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Rohingya refugee crisis: 5 years later, life for those who fled "genocide" in Myanmar is "worse, not better."

Rohingya Crisis: Fear of the "other"
Rohingya Crisis: Fear of the "other" 08:23

Imagine life in a sprawling, makeshift city of tents and shacks surrounded by fencing to keep people penned in, with no access to education or any way to earn a living, dependent entirely on humanitarian aid to survive. That's life for the 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees who have been stuck for five years now in the purgatory of the world's biggest refugee camp, at Cox's Bazar on the coast of Bangladesh.

In late August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingyas fled a brutal military crackdown and campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar's Rakhine state to join about 300,000 who were already living in the sprawling network of camps in neighboring Bangladesh.

Five years later, they're still struggling to obtain even the most basic necessities, like food, and they've no reason to hope for better days in the near future.

"Nothing has changed in these five years," Khin Maung, a 27-year-old refugee at the camp, told CBS News. "We are still suffering and struggling for basic needs every day. We don't have a safe environment in the camps, and we are really worried for the future of our children who are not able to go to school… this is our biggest concern."

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About half of the Rohingya refugees at Cox's Bazar are children. Bangladesh's government has not allowed them access to any formal education. It also hasn't given the adult refugees any employment rights, leaving the entire population of the camp reliant entirely on humanitarian aid, and that has decreased over the years.

"Five years on, the situation in the camps, in fact, is worse, because the funding has dried up as the focus has shifted to the crisis in Ukraine," Fiona McLysaght, Bangladesh country director for the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide, told CBS News. "It's still an emergency situation, where we are trying to meet their basic needs."

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The makeshift structures of the cramped camp are prone to fires that can spread with devastating speed. Blazes have killed dozens of refugees over the past five years, including a massive one that tore through the camp in March 2021, claiming 15 Rohingya lives, leaving hundreds more injured and thousands displaced all over again.

The low-lying coastal camp is also highly vulnerable to flooding during South Asia's rainy season. Climate change and the extreme weather patterns it's driving have also hit Cox's Bazar hard, with the annual monsoon rains bringing flooding and landslides that inundate the tent city and compound the difficulties of relief work.

Deadly fire tears through Rohingya refugee camp 01:52

The United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian aid organizations are bracing for extreme weather events to increase with every passing year.

Bangladesh has won global praise for hosting such a large number of refugees, but it's also faced criticism for keeping the refugees isolated in the fortified camp, and not letting them work. There was also outcry over the government's decision to relocate thousands of the Rohingya refugees to the remote island of Bhasan Char, despite concerns about their safety, and allegedly against their will.

"Bangladesh is focused on repatriation of the refugees, and I don't think they want to make the camps any more comfortable," an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous told CBS News.

While many refugees still don't want to return to Myanmar because of the violence and trauma they faced there, there are others who hope to go back home, one day.

"We are hopeful that the future will be better," Maung told CBS News. "We are not a hopeless people. We want to go back to our country. We want justice and we want our dignity back."

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who visited the Cox's Bazar camp this month, said the conditions in Myanmar still weren't right for the Rohingyas to return home.

But Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, told Bachelet they would have to be repatriated.

"The Rohingya are nationals of Myanmar and they have to be taken back," Hasina was quoted as saying by her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, earlier this month.

5 years on for Rohingya Refugees
A Rohingya child is seen at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2022. Md. Kamruzzaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty

It is in the interest of most stakeholders that the refugees are ultimately able to go back home.

"But for now, it's a long-term crisis," McLysaght, of Concern Worldwide, told CBS News. "Children have been born in the camps. Those children don't know of any other life. It's going to be many more years of this camp life, at least."

The Rohingya are believed to have migrated from what is now Bangladesh to Rakhine (which was then known as Arakan) during the 17th century. When Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the Rohingya were left stranded in Rakhine state; no longer Bangladeshi, but viewed by the newly-independent nation of Burma (now known as Myanmar) as outsiders. They were denied citizenship under Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law, effectively rendering them stateless.

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Myanmar's own military, along with extremist Buddhist groups in the country, have been accused of subjecting the Rohingyas to a campaign of sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrests and organized mass killings for many years. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the violent repression of the Rohingyas in Myanmar amounted to genocide.

"The day will come when those responsible for these appalling acts will have to answer for them," Blinken said, laying the groundwork for potential legal action.

Myanmar is currently facing a genocide trial in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in a case filed by Gambia.

But five years on, "no one has been held accountable," Human Rights Watch said in a statement released Wednesday, widely considered the fifth anniversary of the mass migration of Rohingya refugees. "This anniversary should prompt concerned governments to take concrete action to hold the Myanmar military to account and secure justice and safety for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and across the region."

Despite the reminder, refugees like Maung see little reason to hope.

"The world seems to have forgotten the Rohingyas," he told CBS News.

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