Over the next three weeks, the GCN Security Bulletin will focus on migration crises around the world caused by discrimination policies of the governing bodies. At Christmas, we are reminded that Jesus was born away from home, and his parents fled to a foreign land from persecution by an oppressive regime.
Over the past few months, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled their native land in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority whose population totals one million. They reside mainly in the west of the country. They are Sunni Muslims, and differ greatly from the country’s dominant Buddhist groups in terms of religion, language and ethnicity. The population of the state of Rakhine is very poor. The World Bank estimates nearly 78 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.
Even though their presence in Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) can be traced to the 1500s, they have discriminated against. One example is that they have been denied rights as citizens by a refusal to include them as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country. The government considers them illegal Bengali immigrants (from Bangladesh). Hence, they remain a stateless minority without access to legal and voting systems, representation, and vulnerable without protection from persecution inflicted on them by the state.
In 2014, Human Rights NGO Fortify Rights released a report documenting government reports regarding the Rohingya. Their analysis suggested that the government’s policies amounted to absolute discrimination including “extensive restrictions on the basic freedoms of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state”. These restrictions included restriction of movement between states in Myanmar. They also require state permission to get married, and are restricted in the number of children each couple can have. These restrictions are generally imposed by an insecure majority who fear the growing population of a minority.
In addition to these restrictions, the Rohingya were also subjected to frequent outbreaks of violence against them by the Buddhist majority communities. Following an attack in 2012, over 130,000 Rohingya Muslims now live in more than 40 internment camps set up in the state. The discrimination against Muslims in the country is well-documented by the International Crisis Group here.
The situation has reached catastrophic levels now. Two weeks ago, UN workers in the country claimed that the Myanmar government is now carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya. The military has been using violence, murder and gang- rape as a form of violence against them. Human Rights Watch has released satellite images of Rohingya houses being burned and villages being destroyed. The government still denies that this is happening and claim that this is a conspiracy against them. They attribute the fresh round of violence to them cracking down on nefarious elements in the border regions following a dispute along the Myanmar- Bangladeshi border.
This fresh violence has sped up the exodus of the Rohingya out of Myanmar. To aid them in their efforts are make-shift, poorly constructed rickety boats which serve as vehicles to carry dozens of people across the treacherous sea to countries such as Bangladesh, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. Being stateless on land is one thing, but being stateless at the mercy of the unforgiving waters is another.
If they are successful, in reaching and entering other South-East Asian countries, one must ask, what is the life they will live? Neighbouring Bangladesh hosts around 230,000 refugess (200,000 unregistered). However, they all remain mostly in refugee camps where they face a shortage of basic amenities such as food, clothing and clean water. They are also subject to violence by locals.
In Malaysia, while the physical conditions of the roughly 135,000 registered Rohingya refugees may be slightly better, they are still left without rights and permission to work. Hence, the likelihood of an actual future is bleak being denied basic health, education and employment facilities.
Thailand, another popular destination for the Rohingya, is notorious for its human trafficking and smuggling. In addition to being stateless, many of the Rohingya, once they reach Thailand’s shores are sold. The government has been accused of being an accomplice to this.
Indonesia which has showed some signs of sensitivity, often lags because the military fear that if immigration rules are eased, there will be a mass influx of people.
All these states have very rigid and steep criteria to admitting refugees. It is for several reasons. Refugees tend to be a strain on government resources. Most often they arrive in absolute poverty and will take several years to be integrated into the community and become earning and contributing members. Refugee camps are off the sites of breakouts of diseases, violence and hate crimes. There is always a legitimate fear of xenophobic acts by home groups and refugee groups, as well.
In addition to pleas to the above-mentioned countries to ease border restrictions and improve conditions of recent immigrants, the “international community” is impotent. Myanmar’s leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi continues to disappoint many of her erstwhile supporters who expected greater change under her leadership. Her inaction against the atrocities against the Rohingya is widely attributed to her party heavily relying on the votes of the Buddhist majority to stay in power.
What she has done is to form a nine-member panel of inquiry into the crisis led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan. However, with the findings and results only to be released in the end of 2017, the Rohingya can expect no relief in the new year. Additionally, reports from fact-finding panels, while a useful tool in advocacy, academia and journalism, tend to be ignored by governments which are committing the atrocities. Most frequently, they are dismissed as biased or baseless. This was the case with the report about the atrocities committed against minorities in Sri Lanka during the civil war.
The situation of the Rohingya is bleak with very little scope for improvement for reasons highlighted above. Human Rights Watch while elaborating on the situation, titled their report, “All You Can do is Pray”. There is immense power in prayer, but there are also a series of points of action Christians can take:
- Arm yourself with information about crises around the world
- Discuss these crises with others
- Bring these crises up with your own politicians.
Christians are opinion formers, leaders and change-makers in the world. We pray for and live in the hope that he world will become more justice.