It’s been almost a year since the sudden increase in violence against the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Since then, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled large-scale violence and abuse in Rakhine State, Myanmar. More than half of these refugees are under the age of 18.
The majority of these refugees are now in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – where conditions are tough and overcrowding is common with poor sanitation facilities that enable infectious diseases to spread fast.
The UK Government is at the forefront of the international response. The Department for International Development is one of the biggest aid donors to the crisis and has led the way in providing life-saving assistance to children and their families in Bangladesh.
The British public has also once again responded with unparalleled generosity, raising £28 million for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and volunteering to help stop deadly outbreaks. I’m incredibly proud that UK Aid and ordinary British people continue to step up and save lives.
However, 12 months later, children and their families have still not seen justice for the appalling crimes they have suffered.
Save the Children is in Cox’s Bazar, ensuring children are learning and that they have access to healthcare, food and water – and we’ve set up over 100 child friendly spaces, to provide a safe place for children to play. Unfortunately, this means that we’ve heard countless first-hand testimonies of the atrocities committed against Rohingya children and their families. These stories include rape, sexual violence, murder, collective punishment, and children being forced to flee their homes.
One of the children we met in Bangladesh, Hosan* aged 12, shared a horrifying account of what he witnessed as he was escaping Myanmar. “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 to Bangladesh 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.”
When horrific crimes like this are committed, perpetrators must be held to account. Yet all too often, these abuses go unpunished. The Government of Myanmar has failed to end abuses against the Rohingya or hold those responsible to account. Just this week, Human Rights Watch reported that Myanmar authorities are torturing and imprisoning Rohingya refugees returning to Rakhine State.
This is a scar on the global conscience and it is further evidence that when crimes against children go unpunished, it only emboldens the oppressors.
Through its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the UK Government is well-placed to increase international pressure to ensure justice is delivered to the Rohingya community. They are already leading global diplomatic efforts but could go even further by referring the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, a body that can prosecute and bring justice to those responsible for crimes against children.
It is great to see the Foreign Office’s renewed focus on upholding and enhancing the rules-based international order, including in the Foreign Secretary’s recent speech in Washington. This referral would be the ultimate demonstration that the whole global community will not standby against appalling crimes against humanity.
As Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General and life-long global advocate of peace, said “there can be no global justice unless the worst of crimes — crimes against humanity — are subject to the law”. It is our collective duty to protect children like Hosan* if we want to live up to these words and deliver justice to Rohingya children and their families.
*Names changed to protect identity