More than 582,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Rakhine state since the Myanmar military launched a violent “clearance operation” targeting the mainly-Muslim ethnic minority in August.
The UN has described the violence as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said it is a “systematic crackdown” aimed at driving the Rohingya away from their homes permanently.
The UN investigation also found that the “clearance operations” had in fact begun earlier that the August 25 Rohingya insurgent attacks on Myanmar security outposts, which had been seen as the trigger.
Bangladesh had already been hosting an estimated 400,000 Rohingya refugees, who had crossed the border over the years to escape targeted violence in the Buddhist-majority country, which does not recognise them and calls them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
William Lacy Swing, director general of International Organization for Migration (IOM), made a four-day official visit to Bangladesh this week.
After arriving in Dhaka on October 15, he travelled to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps to see for himself the rapidly unfolding Rohingya crisis, which has been dubbed “the fastest-growing humanitarian emergency” by the UN.
How would you describe the scale and magnitude of the Rohingya crisis?
It is the fastest-growing refugee displaced persons crisis in this part of the world right now. It’s been the speed, scope and size of the arrivals that have overwhelmed all of us trying to provide assistance. But I think under these circumstances, the response of the Bangladesh government, the prime minister and people of Bangladesh, has been quite extraordinary. We are grateful for that.
What role is the IOM playing?
We have been doing this (providing assistance to refugees) since September 2013. Now many more partners are coming in. We are concentrating primarily on shelter, medical and logistical services and providing non-food items, basic things like pots and pans, and blankets, to help them (Rohingya), and doing whatever we can with our partners to support them.
How IOM is coordinating the relocation process of the Rohingya people?
We would suggest the government to shift them to manageably-sized camps where we can provide the support they require, not to some large megacamp or some offshore facility. That would allow us more control over gender based violence and providing health services.
What should be the official status of the Rohingya people?
Well, we are part of the UN which considers them to be refugees. So we call them refugees. But the [Bangladeshi] government I think calls them “forcefully displaced persons from Myanmar”. I don’t think it’s the designation that counts, [rather] it’s the response that matters. [But] we are all working together to try to help them.
Is the amount of relief sufficient?
At present, no, because we have been overwhelmed by the numbers. And this is why the donors are holding a pledging conference on October 23. It will be co-sponsored by the European Union and Kuwait, and the three agencies – IOM, UNHCR, and OCHA – will be responsible to raise funds.
For how long will the relief distribution continue?
We do not know because the number [of refugees] is still growing. We already have 850,000 of them, approaching 900,000 and it will probably reach a million before the flow of people stops.
A large number of Rohingya refugees are in dire need of aid. How is the IOM prioritising needs?
We are doing it in partnership with the government, UN agencies, and some of the large non-government organisations. We are all partners, we are doing it together, trying to strengthen our coordination so that everybody can be part of the action to assist the people.
What is the biggest risk at this moment?
The biggest need and risk right now is the shelter. Because they (Rohingya refugees) have taken a long trip here, walking through a very difficult trail. When they get here, they really need to have shelter right away. That’s a major challenge when you have nearly 900,000 people. That means you have to build 200,000 shelters.
The government has made 3,000 acre of forest reserves available for the refugees. They have said they can increase the area if needed. We are very grateful for that and are working together with the government to build shelters. We have already built more than 40,000 shelters, enough for 250,000 to 260,000 people. We need more money now.
The good news is that the WHO has already vaccinated nearly 800,000 people to prevent outbreak of diseases.
The other thing we have to worry about is gender-based violence because the majority of the refugees are women and children. The big concern is ensuring that they stay healthy and they are not in any way sexually exploited, or abused. That’s very important.
How should the IOM prepare to tackle the situation if the Rohingya refugees end up staying here for an indefinite period?
There is no humanitarian solution to political problems. The answer really lies in Myanmar. They are from Myanmar and they need to be able to go back voluntarily under safe conditions. The emphasis initially should be on assistance to keep them safe and sound here and also on [their] return [to their homeland], as soon as that can be done.
They won’t go back if we cannot have them [Myanmar] create the conditions that guarantee that they can come back safely. They have been living there for a long time. They have lost their homes and livelihood. They have to reconstruct villages that have been burnt down. How do people who own the land can get their land back should be part of the issues to be discussed during negotiations [with Myanmar].