Reflections on My Visit with Rohingya Refugees

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Ambassador Brownback speaks with children who are among the 4,000 Rohingya  inhabiting the “No Man’s Land” between Burma and Bangladesh.
Ambassador Brownback speaks with children who are among the 4,000 Rohingya inhabiting the “No Man’s Land” between Burma and Bangladesh.

Reflections on My Visit with Rohingya Refugees

On April 18, I visited Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in southeast Bangladesh, close to the border of Burma. This was my first overseas trip as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom because of the importance of the Rohingya refugee crisis to me and this Administration. I had a chance to hear from individuals camped out along the Bangladesh-Burma border, recent arrivals from Burma, and imams who arrived over the course of the past eight months. To my deep dismay, every person I spoke with – man, woman, or child – had witnessed firsthand the shooting, stabbing, or murder of a close family member. The accounts I heard of what people experienced at the hands of the Burmese military, police, or vigilantes are as bad as or worse than any other I have personally seen - including as one of the first U.S. officials to visit Darfur in 2004 as a Senator - particularly in breadth and brutality.   

At the UNHCR Transit Center in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Ambassador Brownback listens to the experience of a Rohingya refugee who recently fled violence in Burma.

We have condemned the attacks by an armed Rohingya group against Burmese security outposts in northern Rakhine State, Burma on August 25, 2017. Burmese authorities maintain that they were conducting counter-insurgency operations in response to those attacks, but over the next four months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya, mostly women and children, fled to nearby Bangladesh to escape widespread violence in their homes and villages in northern Rakhine State, while thousands of others were displaced internally. The total number of Rohingya refugees hosted in Bangladesh is now approximately one million. 

Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

This is a humanitarian crisis perpetrated by the Burmese security forces, and by vigilantes often acting in concert with security forces. The U.S. government has declared that it is ethnic cleansing. When all of the facts are in, I believe the situation will prove to be far worse than currently understood. Every individual I spoke with said that their Muslim faith was one of the chief reasons they were targeted, citing the destruction of mosques, the public beatings of imams in the streets, and explicit statements by the perpetrators who drove the Rohingya from their homes. The Burmese military ‎and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts.    

Ambassador Brownback greets Rohingya imams, who shared their experiences of the military destroying mosques and madrassas, violating religious freedoms.

The government and people of Bangladesh, particularly the local host communities, should be commended for their support to Rohingya refugees.‎ I was impressed by what I saw of the refugee relief effort during my visit. I am also impressed by the resilience of the Rohingya people, who have shown so much courage and determination in the face of such immense difficulty. That said, immerse challenges remain, especially the onset of monsoon season.

Ambassador Brownback inspects a model shelter for Rohingya refugees in preparation for the upcoming monsoon season.

We must and will do more to provide justice for the Rohingya, and there is deep interest and concern for their plight at the highest levels of the Trump Administration and in Congress. As Vice President Pence stated during his remarks to the UN Security Council on September 20, 2017, “President Trump and I would... call on this Security Council and the United Nations to take strong and swift action to bring this crisis to an end and give hope and help to the Rohingya people in their hour of need.” I am coordinating closely with my State Department colleagues, including at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and with other senior officials. Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelley Currie and diplomats from our embassies in Dhaka and Rangoon have also visited the affected areas in recent days. On April 23, Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan announced $50 million in additional humanitarian assistance for vulnerable people fleeing the Rakhine State crisis. This brings the United States’ response to the crisis in Burma and Bangladesh to more than $163 million since August 2017, and total humanitarian assistance for displaced people in and from Burma to more than $255 million since the start of fiscal year 2017. We urge other donors to join in providing the additional humanitarian assistance still needed for those affected by the crisis, particularly as the monsoon season looms and further threatens an already vulnerable population. My hope is that with sustained international pressure, the perpetrators of the violence will be held accountable swiftly, and that the refugees can return in a manner that is voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable.

About the Author: Sam Brownback serves as the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.