Onot vacant plot of land in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, along Myanmar’s western flank, grass grows long under the scorching sun. A house once stood on this plot, although all traces of it have long since disappeared. Mohammed, a 36-year-old Rohingya, grew up in this house and lived there until 2012, when he and his family were forced to flee by a gang of ethnic Rakhine wielding sticks and torches. That summer, mobs of Rakhine villagers and Burmese soldiers razed Rohingya villages and killed hundreds of people from the long-persecuted Muslim minority group. Some 140,000 Rohingya were displaced in the melee and herded into camps, where they have remained ever since.
The 2012 pogrom laid the groundwork for greater bloodshed five years later. In 2017, Burmese security forces launched a campaign of massacres, rapes and arson in northern Rakhine, in what the UN called it genocide. Nearly 750,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where they live in the world’s largest refugee camp (see map).
In the decade since the 2012 rampage and five years since the 2017 genocide, the Rohingya have been subjected to conditions designed to drain the lives of the ethnic group, according to the UN. The crossing to Bangladesh initially gave some respite. Yet the Bangladeshi government has long since begun to see refugees as a burden. Violence in the camps is rampant, with most committed by Bangladeshi security forces. No matter which side of the border the Rohingya find themselves on today, their experience is the same: hunger and misery surrounded by barbed wire.
The Burmese military, which has ruled Myanmar for most of the past 50 years, began persecuting the Rohingyas decades ago. He first tried to drive them off their land in 1978, using the now familiar tools of murder, arson and rape. His high command considers them Bangladeshi intruders, without claiming Burmese citizenship, as many other Burmese do. He enshrined this view in law 40 years ago, making the Rohingya the largest stateless community in the world.
It was not until 2012, however, that the government began herding Rohingya into camps. According to Human Rights Watch (hrw), an advocacy group. After the 2017 genocide, this noose tightened.
Today, about a fifth of the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar live in what Fortify Rights, an advocacy group, calls “modern concentration camps”. One unfortunate resident, Hla Maung, lives side by side with 11 relatives in one of the cramped shelters where families are crammed. These structures were originally designed to last two years. Many have been badly damaged by monsoons and floods over the past decade. In April, some 28,000 Rohingya were living in shelters deemed by the UN be structurally unsound. Because international aid agencies have to apply to visit camps two weeks in advance, they cannot always repair shelters right away. “The living conditions are, by design, squalid,” observed hrw in a recent report.
Severe movement restrictions make life even more difficult. More than three-quarters of displaced Rohingya cannot leave their camps at all, according to a 2015 survey by the Center for Diversity and National Harmony, a Burmese ngo. Others can travel, but only to a Rohingya ghetto in Sittwe or Sittwe General Hospital, the only facility in the state that offers specialist treatment. Medical referrals are only granted in emergencies and even then, obtaining the necessary travel authorization can take days. Access to health care in the camps is limited. In the most remote, doctors only visit for a few hours once or twice a week. Illness and infant mortality rates are higher in the camps than elsewhere in the state, according to the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization.
Those who can leave the camps must obtain a “village leaving certificate” which costs up to 5,000 kyat ($3.45). Sometimes security forces require travelers to present an identity card proving their citizenship, which most Rohingya lack. All Rohingya have to pass through numerous checkpoints manned by soldiers who demand bribes, and to leave they often also have to pay a “security escort”, which costs up to 20,000 kyat. These restrictions prevent Rohingyas from working, which prevents them from supplementing the financial or food assistance they receive from ngos, which residents consider insufficient for their daily needs.
For the estimated 300,000 to 350,000 Rohingya who have not been herded into camps, conditions are still dire. They too are rarely allowed to seek treatment at Sittwe General Hospital. And although they continue to live in their own homes, a web of restrictions also encircles them. They are not allowed to leave their neighborhood without permission. Security checkpoints scattered around their villages are manned by soldiers who enforce curfews (from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and rules limiting gatherings in public places to no more than five people. Violations of these rules lead to beatings or detention.
These conditions seem calculated to bring about the “slow death” of the Rohingya, says the UN. Their numbers in Myanmar have dropped precipitously. Prior to 2017, the country was home to up to 1.3 million Rohingya. (No reliable figures exist as they were not included in the last census in 2014, the first in 30 years.) Now the population is closer to 600,000. Most have fled to Bangladesh. But many probably died because of the harsh living conditions.
There are shocking parallels between the experiences of the Rohingya in Rakhine State and those in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. At first, the refugees could work in the surrounding towns, recalls Hakim Ullah, who has lived in the Cox’s Bazar district refugee camp since 2017. Now they need permission to leave the camps. Shops and schools in the camps were demolished earlier this year by Bangladeshi authorities, who banned paid work and private education. “Refugee camps have become detention camps,” says Rahamat Ullah, a Rohingya civil rights activist who lives in Cox’s Bazar.
Nor have the refugees traded freedom for safety. Militant groups and criminal gangs operating in the camps regularly commit murders, kidnappings and robberies. Bangladeshi security forces are terrorizing themselves, according to reports from human rights groups. The Armed Police Battalion, the specialized unit responsible for security in the camps, acts “with impunity”, says Ashraf Zaman of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a Thailand-based lobby group. The battalion reportedly beat children and raped women. The Bangladeshi forces are so brutal that they remind Mr. Hakim Ullah of the Burmese army. (Bangladeshi authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Economist.)
As long as the Burmese army is in power, the condition of the Rohingyas is unlikely to change. “Life in the camps is worse than in prison,” said Mohammed, who now lives in a camp outside Sittwe. At least the inmates know the length of their sentence. The Rohingyas do not know if they will ever be freed. Even if they are, many would have no home to return to. Long ago, authorities bulldozed the ruins of homes like Mohammed’s and sold the land to developers, making it easier to remove all traces of the group. ■