In the last two months, hundreds of thousands of children have fled extreme violence in Myanmar. The plight of the Rohingya people has quickly become the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world today.
It seems unthinkable. It seems, surely, unforgivable. But in Myanmar today, atrocities are being wreaked upon a minority group, the Rohingya, that have forced more than 600,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh in just over two months.
Since 25 August 2017, a major escalation of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has forced hundreds of thousands to flee, adding to the 200,000 who had fled earlier conflict. More than half are children.
Most have fled north over the border to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where they face squalid, life-threatening conditions and a bleak future. Children are facing extreme hunger every day – already, one quarter of children are acutely malnourished. Many have had family members killed and live with deep trauma after witnessing extreme violence. Most of these refugees identify as Rohingya Muslims, a minority group often described as ‘the most persecuted people in the world’.
In Myanmar, the military claims it was responding to attacks by Rohingya militants. The United Nations calls it ethnic cleansing.
In these camps thousands of children are suffering from malnutrition and fever. The threat of cholera looms over them. There are also fears of child trafficking, exploitation and abuse, because predators always loiter closer to vulnerability.
When asked why they fled Myanmar, responses from Rohingya are a variation on a universal theme – violence, murder and horror.
“Rohingya children are silent. They don’t talk and they don’t play. Their silence is their story.” —Dr Unni Krishnan, Emergency Health Unit
Our new report, Horrors I Will Never Forget, lays bare horrific sexual crimes against girls and women in Myanmar. Containing stories of horrific sexual assault and barbaric violence, it is visceral and unforgettable. Read the stories here.
Sixteen-year-old Alia (pictured above) ran from her village when the military arrived and started burning down houses. “The military came to our village and started setting houses on fire,” she said. “My family and I fled into the jungle immediately to hide. I could watch the military burning down the entire village and killing people.
“They shot, cut up, and stabbed many men and women. I could see everything and I was very scared that they would find us and kill my family and I too. It took us three days to reach the border, walking throughout the nights … I saw three people dying from exhaustion, dehydration, and not being able to eat.”
This is the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world today.
In Bangladesh – a wretchedly poor country – there has been no shortage of generosity. Local communities have made space and shared precious food and water.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has declared: “we have the ability to feed 160 million people of Bangladesh and we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 refugees”.
This is stark contrast to the response of Australia’s own Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015, when Rohingya were fleeing Rakhine State by boat in the Andaman Sea, and he was asked if Australia would resettle these refugees. “Nope, nope, nope,” he responded.
More recently, the Australian Government has been generous in its humanitarian response, donating more than $30 million in Australian aid to the relief efforts in Bangladesh and putting diplomatic pressure on the Government of Myanmar.
But the funding needs continue to be dwarfed by the sheer number of Rohingya arrivals.
800: Arab traders settle in Rakhine State. Many people convert to Islam.
1700s: The term ‘Rohingya’ is used by British colonialists to describe the Muslim community living in Rakhine State.
1824–1948: British rule. The Muslim community in Rakhine expanded rapidly during colonial times, doubling from the 1880s to 1930s. Expanding rice cultivation required significant labour, largely filled by Muslim workers from neighbouring Bangladesh. Also during this period, hundreds of thousands of people migrate into Rakhine State from British India.
1941–45: World War II. Rakhine State was on the front line between Japanese troops and allied forces. Muslims were mostly pro-British, while Rakhine Buddhists initially supported the Japanese.
1948: Rebellion. Shortly after Myanmar’s independence from British rule, a Muslim rebellion erupted in Rakhine, demanding equal rights and autonomous rule. The rebellion was defeated.
1962: Military rule begins. Rights that Rohingya enjoyed before the rebellion were eroded. In 1978 and 1991, heavy-handed government campaigns pushed more than 200,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.
1982: A new citizenship law passed identifying 135 national ethnic groups. The Rohingya are not one of them, effectively rendering them stateless.
2014: Myanmar conducts its first census in more than three decades but the Rohingya are excluded.
November 2015: In the first democratic elections since end of military rule, Rohingya aren’t allowed to participate as candidates, nor as voters. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins and she becomes de facto leader in a power sharing agreement with the military.
The Rohingya face military crackdowns 1991–1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016–2017, resulting in hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh.
We are on the ground delivering life-saving aid, but we need more funding to address these gaps:
1,167,000 children and families are in urgent need of access to health services.
412,000 girls and boys are missing out on education
144,305 children under 5, and pregnant and lactating women, need urgent nutrition support
36,000 households require emergency shelter assistance
Photograph: GMB Akash/Panos Pictures/Save the Children
We have distributed shelter kits and food packs to families who are fatigued and extremely hungry after days of walking to safety. Our emergency health teams have set up clinics, and provided hygiene kits to stop the spread of diseases among people who are already exhausted and vulnerable.
One of our biggest concerns is the safety and wellbeing of children, hundreds of thousands of whom have arrived in Cox’s Bazar alone. Where possible, we’re working to reunite families – and when children are alone, and their family members have been killed, we are providing safe spaces where children can get 24-hour care and protection.
But more help is urgently needed. Please help us reach more children caught up in this terrible crisis.
Save the Children has launched an urgent appeal to support children in desperate need of food, water and shelter.
Your donation is critical to reaching more children and families with life-saving food, water, shelter, protection and education in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Header photograph: Tamara Lowe/Save the Children
Children fleeing violence are in urgent need of food, water and shelter.Donate now: Rohingya Crisis