Human rights campaigners have made fresh calls for Myanmar to close down Rohingya detention camps where conditions are still “unliveable” eight years after they were set up.
Around 130,000 Rohingya Muslims live across 24 camps in Myanmar‘s Rakhine state because they were forced from their homes in what has been described as a government ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012.
Describing the camps as “open prisons”, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims Rohingya residents are killed if they are caught beyond their walls.
Inside the two-dozen camps, detainees face malnutrition, waterborne diseases, child and maternal mortality, and brutality by guards, the report says.
The 169-page document is based on 60 interviews with Rohingya and Kaman Muslims, as well as 100 government, United Nations and NGO documents.
One Rohingya man told HRW: “The camp is not liveable for us.”
Another said that despite Myanmar’s government claiming it wants to close the camps, measures being taken are designed to make the Rohingyas’ displacement permanent.
One woman who was interviewed said: “I think the system is permanent. Nothing will change. It is only words.”
Myanmar’s government – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – promised to start closing the camps in 2017. In 2019, it adopted a so-called “National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Closure of IDP Camps”.
But since then there has been no sign of closure – and instead officials have built permanent structures for the Rohingyas to live there indefinitely.
As well as the strict curfews restricting freedom of movement, residents are also denied education and healthcare, the report adds.
And access to humanitarian aid and food supplies is also being blocked, it claims.
Some detainees said life in the camps amounts to permanent house arrest, with informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed wire fencing.
One Rohingya man told HRW: “Life in the camps is so painful. There is no chance to move freely.… We have nothing called freedom.”
Shayna Bauchner, author of the report, said: “The Myanmar government has interned 130,000 Rohingya in inhuman conditions for eight years, cut off from their homes, land, and livelihoods, with little hope that things will improve.
“The government’s claims that it’s not committing the gravest international crimes will ring hollow until it cuts the barbed wire and allows Rohingya to return to their homes, with full legal protections.”
She also called on international agencies and foreign governments to condemn what she described as an “apartheid” of the Rohingyas.
Hundreds of thousands more Rohingya Muslims live in similar camps in neighbouring Bangladesh – while others have fled by boat to countries such as Indonesia.
Analysis: These camps were never fit to be long-term homes – but people are visibly terrified of leaving
by Siobhan Robbins, SE Asia correspondent
Squalid plots, surrounded by barbed wire, amid tight security – these camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were not designed to be long-term homes for any human.
Yet, the Rohinyga have been living in them for eight years. The inhabitants fled their villages in Central and South Rakhine following violence in 2012, which Human Rights Watch says was designed to drive them from their homes.
Activists claim it was an ethnic cleansing campaign which laid the groundwork for the bloody military crackdown in 2017, which saw more than 700,000 Rohingya living in the north of the state flee to Bangladesh.
On a trip to Rakhine State in 2018, I met a Rohingya man on a beach near Sittwe trying to fish in secret along the shore.
He told me the area he lived in was strictly controlled. For the few minutes I spoke to him, he was visibly terrified of being discovered by the authorities.
“We can’t go out from the village,” he said. “If police and military found us, they would arrest us and cut our throats. We can’t go anywhere.”
He said access to their traditional fishing boats was banned, in case they tried to escape across the sea.
Officials in Myanmar say they’re concerned about the camps and are doing what they can to close them and return the residents to their normal lives. In reality, they will likely never go back to the homes they long for.
Instead, campaigners say any move will be to purpose-built and controlled settlements close to the camps that currently contain them – simply exchanging one “prison” for another.
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