Expressing shock at the scale of the Rohingya refugee crisis, a top US official, who recently visited Bangladesh, has said he saw “evidence of atrocities” committed against the minority Muslims who have fled in millions to escape violence in Myanmar.
According to the UN estimates, nearly 600,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25 when the army launched a military crackdown, triggering an exodus.
Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as an ethnic group and insists that they are Bangladeshi migrants living illegally in the country.
“What we saw in the camps was shocking. The scale of the refugee crisis is immense,” Simon Henshaw, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration told reporters on Tuesday. Henshaw led a US delegation to Bangladesh from October 29 to November 4 during which the team also visited the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.
“The conditions are tough. People are suffering. Many refugees told us, through tears, accounts of seeing their villages burned, their relatives killed in front of them. It was tough to take. Some recall being shot as they fled,” he said. He said that despite the trauma, many expressed a strong desire to return to their homes in Myanmar, provided their safety, security and rights could be guaranteed.
Henshaw said he saw evidence of atrocities during the visit to the camps. “I’m not an expert, but what I saw was shocking. I saw evidence of atrocities,” he said. Asked if the atrocities rose up to the level of ethnic cleansing, Henshaw was non-committal, saying the State Department would review his and others reports to make any such confirmation. He also praised the Bangladesh government, its people and other organisations for supporting the refugees.
“However, more is needed. (The) US remains committed to addressing the needs of those impacted by the crisis, and calls on others, including in the region, to join us in our response,” he said. Henshaw said the Myanmar government “appears to be committed” to start a repatriation programme which is in its early stages.
“It’s very important to us that the programme not only creates safe conditions so that refugees will want to return voluntarily, but also assure that refugees go back to their villages and land, that their houses be restored in the areas where the villages were burned, and that political reconciliation take place,” he said.
State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, who accompanied Henshaw during the visit to Bangladesh, applauded the government of Bangladesh for taking “an extraordinary step to open its heart and doors” for their neighbours in distress. “They’ve opened their hearts; they’ve opened their wallets. Imagine – more than 600,000 to cross their borders, putting them in camps. It’s not where these people want to be of course – in their camps; they’d rather be home. But at least they’re safe for now,” she said.
Bangladesh has accused Myanmar of spearheading a violent depopulation campaign to eliminate Rohingyas by branding them as so-called “Islamist terrorists”.