How Should the United States Respond to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis?

October 03, 2017

As half a million Rohingya refugees have been violently forced out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh in the past month, the top United Nations human rights official has called what’s happening “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The tactics of the Burmese Army, tacitly defended by Burma’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, mirror crimes against humanity committed elsewhere. Like the Sudanese did in Darfur, the Burmese authorities are using concerted violence to clear territory of an undesired ethnic group. Like Slobodan Milosevic did in Kosovo, Burma is depriving its citizens of their national identity as it violently pushes them out of the country. But what makes the situation in Myanmar unique is the speed at which this refugee crisis has exploded. In Kosovo it took three months for 800,000 people to flee, while half a million Rohingya have fled in a matter of weeks—and it’s not over yet.

The immediate on-the-ground needs are clear: preventing disease, ensuring adequate food and clean water, setting up emergency shelter, and providing protection and psycho-social support to the most vulnerable. But these necessary elements are only a band-aid on a growing crisis.

When a new refugee flow emerges, there is a short window of a few months for stopping the violence and enabling people to return home. It that window is missed, a new refugee population will likely remain displaced for decades. My gut tells me that this is the second category—that Rohingya Muslims will be in exile for a long time, absent a large and coordinated push on the Burmese government to cease the violence, allow them back, and to recognize their rights.

That’s where the United States comes in.

  • This moment could define the Trump presidency’s foreign policy and change the course of history—but only if he speaks out. Early on in the George W. Bush administration, he was briefed on President Clinton’s handling of Rwanda in 1994 and said “not on my watch.” This is that same “not on my watch” moment for the Trump administration and everyone who works in it, and they should treat it accordingly.
  • It goes without saying that the United States must sustain robust and sufficient aid to stabilize the refugee population. But that needs to be paired with a strong diplomatic push, engaging China and other regional powers to pressure the Burmese regime to stop this concerted mass violence. It’s good to see that the United States is speaking up at the United Nations Security Council, but the question is if that will translate to diplomatic action. Unfortunately, with most senior positions at the State Department still vacant, it remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration has the bandwidth to take this on.
  • The United States should be working in the United Nations Security Council toward a strong resolution on the situation in Myanmar. Even if this doesn’t reach the finish line, the effort will put pressure on China and in turn, the Burmese. For this to work, President Trump, who has declined to speak out on this issue so far, needs to engage and put his weight behind the effort.
  • The United States should consider targeted sanctions against senior regime officials in Burma, signaling to the government that the United States will fundamentally reevaluate the constructive relationship we’ve built with them over the past few years. We need to make clear to the Burmese regime what they are putting at stake by doing this. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social media image by Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO