International donors pledged nearly $600m in humanitarian support to hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya on Thursday, succeeding in bridging a huge gap in funding for the Myanmar minority who fled their homes in 2017 amid a brutal military crackdown that is now the subject of a genocide investigation.
The United Kingdom, the United States and European Union organised the virtual conference along with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), aiming to meet a target of $1bn in funding for 2020, less than half of which had been raised.
The US, the largest single donor, announced nearly $200m in new funds while the EU pledged about $113m and Britain about $60m. A number of other countries also contributed. China and Russia were invited but chose not to participate.
“The international community has demonstrated its strong commitment to the humanitarian response with its announcement of funding today totalling $597 million,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.
More than 730,000 Rohingya poured across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh in August and September 2017 amid a military offensive the United Nations has said was carried out with genocidal intent.
Myanmar denies the allegations, saying the military was conducting legitimate security operations against armed groups after attacks against around a dozen security posts and police stations.
Despair in camps
Close to a million Rohingya now live in the crowded camps in Bangladesh.
Hundreds of thousands remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants and denied citizenship, free movement and access to healthcare. Most are confined to villages and camps that Human Rights Watch described this month as an open prison.
Dozens have died this year while embarking on risky journeys by boat to Malaysia and Indonesia in search of a better life.
UNHCR’s Grandi said the growing numbers taking to the sea – 2,400 this year – showed the growing despair among the refugees.
“We need … not to lose ground on the gains that we have achieved and to make further progress both for refugees and the host communities,” he said.
Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said the country was tired of hosting so many refugees, saying the situation was “untenable”.
“Bangladesh is not in a position to continue to take the burden anymore,” he said, adding that the Rohingya must return to Myanmar as soon as possible.
Bangladesh plans to move 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island where it has built housing, he said.
Foremost, the EU remains commited to seek a lasting solution of this crisis.
— Janez Lenarčič (@JanezLenarcic) October 22, 2020
Attempts to help the Rohingya to return home have failed to make progress.
The conflict in the western state of Rakhine has intensified this year with the Myanmar military now fighting the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. The government said last Saturday that most parts of the state would not be able to participate in November’s general election because it was too dangerous.
The UNHCR said donors, along with the Rohingya themselves, wanted to secure the refugees’ voluntary and safe return to their homes.
“The Government of Myanmar must take steps to address the root causes of the violence and displacement in Rakhine State and create the conditions for voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable returns,” the refugee agency said in a statement.
“This includes providing a pathway to citizenship and freedom of movement for Rohingya, guided by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations and encouraged and supported by countries in the region. Myanmar must provide justice for the victims of human rights abuses and ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”
The 2017 violence is the subject of a genocide investigation by the International Court of Justice, which ordered Myanmar in January to take emergency measures to protect the Rohingya, saying it had caused “irreparable damage” to their rights.
Ahead of the donor conference, a group of 35 human rights and refugee organisations appealed to the US and other countries to acknowledge that what happened to the Rohingya constituted genocide, saying that such an acknowledgement would “spur the kind of multilateral diplomatic engagement and pressure needed” to ensure Myanmar refrained from committing further atrocities and would, ultimately, help create the conditions conducive to their return.