Tragedy unfolds as world chooses to forget the Rohingya31 December 2022
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim :
The world has only so much attention. Crises and news events keep coming. People are busy. They lose interest. What was once a major international story, a cause celebre, can soon be forgotten. This is always a tragedy, especially to those who study genocide and advocate on behalf of its victims.
For several years now, the plight of the Rohingya, a million of whom were cast cruelly and viciously out of Myanmar in 2017 by the country's military, has been sliding off the news agenda. Brave legal challenges are continuing in international courts. Activists still agitate for those trapped in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and to raise awareness of the alleged complicity of services such as Meta's Facebook in the whipping up of genocidal sentiment in Myanmar, which led to the atrocity.
But at all times, it is an uphill struggle. Only occasionally can the crises of previous years retain or regain their urgency. Generally, it takes further tragedy for that to happen. Sadly, it seems the Rohingya have suffered such a tragedy.
The UN refugee agency has reported that more than 180 Rohingya are feared dead after their boat, overloaded and in poor repair, capsized off Bangladesh. All on board are believed to have drowned.
Other refugee crises, including in the Mediterranean in 2015 and the recent arrival of small boats in the English Channel, have seen their sad nadirs in the loss of vessels and those on board. Refugees often pay traffickers to transport them away from hostile environments, and these heartless profiteers rarely make the safety of those they are transporting a priority.
At such moments, feelings of sorrow and pity are natural. People have drowned needlessly, fleeing fates we could hardly imagine and would not accept for ourselves.
However, my point is to ask you to go beyond sorrow and empathy in this case. The Rohingya are often forgotten, but their problems are still real. Many hundreds of thousands are held in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh with few legal rights and no opportunity to work legally.
The camp is unsanitary, full of criminal elements, and the Rohingya interviewed by researchers say that they fear victimization at the hands of guards. Those refugees who are there are trapped. They cannot return to their homeland, now run by the junta whose members murdered their friends and relatives, and burned their villages. Myanmar is also in a state of civil war - one that is underreported in the rest of the world, so isolated has the country become since the military coup last year.
However, things are not vastly better for the Rohingya in Bangladesh. The government there does not want them and seeks to send them back into the jaws of danger in Myanmar. It will not afford them civil rights, and decent lives and livelihoods.
This is the dual threat that the refugees who fled by boat were attempting to avoid. Placed in an impossible situation, they tried an unlikely escape. Terribly, they now appear to have met an even worse fate.
Unless there is a miracle, those missing at sea will not be found. However, that does not mean we are off the hook. We ought to acknowledge this tragedy and let it tell us that the fate of the Rohingya is neither settled nor acceptable.
There are strong legal efforts in the International Court of Justice to find the junta in Myanmar formally responsible for genocide. This would be a major step and a good start.
The many ethnic minority and pro-democracy groups in Myanmar have organized under a series of international umbrella organizations. Cautiously, because these groups contain some who sanctioned and applauded the genocide, they should be engaged, and given an opportunity to prove that they can envision a Myanmar free of ethnic division and overbearing military brutality.
The shameful conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps must be addressed - not with words and blandishments, but by international bodies and diplomatic effort.
Housing the Rohingya may, for Bangladesh, be considered a burden. But finding their wrecked ships off the indifferent coast carries a far greater shame and moral cost.
The Rohingya may have slipped from the front pages, but their crisis is not over and their plight remains unsolved. If this tragedy can teach us anything, let it be that.
(The writer is director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Genocide" (Hurst, 2017).