The violent 2017 ouster of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh captured the international spotlight, but the humanitarian crisis had been building for decades.
In August 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown that pushed out hundreds of thousands of members of the minority Rohingya community from their homes in northern Rakhine State. Today, nearly one million Rohingya live across the border in southern Bangladesh, in cramped refugee camps where basic needs often overwhelm stretched resources.
The 2017 exodus was the culmination of decades of restrictive policy in Myanmar, which has stripped Rohingya of their rights over generations, denied them an identity, and driven them from their homes.
Here’s an overview of the current crisis and a timeline of what led to it. A selection of our recent and archival reporting on the Rohingya crisis is available below.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim minority in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Rohingya say they are native to the area, but in Myanmar they are largely viewed as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s government does not consider the Rohingya one of the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. Over decades, government policies have stripped Rohingya of citizenship and enforced an apartheid-like system where they are isolated and marginalised.
How did the current crisis unfold?
In October 2016, a group of Rohingya fighters calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, staged attacks on border posts in northern Rakhine State, killing nine border officers and four soldiers. Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown, and 87,000 Rohingya civilians fled to Bangladesh over the next year.
A month earlier, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had set up an advisory commission chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to recommend a path forward in Rakhine and ease tensions between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities.
On 24 August 2017, the commission issued its final report, which included recommendations to improve development in the region and tackle questions of citizenship for the Rohingya. Within hours, ARSA fighters again attacked border security posts.
Myanmar’s military swept through the townships of northern Rakhine, razing villages and driving away civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the ensuing weeks. They brought with them stories of burnt villages, rape, and killings at the hands of Myanmar’s military and groups of ethnic Rakhine neighbours. As of August 2018, the purge sent an estimated 706,000 people into the refugee camps of southern Bangladesh. These settlements now have a population of more than 918,000 people, including previous generations of refugees.
What has the international community said?
Multiple United Nations officials, rights investigators, and aid groups working in the refugee camps say there is evidence of brutal levels of violence against the Rohingya and the scorched-earth clearance of their villages in northern Rakhine State.
A UN-mandated fact-finding mission on Myanmar says abuses and rights violations in Rakhine “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”; the rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
The UN’s top rights official has called the military purge a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the days after military operations began in August 2017.
Rights groups say there’s evidence that Myanmar security forces were preparing to attack weeks and months before the August 2017 attacks. The evidence included disarming Rohingya civilians, arming non-Rohingya, and increasing troop levels in the area.
What has Myanmar said?
Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya. It says the August 2017 military crackdown was a direct response to the attacks by ARSA militants.
Myanmar’s security forces admitted to the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din village – a massacre exposed by a media investigation. Two Reuters journalists were arrested while researching the story. In September 2018, the reporters were convicted of breaking a state secrets law and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Myanmar continues to block international investigators from probing rights violations on its soil. This includes barring entry to the UN-mandated fact-finding mission and the UN’s special rapporteur for the country, Yanghee Lee.
What is the situation in Bangladesh’s refugee camps?
The swollen refugee camps of southern Bangladesh now have the population of a large city but little of the basic infrastructure.
Local and international aid groups note shortages nearly everywhere in the camps, affecting the provision of adequate healthcare, schooling, and maternal health and protection services for women and girls. The majority of Rohingya refugees live in camps with population densities of less than 15 square metres per person — far below the minimum international guidelines for refugee camps (30 to 45 square metres per person).
Rohingya refugees have erected fragile shelters in the middle of floodplains and on landslide-prone hillsides. Aid groups say seasonal monsoon floods could submerge one third of the land in the camps, which are also poorly prepared for powerful cyclones that typically peak along coastal Bangladesh in May and October.
Aid groups have asked for nearly $1 billion to fund a response in 2018; as of August, the appeal was one-third funded.
More than 700,000 Rohingya surged into congested refugee camps in Bangladesh in the weeks after 25 August 2017. A comparison of satellite imagery from May 2017 and March 2018 shows the rapid expansion and land clearance around Kutupalong Refugee Camp. Satellite images ©2018 DigitalGlobe.
What’s happening in Rakhine State?
The UN estimates that 470,000 non-displaced Rohingya still live in Rakhine State. Aid groups say they continue to have extremely limited access to northern Rakhine State – the flashpoint of last year’s military purge. There are “alarming” rates of malnutrition among children in northern Rakhine, according to UN agencies.
Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine are prevented from working, going to school, and accessing healthcare. The UN says remaining Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities continue to live in fear of each other.
Additionally, some 125,000 Rohingya live in barricaded camps in central Rakhine State. The government created these camps following clashes between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in 2012. Rohingya there face severe restrictions and depend on aid groups for basic services.
Rights groups have called on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of committing crimes against humanity. The UN body has not done so.
Separately, the ICC’s prosecutor is exploring the possibilities of opening an investigation into the alleged deportation of the Rohingya, but this depends on a pending court decision on jurisdiction. Myanmar says the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate, as the country is not a member of the court.
Bangladesh and Myanmar pledged to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in January 2018, but no official returns have begun. In June, two UN agencies signed a controversial agreement with Myanmar – billed as a first step to participating in any eventual returns plan. As of August, neither agency had been given unfettered access to northern Rakhine – a key element of the agreement.
Bangladesh has raised the possibility of transferring 100,000 Rohingya refugees to an uninhabited, flood-prone island – a plan that rights groups say would effectively create an “island detention centre”.
And rights groups say Rohingya refugees themselves have had little opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their futures – both in Bangladesh’s camps and when it comes to the possibility of returning to Myanmar.