‘We can’t go anywhere’: Myanmar closes Rohingya camps but ‘entrenches segregation’
Reuters : As the world was focused on abortive efforts to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar last month, hundreds of their fellow Muslims still in Myanmar were boarding boats seeking to escape the country. Their attempted flight cast the spotlight back on 128,000 Rohingya and other displaced Muslims still living in crowded camps in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, six years after Buddhist mobs razed most of their homes.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi, under international pressure to address their plight, says it is now closing the camps on the grounds that
doing so will help development and put the labor of camp residents to good use. But Reuters interviews with more than a dozen residents from five camps and internal United Nations documents show the move simply means building new, more permanent homes next to the camps – rather than allowing them to return to the areas from which they fled – leaving their situation little changed. Those that have moved into the new accommodation remain under the same severe movement restrictions as before, residents and staff working in the camps say. A network of official checkpoints and threats of violence by local Buddhists prevent Muslims from moving freely in Rakhine. As a result, those sources say, they are cut off from sources of livelihoods and most services, and reliant on humanitarian handouts.
“Yes, we moved to new houses – it’s correct to say (the camp is closed),” said Kyaw Aye, a community leader from a camp called Nidin, in central Rakhine. “But we’ll never be able to stand on our own feet because we can’t go anywhere.”
Reuters spoke to displaced Muslims in Rakhine by phone as reporters are denied independent access to the camps.
Myanmar’s Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye said the government was working with the United Nations on a national strategy to close camps housing people forced out of their homes by violence in Rakhine and elsewhere, known as internally displaced persons or IDPs.
There were no legal restrictions on the movements of displaced people in Rakhine, as long as they accepted a so-called national verification card that also gives them equal access to healthcare and education, he said in a written response to Reuters’ questions.
Aid workers and Muslim residents say severe restrictions persist even on those who have accepted the identity card, which most Rohingya reject because they say it treats them as foreigners who have to prove their nationality.
The U.N. chief in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, warned in a Sept. 24 private note that the government’s plan for camp closures “risks further entrenching segregation while denying IDPs many of their fundamental human rights”.
Ostby’s office declined to comment on the note, but in a written response to Reuters’ questions said the U.N. had been invited to comment on the government’s plans for closing camps and was preparing its response.