Timeline: Looking Back at the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

More than 530,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to seek safety in Bangladesh since late August, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group. The exodus began on August 25, when a spate of attacks by Rohingya militants against police stations and a military base in Myanmar were swiftly followed by a wave of targeted violence against the Rohingya community. This is among the largest and fastest-growing refugee emergencies in decades, according to the United Nations.

Read More: The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

But the Rohingya refugee crisis is not new. The latest arrivals are joining hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya living in squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh after having fled earlier flares of violence. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has provided medical aid to the Rohingya in Bangladesh for decades. Their struggles over successive cycles of displacement and persecution have long been an underreported crisis.


Myanmar, the country then known as Burma, launches Operation Dragon King (Naga Min) in Rakhine state. The Rohingya ethnic minority are considered "illegal" after being stripped of their citizenship, thus beginning a cycle of forced displacement. 


Operation Dragon King includes mass arrests, persecution, and horrific violence, driving some 200,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh. The neighboring country opens refugee camps, where MSF provides medical aid. But by 1979, most of the Rohingya are repatriated to Burma. Of those remaining in Bangladesh, some 10,000 people die, the majority children, after food rations are cut. 


After a military crackdown that follows the suppression of a popular uprising, Burma is renamed Myanmar. The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council increases its military presence in northern Rakhine state, and the Rohingya are reportedly subject to compulsory labor, forced relocation, rape, summary executions, and torture. Some 250,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh. 


MSF provides medical services in nine of the 20 refugee camps established for the Rohingya in southwestern Bangladesh. Food, water, and sanitation in the camps are inadequate. 


The scene at Dumdumia Camp, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, shows the lack of adequate shelter. 


Rohingya refugees arrive in Bangladesh, bringing only what they can carry. The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar sign an agreement to repatriate refugees, and the camps are closed to new arrivals in the spring. By fall, forced repatriation begins, despite protests by the international community. Over the following years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are sent back to Myanmar, and new refugees attempting the journey are denied entry to Bangladesh. 


Of the 20 camps that were built in Bangladesh in the early '90s, two remain: Nayapara camp near Teknaf (pictured) and Kutupalong camp near Ukhia. Living conditions remain dire—a study finds that 58 percent of children and 53 percent of adults are chronically malnourished. 


Some 79 percent of the shelters in the two remaining camps in Bangladesh are flooded during the rainy season. The substandard conditions contribute to cases of diarrhea, respiratory infections, and malnutrition. At the MSF therapeutic feeding center serving the makeshift camp near Teknaf, staff take care of an average of 40 severely malnourished children each day. 


MSF runs a medical facility in Kutupalong makeshift camp in Bangladesh. Only a small percentage of Rohingya seeking refuge in Bangladesh are officially recognized as refugees. Unrecognized Rohingya refugees are vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. 


MSF’s clinic in Kutupalong makeshift camp provides comprehensive medical care to Rohingya refugees and the local community in Bangladesh. The October 9 Rohingya militant attacks on border police in Myanmar’s Rakhine state trigger reprisals against the Rohingya community, bringing a new wave of refugees across the border and an influx of patients to the MSF clinic in November and December.


A Rohingya family arrives at the Bangladesh border from Myanmar. Following Rohingya militia attacks on several police and army posts in Myanmar on August 25, state security forces launch a campaign of horrific violence and terror targeting the Rohingya community. More than 530,000 Rohingya are driven out of Myanmar. The cycle of mass displacement begins again, this time on an unprecedented scale. 


A newly arrived Rohingya family shelters in their tent at Unchiparang settlement. Most of the recent arrivals have moved into makeshift settlements without adequate access to shelter, food, clean water, or latrines. 


Medical facilities in Bangladesh, including those run by MSF, are quickly overwhelmed. In September, MSF calls for an immediate scale-up of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya in Bangladesh to avoid a public health disaster. MSF also urges the government of Myanmar to allow independent humanitarian organizations unfettered access to northern Rakhine state. 

Greg Constantine