Rohingya Crisis: fast facts and how to help

Updated Aug 28, 2020
15-minute read
The plight of Rohingya refugees has been at the forefront of international news. Since August 25, 2017, nearly 920,000 people have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh due to extreme violence in the northern Rakhine state. Most of these refugees identify as Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group living in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Humanitarian organizations are currently struggling to adequately serve 1.3 million people who are dependent on aid, including those in local communities. Monsoon rains continue to threaten the lives of refugee families living in overcrowded camps, including almost half a million children. The torrential downpour brings with it threats of flooding, landslides and collapsed shelters. Overflowing latrines and contaminated water further increase the risk of poor sanitation and disease in already squalid conditions.

Having arrived with little more than the clothing on their backs, most refugees rely on humanitarian aid for shelter, food, clothing and healthcare.

History of the Rohingya Refugees

1948: After Burma’s independence from British rule, a Muslim rebellion erupts in Rakhine state, with people demanding equal rights and an autonomous area. The rebellion is eventually defeated.

1962: Military rule begins in Burma following a coup.

1977 to 1978: Some 200,000 ethnic Muslims identifying as Rohingya flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

1982: A new citizenship law identifies 135 national ethnic groups, excluding the Rohingya, effectively rendering them stateless.

1989 to 1991: A military crackdown follows a popular uprising and martial law is declared. Burma is renamed Myanmar. An additional 250,000 refugees flee to Bangladesh.

1992: The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments agree to repatriate refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people return to Myanmar over several years.

2003: Two of 20 refugee camps remain in Bangladesh. U.N. studies show widespread malnutrition in the camps.

2012: Religious violence flares in Rakhine, leaving many people homeless. More than 100,000 people flee to Malaysia.

2014: In Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, the Rohingya are still not included as an ethnic group.

2016: Military action follows an attack on a border post in which police offers were killed. During the crackdown, about 87,000 people flee to Bangladesh.

2017: Violence escalates
  • August: Violence increases in Rakhine state among ethnic groups and Myanmar military forces, triggering a massive exodus of people to Bangladesh.
  • September: The U.N. refugee agency declares the Myanmar refugee crisis to be a major emergency and scales up its response.
  • October: More than 600,000 refugees have arrived in Bangladesh.
  • November: Myanmar and Bangladesh agree to start repatriating refugees within the next two months.
2018: Facing insecurity
  • January: The agreed start date for repatriation passes without action.
  • April: U.N. Security Council envoys visit Myanmar and Bangladesh to observe needs and conditions.
  • April to October: Monsoon and cyclone seasons increase hazards for refugees living in stick-and-bamboo tents in camps.
2019: The Rohingya humanitarian crisis enters its third year

FAQs: What you need to know about Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

  1. Fast facts: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
  2. Why did so many refugees flee Myanmar?
  3. Who are the Rohingya refugees?
  4. What started the refugee crisis?
  5. What are conditions like in refugee camps?
  6. How are children impacted by the Rohingya refugee crisis?
  7. How is World Vision helping the Rohingya people?

1. Fast facts: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees describes the Myanmar refugee crisis as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world.” Here are the facts you need to know:
  • Over 890,000 refugees have fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar since August 2017.
  • About 1.3 million people need humanitarian aid because of the crisis, including refugees and people in local communities.
  • From April to October, heavy monsoon rains and possible cyclones will hit the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
  • Myanmar and Bangladesh governments are still negotiating terms for families to be repatriated to Myanmar. Realistically, this may take years. In the meantime, children and their families are living in unhealthy, dangerous conditions with limited access to basic services.

2. Why did so many refugees flee Myanmar?
Nearly 900,000 refugees, many of whom identify as Rohingya, have fled Myanmar for their lives. Armed conflict between minority groups, including the Rohingya, and government military forces has gone on for decades inside Myanmar. In 2017, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the situation a “human rights nightmare”.
In late August 2017, fresh clashes broke out in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State where the majority of Rohingya’s resided. Myanmar’s military and police were accused of mounting brutal attacks on the ethnic minority.
3. Who are the Rohingya refugees?
Most of this ethnic Muslim minority group live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh and India. They identify as Rohingya, but this ethnic group is not one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government of Myanmar.
Even though many Rohingya trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries, they are largely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Because the government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, it has left most of the population without legal documentation, rendering them stateless. 
4. What started the refugee crisis?
Discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government since the late 1970s, as well as violence between differing ethnic groups, has compelled hundreds of thousands, including those who identify as of Rohingya Muslims, to flee their homes over the years.
The most recent wave of violence has by far been the worst. It began after clashes broke out in Rakhine state between minority groups and government militant forces. As violence escalated, it has been claimed that military and police forces have burned down hundreds of villages, and performed mass killings (including the murder of children) and rape.
This resulted in more than 600,000 people, many of whom identify as Rohingya, escaping Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August 25, 2017. Sixty per cent of these refugees are children, crossing at a rate of between 1,200 and 1,800 per day, many of whom have witnessed horrific atrocities in their homeland.
5. What are conditions like in refugee camps?
Many of the refugees living in Bangladeshi camps are suffering from physical injuries caused by rape, gunshots, shrapnel, fire and landslides, in addition to psychological wounds.

The already vulnerable population is put further at risk by inadequate water and sanitation, and overcrowded conditions that increase the risk of disease outbreak. The high concentration of people mean that a disease outbreak could kill thousands.

Diarrhea, acute jaundice syndrome, and respiratory infections are common in both adults and children. Acute watery diarrhea is especially dangerous in combination with malnutrition, which is rampant among the refugee population. Less than three per cent of refugees were immunized in Myanmar, so they are highly vulnerable to preventable diseases such as measles.

6. How are children impacted by the Rohingya refugee crisis?
Refugee children are at high risk of disease and malnutrition, physical harm and violence. Since heavy monsoon rains began in early July 2019, conditions have worsened. Here are some of the hazards refugee children face:
  • Disease outbreaks: The World Health Organization has reported outbreaks of measles, diphtheria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections among children under age five.

  • Malnutrition: Only one in 14 children currently have an acceptable minimum diet. With malnutrition rates at acute emergency levels, any outbreak of disease could quickly claim the lives of thousands of malnourished children. According to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group’s report, about 39,000 children under age five need treatment for severe acute malnutrition and about 118,000 children need treatment for moderate acute malnutrition. This situation may worsen as aid agencies struggle to get food into the camps when the few main access roads flood.

  • Physical danger: Children face increased physical danger due to flash floods and landslides that could cause their makeshift shelters to collapse. At least 100,000 people are in grave danger of landslides and floods, which could damage washrooms, latrines, and nearly half of current sources of water from wells, as well as other essential services such as classrooms, nutrition centres, and health clinics.

  • Violence, especially against women and girls: Extreme poverty increases the vulnerability of women and girls to violence, especially since refugees from Myanmar have no legal status in Bangladesh. This makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse. There are reports of women and girls being forced into prostitution. They are also resorting to survival sex in exchange for food and services. Risks of child labour and child marriage are high. Many adolescent girls over the age of 12 are married. For many families, child marriage is a coping mechanism that they hope will protect girls from assault and give them better access to food aid.

  • Lack of access to education: more than 625,000 children in refugee and host communities need access to education services.

For more information, read “Childhood Interrupted: Children’s Voices from the Rohingya Refugee Crisis,” a joint report from World Vision and other humanitarian organizations, based on consultation with children and mothers in Bangladesh refugee camps and host communities.

7. How is World Vision helping the Rohingya people?
World Vision has been working in Myanmar since 1991, working with vulnerable communities throughout the country to provide health and nutrition services, access to education, clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and equip families to grow their livelihoods. We started in Bangladesh with emergency relief work in 1970, right before the country gained independence.

In response to the refugee crisis, World Vision staff in Bangladesh have mobilized resources to provide emergency food relief and mobile child friendly spaces for those in need. To date, we have reached over 200,000 people with life-saving humanitarian assistance.

World Vision is operating 12 child-friendly spaces so children can play, receive emotional support and have a sense of normalcy.

In an effort to reduce the risk of family separation during monsoon storms, we have equipped 1,346 children with waterproof ID bracelets provided by UNICEF.

We also have operations in motion to assist with immediate, life-saving supplies like food, water, sanitation facilities, shelter, as well as protection for women and children.

Over 300,000 people have benefited by clean water and sanitation services such as wells, latrines, handwashing stations and bathing cubicles.

Over 21,500 families have received shelter kits with bamboo poles, tarps, rope and tools in order to strengthen their homes against monsoon rains.

We have launched a program to prevent and treat moderate acute malnutrition in children under five. Every day, World Vision reaches 800 children with supplementary food assistance. Malnourished and lactating mothers also participate in our nutrition programs. There are currently 60 babies born each day in Rohingya refugee camps.

Women and girls are also disproportionally affected by gender-based violence in the camps. As a response, World Vision opened the Women’s Peace Centre – the first full-sized multipurpose centre for women. There, women and girls participate in activities to help build trusted relationships and find a support network. World Vision also distributed dignity kits with feminine hygiene products to 20,600 women and girls.

World Vision is also focused on ensuring the safety and security of children in Bangladesh’s refugee camps – warning that thousands of children are at risk of being trafficked, sexually abused or exploited.

By Alicia Dubay