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A year later, the Rohingyas’ exit from the genocide remains unclear

Today marks one year since the United States officially determined that the Burmese military committed genocide against the Rohingya people and one year since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to ‘come out of genocide’ “. It was an important moment and one that helped spark several useful actions.

But a year later, with more than a million Rohingya refugees still living outside their homeland, the very military responsible for the genocide continue to wreak havoc across Myanmar. The Rohingya exit from the genocide is far from clear.

A year ago, the two of us, a Myanmar-born Rohingya activist now living in the UK and a refugee advocate in Washington, sat in front of Secretary Blinken and alongside several prominent Rohingya activists to mark the determination genocide as a historical and profound step. From the camps, Rohingya who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh told us how much it meant to them that the crimes committed against them be recognized and that the United States declare its willingness to act.

In the days and weeks that followed, the US government took several significant steps. It provided $2 million in support of an investigative mechanism to collect evidence of genocide and other atrocities committed against other minority groups and ordinary citizens who protested the coup d’etat in 2021 in Myanmar. Washington has imposed additional sanctions against, among others, arms dealers, senior Myanmar Air Force officials and leaders of the country’s oil and gas sector. He has stepped up his engagement with opposition leaders, particularly after the passage late last year of parts of the BURMA law, which authorized new sanctions and other measures, and insisted that the Rohingya are included in a future democratic Myanmar. More concretely, the United States and Bangladesh have agreed to begin resettling some Rohingya refugees to the United States.

A child of a Rohingya refugee stands along a fence outside a makeshift tent at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on October 7, 2021.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Images

These are all welcome steps that genocide determination has helped to advance. But they are far from sufficient. The 978,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, inhabiting the largest refugee camp in the world, face dire conditions: growing insecurity, fires and severe cuts in funding for their basic food rations. The government of Bangladesh has allowed UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to provide formal education and build skills. But this continues to restrict access to quality education and formal employment opportunities – necessities if the Rohingya are to become self-reliant.

A smaller, but significant, number of Rohingya refugees face similar challenges in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India. These countries are failing to respect the most basic protections for Rohingya refugees, refusing to let them disembark their boats or seek asylum, or threatening them with indefinite detention and even deportation to Myanmar. Despite positive news about the US-Bangladesh resettlement agreement, less than 100 Rohingya have been resettled to date.

The ultimate goal in pursuing an exit from genocide must be to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of Rohingya to their homeland in Myanmar. This will require enhanced and coordinated international pressure on the military junta, including new sanctions against the oil and gas sector and imports of aviation fuel that allow them to carry out devastating airstrikes on civilians. Diplomatic efforts must be sustained in the UN Security Council, even if China and Russia block firm action, to keep the focus on the Rohingya and others suffering in Myanmar. Both at the Security Council and in bilateral engagements, the United States must champion measures such as a global arms embargo, more coordinated sanctions, and referral of the junta’s crimes to the International Criminal Court. Washington must also work with allies in Southeast Asia to increase pressure and avoid legitimizing the junta.

In the meantime, Washington must do more to support and enable Rohingya refugees. As we wrote last year, if the United States is serious about supporting genocide survivors, it must help them rebuild their lives.

At a minimum, this means providing sustained and life-saving assistance to refugees and ensuring that they are not forcibly returned to Myanmar. The United States should hold a global pledging conference for aid to Rohingya refugees and others in Myanmar facing the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the junta. It should try to expand work and education opportunities for Rohingya refugees, both in the camps and throughout South and Southeast Asia, through scholarship exchanges or distance learning options. He should also rely on allies to oppose the forced return of all Rohingya to Myanmar and agree to welcome more to the United States. The numbers would remain modest, but it would make all the difference in the world for individuals who would have a new life.

As one refugee recently told us, even if they are not among the chosen ones, each resettled refugee will bring another Rohingya voice to the world.

The way out of the genocide must not go through fire, violence and desperate journeys by sea, nor send its victims back to live under a murderous regime.

Tun Khin is a leading Rohingya activist, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK and member of the advisory board of Refugees International. He filed a universal jurisdiction complaint in Argentina against the military and civilian government of Myanmar for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Daniel P. Sullivan is Director for Africa, Asia and the Middle East at Refugees International.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.


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