Human rights group urges Myanmar to end arbitrary and indefinite detention of 130,000 Rohingya Muslims

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The Myanmar government should urgently end the arbitrary and indefinite detention of approximately 130,000 Rohingya Muslims in squalid and abusive camps in Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday.

The organization said “recent measures to ostensibly “close” the camps appear designed to make permanent the segregation and confinement of Rohingya and several thousand Kaman Muslims, whom authorities have interned in open-air detention camps since their displacement in a 2012 ethnic cleansing campaign.”

The 169-page report, “‘An Open Prison without End’: Myanmar’s Mass Detention of Rohingya in Rakhine State,” documents the inhuman conditions in the 24 camps and camp-like settings in central Rakhine State. Severe limitations on livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter have been compounded by widening constraints on humanitarian aid, which Rohingya depend on for survival.

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These conditions have increasingly threatened Rohingya’s right to life and other basic rights. Camp detainees face higher rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal mortality than their ethnic Rakhine neighbors. Accounts of preventable deaths were common. “The camp is not a livable place for us,” a Rohingya man told Human Rights Watch.

“The Myanmar government has interned 130,000 Rohingya in inhuman conditions for 8 years, cut off from their homes, land, and livelihoods, with little hope that things will improve,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The government’s claims that it’s not committing the gravest international crimes will ring hollow until it cuts the barbed wire and allows Rohingya to return to their homes, with full legal protections.”

The abuses against the Rohingya amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, Human Rights Watch said. Ethnic cleansing and internment since 2012 laid the groundwork for the military’s mass atrocities in 2016 and 2017 in northern Rakhine state, which also amount to crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.

The report draws on over 60 interviews with Rohingya, Kaman Muslims, and humanitarian workers since late 2018. Human Rights Watch also analyzed over 100 internal and public government, United Nations, and nongovernmental documents and reports that show the calculated refusal by the national and Rakhine State governments to improve freedom of movement or living conditions in the camps, including denying adequate space or suitable land for camp construction and maintenance.

Rohingya said life in the camps is like living under house arrest every day. They are denied freedom of movement through overlapping restrictions – formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and widespread extortion. Those found outside the camp are subject to torture and other abuse by security forces.

“Life in the camps is so painful,” said one Rohingya man. “There is no chance to move freely.… We have nothing called freedom.”

Every Rohingya interviewed said they wanted to return to their homes, villages, and land. “We want the name ‘Rohingya,’” a man from Ohn Taw Gyi Camp said. “We want our homes; we want our country. We want to get back the things we owned.”

Authorities used the 2012 violence against Rohingya communities as a pretext to segregate and confine a population it had long sought to remove from the country, Human Rights Watch said. A UN officer who worked in Rakhine State at the time described the government’s approach in 2012: “Corner them, fence them, confine the ‘enemy.’” The few thousand Rakhine Buddhists displaced in 2012 have since returned to their homes or resettled.

The government announced in April 2017 that it would begin closing the camps. In November 2019, it adopted the “National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Closure of IDP Camps,” which it claimed would provide sustainable solutions. However, the process has entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying the Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into Myanmar society.

“Nobody has been able to return, nobody has been compensated,” a Kaman community leader said. “We keep asking, even still we are asking the government for our land.” In the three camps declared “closed,” there has been no notable increase in freedom of movement or access to basic services.

The sense of hopelessness in the camps is pervasive, Human Rights Watch said. Not one Rohingya interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed a belief that their indefinite detention may end or that their children could one day live, learn, and move freely. “I think the system is permanent,” a Rohingya woman said. “Nothing will change. It is only words.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and escalating fighting between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, have heightened the Rohingya’s extreme vulnerability over the past months. General elections are set for November, but most Rohingya have been barred from running for office and stripped of their right to vote.

Across the border in Bangladesh, nearly one million Rohingya refugees, most of whom fled the Myanmar military’s atrocities after August 2017, live in overcrowded, flood-prone camps. The Myanmar government has asserted that it is ready to repatriate them, yet the 8-year confinement of 130,000 Rohingya in central Rakhine State undermines such claims.

Refugees in Bangladesh have outlined their conditions for return, including safety and freedom for the Rohingya in central Rakhine camps. “We know that thousands of Rohingya back in Myanmar are still in detention camps,” said a Rohingya refugee. “If those people are released and return to their villages, then we will know it’s safe to return, and we’ll go back home.”

Donors, humanitarian agencies, and the UN should take collective, forceful action against the apartheid system in Myanmar, including conditioning funding for permanent infrastructure and development projects in Rakhine State on the government’s realization of human rights benchmarks, such as the lifting of movement restrictions. They should urge the Myanmar government to halt the current camp “closure” process until thorough consultations with affected communities have been incorporated into an updated strategy, to be carried out in line with international standards.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and the military have deliberately created and maintained oppressive camp conditions to render life unlivable for the Rohingya,” Bauchner said. “Foreign governments and the UN need to re-evaluate their approach and press Myanmar to provide the Rohingya with safety and freedom, while holding accountable the officials responsible for this apartheid regime.”

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