There is hope for Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide – so long as history doesn’t repeat itself

Rohingya Muslim Refugees fleeing Myanmar (via Getty Images)

Issy Sawkins
University of Exeter

The United Nations has finally called for the investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s top military command for crimes of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim population of the Rakhine State.[1] The brutality of the military reached its peak during the ‘clearance operations’ of August 2017, since which 750,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.

A 400-page report was published by the United Nations on September 17 2018, the result of a year-long investigation into the well-planned killing and rape of Rohingya women and girls, and the burning and looting of their homes.[2] It is the first time that such specific atrocities have been documented for which blame is directly apportioned to the highest level of Myanmar’s military.[3]

Whilst the report indicates a step in the right direction regarding the prosecution of the perpetrators, it fails to address the issue of the displaced Rohingya community. In particular, what is the international community doing to help these victims of genocide?

The 750,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter at the camps and makeshift settlements set up in Bangladesh specifically to cater for the refugees. The main refugee camp is located at Kutupalong, located in North-East Bangladesh, but the constant stream of refugees has resulted in several additional camps being built in the surrounding countryside.[4]

Whilst the international community is providing aid to these refugees, predominantly in the form of food supplies and vaccinations against deadly diseases, Bangladesh, by offering them refuge in these camps, is providing the most substantial help. And unfortunately, a lack of global response to refugees of genocide does indeed have a historical precedent, one that leaves little room for optimism.

Just take the most-documented genocide in the world – the Holocaust – as an example. In the lead-up to the Holocaust, the Évian Conference was held between 6 and 15 July 1938 to address the issue of refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. 32 countries and 24 voluntary organisations attended the conference, held in Évian-les-Bains, France, at the behest of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

British representative Lord Winterton delivering a speech at the Évian Conference, 1938. Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Unfortunately, the conference suffered from a fundamental flaw – the delegates were reluctant to provide sanctuary in their own countries to any of the ‘refugees’ (a code word that all the delegates knew referred to the ‘Jew’). Even Roosevelt, the convener of the conference, was reluctant to host fleeing Jews. He did not want to admit large numbers of these refugees into the United States, an isolationist sentiment that was in line with popular American opinion at the time. Laurence Rees, in his book The Holocaust: A New History, notes that other delegates were fearful that if they accepted German Jewish refugees, other Eastern European countries might try to rid themselves of the Jewish populations, too.[5]

Unsurprisingly, given such a predisposed unwillingness to accommodate the fleeing Jewish refugees, no decision was reached by the Évian Conference delegates.

The only country to accept any refugees was the Dominican Republic, which was looking to improve its international image following the massacre of 20,000 Haitians the previous year.[6] The other countries’ ‘refugee policy’, or lack thereof, was dictated by their own pre-existing interests, and for many countries, the Jews were just not a priority.[7]

The international community’s inaction toward the Jewish refugee crisis only strengthened Hitler’s position. He noted the hypocrisy of the delegates — no one, not even democratic countries, was willing to accept the Jews.[8] The Évian Conference had played directly into Hitler’s hands.

Even as the international community became aware of the exterminations and other heinous crimes perpetrated by the Germans, nothing was done for fleeing refugees aside from some strong rhetoric. ‘The Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations’ was published on December 17, 1942, in which they ‘condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination’.[9] They were aware of the deportation of thousands of Jews to slaughterhouses across Poland and that they were exterminated at these location. Yet still neither the United States nor the British government went out of their way to provide safe refuge for the Jews.

Finally, in 1943, British and American delegates met at Bermuda in 1943, where they explicitly addressed the issue of Jewish refugees. The only thing they could agree on was that an Allied victory was imperative.

The United States did not agree to raise its immigration quotas, once again adhering to the anti-immigrant ‘America First’ mentality that was popular at the time.

So why was Britain reluctant to help the Jews? Because the Jews were keen to head to Palestine, which had been under a British mandate since 1923.[10]

Shortly following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, German Jews were desperate to flee, yet hindered by the Nazi restriction that stated that Jews must abandon their property and leave Germany empty-handed. The Jewish Agency, the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organisation, however, managed to negotiate an agreement with the Nazi government, allowing German Jews to purchase German goods that could be exported to Palestine. Once the Jews arrived in the Holy Land, they would be reimbursed for the German goods, and could use that money to build a new life for themselves in Palestine.[11] This large influx of Jews contributed to the Arab Revolt in 1937 and demands for Arab independence.[12]

In response to the uprising, a policy was issued by the British government, the ‘White Paper of 1939’, which restricted Jewish immigration quotas to 75,000 over the following 5 years.[13] In other words, Britain was worried about the unrest that an increasing Jewish population would cause amongst the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, and so sought to limit the influx of Jewish refugees so as to ensure social stability in Palestine. And whilst some of the Jews fleeing the Holocaust did manage to reach Palestine under the quota of 75,000, the British attempt to offer these refugees a home was limited.[14]

Anglo-American refugee policy in the present day is little better.

In January 2017, Trump notoriously refused entry to Syrians fleeing the crisis in their homeland, and suspended immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. Arguing that this drastic measure was introduced so as to prevent ‘radical Islamic terrorists’ from entering the country, he also granted Christians priority over Muslims.[15]

However, the Trump Administration seemingly was not satisfied with this restriction, and, in September 2017, it decided to lower the US refugee quota to 45,000, a historic low. The administration also eliminated the Central American Minors programme, which had previously permitted child refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to join their parents in the United States.[16]

The UK also seems intent on keeping refugee families separated, only permitting adult refugees to apply for their spouses and children under 18 to join them. Extended family members, including grandparents, parents and siblings, are left abandoned in their war-stricken nation.[17]

Bangladesh deserves due credit for having taken on the mantle of protecting the Rohingya Muslim population of Myanmar. But the rest of the international community — especially the USA and the UK —needs to do more than provide assistance from afar; history will not turn a blind eye.

Issy Sawkins is a PhD student in the University of Exeter History Department, supervised by James Mark and Nick Terry. Her thesis focuses on official Holocaust memory in the Russian Federation.


[1] ‘Myanmar Rohingya: UN says military leaders must face genocide charges’, BBC News, 27th August 2018 <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[2] ‘Report of the detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’, Human Rights Council, 17th September 2018 <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[3] Jen Kirby, ‘New UN report documents evidence of mass atrocities in Myanmar against the Rohingya’, Vox, 18th September 2018 <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[4] A map showing the refugee camp locations in April 2018 can be found on the BBC website (

[5] Laurence Rees, The Holocaust: A New History (London: Penguin UK, 2017), p. 132

[6] ibid., p. 132

[7] Paul R. Bartrop, The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis (Cham: Springer International Publishing AG, 2017), p. 6

[8] Rees, The Holocaust, p. 136

[9] ‘United Nations: Statement on the Murder of European Jews’, Jewish Virtual Library <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[10] Rees, The Holocaust, pp. 394, 395

[11] ibid., p. 84, 85

[12] ibid., p. 134

[13] ‘British White Paper of 1939’, Yale Law School: The Avalon Project <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[14] Dalia Ofer, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 7

[15] Michael D. Shear, and Helen Cooper, ‘Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries’ in Public Profiles: Donald J. Trump, ed. by The New York Times Editorial Staff (New York, NY: New York Times Educational Publishing, 2019), p. 151

[16] Donald Kerwin, ‘How America’s refugee policy is damaging to the world and to itself’, Economist, 19th June 2018 <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

[17] May Bulman, ‘Refugees left suicidal by Government’s “damaging” refugee policy, report finds’, 31st January 2018 <> [accessed 2 October 2018].

2 thoughts on “There is hope for Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide – so long as history doesn’t repeat itself

  1. The article criticises the British for restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine. In so doing, the author fails to acknowledge the particular circumstances in Palestine. Jews coming to Palestine were not simply refugees looking for sanctuary: they came at the behest of a political movement whose aim was to transform an overwhelmingly Arab-majority country into a Jewish state, by ethnically cleansing the indigenous non-Jewish majority – and eventually succeeded in doing so. Like the Rohingya, the Palestinians were driven from their homeland for the crime of being of the “wrong” ethno-religious group. Is the author suggesting that they were wrong to resist their own displacement?

    The article also ignores the fact that most Jews in fact preferred to go to the United States, and that the Zionist movement actually blocked all attempts to resettle Jews outside Palestine. It also makes no acknowledgement of the terrible suffering of the seven million Palestinians – the world’s longest running refugee problem – who to this day languish in refugee camps, prevented from returning to the homes from which they were driven in 1948, solely because they are not Jewish. They have paid an awful price for the international community’s guilty conscience over the Holocaust, a crime the Palestinians did not commit.

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