Breaking point: a note on the Rohingya refugee crisis

An estimated 687,000 Rohingya refugees have fled savage violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and crossed into neighbouring Bangladesh since 25 August 2017. On this day, a military crackdown erupted in response to an initial attack against the oppressive police force by Rohingyas insurgents.

The Rohingyas are an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority in Myanmar, a country formally known as Burma. Despite well-established claims as a distinct people of the area, with evidence going back centuries, this Muslim community is regarded as simply comprising migrant Bengali workers who never left and it is fundamentally not recognised by the predominantly Buddhist state. Not only are they institutionally denied basic rights, by means of the 1982 Citizenship Law excluding them from all three tiers of citizenship due to their “non-indigenous” status, but their legal and historical persecution is well documented. This situation has escalated fiercely in recent years, leading to sustained concern from the international community with UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein declaring the treatment of Rohingya people by Burmese forces a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

In trying to uproot the Rohingya Muslim communities from their homeland, continued military operations have been carried out. Soldiers set fire to their homes and villages, abuse and rape women, the most recent example of these gruesome acts being an instance in late March when seven militants murdered and buried in a mass grave 10 Rohingya men after disfiguring them with acid and hacking them to death. Under Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s civic government, unlawful and inhuman activities such as this are largely ignored. The seven soldiers were arrested and incarcerated but they were soon granted amnesty as reported on Myanmar’s National Television, a statement later rescinded following the government’s denial of the fact.

The systemic wrongdoing against this ethnic minority is slowly becoming seen as Islam’s genocide. The Rohingya people, a tribal sea people by nature, who live as fishermen and have a strong tradition of sea practices, are escaping via any available channels.

The first port of call is south-east Bangladesh, itself grappling with “extreme poverty” on account of climate change and frequent natural disasters. Accommodating the Rohingya Boat People is increasingly problematic as hundreds of thousands are already living in overpopulated refugee camps in makeshift shanties deprived of adequate sanitation, running water and other related infrastructure.

However, we must note that the current crisis evinced the sea as a primary getaway route. Due to their lack of viable identification and documents, many Rohingyas take to the seas in hope of reaching economically more developed countries and fall prey to human traffickers who smuggle them mainly to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of which initially unwelcoming to refugees, with strict “turn back” policies. As well as having to face the additionally precarious sea conditions which arise at night, the preferred time of travel, these irregular migrants give away all of their savings, sometimes even promising money while having none, as they expect to get absorbed into the illegal labour market and return the money in instalments. Ransom or forced labour often give rise to increased competition, pushing smugglers into kidnapping.

The 1951 UNHCR Convention specifies that states should not penalise asylum seekers for their mode of arrival, taking into consideration the circumstances in which they are fleeing. While policies are indeed becoming more moderate, boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh bear the brunt of the conflict between humanitarian obligations and internal dynamics. Resulting policy proposed by Malaysia of pushing the boats back out to sea and abuse from Thai authorities upon disembarking are just some examples of the attendant suffering endured by migrants.

Exhausted, hungry and destitute men, women and children descending unseaworthy vessels after uprooting their entire lives, leaving behind homes to be burned then bulldozed by the military and crops, livestock and property to be appropriated by the Buddhist government in an attempt to erase the Rohingya community. These are imagines aptly captured by some of the Reuters photography staff and rewarded by the Pulitzer committee earlier this month. Reuters journalists have also found themselves imprisoned for months at a time for reporting on the ongoing violence and killings in Myanmar.

It appears unlikely that the problem of refugees and forced migration will go away in the foreseeable future. Increasing number of deaths occurring in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, a direct consequence of conflict-torn societies, is only one of the catastrophic features of this crisis. Even before they were overwhelmed by almost 700,000 new arrivals, problems like child-trafficking existed in sprawling Bangladeshi camps where most of the migrants end up. Humanitarian organisations, chiefly the IOM (International Organisation for Migration), are responding to general protection issues, one of the most recent developments including a new wash common pipeline established. With the rain season fast approaching, however, new challenges are impending and the fatal fight to find sanctuary continues.

Without a basic element of lasting solutions in place, the current arrangement seems to be all there is. Insurgents have declared that the repatriation plan by the Burmese government, offering refugees to settle down in so-called temporary camps was not acceptable. Arakem Rohingya Salvation Army representatives seem to think that these Rohingya migrants will never be able to settle down in their own ancestral lands and will spend the rest of their lives and the next generation to come in these concentration camps. Bangladesh, backed by the UN, refutes Myanmar’s claim of safely repatriating these refugees, especially in light of statements made by the Minister of Social Welfare. In order to return to Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims must carry cards identifying them as migrants from Bangladesh.

The similarities with an equally painful period in recent modern history are resounding, currently testing our ability to demonstrate that we have learnt from past mistakes.

To explore some of the Reuters graphic coverage of the Rohingya struggle, see

By Teodora Bandut

Image from UNCHR

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