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The Rohingya fled atrocities in Myanmar. Now they may have to go back

A child refugee
A Rohingya Muslim refugee looks on at a relief distribution point at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP via Getty Images

Close to 670,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled genocidal horrors in Myanmar to Bangladesh. Those who survived the perilous journey, which often involves crossing the Bay of Bengal on flimsy rafts, live in squalid conditions in refugee camps. Now, both countries say they're ready to begin repatriating the Rohingya to western Myanmar.

The bottom line: The Rohingya are stateless — with Bangladesh's government calling them "undocumented Myanmar nationals" and Myanmar refusing to recognize them as citizens. They have risked death to reach Bangladesh, and some say they'd rather die than go back.

Atrocities at home

  • Five mass graves were uncovered by the Associated Press in a Muslim village in Myanmar, suggesting that systematic killing of the Rohingya is ongoing. Per the AP, the campaign "looks increasingly like a genocide."
  • Mohammed Lalmia, a man interviewed by the AP, said he counted about 250 dead bodies after soldiers swept through his village on a killing spree.
  • The atrocities reported include shooting and burning people alive in groups, throwing infants into fires and gang raping women and girls.

Life in the camps

  • This is the third Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, with the previous flights from persecution occurring in 1978 and 1991, per the Economist. There are over a million refugees in Bangladesh today.
  • The refugees live on a 100-kilometer strip of land in the most underdeveloped part of Bangladesh, near the coast, the Economist reports. And the majority of them — about 60% — are children.
  • An outbreak of diphtheria, a rare, deadly and infectious respiratory disease, has hit the camps in what Scientific American calls "a completely preventable public health crisis." Poor sanitation and overcrowded shelters have created a breeding ground for the disease.
  • The monsoon and cyclone seasons are fast-approaching, with the first storms expected in months. Torrential downpours will wash away the makeshift shelters housing refugees in the camps and floods of dirty water could spur outbreaks of cholera and hepatitis E, reports the Guardian. Food and water supplies are also at risk from the storms.

Where things stand

  • “No matter what, from our side, Myanmar is ready to start the process,’’ Win Myat Aye, the country’s social welfare minister, told the Washington Post.
  • But the refugees refuse repatriation, with several saying they would rather die than go back, CNN reports. One woman told CNN, "If the government of Bangladesh threatens to kill us by cutting our throats, we will not go back even then."
  • Mohammed Abul Kalam, a Bangladeshi government official overseeing the repatriation, told CNN, "[Once the refugees know] we have bargained with the Myanmar side about their safety, their security, and their livelihoods, they will certainly be inspired and hopeful to get back, I think."
  • He expects 1,500 refugees will be sent back per week in a process that could take over two years. It's still unclear when that process will begin.
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