Oct. 8 (UPI) — Myanmar continues to keep some 130,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority in squalid, open-air detention camps, an act Human Rights Watch called “crimes against humanity of persecution and apartheid” in a report released on Thursday.
The New York-based international human rights organization documented the conditions in 24 camps and camp-like settings in the report, “An Open Prison without End,” and called on the Myanmar government to end the laws and restrictions that keep Rohingya in conditions that are “unlivable.”
“This is a system of detention that the government has historically constructed and maintained for eight years to impose on the Rohingya restrictions designed to make their lives unlivable,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, at a press conference held in Bangkok and streamed online Thursday.
“The camps form part of the government’s ongoing crimes against humanity that it is committing against the Rohingya in Myanmar today,” she said. “There is no possible justification, security or otherwise, for these types of repressive measures.”
Myanmar began placing Rohingya in makeshift camps in 2012 after a series of riots in Rakhine State by the local Buddhist population targeted the predominantly Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.
Ostensibly meant as temporary shelters to protect the Rohingya, the deteriorating camps have instead become permanent for their residents, who are unable to move freely and often cannot farm, fish or find employment.
“Nothing has changed in the camp over the past seven years,” said Myo Myint Oo, a Rohingya living in Nidin camp in Kyauktaw who was interviewed in the report. “Every day it is like we are under house arrest…We want to go back to our places of origin and work our jobs again and live again with our neighbors in peace, like before 2012.”
The 2012 attacks on the Rohingya were followed by military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017, culminating in a mass campaign of atrocities that included burning villages and shootings and raping civilians in what the United Nations human rights organization called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The onslaught led more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh, where they remain in limbo in overcrowded refugee camps in a long-running humanitarian crisis.
For the Rohingya that stayed in Myanmar, most of whom have long been denied citizenship by the government, a sense of hopelessness pervades, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
The government announced plans to begin closing the camps in 2017 but has constructed permanent structures near 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,” the report said.
“I think the system is permanent,” said one Rohingya woman interviewed in the report. “Nothing will change. It is only words.”
The report draws on interviews of more than 60 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims and humanitarian staff working in the camps since 2018.
Health conditions are dire in the camps, according to the report, as detainees face high rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses and child and maternal mortality.
The overcrowded camps are also extremely vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. The government has said no cases have been tied to the camps, Bauchner said Thursday, but added that observers question the claim.
“There is a deep mistrust with any government data, given that they have suppressed pretty much any health data from the camps over the past eight years,” she said.
Most of the more than 65,000 children in the camps are also deprived of a formal education and Rohingya have been barred from attending Sittwe University, located in Rakhine’s capital city, since 2012.
“The government is cutting off younger generations of Rohingya from a future of self-reliance, of dignity, of any ability to reintegrate into the broader community in the future,” Bauchner said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights icon who became state counsellor and de facto head of Myanmar after landmark elections in 2015, has faced harsh criticism from the international community over the government’s ongoing treatment of the Rohingya.
Since the 2017 crackdown by the military, she has been stripped of a number of international human rights accolades, including Amnesty International‘s highest honor in 2018 for what the organization called a “shameful betrayal” of the values she once stood for.
The conditions that the Rohingya face meet the international definition of apartheid, the Human Rights Watch report concluded, which is a crime against humanity.
“This is a system of apartheid, let’s be very clear about that,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, at the press conference on Thursday. “There needs to be concerted international action to do something about this. The status quo is unacceptable.”
The report comes weeks after the United Nations Human Rights Council issued its own scathing account of the human rights situation among the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar
“The situation of many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced people remains unresolved,” said Michelle Bachelet, U.N. high commissioner of human rights at a session in Geneva last month.
She said that the Myanmar government has taken “no concrete steps” toward accountability for the 2017 crackdown, which has been the subject of ongoing genocide charges in international court.
National elections are scheduled to be held in Myanmar in November, but observers do not expect them to lead to improved conditions for the Rohingya and the country’s other displaced minorities. Most Rohingya do not have the right to vote and the election commission has barred at least six Rohingya candidates from running, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
“Myanmar pretends that it wants to solve these problems but these Rohingya are living in inhumane conditions because the government wants them to be,” said Bauchner.
“They are dying preventable deaths, because the authorities enforce policies that ensure they can’t get life-saving care,” she said. “The existence of these camps contradicts every claim the government tries to make about addressing the situation in Rakhine.”