Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, consoles a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. Photograph: Michelle Nichols/Reuters
Delegation visiting refugee camps in Bangladesh hear pleas for action by the UN and involvement of the international criminal court.
Members of the UN security council have expressed dismay at the “overwhelming” suffering they encountered in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.
The UN security council delegation arrived in Bangladesh on Friday as part of a trip to hear first-hand the experiences of 700,000 Rohingya refugees subjected to a campaign of violence, rape and arson at the hands of Myanmar’s military since August 2017.
Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, who was among the 15 members on the trip, was confronted by dozens of Rohingya refugees making emotional pleas for the UN to hear their stories and make sure justice was done. Women wept in her arms as they recounted their experiences.
“It shows the scale of the challenge as we try as a security council to find some way through that enables these poor people to go home,” Pierce said. “The sad thing is there’s nothing we can do right today that will make their distress any less.”
While UN reports have already condemned the violence as both ethnic cleansing and having “all the hallmarks of genocide”, this is the first visit by the security council and holds great significance. The council has the power to refer matters to the international criminal court (ICC) and to deploy peacekeepers.
Myanmar has denied all allegations of genocide and said that the violence was a legitimate response to attacks on police and military by Rohingya insurgents.
The refugees also presented to the security council a list of demands, which included rehabilitation of their own land and homes; stopping the construction of the IDP camps in Rakhine state which they believe will function simply as prisons for any returning Rohingya; for the Rohingya to be recognised as citizens of Myanmar; and action to be taken by the ICC.
The deputy US ambassador to the UN, Kelley Eckels Currie, described the visit as “quite overwhelming”.
“Obviously the scale of this camp is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is going to be a disaster when the rains come,” she said.
Lise Gregoire-van Haaren, deputy permanent representative of the Netherlands to the UN, added: “The number of heavily traumatised women, men and children is beyond comprehension. Myanmar must cooperate so Rohingya can return in a safe, dignified and sustainable way.”
The security council will meet with Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, on Monday in Dhaka before flying to Myanmar’s administrative capital Naypyidaw to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of the Myanmar government and military.
On Tuesday, the security council will visit the Rakhine state, where the violence against the Rohingya was carried out, with the main goal of inspecting whether the displaced Rohingya can return safely.
The UN has been denied access to Rakhine until now and the relationship between the organisation and Myanmar has been fraught because of the former’s description of the violence as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
However, in the buildup to the security council visit, aides to Aung San Suu Kyi have been keen to publicly emphasise that the Myanmar government wants a “new relationship” with the UN, which could see the organisation’s agencies being invited back in to oversee the repatriation process.