The Rohingya Muslims, an ancient community in Myanmar and currently the largest group of stateless people in the world, have been at risk for decades.
A recent increase in violent attacks against this minority, however, has claimed more than 1,000 lives since August 25 and has forced tens of thousands of civilians to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. To prevent what could possibly be the next genocide, Turkey has stepped up its diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the area. Before it’s too late, other world leaders must follow suit.
The Rohingya Muslim community’s plight did not start yesterday. Having been deprived of citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law, members of that minority are prohibited from taking part in civil and political life — banned from voting and holding office in Myanmar. To make matters worse, they live under dire economic conditions that affect all aspects of everyday life.
To be clear, what has been happening in Myanmar represents a clear violation of Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that the national government must protect and respect the human rights of everyone regardless of their race, color, sex, language, religious convictions, opinions and origins.
Likewise, the arbitrary restrictions on the Rohingya community’s rights are incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
In recent years, there has been an uptick in violence against Rohingya Muslims, which has resulted in mass displacement and a large number of casualties. In 2012, when I first traveled to Myanmar, close to 200 people — most of them Rohingya Muslims — had been killed in clashes. Over the past year the security situation further deteriorated as tens of thousands of people had to choose between near-certain death and seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, which faces major economic challenges itself.
The humanitarian crisis is impossible to ignore: According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 18,500 Rohingya Muslims had arrived at Bangladeshi refugee camps by the end of August. The United Nations now puts that number at more than 400,000.
During my visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border last week, Rohingya Muslims — most of them women and children — told me haunting stories about the deaths of their relatives and loved ones. Some were forced to watch as their husbands were executed. Others saw their villages being burned to the ground. It was clear that they depended on the compassion of others to survive.
Turkey’s approach to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar reflects our proven commitment to assist fellow human beings in need. As of today, our country remains the world’s second-largest provider of humanitarian assistance. In addition to hosting close to three million Syrian and Iraqi refugees within our borders, to whom $25 billion worth of services and aid has been provided since 2011, we have helped to address crises in distant parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Turkey follows the most recent developments in Myanmar with deep concern. However, expressing concern alone isn’t enough to make a difference on the ground.
In an effort to address pressing problems in the area, Turkey has taken a number of diplomatic and humanitarian steps in recent weeks. Having reached out to the leaders of Bangladesh and Myanmar, we delivered 1,000 tons of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya Muslim refugees.
Last week, I personally oversaw the distribution of humanitarian aid and spoke with survivors and eyewitnesses. At the same time, we pledged to cover the costs of hosting Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and expressed our intentions to build new housing at the border to improve the living standards of refugees.
Turkey, however, cannot be reasonably expected to address the situation alone. This is why world leaders must follow suit and get behind a comprehensive, long-term strategy to broker a permanent solution.
As a first step, we must ensure the safety of Rohingya Muslims by offering financial incentives to the government of Bangladesh, which remains the only safe haven for the persecuted minority. Moving forward, the international community must work with the government of Myanmar to ensure the Rohingya Muslim community will be granted citizenship and their safe return to their native land is guaranteed.
The fact that Rohingya Muslims live in a remote part of the world doesn’t make their lives less valuable, their experiences less painful or the situation less dire.
Humanity must not fail the Rohingya Muslims as it failed the hundreds of thousands of innocent people who perished in Srebrenica and Rwanda. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with officials from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others, are fully committed to finding a solution. As for the rest of the world, the time to act is now.
By: Emine Erdoğan
The First Lady of the Republic of Turkey.