Monday, December 05, 2016

Traveller, Refugee: The Rohingya Refugee Crisis in the light of the Condé Nast controversy.

Apala Kundu

(Apala is a student of the Department of English, M.A., at Presidency University, and can be reached at

International celebrity Priyanka Chopra’s appearance in an “insensitive” piece of attire- a shirt that has the words “migrant”, “refugee” and “outsider” crossed out in red while the word “traveller” stands out- on the cover of the October-November 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India magazine, sparked widespread controversy and furore on the social media platform, particularly on Twitter. Outraged Twitter users lashed out at Chopra for what they considered an “offensive” and “insensitive” act that sent out a “privileged” and “elitist” message, unheeding of the actual plight of refugees. With her act making international headlines and inviting scathing criticism from people all over the world, Chopra has since issued a public apology through India’s NDTV news channel stating that she was “really apologetic about the fact that sentiments were hurt” (The Guardian 2016), claiming that the magazine’s campaign had been directed towards addressing the issue of xenophobia. The magazine too came out in defence of its cover, arguing that the intention of the photograph was to drive home its belief in a world without borders. “Whether we are moving across oceans or just a few kilometres, or in our mind's eye, into a completely different world, whether we are doing so due to free will or circumstance - we are all travellers” (BBC News 2016). Indubitably, the content of the cover is disturbing. But far more than insensitivity, the strand of argument forwarded in its defence exposes the glaring ignorance and insouciance that informs such ways of thinking.

Refugee movements and flows constitute one of the most important and challenging problems confronting the international community today in the post- Cold War era. But the issue of refugee flows is more than just a humanitarian concern and calls for more than just a humanitarian response. Refugee movements are inextricably intertwined with political, economic, social and security issues that are of immense concern to both “the sending and the receiving countries” (Loescher 1993, 12). The prevention and solution of the refugee problem therefore, “are not just matters of international charity or humanitarian action by UNHCR [United Nations Refugee Agency] and other agencies; ultimately they depend on wider political and diplomatic actions taken by regional and extra-regional states and international organizations to manage regional and ethnic conflicts and to initiate the reintegration of refugees and other displaced people” (12).  

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defined refugees as “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This widely accepted definition of a refugee is deeply imbued with a sense of compulsion, which stands in stark contrast to the notions of voluntary choice, luxury and leisure that inform the idea of travel. Refugee flows should be seen for what they are, that is, individual and collective acts of fleeing across the physical borders of the homeland, motivated by a strong fear of persecution or even at times, of death.  Publisher Arpita Das (2016), in her The Huffington Post blog, puts it succinctly: “In our times, these words, ‘refugee’, ‘immigrant’ . . . are important markers of many identities which the wearer of that label is not willing to eschew for something as privileged, as generic as ‘traveller’. . . . The lack of choice in removing one's home and hearth from the familiar to the alien is one fraught with heartbreak and the feeling of being cornered.” The argument espoused by the magazine in its defence is thus exposed as “the outcome of a privileged view of a global issue that does not touch the holder of the view in the least, but is perceived as something which ought to feature in their narrative because it is so ‘topical’” (Das 2016).

Incidentally, the topicality of this narrative serves to unmask yet another disquieting dimension of the refugee crisis that confronts the world today. Priyanka Chopra’s apology, Condé Nast’s defence statement, media coverage of the controversy and the general public’s responses to the controversy on Twitter- all of these make conspicuous the bias in the response of the international community and international media to the global refugee crisis. For though global in character the refugee crisis is, certain instances of it receive conscious media focus and reportage, and involve greater participation from member states of the international community, while others are kept out of the spotlight, and consequently, outside public consciousness. This bias takes the form of a First World-Third world binary, which is reflective of the neo-colonialist character of the international community at present.

In “Why Southeast Asia's Refugee Crisis Matters”, Surin Pitsuwan and Prashanth Parameswaran (2015) argue that “in Southeast Asia, the refugee crisis is a complex set of economic, political and moral-ethical, and humanitarian problems made all the more grave by the lack of media discussion or public awareness. Unlike Europe, where the refugee crisis is at times a highly-visible and fiercely-debated issue, there is a dearth of information and public awareness in Southeast Asia.” There is at work here, a regional-international binary, which facilitates greater attention and intervention efforts on the part of the international community in the case of refugee crisis affecting First World Western nations, as opposed to Third World nations in the global East. Refugee problems in the global East are primarily seen as regional. Safeguarding their own economic and political interests foremost on their minds, international actors, primarily Western nation-states and governments often hesitate to intervene in such ‘regional’ tussles, preferring to remain oblivious to the questions of security, economy and politics generated in such circumstances. 

   The Syrian refugee crisis can be seen as the catalyst that catapulted the controversy in question into international media glare. Priyanka Chopra’s and Conde Nast’s statements addressing the “culture of xenophobia” are resonant with the charges levelled against Great Britain in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2016. Numerous Twitter users and newspapers opined that Chopra’s act was particularly ‘insensitive’ for having come on the heels of the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet, in the entire outcry about insensitive attitudes towards refugees, one cannot help but notice the unsettling silence surrounding the refugee crisis that is brewing in our own backyard- the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar.

The Rohingya refugee crisis was brought to light in May 2015 when thousands of Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine State of Myanmar, along with economic migrants from Bangladesh were found stranded in the Strait of Malacca off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Rohingya refugee crisis has many different facets to it, making it an extremely complicated one.  The Rohingya people are an ethnic Muslim minority group native to the Western Burmese state of Rakhine. Though there is evidence of Muslims inhabiting Rakhine state (then under the Arakan kingdom) since the 9th century, the Rohingyas trace their “origins in the region to the fifteenth century when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom” (Albert 2016). But since Burma’s freedom from colonial rule in 1948, the Rohingyas have been victims of persecution at the hands of the Burmese state and its people, particularly the ethnic Buddhist majority (which is the other main ethnic community inhabiting the Rakhine state). They have been denied recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Derided as “illegal Bengali immigrants”, the Rohingyas have been denied citizenship under Burma’s (renamed Myanmar in 1989) citizenship laws which views citizenship as a right ensuing from membership to “one of the indigenous races of Burma.”

As stateless people, the Rohingyas are deprived of all citizens’ rights. “Government policies, including restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement have institutionalized systemic discrimination against the ethnic group” (Albert 2016). Matters came to a head with the 2012 massacre of the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. Though purported to be an instance of spontaneous communal violence incited by the alleged murder and rape of a Buddhist woman by four Rohingya men, there have been suggestions of “significant planning and organisation behind the attacks” (Chakrabarti 2016). Following the riots, tens of thousands of Rohingyas were displaced and have been living in squalid makeshift refugee camps on the Western borders of the country closer to Bangladesh.  Many have since fled the country, undertaking dangerous maritime journeys on rickety boats, seeking aid and relief from a lifetime of persecution in the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. According to reports from the International Organization for Migration, more than eighty-eight thousands migrants took to sea between January 2014 and May 2015. Such journeys however are no guarantee of a life of security and assured basic rights. To term them “travel” and those undertaking them mere “travellers” is to trivialise the very gravity of the crisis and the very existence of these asylum seekers.  Their futures are to be determined by their identities as refugees.

Indeed, the reception met by these asylum-seekers was far from sympathetic. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand had stepped up their maritime patrols, when the first boats carrying the Rohingyas and other Bangladeshi economic migrants turned up on 10th May. In Thailand in particular, a “pushing out” was implemented once Malaysia stopped accepting the refugees passed over Thailand. Not surprisingly, this policy, meant to dissuade the entry of Rohingyas into Thailand, brought about the deaths of hundreds whose bodies later washed up on Asian shores.  Thai security officials had also joined hands with human traffickers to form a smuggling ring that not only allowed the Thai officials to deal with detainees they considered a security threat, but also enable both groups to make financial profits on the sly. The faces of the thousands- “haunted and hungry” (Chakrabarti 2016) -abandoned at sea on overcrowded boats with dwindling supplies, became the face of the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Considering that none of the Southeast Asian countries, barring Cambodia and the Philippines, are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, none of them were bound by international law to provide asylum to the refugees, nor could they be accused of violating the non-refoulement option in sending them back. But the state of affairs as they stood certainly makes imperative a reworking of the refugee policies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) organization to which all the Southeast Asian countries owe allegiance to.  Conditions of life for the Rohingya refugees in these host countries are hardly an improvement over what they faced back in Myanmar. Ultimately though, it is the state of Myanmar which must assume foremost responsibility for the catastrophe generated within its territory. Yet the stance taken by the present democratic government in Myanmar has been dispiriting. Suu Kyi’s relative silence on the issue, though baffling to many, is not entirely unexpected. Suu Kyi’s silence is a diplomatic ploy to hold on to the yet fragile democratic environment initiated in Myanmar by not antagonising the two prominent nationalist groups, 969 and MaBaTha. However, the first step towards resolution can only come from the state of Myanmar. Refusal to assume any responsibility will only lead to a further exacerbation of this crisis. Since the second half of 2015, the exodus has come down to a trickle, causing the issue to fall from international view. But the crisis is far from over.  The Rohingya population living in refugee camps within Myanmar continue to face persecution. Those who have made it to other lands live lives of uncertainty. “Unable to work or educate themselves, alienated from their lands, the Rohingya are left in limbo, seemingly marking time before staying becomes unbearable, relying on aid agencies for rations and trying to avoid falling on the wrong side of the authorities” (Albert 2016). The international community cannot be exonerated from its responsibility towards alleviation of the calamity. Major international players are unwilling to engage in serious talks with South-East Asian countries to work out a resolution that would aim less at altruistic motives, and more on ensuring protection and advocacy of rights of asylum seekers on a global scale. To categorise the issue as a regional concern, and thereby refuse direct intervention or involvement will certainly do no favours to anybody.

When celebrities and media personalities endorse such causes in popular international media, the complicated nuances of the issues at stake are diluted. More often than not, they selective endorsements of causes that are already on the media radar, risking the apolitcisation of important ‘political’ issues, and contributing to the lopsided treatment of, and selective amnesia about critical issues within popular international media. Issues that concern the global West are more often than not, prioritized over matters pertaining to the rest of the world. The campaign undertaken by Condé Nast and their ambassador Priyanka Chopra, though hardly credible, serves to keep alive within public consciousness the issue of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. The Rohingya refugee crisis, though a case that deserves just as much thought and concern from the international community, flies below the radar. Attempts at a search for the alleviation and the resolution of this crisis can only benefit from this issue being rekindled and kept alive on international media.
Albert, Eleanor. 2016. “The Rohingya Migrant Crisis.” Accessed on 28th October 2016.  
“Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra apologises over 'insensitive' refugee T-shirt.” 2016. In The           Guardian. Accessed on 28th October 2016.           apologises-over-insensitive-refugee-t-shirt
Chakrabarti, Ajachi. 2016. “The State of Statelessness.” In Kindle.          state-of-statelessness/
Das, Arpita. 2016. “Conde Nast's Priyanka Chopra Cover Is More A Product Of Ignorance           Than Insensitivity.” In The Huffington Post.          das/conde-nasts-explanation-of-the-priyanka-chopra-cover-made-me-re/
Loescher, Gil. 1993. “Refugee Movements: Causes and Consequences.” In Beyond Charity:           International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis, 11-31. New York: Oxford           University Press.
Pitsuwan, Surin and Prashanth Parameswaran. 2015. “Why Southeast Asia's Refugee Crisis           Matters.” In The Diplomat.   in-crisis/
“Priyanka Chopra sorry for Conde Nast cover ‘insulting refugees’.” 2016. In BBC News.   Accessed on 28th October 2016.    37676903

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