António Guterres -
The writer is secretary general of the United Nations
SMALL children butchered in front of their parents. Girls and women gang-raped while family members were tortured and killed. Villages burned to the ground. Nothing could have prepared me for the bone-chilling accounts I heard earlier this month in Bangladesh from Rohingya refugees who had fled widespread killings and violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
One man, a member of this mostly Muslim ethnic group, broke down in tears describing how his eldest son was shot dead in front of him, the man’s mother was brutally murdered and his house was torched to ashes. He said he took refuge in a mosque but was discovered by soldiers who abused him and burned the holy Quran.
These victims of what has been rightly called ethnic cleansing are suffering an anguish that can only stir a visitor’s heartbreak and anger. Their horrific experiences defy comprehension, yet they are the reality for nearly one million Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya have suffered a pattern of persecution — lacking even the most basic human rights, starting with citizenship — by their own country, Myanmar.
Systematic human rights abuses by the security forces in Myanmar over the past years were designed to instill terror in the Rohingya population, leaving them with a dreadful choice: stay on in fear of death or leave everything simply to survive.
After a harrowing journey to safety, these refugees are now trying to cope with the harsh conditions in the Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar that have naturally resulted from the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
Bangladesh is a developing country with resources stretched to the limits. Yet, while larger and wealthier countries around the world are closing doors to outsiders, the government and people of Bangladesh have opened their borders and hearts to the Rohingya. The compassion and generosity of the Bangladeshi people show the best of humanity and have saved many thousands of lives.
But the response to this crisis must be a global one. A Global Compact on Refugees is being finalised by member states of the United Nations so frontline countries such as Bangladesh are not alone in responding to a fleeing wave of humanity.
For now, however, the United Nations and humanitarian agencies are working flat-out alongside the refugees themselves and host communities to improve conditions. But far more resources are desperately needed to avert disaster and to give fuller expression to the principle that a refugee crisis calls for a global sharing of responsibility.
An international humanitarian appeal for almost one billion dollars is funded at only 26 per cent. This shortfall means that malnutrition prevails in the camp. It means that access to water and sanitation is far from ideal. It means that we cannot provide basic education for refugee children. Not least, it means inadequate measures to alleviate the immediate monsoon risk.
Makeshift homes hastily built by the refugees on arrival are now threatened by mudslides, requiring urgent action to find alternative sites and build stronger shelters.
Much has been done to address the challenge, but there are still grave risks because of the sheer dimensions of the crisis.
I travelled to Bangladesh with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and welcome his leadership in mobilising the bank’s announcement of 480 million dollars in grant-based support to Rohingya refugees and their hosts. Yet far more is required from the international community.
Expressions of solidarity are not enough, the Rohingya people need genuine assistance. Despite all they endured in Myanmar, the refugees I met in Cox’s Bazar have not given up hope. “We need security in Myanmar and citizenship. And we want justice for what our sisters, our daughters, our mothers have suffered,” one distraught but determined woman told me as she gestured to a mother cradling her young baby, the result of rape.
The crisis will not be solved overnight. At the same time, the situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. Myanmar must create the conditions for the return of the refugees with full rights and the promise of living in safety and dignity. This requires a massive investment — not only in reconstruction and development for all communities in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions, but also in reconciliation and respect for human rights.
Unless the root causes of the violence in Rakhine state are addressed comprehensively, misery and hatred will continue to fuel conflict. The Rohingya people cannot become forgotten victims. We must answer their clear appeals for help with action.
The article was published in The Washington Post on July 11th