Almost every refugee crisis can claim to be the worst. The truth is, they all are. Yet the one now ungluing in Myanmar and Bangladesh has dwarfed most others, the result of sinister, racist corruption that has leveled the crisis of desperate Rohingyas into historic tragedy.
To those who are there, trying to help, they see this daily. Their pleas to help the Rohingyas are ignored regionally and not heard internationally, they lament.
Consider that for the first time in history, refugees have fled from a nation that is headed by a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to a nation desperately poorer and perhaps even more corrupt from whence they fled.
And adding more crime to the crisis, those who hope to try to help the Rohingyas refugees are finding the path nearly impossible. In Washington DC, there are a public relations saying called “pay to play,” where one pays a tribute for good news stories; for those seeking to help the Rohingyas, they must pay a similar tribute to let them try to save these people seeking refuge.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar fled to Bangladesh following a campaign of targeted violence against the community that began on August 25, 2017. By the end of 2017, there were more than 647,000 new arrivals at makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
They joined thousands of other Rohingya who had fled earlier waves of violence and persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority who have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years but were effectively stripped of their citizenship and made stateless in 1982.
This is the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world, according to the United Nations. In December 2017, Doctors Without Borders released the results of mortality surveys documenting the shocking scope of recent violence against the Rohingya community. The group has expanded operations in Bangladesh and is calling for unfettered access to treat people in Rakhine.
If non-profit organizations are coming to Bangladesh to help Rohingya or do any charity work, the process is not straightforward. They need to wait for at least six months to register and pay fees of US$ 9000 to do so. Some of the world’s well-known NGOs cannot go there because of such complicated procedures. The system is broken and corruption is everywhere, even in law enforcement and religious institutions. Ironically, people have to pay bribes to be accepted as a member of the country’s anti-graft police.
According to people who have been in the country, Bangladesh does not permit them to learn Bengali language, so they cannot interact with Bangladesh citizens and must remain in camps. They cannot have cell phones or marry a Bangladeshi.
As the international community flounders in its discussions and efforts on how best to help, scant attention is given to one of the chief drivers of instability and facilitators of mass migration: corruption. Torture, rape and ransom demands - the horror experienced by migrants — has been allowed to flourish for decades, according to the familiar with the Southeast Asian trafficking industry.
Each year thousands of Rohingya refugees flee from Myanmar to camps at Cox's Bazar across the border in Bangladesh. Seeking to continue their journey to countries such as Malaysia, they are vulnerable to the gangs who organize boat travel.
Bangladesh was the second most corrupt nation in South Asia and 13th worldwide, according to Transparency International’s (TI) Graft Perception Index. Exploitation in shelters persists throughout the process: during security checks, the building of temporary camps, and currency exchange.
Even though Rohingyas are in camps located in a land owned by Forest Department, there is a local syndicate consisting of politicians and leaders who are collecting money from each family for shelter, humanitarian workers say.
The Bangladesh government doesn’t fully commit to providing rights to displaced Rohingyas there. Rohingyas may go to schools where they take short-term training courses, but the administration never gives them certifications. No matter how long Rohingya Muslims have been staying in the country (even up to 15 years), their status is still that of a refugee.
Children are also prone to exploitation and torture. Reuters reported that Rohingya children have to work in inhumane conditions, work long hours for little pay and are often abused by their employers. As reported by the International Organization of Migration (IOM), girls are forced into marriage at a young age in an attempt to escape their unbearable poverty. Such marriages, in turn, bring their own bitter consequences and yet another cycle of mistreatment.
And like other horrid hellholes that refugees must endure, they are vulnerable to diseases that have been nearly eradicated in other parts of the world.
A prime example is diphtheria. This fatal disease is covered in the basic package of childhood vaccinations, so when it does appear it shows there has been a fundamental breakdown in standard vaccination programs. In Myanmar, the Rohingya people have very limited access to essential health care, which is why we are seeing cases of preventable diseases. Those who have fled Myanmar are now living in huge, overcrowded camps with inadequate access to shelter, water, food, and medical care— conditions that are ripe for the spread of infectious diseases.
Rosie Burton, a doctor who spent a month in the camps, wrote that “Diphtheria is such a serious infection because it makes a toxin, basically a poison, which can spread through the body. This can cause complications, including with the heart; making it beat too slow, too fast, or even cause it to stop. It can also cause paralysis, including of the muscles used for breathing, so people suffocate.”
And she noted, “The question is: what is next for these people? There is a great concern that if they move back to Rakhine they could be in danger once again and have little access to assistance. Safe and dignified voluntary repatriation can only be considered when conditions in Rakhine improve for the Rohingya. So there was a feeling that you were making a difference to individuals at that moment of treatment, but that the overall the picture is far bigger.”
Some workers speculate the situation remains as it is because China’s interest in the oil and jade in the region overrides the humanitarian crisis. Because Myanmar is a poor country and China is dangling an oil pipeline, that takes precedence over helping the Rohingya refugees. China appears to be playing two corrupt governments off of each other.
There is at least a couple of positive elements in an otherwise bleak situation: The Bangladesh authority may be overtly corrupt, but humanitarian organizations, such as Mercy House and others, continue to assist the refugees with new programs and aid. And the Bangladesh people are willing to help Rohingyas voluntarily. Despite their own economic hardship, it is touching to see how they donate food and clothes to those who are in need of help.
Yet after the atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda – after the Holocaust – the world is once again standing by as ethnic cleansing happens in Myanmar, where the Rohingya face such brutal violence and oppression. What, in the end, will matter?
TOM SQUITIERI is an award-winning journalist who has covered wars and humanitarian crises. He was the Pentagon correspondent for USA Today and continues to report on national security issues for Talk Media News.