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Half a Million Rohingya Muslims Became Refugees in a Matter of Weeks

A Rohingya Muslim man walks to shore carrying an elderly woman after they arrived on a boat from Myanmar to Bangladesh in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.
Dar Yasin/AP

The number of Rohingya Muslims who have fled brutal state violence in Myanmar over the last month has now reached half a million, according to the United Nations.

The new figure means that about half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population are now refugees.

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While UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for “swift action” to stop the violence, the UN Security Council’s first meeting on the crisis revealed that deep divisions among UNSC members — with Russia and China showing support for Myanmar — meant any action from the UNSC was unlikely, according to the Associated Press.   

Though Myanmar’s Rohingya population have been persecuted and discriminated against for decades, the recent bout of violence began in late August after a small group of Rohingya insurgents attacked Burmese border police posts, killing 12 policemen.

In response the Burmese military has been conducting a “counter-insurgency” campaign, which it calls “clearance operations” against “terrorists”, according to CNN. Rohingya refugees have reported indiscriminate violence by the Burmese military, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, criticized the military’s retaliation for the actions of a few against an entire people as “disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.”

Rohingya refugees have shared accounts of systematic rape and soldiers shooting as people flee, according to Vox. Amnesty International reported that the Burmese military has been laying landmines along the border and Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to confirm that the military has burnt entire villages to the ground.

Myanmar authorities have even admitted that at least 176 of 471 Muslim villages in the northern state of Rakhine, to which the majority of Rohingya in Myanmar have been confined, have been abandoned.

Read more: Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis: Everything You Need to Know

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At Thursday’s Security Council session, Guterres called the situation “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” But the international response to the crisis has been slow and mixed.

The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, condemned the crisis as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” and Canadian president Justin Trudeau urged Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi “to speak out against this appalling cruelty, and to do whatever is in [her] power to stop it,” in an open letter.

Read more: Justin Trudeau Tells Myanmar Leader to 'Do Whatever Is In Your Power to Stop' Rohingya Violence

However, Suu Kyi hesitated to speak about the crisis for weeks and when she finally did, many were disappointed with the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s comments, which downplayed the extent of the violence.

Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi Finally Spoke Up About the Rohingya Crisis — And Many Are Disappointed

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the time for "well meaning words in the Council have passed” and called for weapons sanctions against Myanmar. While some council members like the UK and France supported sanctions, others, including China and Russia, disagreed, instead supporting the Burmese government’s approach to handling the crisis.

With around half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population now living as refugees beyond the country’s borders, Amnesty International has urged the Security Council to take action and impose arms embargoes on Myanmar.

On Monday, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister said that Burmese officials had made a proposal to take thousands of Rohingya refugees back, and that the countries had agreed to form a joint working group to that end, Al Jazeera reported.

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