It’s hard to imagine that life could get much worse for the Rohingya, a stateless Burmese Muslim minority group. But yesterday’s news that Bangladesh has ordered non-governmental organizations to stop providing Rohingya refugees  with (already minimal) services will surely increase their suffering.
I met with Rohingya refugees in an unregistered camp in Bangladesh last year. When I visited , the refugees were having problems accessing water, and were forced to leave the relative safety of the camp to get it. I met a group of young women who had tried to take water from a village well and were beaten by villagers, leaving them bruised, shaken-up, and distressed. I also met women who had been raped in the past in similar circumstances.
Given their desperate state, the minimal services these Rohingya are getting are extremely important. But they will not move away from their camp because services are no longer being provided, as some have suggested; they have nowhere to go. Instead, their lives will just be made more difficult.
And it’s not just the lives of the Rohingya refugees that will be further impoverished. The local Bangladeshi communities (which are among the country’s poorest) have benefitted from services like health care that were made available to everyone by these same NGOs. It seems that the needs of the local population in Teknaf and Ukiah districts, where most Rohingya refugees live, are being ignored in this case.
The Bangladeshi government says it ordered these organizations to stop providing services in order to deter more refugees from arriving. But the Rohingya are not arriving in order to access services; they are fleeing persecution inside Burma.
Following serious inter-ethnic violence in Arakan State in June, state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya has risen to intolerable levels. The Burmese authorities have been conducting mass, arbitrary arrests of Rohingya men and boys, and there are credible accounts of torture and of sexual violence against women whose family members have been arrested. Tens of thousands of Rohingya - and their Arakan Buddhist neighbors - have been displaced. Humanitarian access, particularly to the Rohingya, has been made very difficult, and some Arakan Buddhist leaders are even ordering their community not to sell food to Rohingya. The Rohingya are not deciding whether to flee to Bangladesh based on what services are there – they are fleeing for their lives.
Cutting off the minimal services that have been available to refugees will not solve Bangladesh’s problems. Instead, the stress on Bangladesh caused by the decades-long influx of Rohingya should be recognized, and donors should lend support in the form of improved services for both refugees and their host communities. Attempts by the UN to reach agreement with Bangladesh on these initiatives have faltered in the past, but new attempts should be made.
The only thing that will actually stop the flow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh is a change in their situation in Burma: demonstrated respect for their human rights, and attention to their humanitarian needs. International pressure on the Burmese government, and on the authorities in Arakan State, must be applied to make that happen.