the only organization that had the expertise to handle the return of refugees on such a scale. Parties should take concrete steps to ensure that refugees should not be sent to internment camps. Dismantling internally displaced persons camps and supporting their inhabitants in returning home would be a positive measure, he said. He urged the international community to do more to support Bangladesh as it hosted the Rohingya refugees.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said that the situation for the Rohingya was a source of serious concern. In terms of the central question of the return of refugees in Bangladesh, he said that country’s hosting of that population should be saluted by the international community. The conditions for their return had not been met. It was crucial that UNHCR be part of discussions as part of a tripartite agreement with Myanmar and Bangladesh. There was also a need to strengthen the commitment on the demands made by the Council in its presidential statement. If those demands were met, they would create the conditions for the safe and dignified return of refugees. The first demand was to put an end to violence in Rakhine. There were still reports on the deplorable living conditions of those that remained, and the protection of that population remained a priority. The United Nations should continue to be mobilized, and much progress remained to be accomplished, he said.
MA ZHAOXU (China) underlined that his delegation attached great importance to the situation in Rakhine State and had provided emergency humanitarian relief to the displaced, while also working with Myanmar and Bangladesh to encourage dialogue aimed at ending the crisis. The first phase to resolving the crisis was to cease hostilities and restore stability and order, while the second phase was to seek viable measures to find solutions through dialogue. Those objectives had largely been achieved, while the third phase aimed at adopting measures to address poverty through development would take more time. The problem in Myanmar’s Rakhine State had a complex background and could not be solved overnight. The situation on the ground had been visibly eased and humanitarian relief efforts had been carried out, while the affected countries had engaged in productive consultations. China noted that the process of repatriation had been delayed and hoped that the international community could objectively observe the difficulties encountered and remain patient and provide support. His country hoped that Myanmar and Bangladesh would continue to implement relevant measures and that the international community and the Security Council would play a constructive role in that process.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden) welcomed the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the voluntary return of refugees, adding however that conditions were not yet safe for Rohingya refugees to return. UNHCR must be given access to Rakhine to assess the situation and support return operations. Those who returned should be able to do so to their places of origin and the creation of camp-like arrangements in Rakhine must be avoided. He emphasized the need to fully implement the Security Council presidential statement adopted in November 2017, as well as the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission report, including a genuine process towards citizenship for the Rohingya. Reports of crimes against humanity must be fully investigated and those responsible held to account, he said, urging Myanmar to cooperate with the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission. Long‑term planning and humanitarian support for refugees in Bangladesh must continue, he added, warning that the coming monsoon rains could trigger a new crisis within a crisis.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) said his delegation was greatly concerned by the situation facing Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, including the risk of new disasters and diseases with the approaching monsoon season. The absence of the necessary conditions to guarantee the return of refugees in a voluntary, secure and sustainable fashion was also of great concern. He stressed the importance of recognizing the full citizenship of the members of the Rohingya community, while underlining that discrimination and hate speech were unacceptable. Myanmar and Bangladesh must be supported by the international community and the United Nations in particular to bring the crisis to an end. The Government of Myanmar must guarantee full and unrestricted access to humanitarian actors, while particular attention must be paid to women and girls, including those that had suffered from sexual violence. The Human Rights Council must investigate violations of human rights to identify those responsible and hold them accountable.
TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia) said that the situation of the Rohingya refugees was a source of great concern, including the massive humanitarian challenges that forced them to flee in the first place. There was a need to end the violence in Rakhine State and create the conditions for the safe and dignified return of the displaced. Enhanced communication and cooperation between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh was essential and the role of the international community was extremely important in support of those efforts. Addressing the root causes of the problem was the most important facet of the crisis, which would require the sustained engagement of the Government of Myanmar to ensure that all communities were treated with respect. A Security Council visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar could be helpful in supporting both countries to address the crisis.
KAREL JAN GUSTAAF VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands) called on the Government of Myanmar to respect the rights of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and let journalists work independently and without undue interference, as stated in Security Council resolution 2222 (2015). Access to Rakhine State for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations was a prerequisite for establishing if it was safe enough for refugees to return. He called on Myanmar to allow access to the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission and encouraged it to access the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court through accession or self-referral. Myanmar should also establish a timed action plan for the full implementation of the Advisory Commission recommendations, with improved living conditions and an end to decades of discrimination. With the rainy season approaching, the international community should support Bangladesh’s efforts to shelter Rohingya on its soil.
NIKKI R. HALEY (United States) said that few reports got out because of lack of access. The Associated Press had recently told the story of a Rohingya man called Noor Kadir, whose fellow villagers were massacred. The Government had regularly denied the existence of mass graves and claimed to be fighting terrorists. The Associated Press reporters who uncovered those atrocities deserved praise, as it was not easy or safe to report from Myanmar. Reuters had recently reported a story of a mass grave of 10 Rohingya men. The police claimed that the Rohingya men attacked them, but Reuters reporters had photos that contradicted that claim. Those journalists remained incarcerated without bail, and she called for their unconditional release. Powerful forces in the Government had denied the ethnic cleaning in Rakhine State, and were denying access to anyone who might witness their atrocities. The Government should allow food for the starving, medical care for the wounded and psychological services for the sexually abused. The world was watching and waiting for Myanmar to act. That country had the gall to blame the media, when reporters were an indispensable source of information. She was grateful to Bangladesh and understood the burden it was carrying regarding refugees from Myanmar.
BERNARD TANOH-BOUTCHOUE (Côte d'Ivoire) said that Myanmar had seen one of the most serious humanitarian crises unfold. That situation required attention from the international community, particularly the United Nations, which must take measures to find a viable and lasting solution to the tragedy. He considered that the return of the Rohingya to their homes was a moral duty for the entire international community. He was concerned over recent developments that indicated an uninterrupted flow of people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, and said that concrete solutions to the crisis must be found. He hailed the agreement on 23 November 2017 between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of displaced people. His country was concerned over restrictions to humanitarian access and impediments to freedom of expression. Those raised doubts over the possibility of the safe return of refugees, he said. He praised the Government and people of Bangladesh for the commitment they had demonstrated to help.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) said the complex nature of the crisis in Myanmar required a global and integrated approach. The current effort to address the humanitarian crisis should be combined with long-term goals, he stressed, adding that temporary solutions must be combined with efforts that addressed the root causes of the conflict, including the critical issue of poverty. It was concerning to see how the crisis was affecting the most vulnerable populations, and in that context, he called on the Government of Myanmar to assume its responsibilities and find a way to put in place an immediate solution. Accusations of ethnic cleansing must be treated seriously and possible perpetrators must face justice. Myanmar must guarantee security in Rakhine State, which included combating terrorist attacks. The Government had the obligation to guarantee that all populations could fully enjoy their rights throughout the country. The first requirement for a concerted solution with regard to the massive population movement from Myanmar to Bangladesh was good will on the part of both countries.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said that her delegation looked forward to the report of the Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission which was due in March; although she regretted that the mission was not allowed to visit all parts of the country. The voluntary repatriation of Rohingya must be safe, voluntary and dignified. It was the responsibility of the Myanmar Government to ensure that the displaced had a safe place to return to so they could live in peace. Humanitarian assistance would be critical to fulfil that obligation. Poland was ready to provide necessary assistance through the United Nations system to find a long-term solution to the crisis, although she said reports of mass graves in Myanmar were troubling. There must be efforts undertaken to ensure that the perpetrators of those acts were held accountable. The most vulnerable suffered the most in such crises, and in that connection, she said the situation of women and children was heartbreaking.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) said his delegation welcomed the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the voluntary return of refugees to Myanmar. He praised the work of the joint working group of Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, he noted that the repatriation process had been postponed due to the difficulties in compiling and verifying the list of people to be repatriated, as well as the absence of necessary safeguards for potential returnees. He also saw the value in the request of Bangladesh that UNHCR be involved in verifying the resettlement process. Unhindered access to humanitarian assistance was crucial in Myanmar, and he called upon its Government to allow unfettered and safe access to United Nations agencies. He applauded the hospitality of the Bangladesh Government, which was providing refugees with shelter, medical care, food and other forms of assistance. He also noted the efforts of the Myanmar Government to stabilize the situation in northern Rakhine. At the same time, he expressed deep concern over the information regarding mass graves in Myanmar. He also noted the statement of the spokesperson of the Myanmar Government that “actions according to the law” would be taken against those security forces who killed 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Dinn.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) said that, despite progress, he expressed his concern for the consequences that continued to occur due to the violence perpetrated in August 2017 against various minority groups in Rakhine, particularly the Rohingya. The number of refugees had increased, which meant that, since the last time the Council examined the situation, 48,000 additional people had been forced to escape towards Bangladesh. They were exposed to precarious conditions and extreme climate events, which could worsen the humanitarian situation. To make sure that conditions did not deteriorate further, it was essential to guarantee broad humanitarian access to all camps of internally displaced persons, and he called on all parties involved to ensure that took place. He also highlighted the initial willingness of the Government of Myanmar to participate in that matter. Noting the agreement signed between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to initiate the return of refugees, he said that conditions needed to be guaranteed for an informed, dignified and safe return.
ALEXANDER A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said that the topics that were contained in the briefings were complex and multifaceted and required a coherent approach from the international community. Using labels and attempts to use contradictory and subjective reports of the media only moved a solution further away. The situation in Rakhine State continued to be complex, but overall it was under control. That was due to the work of the Myanmar authorities to improve the socioeconomic situation of the state. It was important to mention that the central and local authorities were focusing their attention on building housing and modernizing roads and transport infrastructure. As a positive fact, he noted the expansion of access to foreign observers in Rakhine State, including groups of journalists. The situation with repatriation remained complex, but he noted positive steps by Bangladesh and Myanmar to implement the return of displaced persons. He underlined that the situation pertaining to refugees was a bilateral issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar and should be dealt with during bilateral conversations. He was concerned with attempts to delay the repatriation of refugees because of the pretext of a lack of safe conditions for return.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) said that his country denounced the actions that contravened international laws and norms that Rakhine State in Myanmar had witnessed, which had led to the displacement of approximately 700,000 people of the Rohingya minority. The Myanmar Government needed to assume its primary responsibility to protect its citizens and ensure that excessive force was not used in Rakhine State. In October 2017, Kuwait served as the co-chair of the Rohingya refugee crisis pledging conference, and announced its contribution of $15 million. That amount was part of Kuwait’s efforts to alleviate the severity of the tragedy, and came in response to the international efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya refugees. The voluntary return of refugees could not start until after additional and explicit confidence-building measures had been taken, based on ensuring a safe return and a dignified life in the Rakhine State.
HAU DO SUAN (Myanmar) said that his country had made great strides for the restoration of the rule of law, peace and stability and to prepare for the repatriation of displaced persons. Myanmar and Bangladesh had made significant progress in their bilateral efforts for the repatriation of displaced persons, and according to the physical arrangement agreement for repatriation signed by the two sides on 16 January, going forward, his country would receive 300 returnees a day. That number would be increased based on the progress of the returns and reviewed in three months, while the number of transit caps and reception centres could be increased as the repatriation process progressed. Myanmar was fully aware that the Government had the primary responsibility to protect its own people. As lives in the affected areas returned to normalcy the police forces had largely taken over the responsibility for security in most of the Maungdaw district. Although no major clashes had been reported in the last six months, there was always a threat that terrorists could be taking refuge among innocent people.
Turning to humanitarian access, he noted that the Government and the Union Enterprise had been providing food and household needs to all communities in Rakhine State, in addition to building infrastructure and business activities for economic development in the region. Concerning allegations of human rights violations, the Government would not condone any such abuses, and if there was concrete evidence of such crimes, action would be taken against any violators to ensure accountability. Achieving durable peace, harmony and development in Rakhine State was contingent upon the nationwide peace and a successful democratic transition. The current humanitarian crisis was not the result of communal violence, but rather the result of terrorist attacks against security posts that triggered a response from Government forces. The challenges facing Rakhine State included poverty, competition for resources and human rights issues, among others. There was no easy, quick fix for those highly complex challenges, and ultimately it was up to the people of Myanmar to determine how to achieve a peaceful and prosperous Rakhine State.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh) said that emerging evidence of targeted killings and the discovery of mass graves in Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State could explain the prevailing reluctance by those forcibly displaced to repatriate. Despite claims otherwise, the influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh continued unabated, he said, highlighting that some 1,500 new arrivals had crossed into Bangladesh in the first 10 days of February. Those arrivals cited persistent threats from security forces and armed vigilantes, acute food shortages, the destruction of and denial of access to local markets, the forced closure of businesses and alleged abductions of girls and young women, as well as sexual violence and enslavement as reasons for their continued exodus.
He said that prospective returnees had made it clear they did not expect to go back to Myanmar to stay in camps, and had sought assurances they would be able to resettle in their original villages and return to their previous way of life, including their agricultural land and business ventures. It was concerning that the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission continued to be denied access to Rakhine State and it was imperative that there were demonstrable efforts to ensure accountability for alleged crimes. Although the Rohingya crisis was often projected as a bilateral issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, it must be acknowledged that it was the result of systemic discriminatory and abusive policies pursued by the Myanmar authorities over several decades. He urged the Security Council to undertake a visit to the region to witness the humanitarian situation on the ground and add momentum to the repatriation process.