DHAKA – Bangladesh was the center stage of one of 2017’s worst humanitarian crises, as around 650,000 members of the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority fled violence in neighboring Myanmar to settle in sprawling refugee camps just across the border.
In mid-August, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out a coordinated attack on security posts in Myanmar, sparking a violent army retaliation which led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. There have been widespread reports of villages razed, women raped and thousands killed in what the UN has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Despite international condemnation and pressure to end the violence, Myanmar State Counselor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi denied the UN accusations, refusing to call the minority by its name “Rohingya.”
The NGO Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingyas, including 730 children aged below five years, were killed in Myanmar in the first month of the army’s campaign.
Almost four months since the violence broke out, the influx of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has not stopped, with estimates indicating their number could reach 700,000 by the end of the year.
An agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar was signed in November outlining conditions for the repatriation of the Rohingya, but human rights groups have criticized the deal for failing to address issues at the heart of the conflict, including the issue of the Rohingyas’ citizenship, which the Burmese government has always denied them.
Pope Francis also voiced his concern at the conditions the Rohingya face, but stopped short of mentioning their name when he met with the much criticized Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya” said the Pope during his his recent trip to Bangladesh, following a historic visit to Myanmar.
Despite being warned by Catholic representatives in Myanmar not to use the term for fear of marginalizing the small community in the Buddhist majority nation, human rights groups urged the Pope to use the term Rohingya and back the community in their struggle for survival and the search for a place they can finally call home.