The Rohingya: A People Without Rights

A few weeks ago the BBC published an article criticising the Thai government’s decision to deport over 1,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, where they face almost-certain prosecution. The news comes more than a year after the fact, leading to further criticism of the lack of opacity in the Thai government’s decision. The Rohingya are an ethnic group thought to be indigenous to Myanmar and have been subject to considerable racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination both historically and in recent years. This begs the question –who are the Rohingya? What has led to the systemic discrimination they face? And, most importantly, why are they one of the most persecuted people’s of the modern world? With an estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees, an answer as to why no state will accept responsibility for the Rohingya people ought to be found.

Having suffered extensive discrimination and abuse, the Rohingya are undoubtedly a historically persecuted people. In 1982 the Rohingya were denied Burmese citizenship; as a result they became one of the largest stateless populations in the world. The denial of citizenship leads to further consequences, including the denial of access to education. These constraints coupled with the physical brutality at the hands of the junta, have led a large proportion of the Rohingya to flee Myanmar thus creating sizeable refugee populations in neighbouring states –in particular, in Bangladesh and Thailand. This mass exodus has been further extended following the 2012 riots in Rakhine State. However, mistreatment and further discrimination within the refugee internment camps have led to further strain upon the Rohingya. A recent article by Time Magazine reminds us that the Rohingya are in fact not recognised as one of the 135 ethnic minorities within the South-Asian region. This arguably has implications for their access to indigenous rights.

To an extent there seems to be a general sense of apathy on behalf of neighbouring states and the international community alike when considering the plight of the Rohingya people. A fundamental question to ask is – why don’t governments want to help? Simply put, the financial strain of a refugee population as large as the Rohingya may be too sizeable for small states like Bangladesh to bear.

In 2012, the World Bank declared Bangladesh’s GDP to be $115,610. When compared to the United States’ $16,244,600 that same year, the financial constraints posed by a large refugee population are thus evident. In Thailand, the current internal domestic turmoil takes precedence regardless of whether it is morally just or not. The political instability Thailand faces in the wake of mass anti-government protests must be dealt with first and foremost. Concurrently, the Thai government must deal with treatment of indigenous peoples within the state, including the Aka and the Karen, as it is estimated that almost 300,000 indigenous peoples within Thailand lack citizenship.

The Bangladeshi government have denied the Rohingya refugee population the right to employment outside of the refugee camps. The vast majority live outwith the official camps and, as Refugees International remarks, life for these individuals is considerably harder. Such is the extent of their hardship that “in one unofficial camp, malnutrition rates are twice the emergency threshold”. Whilst there are indeed two registered UN Rohingya refugee camps these simply are not equipped to deal with neither the severity nor the scale of the situation.

It would be a mistake to make broad generalisations and homogenise the attitude of governments toward the Rohingya populations. Therefore, a comparison between the Bangladeshi and Thai governments would facilitate a more accurate analysis. By doing so it is possible to note some similarities. As mentioned previously, the Thai government deported over 1,000 Rohingya to Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch, “the government considers all Rohingya arriving by sea to be illegal immigrants, and regularly intercepts them”. As a result of this, “more than 2,000 Rohingya were detained in poor conditions by Thai immigration”. There is also thought to be an extensive trafficking network involving Rohingya peoples arriving from Myanmar. The Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the hundreds of thousands in the search of a better and more secure future. Evidently, they are unlikely to find it in Thailand.

If we can say with certainty that two of Mynamar’s neighbouring states are either unwilling or unable to accept the Rohingya refugee populations, who is obligated to provide the necessary aid? Non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have been raising awareness and are calling on the Burmese government to accept responsibility for the Rohingya peoples, granting them citizenship and vowing to put an end to the ethnic and racial discrimination that has led to their persecution. Furthermore, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has established refugee camps in Bangladesh to provide assistance and aid to those who have fled. However, such efforts simply are not solving the issue at hand.

According to Nena Shastri, the Rohingya “have been subject to large scale ethnic cleansing” that has resulted in “grave bloodshed”. Likewise, this article has arrived at a dire conclusion. The Burmese state continues to be a place the Rohingya are unable to call home. They lack citizenship and the basic human rights associated with it, and to this day remain a persecuted population. Foreign governments, namely those in Thailand and Bangladesh, either cannot or will not help. Non-governmental organisations lack the capacity and resources to adequately change the state of affairs. With this taken into consideration, it seems unlikely the Rohingya will be able to find their place in the world any time soon.

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