The plight of the Rohingya community in Myanmar (formerly Burma) became a pertinent topic of the British media towards the end of 2017, yet many would argue that there has been very little action taken to help relieve the Rohingya from their suffering with the international community staying relatively quiet. Whilst discrimination against the Rohingya people is certainly nothing new, I will focus mainly on more recent events as 2017 was a year of increased violence towards an already persecuted minority group, that has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee in fear of their lives. In this blog, I would just like to discuss one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory and, in doing so, I wish to talk about who the Rohingya are; why the Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar; the current situation and what life is like in the refugee camps of Bangladesh.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority group mainly residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and are often cited as “the world’s most persecuted minority group” (Al Jazeera, 2017). Evidence suggests that the Rohingya have inhabited the Rakhine (Formerly known as Arakan) state, one of the poorest in Myanmar, since the 12th century when it is believed that Persian and Arab traders visited the region (The Guardian, 2017). Estimates from the beginning of 2017 suggested that there were approximately 1.1 million Rohingya people living in Myanmar (Sky News, 2017), though due to the large movements of people fleeing violence towards the end of 2017, this number is now likely to be significantly less.
However, the government of Myanmar officially state that the Rohingya ethnic group does not exist at all, and instead argues that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who entered the country during a period when Myanmar was under British colonial rule (Human Rights Watch, n.d). Furthermore, due to the 1982 citizenship laws of Myanmar, the Rohingya people are officially prevented from gaining citizenship essentially making them the world’s biggest community of stateless people (Al Jazeera, 2017; Erdoğan, 2017). The 1982 citizenship laws stipulate that there are three categories through which citizenship can be obtained, which include: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship (Human Rights Watch, n.d). The first category of citizenship requires a person to belong to one of the recognised 135 national races of Myanmar or to have ancestors who settled in the country prior to the year 1823. Secondly, associate citizenship is granted when “one grandparent, or pre-1823 ancestor, was a citizen of another country. those persons who qualified for citizenship under the 1948 law, but who would no longer qualify under this new law, are also considered associate citizens if they had applied for citizenship in 1948” (ibid). Finally, to be considered as a “naturalised citizen”, a person must have “conclusive evidence” that they themselves or their parents entered and resided in Myanmar before 1948 (ILO, n.d). This set of laws has made it nearly impossible for the Rohingya to gain a legal status, as they are not recognised as one of Myanmar 135 ethnic groups, whilst many of the Rohingya lack the “conclusive evidence” or documentation required to gain either associate or naturalised citizenship (Human Rights Watch, n.d).
Why are the Rohingya Fleeing Bangladesh?
The most recent escalation of violence seen towards the Rohingya community in 2017 began after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out attacks on both military and border posts in October 2016, killing nine people (Patel, 2017). The situation grew even worse on 25th August after ARSA carried out further attacks in Rakhine on the security forces in the region causing at least a dozen deaths (Taylor, 2017). As a direct response to these attacks, security forces in Myanmar imposed severe and violent crackdowns on the Rohingya people in the state of Rakhine, that included incidences of rape, arson and murder (Larmer, 2017). The UN has labelled the treatment of the Rohingya population as ethnic cleansing, whilst a report conducted by Amnesty International describes the crisis as a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning” (Amnesty International, 2017), yet, according to the military of Myanmar they are only targeting Rohingya militants and not the general population. Perhaps even more shockingly, a report conducted by the government suggested that there have been no abuses of the Rohingya people at the hands of the military or the police, though the government refuses to allow external organisations to carry out independent investigations into the current situation (Gibbens, 2017). However, in 2017 alone, satellite images have shown that there have been at least 288 Rohingya settlements that have been partially or completely destroyed by arson (Sky News, 2017), which emphasises the fact that the military of Myanmar are not solely targeting Rohingya militants. On top of this, the UN has estimated that at the beginning of 2017 over 1,000 Rohingya civilians were killed due to violence inflicted by the military (Slodkowski, 2017), though more recent claims by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières suggest that the death toll has risen to more than 6,700 after the recent crackdowns. Both figures differ greatly from those produced by the government of Myanmar, who officially state that there have been 400 casualties (McPherson, 2017).
Aside from facing physical violence in the form of murder; rape and arson, being in a position of statelessness also opens the Rohingya up to a series of other abuses that are carried out by the state that include restrictions on movement; forced labour; limited access to employment, healthcare and education; and finally, the dispossession of property. This is what Johan Galtung (1969) describes as structural violence, a notion that moves away from more traditional definitions of violence which suggest that violence is only present when physical harm is caused. Instead, Galtung (1969) defines violence as “present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realisations are below their potential realisations”. Bandy X Lee (2016) further describes this phenomenon as “avoidable limitations society places on groups of people that constrain them from achieving the quality of life that would have otherwise been possible”. This structural violence can be demonstrated by the fact that, amongst the Rohingya, rates of illiteracy have reached a height of eighty percent (The Conversation, 2017), which shows the extent to which they are excluded from the education system (Ten Veen, 2005), which only allows citizens access to secondary education. Such statistics also suggest that a whole generation of Rohingya refugee children could potentially be left behind, severely limiting their potential realisations as discussed by Galtung (1969), which will have great impact in decades to come.
The Current Situation:
According to the UNHCR, as of 11th December 2017, there are currently around 860,000 Rohingya refugees seeking protection in Bangladesh, 646,000 of which have fled across the border since 25th of August last year (UNOCHA, 2017), which means that there were already over 200,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh prior to the 2017 genocide. Out of the circa 10,333 people arriving in one of Bangladesh’s refugee camps every day, around 60% of them are children (ReliefWebb, 2017), while different estimates suggest that anywhere between 1,800 – 6,000 children have fled Myanmar without a parent or guardian (Ahmad, 2017). In addition to these numbers, there are also around 20,000 Rohingya who have been internally displaced within the borders of Myanmar (Larmer, 2017), and when combined, these figures help, in part, to explain the extent to which the Rohingya have faced persecution in Myanmar.
Moreover, such large movements of people in what is a short space of time also creates further complications that serve to only worsen the situation. For instance, the region of Cox’s Bazaar is home to a population of approximately 2,290,000 people, without including refugees and is one of the most disadvantaged districts in Bangladesh as poverty levels are extremely high, where 33% and 17% of the inhabitants in the region are living below the poverty line or in extreme poverty respectively (ReliefWeba, 2017). Reports have shown that the introduction of a vulnerable refugee population has resulted in a labour surplus, leading to the lowering of wages within the region, whilst food and other goods have increased in price (ibid). Even though there are obvious negative implications of the lowering of wages, authorities in the region may also have to deal with other knock-on factors from these such as heightening tensions between natives of the cox’s Bazaar region and the incoming refugee population. There have even been reports of protests by Bangladeshi’s who feel as though their needs are being neglected in favour of the refugees needs (Heanue, 2018).
In addition to this, findings from a report conducted by Amnesty International have also shown that many of the refugees fleeing from Myanmar are being rejected and even pushed back across the border by Bangladeshi authorities. This is a severe violation of international law as, whilst it is not a legal requirement for a state to grant asylum or offer citizenship to refugees, it is illegal for them to take actions that will endanger refugees further, such as by returning them back to the country from which they fled or to a territory where they may face further persecution (Zamfir, 2015). The lack of acceptance shown towards Rohingya refugees has also been in stark contrast to another of this generations major humanitarian crises taking place in Syria, as territories, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, have welcomed Syrian refugees through their borders. Thus, questions of why the Rohingya are being shown such little support need to be asked in order to make progress.
Life in the Refugee Camps:
As I have already mentioned, prior to the most recent Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh was already host to a population of 200,000 Rohingya refugees. The most recent influx of refugees to Bangladesh has meant that conditions in the refugee camps have become increasingly overcrowded and destitute. The majority of the refugees are extremely vulnerable as they lack access to essential services and needs like food; shelter; healthcare; education and child protection. There are a number of shocking and concerning statistics that reveal how desperate the conditions are in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. For instance, with children making up 60% of refugees in Bangladesh, education is an essential service within the camps. Yet, more than 453,000 people are in need of educational support, and due to a lack of documentation Rohingya children are unable to attend state schools in Bangladesh (ReliefWeba, 2017) meaning that large numbers of children are missing out on gaining a formal education. In total, there are around 1.2 million people who are considered to be in need of food assistance (ibid), and a report conducted by the WFP found that, within the Kutupalong refugee camp in particular, malnutrition rates are alarmingly high with a quarter of Rohingya children suffering from malnutrition (WFP, 2017). To add to the lack of food security, over 300,000 people require emergency nutritional support and 58 million litres of safe drinking water is required a day to meet the needs of the refugees (ReliefWeba, 2017). The lack of adequate food, water and sanitation also poses serious health risks within the camps, increasing the chances of disease outbreaks which will be exacerbated during the rainy seasons and by overcrowded living conditions (ibid). Thus, the genocide of the Rohingya that has taken place in Myanmar is both shocking and devastating, yet as shown here, many of the Rohingya who have escaped the violence are still living in squalid and unhuman conditions showing that more needs to be done from the international community to alleviate their suffering.
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