Myanmar’s plan to 'close' Rohingya camps threatens deeper segregation

File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Rakhine, Myanmar (Burma) Dec 06, 2018, 08.34 AM (IST)

Nearly 130,000 Rohingya and other displaced Muslims still live in crowded camps in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, six years after Buddhist mobs razed most of their homes.

The government of Aung San Suu Kyi, under international pressure to address their plight, said that it is now closing the camps on the grounds that doing so will help development and put the labour of camp residents to good use. But Reuters' interviews with more than a dozen residents from five camps and internal United Nations documents show the move simply means building new, more permanent homes next to the camps -- rather than allowing them to return to the areas from which they fled.

Those that have moved into the new accommodation remain under the same severe movement restrictions as before, residents and staff working in the camps said. A network of official checkpoints and threats of violence by local Buddhists prevent Muslims from moving freely in Rakhine.

The UN chief in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, warned in a September 24 note that camp closures "risk further entrenching segregation while denying IDPs (internally displaced persons) many of their fundamental human rights". It could also drive more people to risk a hazardous maritime escape route. On Tuesday (December 4) a boat carrying 20 men believed to be Rohingya Muslims landed on Indonesia's Sumatra island, part of a series of boat departures from Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent weeks.

Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Myanmar, said the government should be focusing on getting the people to return home safely before closing those camps.

"What we are not seeing is people being able to return home to where they fled from," he said, adding that "the people in those places in those camps, still are relying on humanitarian assistance because they still do not have freedom of movement."

Myanmar said it is working with the United Nations on a national strategy to close camps housing people forced out of their homes by violence in Rakhine and elsewhere. It said such closures are in line with the 2017 recommendations of a commission led by the late former UN chief Kofi Annan.

But Rohingya community leaders said that improving conditions for those still living in Rakhine is one of the keys to persuading the hundreds of thousands sheltering in refugee camps in Bangladesh to return.

Some 730,000 fled a military crackdown after attacks by Rohingya militants in August 2017. UN-mandated investigators have said the Myanmar military unleashed a campaign of killings, rape and arson with "genocidal intent". Myanmar has denied almost all the accusations against its troops, whom it said were engaged in legitimate operations against terrorists.

Story highlights

The government of Aung San Suu Kyi said that it is now closing the camps on the grounds that doing so will help development and put the labour of camp residents to good use.