Time is running out for Rohingya children. It is time for Europe to act

Wednesday 13 December 2017

“The military set our house on fire. Then they started killing people with machetes. Men, women, children. Everyone. We ran away and never went back. On our way … I walked into an abandoned village to look for food. I came across a big water reservoir where I wanted to get some water for the journey. When I got closer, I saw at least 50 dead bodies floating in it. I can’t forget the smell of the burning houses, or the sight of the bloated bodies. These are horrors I will never forget.”

This chilling account comes from a 12-year-old Rohingya boy, whose name we’ve changed to Hosan, to protect his identity. Save the Children, like other NGOs and UN agencies working in the sprawling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, has heard hundreds of stories like it. I have walked through the camps and spoken to many of these children and their families. Although no independent fact-finding mission has so far been allowed into Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, the testimonies add up to overwhelming evidence of massive rights violations against children. The EU cannot afford to stand by in the face of the fastest growing refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. Nor can it ignore the evidence of the violence that triggered the exodus of over 600,000 people in just 3 months. The appalling slaughter in Rwanda in 1994, like the dark chapters of Srebrenica and Darfur, showed the world the terrible cost of inaction when civilians are targeted.

As the world’s biggest donor, the EU has been stepping up, but Rohingya refugees need much more support, now. Humanitarian needs in the five months to February 2018 total $434 million, but so far only one third of this is funded. Without more resources, thousands of children in the Bangladesh camps will go hungry, succumb to disease, be denied an education, and risk exploitation and trafficking. Organisations like mine are doing what we can, but without a fully-funded humanitarian response, we are operating with one hand tied behind our back.

But the imperative to act goes beyond the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar. The first challenge is that Bangladesh, facing its own domestic pressures, is keen to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. There is a real danger that these refugees, many of them profoundly traumatised by the violence from which they’ve fled, will face growing pressure to move back to Rakhine State, whether or not conditions on the ground are safe. The EU must strongly oppose any returns unless, and until, minimum conditions are met, which guarantee the physical safety, legal status and material security of Rohingya people. These minimum conditions have to be independently verified by the UN, and include concrete steps to build a just and lasting settlement within the communities where the violence started.

Secondly, civilians in need in Rakhine State — including internally displaced Rohingya people living in camps in to which they fled after previous waves of violence — must immediately be allowed unfettered access to aid from the UN and NGOs. The humanitarian community in Myanmar is hearing reports are that unmet humanitarian needs are large, and growing. But at the moment, only a trickle of aid is getting through, and there’s no clarity about who’s receiving it. The EU must flex its diplomatic muscles, working in close collaboration with others at the UN, to help open Rakhine State to urgently needed humanitarian assistance.

Finally, the EU should work with others to deter further violence, and ensure that the perpetrators of violence against children are held to account. For this to happen, the starting point must be intensified diplomatic pressure to allow an international investigation that establishes the full facts about the scale of violence, who carried it out, and who ordered it. Once this has happened, all avenues for justice and accountability should be explored, including through international courts. But pending movement on an international fact-finding mission, the EU can do more, by exploring the scope to use travel bans, financial sanctions and restrictions on dealings with military-owned companies to send a clear signal about the need to protect civilians and safeguard children’s rights. There is precedent for this, including an EU arms embargo against the Myanmar military, in place since 1990.

The time for doubt, deliberation and delay over the plight of children like Hosan has passed. The longer political leaders wait, the more children will see their childhoods damaged and destroyed. The EU, by acting together, has the power to support child refugees, lift the blockages to aid, and halt the spiral of violence. After a year in which European solidarity and cohesion has been challenged, it would be a powerful statement of the EU’s capacity to contribute to positive change in the world. As EU governments gather for the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday, this should be highest in their mind.

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