Since Aug. 25, 2017, more than 740,000 people from Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of extreme violence in northern Rakhine state on the country’s western Bay of Bengal coast. Most of the refugees identify as Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Flooding into camps near the town of Cox’s Bazar, they joined more than 200,000 people who fled to Bangladesh years earlier. About 55% of Rohingya refugees are children.
Aid agencies are struggling to adequately serve 1.2 million people who need assistance, including those in local communities. Many refugees brought little with them and are dependent on humanitarian aid for shelter, food, clothing, and healthcare. During the monsoon season from April to November, they faced floods and landslides while living in flimsy shelters, which made poor conditions even worse.
The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees describes the Rohingya refugee crisis as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world.” Here are the facts you need to know:
The Rohingya people belong to a Muslim ethnic minority group of about 1 million people in Myanmar, which has a total population of 52 million. They live in the country’s northern Rakhine state that borders Bangladesh and India. The Rohingya were not among the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups included in Myanmar’s 2014 census. Essentially stateless, the Rohingya consider themselves under threat and without legal recourse.
Armed conflict between minority groups and government military forces has gone on for decades in Myanmar. It accelerated significantly in August 2017 in Rakhine state, causing more Rohingya people and others to flee. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation to the Security Council in September as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
Refugee children are at high risk of disease and malnutrition, physical harm, and violence. Here are some of the adverse conditions they face:
After fleeing violence in Myanmar, refugees have battled to survive seasonal monsoon rains and the continuing threat of cyclones. They’ve faced flooding, landslides, collapsed or damaged shelters, contaminated water overflowing latrines, and disease. Refugees are suffering from psychosocial conditions and physical illnesses that spread easily in overcrowded, unhygienic camps. With such a high concentration of people, any disease outbreak has the potential to kill thousands.
Diarrhea, acute jaundice syndrome, and respiratory infections are common in both adults and children. Acute watery diarrhea is especially dangerous in combination with malnutrition, which is rampant among the refugee population. Less than 3% of refugees were immunized in Myanmar, so they are highly vulnerable to preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria.
Families receive basic food supplies from U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations, and refugee families in Bangladesh need about 12,200 metric tons of food each month. Basic food distributions include rice, lentils, and oil. It is difficult to eat the same thing day in and day out, but families don’t have the money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement their diets.
Another reality of refugees’ living conditions is sexual violence. Almost every woman and girl in the Balukhali settlements, which include about 65% of the refugee population, is a witness or survivor of sexual violence. Hundreds of incidents are reported weekly. Women and girls need support for mental health as well as physical health and security.
1948: After Burma’s independence from British rule, a Muslim rebellion erupts in Rakhine state, with people demanding equal rights and an autonomous area. The rebellion is eventually defeated.
1962: Military rule begins in Burma.
1977 to 1978: Some 200,000 ethnic Muslims identifying as Rohingya flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
1982: A new citizenship law identifies 135 national ethnic groups, excluding the Rohingya — effectively rendering them stateless.
1989 to 1991: A military crackdown follows a popular uprising. Burma is renamed Myanmar. An additional 250,000 refugees flee to Bangladesh.
1992: The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments agree to repatriate refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people return to Myanmar over several years.
2003: Two of 20 refugee camps remain in Bangladesh. U.N. studies show widespread malnutrition in the camps.
2012: Religious violence flares in Rakhine, leaving many people homeless. More than 100,000 people flee to Malaysia.
2014: In Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, the Rohingya are still not included as an ethnic group.
2016: A military crackdown follows an attack on a border post in which police offers were killed. During the crackdown, about 87,000 people fled to Bangladesh.
2017: Fleeing Myanmar
2018: Facing insecurity
2019: Continued uncertainty