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UN: Myanmar Rohingya exodus exposes abject failure of world leaders to find solution to refugee crisis

  • More Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh in the space of three weeks than the total number of people who fled by sea to Europe in 2016
  • Worldwide situation goes from bad to worse as rich countries fail to play their part in addressing the refugee crisis, leaving poorer countries to pick up the pieces 

As almost 400,000 refugees flee ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, world leaders meeting at the UN General Assembly this week should hang their heads in shame that they have not only failed to make good on their promises to take in more refugees, but have actively dismantled refugee rights in many parts of the world.

A year on from the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York, where leaders pledged to take in more refugees and help vulnerable people forced to flee their countries, global refugee numbers are increasing year on year as conflicts spiral out of control.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“The horrific situation in Myanmar is exactly why we need more than just a sticking-plaster approach to helping those fleeing war and persecution. After being subjected to horrific violence, including killings and having their villages burned to the ground, these Rohingya refugees are now facing a humanitarian crisis as Bangladesh struggles to support them.”

The latest evidence published by Amnesty points to a mass-scale scorched-earth campaign across northern Rakhine State, where Myanmar security forces and vigilante mobs are burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting people at random as they try to flee. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity – systematic attacks and forcible deportation of civilians.

As a consequence, in the space of less than three weeks, almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh. This is more than the total number of refugees who came to Europe by sea in 2016.

Salil Shetty said:

“Poor and low-income countries such as Bangladesh, Uganda and Lebanon are left struggling to deal with huge numbers of refugees, when rich countries who host far fewer should be stepping up to provide aid and resettlement places. Leaders of rich countries prefer to pretend the problem does not exist. What will it take for governments to wake up to the reality that their response to the global refugee crisis is totally broken?”

Government failures go from bad to worse

At last year’s Summit on Refugees, convened by former US President Barack Obama, governments pledged to take in more than 360,000 refugees – doubling the number of places offered in 2015.

While these pledges represented an increase, they were based on the whim of governments rather than on the needs of the people they were purporting to help.

Since the Leaders’ Summit, many governments have not only failed to meaningfully address the growing refugee crisis, but have outdone each other in trying to dismantle refugee rights and have failed to respond to new crises around the world.

One prominent example is the USA, which under President Trump is now reversing Obama’s pledge to take in 110,000 people in 2017 and instead capping the numbers at 50,000, and potentially taking in even fewer refugees in 2018.

Salil Shetty said:

“The USA’s policy towards refugees has to be viewed in a global context. In the shadow of Trump’s cruel policies, other countries around the world have continued to dehumanize refugees and turn their backs on them.

“Whether it’s the EU condemning refugees to abuse and exploitation at the hands of criminal gangs in Libya, or Australia subjecting refugees to severe physical and psychological damage in its offshore detention centers, rich countries have contributed substantially to the alarming deterioration of refugee rights.

“It is against this backdrop of governments’ callous treatment of people fleeing conflict and violence that the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis is unfolding before our eyes in Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, the UK government’s response to the global refugee crisis has been pitiful. It has refused to take part in European relocation plans or to provide enough other secure and legal routes for those fleeing conflict and persecution to reach safety.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty UK, said:

“By refusing to share responsibility for dealing with the global refugee crisis, the British government has turned its back on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

“The international community must carefully consider the longer-term implications for Rohingya women, men and children forced to flee if the Myanmar army’s violence and repression is not swiftly brought to an end.

“The UK and others must be willing to play their part and share responsibility with Bangladesh. Expecting the country to host indefinitely such a rapidly growing refugee population risks undermining its will and capacity to do so, particularly if others in the international community are not prepared to play their part.”

World leaders gathering in New York for this year’s UN General Assembly are expected to discuss the spiraling situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, from where the long-persecuted Rohingya population have been forced to flee because of an unlawful and totally disproportionate military response to attacks by a Rohingya armed group.

Salil Shetty added:

“Instead of attending summits to shake hands with each other and make promises they don’t intend to keep, heads of state should show some leadership.

“That means delivering a comprehensive plan to protect civilians in conflict, ending crimes against humanity and implementing proper solutions for refugees such as the Rohingya who are in a desperate situation. In case they have forgotten, this is what the United Nations is for.”


As of 12 September, some 379,000 refugees, the vast majority of who are Rohingya, had fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since violence broke out on 25 August. 

UNHCR monitoring of the emergency in the Mediterranean shows that last year there were 362,000 sea arrivals to Europe. 

There are now more than 22.5 million refugees worldwide. However only a small fraction of this population who are acutely vulnerable – for example those who have been raped or tortured – need resettlement in a third country. This year that figure is estimated to be over 1.19 million, which is just 0.02% of the world’s population.

In 2016 only 189,300 refugees were offered resettlement places, a tiny fraction of those in desperate need.

US President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees took place in New York on 20 September, 2016.


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