The word ‘Refugee’ itself creates a negative impact in our minds when we think of it. This is not because of the character or nature of the word, but because of the various negative connotations attached to this word. The word ‘Rohingya’ immediately denotes a group of people who have been at the receiving end of continuing human rights abuses for years.
The Rohingyas have been subject to all sorts of maltreatment, partly because it is assumed that no international law is breached if a criminal act is committed against a stateless person. The mistreatment, as confirmed in various United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports as well as by the Rohingyas themselves, includes forced labour, restriction on freedom of movement, extortion, the absence of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations, land confiscation and limited access to secondary and tertiary education and other public services. Rohingyas, in fact, have become one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The, origins of the Rohingyas, according to a 2011 UNHCR report, lie in people who have immigrated or passed through Myanmar (Burma) from the seventh century onwards, like the Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moguls, Pathans and the local Bengalis and Rakhine and this is a bone of contention constantly between both the Rohingyas’ advocates and political adversaries. The former group tends to assert the immemorial link that the Rohingyas have with Burma, while the latter dismisses any such claims and see them as Bengali Muslims from the Burmese British era. But the somewhat obscure arguments on the community’s origins does little to either shed little light on why it continues to remain stateless and without rights or ameliorate their condition.
Though the paths leading to statelessness are intricate, the ways out of it are clear from numerous human rights treaties and conventions. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone “the right to a nationality”, which is reiterated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (India acceded to the Convention in 1979). Along the same lines, but more specifically, the issue of statelessness is addressed in the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, according to which primarily state parties must take pre-emptive measures in situations in which persons may be rendered stateless, and those born on their territory should be given access to means of obtaining citizenship based on the jus soli principle.
Countries such as Canada, United States, and Sweden have resettled a large number of people from the Rohingya camps in Thailand and India. But a final solution to the problem cannot be found unless there is a coherent political settlement inside Myanmar, between the government and opposition, and the country’s many ethnic minorities. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to expect a solution to any of these problems within the foreseeable future. Myanmar’s refugee problem is here to stay and unfortunately its opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not making any emphatic statements to address the problem.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, has been gripped by sectarian violence for the last 18 months, leaving more than 240 people dead and causing 250,000 to flee from their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, a long persecuted Muslim minority in the country, who have had Buddhist mobs chasing them down with machetes, iron chains and bamboo clubs. The unfortunate incidents of the 2012 Rakhine riots portray the kind of discrimination which is faced by the Rohingyas refugees. The military and police have been accused of playing a leading role in targeting Rohingyas through mass arrests and arbitrary violence. While the government response was praised by the United States and European Union, Amnesty International and other human rights groups were critical, stating that the Rohingya were fleeing arbitrary arrests by the Myanmarese government, and that the Rohingyas had faced systemic discrimination by the government for decades.
Majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the hostility of the Myanmar military-backed government. However the Rohingyas continue to face problems in here as well as there as they neither receive much support nor protection from the government of thehost countries. Instead they lead a harsh life in refugee camps, suffering from malnourishment, isolation, illiteracy and neglect. There is just one registered camp situated meters away from the unregistered camp where 90,000 refugees live. There is also another camp 15 miles away in Leda Bazaar, where approximately 25,000 Rohingya live.
As a result, thousands of Rohingyas have been undertaking hazardous boat journeys to Southeast Asia and Australia. The exodus usually kicks off in November, when seas begin to calm following the annual monsoon. Very recently a boat carrying at least 70 Muslim Rohingya capsized and sank off on the western coast of Myanmar. In fact, in the last week of November, 2013, Suu Kyi, was in Australia to encourage global interest in furthering democratic reform in Myanmar. Innumerable Rohingyas have also fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. But they have an uncertain fate there too as there have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there.
It is becoming increasing imperative today to increase the resettlement quotas of Rohingya refugees in countries like the US, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. This resettlement must also provide extra support to local villagers living in the area surrounding the camps so that refugees are not perceived as a ‘burden’ on the local economy and society. It would not be incorrect to say that the helpless state of the Rohingyas refugees leaves them with no other option but to wander about everywhere and try to create a new home for themselves. Refugees are humans too; they should be given an opportunity to live their lives the way they want to and with respect. It is Burma's duty to accept the Rohingya as citizens, embrace their history and ensure the safe repatriation of each and every single member of the community back into Arakan. Although safer than being persecuted and killed in Burma, the Rohingya community in Bangladesh are a stateless community who want to return to Arakan when it is safe to call it home.