The Rohingyas, a muslim minority from Rakhine state in Myanmar, have been affirmed to be the most persecuted minority in the world (as stated by the UN in February 2017). Despite such reports, the majority of the world’s population has been in the dark about this issue, due to underrepresentation by the media and the lack of action by the world communities. The diplomatic leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has legalised a genocide on a previously unheard of scale; led by the military forces, nationalists and extreme monks of Myanmar, eradicating traces of Rohingya ethnicity.
Since 1982, the Rohingya’s have been the victims of abuse of human rights. Despite being the indigenous people of Rakhine state for centuries, the military government stripped them of their citizenship, effectively appointing them as stateless. The government completely denies the existence of the ethnic group “Rohingya”, and instead often labels them as “Bengali”, formed of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This cripples the identity of the Rohingyas. In 1993, an attempt to revitalise basic rights to vote was given, but was soon repealed due to protests by monks and nationalists. In 2010, there was 1 Muslim candidate in the parliament but since then, any claims have been declined.
The radical monks have successfully pressured the government to pass laws on Race and Religion Protection and the Religious Conversion Law and Population control law, largely targeting Muslims. The rise of extremism amongst monks and nationalists has been branded as a form of Buddhism known as the 969 movement, which aims to pressure the government further and create purges against Rohingya villages. However, a notion of “a violent Buddhist” appears to be unimaginable, hence the lack of attention for the atrocities they cause.
In 2012 June, there was acute anti-Muslim outbreak of violence in the state, inducing the people to flee their homes for safety. The government authorities ravaged mosques, conducted violent mass arrests and blocked aid to displaced Muslims. In Rakhine state, the townships were demolished, covering over 500 acres of mostly Muslim owned residential property. In one day, the forces destroyed 4,862 structures captured by the satellite. The families had to abandon their homes, and family businesses.
In October 2016, the violence carried out by the military forced over 22,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh in one week. The Rohingyas are imprisoned without being allowed to appear in court for over 20 years and are tortured. The adults and children are brutally murdered and left on the porches of their homes. Women are constantly gang raped, often to death and sex trafficking has grown, bringing Myanmar to having the heaviest sex trafficking industry in the world, as researched by the US. However, even after escaping the most forward route to Bangladesh, hundreds die on their way from exhaustion of walking across the land or on overcrowded boats. Despite Bangladesh’s desire to help the refugees, the government is incapable of handling the huge influx of people, and has resorted to imprisonment and cleansing of camps and villages. When the government intervenes, the families only have seconds to make a choice to leave everything behind, or face the terrors.
In India, we came in contact with Ali Johar (Maung Thein Shwe), who brought us to a Rohingya refugee camp that was set up in 2012 in the south of Delhi. The camp is surrounded by industrial estates, polluted lakes covered in chemical foam and a luxurious DFL Mall just 10 minutes away.
The camp has 47 families and 226 people in total.
Ali quickly broke all silence with facts, “There are 17 human rights articles registered in UN, and all denied for Rohingyas”, he said. This is the case for every single Rohingya native.
After arriving in Delhi from a traumatizing journey, the refugees instantly applied for asylum seeker status but only received a card which gives them no rights in India apart from the title of a refugee. Upon their arrival, the refugees had nowhere to turn and received no aid from UNHCR or the government. For 41 days they protested in front of UNHCR headquarters, but the protest was eventually displaced by the police and the refugees were forced to stay at a railway station for two days. They were soon offered a place to settle on government land property, “no construction area”.
The camp is constructed out of scraps of recycled wood and plastic, which they have to buy. The structures are extremely fragile, and the alleys extremely narrow. Despite being built above ground, the rooms feel like basements without windows and come without any basic amenities. By paying 3000 INR, they are able to receive electricity from a private source illegally, however the wires are cut up to 5 times a month by local authorities.
Integrating in to this new society is extremely testing, as many of the refugees face discrimination and are forced to change their names. The refugees also face abuse from corrupt police. As they recall, “when two children were picking empty bottles near a beer shop, a drunk police man beat them severely and when the locals tried calling the authorities, the kids were instead arrested and beaten again.” In another camp near Shaheen, which is settled on government land, a local person forcefully seizes money for rent and violently abuses the refugees for no reason.
Challenges also come with living in a gender unequal society which makes lives more difficult for women. For men, it is easier to find a job because they can work as physical labourers but it is also dangerous, as many men are untrained before going to work. The daily jobs are not guaranteed, and they get paid about 300 INR per day, which is about $5.
Women most commonly work as rag pickers, or housewives. They can’t learn the local language, and arrive mostly uneducated. They are more likely to get affected by the poor conditions in the camp, as they are forced stay there for 24 hours.
Female sanitation and hygiene is a daily struggle, as 6 months ago there were no toilets installed. Recently, the UNHCR began providing sanitary napkins for 6 months a year only, but there is nowhere the women can dispose of them.
Medical conditions are poor as the refugees have access only to the local government hospital. They are encouraged to be vaccinated and to give birth in hospital but they prefer to stay in camp and follow traditional home remedies which endanger their lives. The language barrier with the doctors also hinders them from being able to explain their private problems and the women keep their health problems from men. The children frequently suffer from strong diarrhea due to the dirty water. In the summer months, the mosquitoes become unbearable and life threatening. In the monsoon season, the rain stays in the homes for up to a week causing decay and destruction of homes. The extreme unhygienic, overcrowded and infectious living conditions are faced by the vast majority of the refugees, which causes them to question the future of Rohingyas. They have began to view themselves as futureless and even after fleeing their homes in fear of being killed, they are still struggling to survive day by day in these inhabitable conditions.
A small number of NGOs give attention to the camps in India. Currently, the children have received 47 scholarships for free education in primary school. UNICEF also offers facilities for education, but they are too far for the children to reach, as they are over 10 km away and public transport is unaffordable. Even appealing for higher education, work permits, travel or marriage, the Rohingyas must request permission from the Myanmar government first, which takes up to 3 years to be approved.
Ali keeps in touch with his family in Myanmar through smart phones, despite the fact that it’s a crime to own one in the region and they would be fined 7 lakhs or 5 years in prison if they are caught with it. When the refugees do get the chance to contact their families, they plead to be prayed for. But if they do not hear from them for more than three months, the worst can be assumed.
Countries such as the United States, China and India have chosen to keep their distance from the Rohingya refugee crisis in light of not disturbing the new born democracy in Myanmar. Even the Dalai Lama criticised the UN for it’s lack of action, but even the UN’s words to other nations are powerless without the Rohingyas’ voices being heard.
In light of the Syrian refugee crisis, we cannot ignore the other people who are suffering simply because they aren’t being covered by western media. Rohingyas might be known of, but they are incredibly neglected by the whole world and I urge you all, to learn about their dire situation.
“They don’t need sympathy, they need empathy” – Ali.