A top Red Cross official has described the humanitarian crisis affecting Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims as unprecedented and said the world was failing in its response.
Speaking to the Guardian on a visit to the rapidly expanding refugee camps in the Bangladeshi port town of Cox’s Bazar, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Elhadj As Sy, said a political solution was needed and called for all leaders “without exception” to take the situation seriously.
Myanmar has blocked most international agencies, including the UN, from parts of northern Rakhine state, where security forces are accused of raping and massacring Rohingya Muslims.
The Red Cross has been allowed to provide emergency assistance to tens of thousands of people inside the country since 25 August, when the violence began, but the exodus of hungry and exhausted Rohingya has overwhelmed staff.
The organisation is appealing for $33m (£25m) to fund operations in Bangladesh.
“We are facing here a crisis that is quite unprecedented not only in scale, but in the depths of the multiple deprivations that people are facing,” Sy said.
“The Red Cross has greater access than anybody else [but] the whole response cannot be shifted to the shoulders of Red Cross alone. There should be access for other humanitarian actors. As proud as we are of what we do as a movement, I don’t think we’re responding to the scale and magnitude of the problem.”
More than 300,000 Rohingya refugee children ‘outcast and desperate’, Unicef says
More than 603,000 Rohingya Muslims are estimated to have crossed into Bangladesh, where they are living in dire conditions under tarpaulins and in tents in muddy camps. More than half are children, Unicef said on Wednesday.
“Never have I seen so many children in a crisis,” Sy said. “Children who’ve seen things that a child should never witness. Children who are losing their childhood.”
He said he was shocked and saddened to see the state of the refugees arriving after days of walking to reach the border.
“A state of deprivation. It’s hunger, fear, exhaustion. I hesitate to put a word on it. A horrible state. You see almost the unbearable look of a total destitute person in need. It is almost unbearable,” he said. “We have seen terrible refugee situations …but this is very different.”
The Rohingya have endured decades of persecution in Myanmar, which refuses to acknowledge them as a distinct ethnic group, saying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Authorities there have denied accusations of ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said in September she did not know why people were fleeing.
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As international pressure has intensified – the US said this week it was considering economic sanctions – Myanmar and Bangladesh have begun talks on repatriation. Many Rohingya want to return home, but only if their safety is ensured.
Thousands of Rohingya continue to arrive in Bangladesh each day, but Sy said there was still hope for a political solution to the crisis.
“Ideally political solutions should have been found to the problem so that we minimise the factors that are really pushing people on the road of exodus because home is no longer safe,” he said.
“We are calling always for humanity to prevail, but of course it’s a political debate that is in the hands of political leaders to have the responsibility and we hope that they will take it seriously. All of them. And I mean all of them. At the national level as well as international level.”