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Rohingya refugees are stuck in limbo a decade after violence forced them to flee

More than 130,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state remain stuck in makeshift camps that are often short of food and opportunity, unable to return to their homes after sectarian violence with Buddhists forced them to flee a decade ago.

The communal fighting with ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine began on June 8, 2012, and spread across the state in western Myanmar, leaving more than 200 people dead and the communities of tens of thousands of Muslims burned. The refugees were forced to live in squalid settlements scattered around the state, including ones on the outskirts of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal coast.

Rohingya again faced mass violence in August 2017 when Myanmar forces brutally attacked communities in northern Rakhine. The attacks triggered an exodus of more than 740,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh, where they have also lived in sprawling settlements.

Moe Moe An Ju, 37, who lives in Sittwe’s Thae Chaung camp, said she and her family do not get enough to eat and she cannot afford to send her five children to school.

“There is no work here,” she told RFA. “When things went awry, I had to pawn my rations book the relief team had given me. We cannot live without eating, right? If we had curry one day, we’d have fish the next day. We have beef just once a month. Even for that, we have to try very hard. I can’t send my children to school because there is no money. How can we do that?”

Before the violence of 2012, Moe Moe An Ju and her husband worked as bamboo traders in Sittwe’s Setyonzu industrial zone. 

 Many families have struggled like hers to make ends meet since they were forced to take refuge at the Thae Chaung internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, surviving on 500 kyats (27 U.S. cents) per person a day from the World Food Program. 

Successive governments ruling Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country of 54 million people, have ignored the plight of the Rohingya, despite calls by the members of the minority group to solve the problem. This includes the military junta that seized control from the elected government in a February 2021 coup.

Fighting in Rakhine between the Myanmar military and the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army, as well as with People’s Defense Force militias battling junta forces following the coup, have left the Rohingya stuck in a no-man’s land.

Those living in the camps say they are subject to a system of apartheid, sealed off from the rest of the country with barbed wire fencing and security checkpoints. Viewed by Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they are prohibited from leaving even though the camps lack jobs, educational opportunities and humanitarian aid.

‘We are still waiting’

Ten years since the 2012 violence, prospects for the Rohingya living in the camps have not improved, with many saying they continue to experience shortages of food and shelter.

Faysal Mauk said he could not find work on his own because the authorities do not allow the Rohingya to travel freely.

“We are facing much hardship here,” he said. “We could at least find something to do in the old place, but not here. We could have food only if we went out to sea. Otherwise, we’d have nothing to eat.”

“We could find some kind of work if we went to a Rakhine village, but after living here for 10 years, I no longer feel like going there,” he said. “We are so used to living in the camp now. When we can find something, we can have food. If not, we don’t.”

Before June 2012, Fayzal and his family lived in Setyonzu, one of the areas along with Mingan and Magyee-myaing wards in Sittwe that were destroyed. 

The Thae Chaung camp has more than 2,700 refugee households and a population of over 14,000. Other displaced Muslims from Thetkei-byin, Darpaing, Mawthinyar and Sanpya wards, west of Sittwe, are spread among 14 settlements. 

After their homes were torched during the 2012 communal violence, ethnic Rakhines, who are predominantly Buddhist, moved into the communities abandoned by the Rohingya. Refugees said government officials have ignored their pleas to address this issue, along with other hardships they face.

Kyaw Hla, who is in charge of the Thae Chaung camp, said the Rohingya still hope to return to their original places of residence one day.

“Nothing has been done for more than 10 years now, but we are still waiting,” he said. “We will go back to our areas, our villages, and live again like we did before — just as we had lived and worked in the past, both Rakhines and non-Rakhines together. We still have our hopes, though it has not happened yet.”

In the meantime, some Rohingya are borrowing money to pay traffickers to transport them via land or sea to Muslim-majority Malaysia where they believe a better life awaits, but more than 600 have been caught and arrested in the past six months.  

RFA could not reach the military regime’s spokesmen for comment.

‘They have no future’

Rohingya political activist Nay San Lwin, cofounder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, said Myanmar leaders have done nothing to help the Rohingya.

“The main important thing is the goodwill of the rulers of the country, [but] they just want to oppress the Rohingya,” he said. “They just want to hurt them. They do not even recognize the Rohingya as human beings.”

“People in the IDP camps in Sittwe are not refugees from other countries,” he said. “Their homes and belongings were set on fire. Their land was confiscated. These people have now been locked up in refugee camps for more than 10 years. They have no opportunities. They have no future, so I don’t think we need to talk further about how their human rights are being violated.”

The situation for the Rohingya is unlikely to improve under the current military regime, said New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

 “The Myanmar junta’s unyielding oppression of the Rohingya people is the foreseeable result of the military facing no consequences for its decade of ethnic cleansing and system of apartheid,” Shayna Bauchner, HRW’s Asia researcher, said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Concerned governments should now be doing what they should have done in 2012 — pursuing all avenues to hold Myanmar officials accountable for their grave crimes and delivering justice to the victims of their abuses.”

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.