Rohingya gather at a market in Bangladesh’s Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on May 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

The recent announcement by US President Joe Biden’s administration affirming that the Myanmar military was guilty of a genocidal acts and crimes against humanity directed at the Rohingya was largely welcomed by the Rohingya stateless diaspora. 

Activists and analysts, though, have commented on how late this decision has been made, coming nearly five years after the military operation in 2017 that resulted in a mass exodus of the Rohingya from their ancestral homeland in Rakhine state to neighboring Bangladesh as well as other countries in the region. 

Last year, the Biden administration was quick to condemn the military coup in Myanmar, but it has been criticized since then for not doing enough to put pressure on the junta toward transitioning back to democratic rule of law. 

Delayed though this decision on the Rohingya is, it is hoped that it can provide impetus to mobilize international actors to address this growing humanitarian crisis rather than allowing it to linger on. 

The Rohingya people are a stateless population, having their citizenship stripped from them by the military junta that was ruling Myanmar in 1982. Being undocumented and scattered as a diaspora of more than 2 million, they are cut off from access to health care, education and livelihood in their host countries.

Their situation has only worsened since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the Rohingya faced xenophobia in societies hosting them in the wake of lockdowns, eroding much of the solidarity originally felt for their cause.

Governments implemented stricter anti-immigrant policies, often targeting the Rohingya and other refugees, some of whom ended up in detention. Refugee schools and informal learning centers have been shut down by authorities or derived of funds.

Given this bleak situation, the Biden administration should initiate actions that lead to change on the ground rather than merely issuing statements. There are three critical ways where its involvement can be impactful.

The first, which is the logical extension of its decision to recognize the genocide, is to press international forums for accountability for these crimes. As a positive sign, it has already committed $1 million to The Gambia to continue with its legal action at the International Court of Justice against the junta for its genocidal acts. 

The second is to increase the scope of its aid to address the immediate humanitarian crisis faced by the Rohingya, boosting support to host countries, especially Bangladesh, in their capacity to manage the large refugee population, as well as expanding its own quota for Rohingya in its refugee resettlement policies.

Last, the Biden administration can play a constructive role in tying the repatriation of the Rohingya as well as a restoration of their citizenship status with full civil and political rights with the broader movement toward the return to democracy in Myanmar and an end to the rule of the military regime.

The prospects of such a return and any short-term relief for the Rohingya remain sadly slim. Still, humanitarian actors and activists can seize this news as an opportunity to move the cause of the Rohingya forward on the international agenda. 

Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.