Rohingya Rights Now An AJWS Campaign for Justice

For decades, the Rohingya people of Burma (Myanmar) have faced state-sponsored persecution and violence because of their ethnicity and religion. In August, 2017, the situation exploded into an organized campaign of genocide forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee Burma. Today, nearly one million people live in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. As Jews and global citizens, we must act now to provide aid and ensure justice for the Rohingya people.

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The Crisis

The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority group from the Rakhine State of Western Burma with a unique language and culture. While they live in a predominantly Buddhist country, the majority of Rohingya people are Muslim.

Over the years, the Burmese military and government forces have unleashed many waves of violence targeting Rohingya communities, as well as other ethnic and religious minorities throughout the country. These groups are subject to violence and discrimination, denied the freedom of movement and basic human rights in the country they call home.   

The Rohingya people have lived in Burma for centuries, yet they are reviled as outsiders and accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 1982, the Burmese began to strip Rohingya residents of their citizenship.  

The latest and most horrific round of violence started on August 25, 2017, when the Burmese military drastically intensified its anti-Rohingya campaign to a point that is now widely recognized as a genocide. Soldiers burned entire Rohingya villages to the ground; indiscriminately massacred Rohingya men, women and children; and forced an estimated 740,000 people to flee on foot or by boat to refugee camps in Bangladesh. People embarked on treks of several weeks, often escaping their burned villages with only what they could carry. Those refugees joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people already living in limbo in Bangladesh. 

This sudden influx of Rohingya people into impermanent settlements around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, created a massive network of refugee camps, including what is today the largest single camp in the world. The survivors living in these camps face immense challenges. Shelters are constructed using only bamboo or tarpaulin. As one local AJWS partner explained, “People have to rebuild their homes every time there is a storm.”  

There are few prospects for children’s education, and the severe lack of employment opportunities has led to deteriorating security as people become increasingly desperate. Despite oppressive restrictions on leaving the camps, some Rohingya people risk detainment and do leave to find work—but those hired as day laborers earn less than $4 a day.  

And yet, after two years of negotiations between the governments of Burma and Bangladesh, it remains unclear whether the Rohingya people will ever be able to safely return to their homes in Rakhine State. Proposed relocation plans—like moving up to 100,000 people to a flood-prone island in the middle of the Bay of Bengal with little infrastructure—have stirred up significant anxiety among Rohingya refugees about the uncertain futures of their families and communities.  

Credible reports from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG) and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, now say sufficient evidence exists that the Burmese military maintained a clear intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Rohingya people—the legal hallmarks of the crime of genocide.  

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We will stay the course to ensure that the Rohingya people survive this onslaught of violence and are able to live with dignity and human rights.

Our Response

Immediately after the violence broke out in August 2017, AJWS’s local partner organizations in Bangladesh and Burma began offering critical humanitarian aid—including food and water—to refugees who fled across the border into Bangladesh. AJWS partners also chartered boats to help pregnant women, adolescent girls and the elderly safely escape Burma and enter Bangladesh. 

Today, our partners in Bangladesh remain steadfast in their determination to improve conditions in these camps while ensuring that Rohingya people are empowered to communicate the needs of their community. AJWS partners are now training healthcare volunteers to expand awareness of communicable diseases and the importance of good hygiene; supporting children’s education; providing legal aid for survivors of gender-based violence within the camps; and improving the safety and security of women and girls.

This work has led to 7,500 children gaining access to informal education, emotional and psychosocial support and basic healthcare. Our network of 80 predominantly female community health volunteers have educated 120,000 people on hygiene, sanitation and how to access health services. 

AJWS is also leading efforts to influence U.S. policymakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate to advance legislation that will bring justice to the Rohingya people and accountability to those responsible for this modern genocide. Together with our partners and allies, AJWS launched the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network, a diverse coalition of organizations from across the Jewish community. Together, we helped push Congress to sanction several Burmese military officials and increase humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh—but there remains much more to do.

Currently, the members of JRJN are working to deepen the awareness of this crisis among American Jews at large, as well as pressuring Congress to pass the upcoming Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2019 in the Senate and the BURMA Act of 2019 in the House. These bills would recommend targeted sanctions against the Burmese military and military-owned businesses; fund programs to aid refugees; assess ways to hold accountable those responsible for crimes committed against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities; and call for the restoration of Burmese citizenship for the Rohingya while taking input for the Rohingya community.

“We stand up, as Jews and Americans, against the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people by the Burmese military. We do so because we believe deeply from our own historical experience and understand from our ethical values that we cannot remain silent when any people are on the brink of destruction simply because of race, ethnicity or religion. American Jewish World Service, which provides direct support to the Rohingya and other oppressed ethnic minorities and human rights activists in Burma, is proud to stand with the millions of Jews represented by the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network to demand that justice is pursued.”
— Robert Bank, President and CEO of American Jewish World Service

We continue to support remarkable Rohingya activists from diaspora communities while also elevating the voices of Rohingya activists living in the camps—particularly women. In March 2019, AJWS and a local partner facilitated Rohingya leader Hamida Khatun to secure papers and travel to Geneva, where she became the first female survivor from the camps to speak at the United Nations.  

In April 2019, AJWS partner and diaspora Rohingya leader Tun Khin testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, illuminating the history of violence against Rohingya people and calling for Congress to push for justice against Burmese perpetrators of this crisis. Upon hearing his testimony, all four Senators in attendance began referring to the situation as a genocide—and influenced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicly address the U.S. response. 

Why We Care

As an ethnic minority living among majority cultures over many centuries, Jews have experienced waves of persecution ourselves. In Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, Jews have suffered government-sanctioned hate and been stripped of their citizenship rights. Our communities have also been violently attacked and endured threats of annihilation. Our history of oppression demands that we stand today to ensure that “never again” means “never again” for the Rohingya people and other persecuted minorities. Join us by adding your name here:

About American Jewish World Service’s work in Burma

For more than 15 years, AJWS has supported the human rights of ethnic minorities in Burma, including the Rohingya people. AJWS provides direct financial support to more than 30 human rights organizations in Burma that have been working to advance the rights of minority ethnic groups and to create a truly pluralistic and democratic society. Please read more about our work in Burma here. We believe that only in a democratic and pluralistic Burma will the Rohingya people be able to survive and thrive.