The situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is “heartbreaking and harrowing”, Queen Rania of Jordan said after visiting camps in Cox’s Bazar on Monday.
Visibly moved as she briefed journalists in Kutapalong camp after talking to survivors of ongoing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the queen said she had “braced herself for terrible conditions”, but the acts of violence the refugees had described to her were “unimaginable”.
“I’ve heard of systematic rape of young girls, who were trapped in schools and raped by soldiers. I’ve heard of babies being kicked around like footballs and stomped on. I’ve heard family members telling me how they’ve seen their own parents killed, right before their eyes,” she said. “This is something that is unacceptable.”
Calling for greater international support for the close to 600,000 members of the Muslim minority who have fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Queen Rania said: “With no respect or regard for the principles of humanitarian and international law, the discrimination against and the persecution of the Rohingya minority has continued unabated, in full view of the world.”
“It’s unforgivable that this crisis is unfolding on the world stage to a largely indifferent audience.”
Criticising stereotypes of Muslims, she asked whether the plight of the Rohingya would have provoked such a “muted” response had Muslims been the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims.
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Queen Rania, who visited the camp in her capacity as a board member of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and as an advocate of the work of UN humanitarian agencies, met and talked to several Rohingya women.
But the visit also provoked tensions in the camps when one woman who had spoken to the queen was harassed, just minutes after the royal’s departure, by an angry mob of around 300 men unhappy she had not raised the issue of Rohingya rights.
Men on the edges of the mob told The National, “people are upset because [the Rohingya woman] spoke about people here being hungry and not having enough to eat, but did not talk about Rohingya rights”.
A senior UN refugee agency staff member, who stepped into protect the 55-year-old woman as she was surrounded by the mob, said he feared “it was going to turn into a lynching”.
However as she was being led to safety the woman, who gave her name as Rashida, told The National: “I am still happy I got to express my views. People just didn’t understand, they will understand later.”
The incident highlighted the tensions in the camps where hundreds of thousands of refugees are squeezed tightly together under plastic shelters, most without enough food or proper access to clean water. The unhygienic conditions have raised fears of a major disease outbreak, and lives are already being lost. After the queen's visit, residents of the camp held a funeral for a 16-year old girl who they said had died from diarrhoea.
Praising the Bangladesh government and Bangladeshi people for their support and compassion towards the refugees, Queen Rania called on donors to give greater support to those in the camps.
“Sixty per cent of the refugees are children, and that is partly because males above the age of 12 are systematically being killed. And, according to what I heard from Unicef, 14,000 of these children are at risk of dying from malnutrition,” the queen said.
She called on the international community to respond “effectively, quickly, and generously” to alleviate the refugee’s suffering.
During her visit the queen saw emergency facilities at the camp, including a healthcare centre run by the UN's refugee agency, and a school that had been converted into a shelter for new arrivals, including unaccompanied children.
Her visit came as UN humanitarian officials, government ministers and advocacy group leaders met in Geneva to raise funds for the crisis.
The conference, hosted by the European Union, the government of Kuwait and the United Nations' agencies for migration, refugees and coordination of humanitarian aid, focused on meeting a UN call for $434 million (Dh1.6 billion) to fund aid operations until February next year. About $340m had been pledged by mid-day, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said.
“I urge the UN and the international community to do all that they can to stop the suffering and the violence that is being committed against the Rohingya Muslims, not because it is our job to do so, but because that is what justice demands,” Queen Rania said.
The queen was received at Cox’s Bazar by Bangladesh’s minister of foreign affairs, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, and state minister of women and children affairs, Meher Afroze Chumki, who briefed her on the crisis.
Saimum Sarwar Komol, MP for Cox’s Bazar, praised the queens’ high-profile visit.
“If anyone can help raise international concern like that, we welcome them,’ he told The National.
Louise Aubin, the UN refugee agency's senior emergency coordinator in Cox's Bazar, said the visit showed the queen's “empathy and sense of outrage” about what was occurring at a crucial time.