By Air Commodore Khalid Iqbal

The United Nations considers Rohingyas of Myanmar as a persecuted religious and linguistic minority. Myanmar considers this community, of about 800,000, settled in Rakhine, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Despite their continuous residential reality, at least since 1947, Myanmar is reluctant to grant them their due citizenship rights. A statement, last year, by Burmese President Thein Sein that all Rohingyas should either be deported or placed in refugee camps sparked a mass exodus. Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities have co-existed for generations. They are now being forcibly segregated. Barriers have been erected across roads in the state capital and thousands of Rakhine have had their homes destroyed. Divide between Buddhists and ethnic Muslims echoes of similar happenings in the Balkans.

Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has failed to intervene and prevent the hardships being perpetrated upon hapless Rohingyan minority. It is also ironic that the iconic lady from Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself faced brutality and was awarded a Nobel prize for services to humanity has not been able to come forward and play a meaningful role to resolve this humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar government has imposed emergency rule in response to continued tension in Rakhine state. However, the application of preventive rules is selective; while Buddhists remain free to move around, Rohingyas’ movement is being incrementally restricted. To avoid persecution in Burma, Rohingya Muslims flee to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, where they are treated as stateless migrants. More and more Rohingyas are now risking their lives by attempting to migrate on boats. Once apprehended, they are deported back to Myanmar after a short trial. Hundreds of them have been arrested at Dhaka International Airport in recent months. “Such attempts are on the rise, these Rohingyas are mostly caught at immigration when their fake passports go under the scanner”, said Hasanul Haider, Commanding Officer of Airport Armed Police.

Myanmar has rejected an offer by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to begin negotiations for bringing the communal violence to an end. According to the ASEAN’s Secretary General Mr Surin Pitsuwan, “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter”. “But your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful,” Mr Surin said on January 29. He proposed setting up of tripartite talks between ASEAN, the UN and Myanmar’s government to prevent the violence from having a broader regional impact. The bloodshed has led to about 180 deaths since June 2012. Fresh fighting in Rakhine this year has resulted in another 88 killings. Human Rights groups fear that actual number of deaths could be much higher. Unbridled violence has also manifested in torching of thousands of homes, resulting in tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims ending-up in overcrowded shanty camps, where they live under sub-human conditions.

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Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reported from Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state that: “Around 100,000 people have been displaced since the fighting started back in June.” Most of those displaced lost their homes when they were burned down in what they say is a deliberate attempt by the predominantly Buddhist government to drive them out of the country. “There were security forces present before the latest violence started,” Muhammad Juhar, a Rohingya Muslim, told Al Jazeera. “But when the fighting came to our town, there was no security…When they did arrive, it was too late and they also shot into the crowds of Muslims,” Juhar added.

The UNHCR has requested Myanmar’s neighbouring countries to open their borders for those who are fleeing the fighting. The UNHCR says there are about 25,000 Rohingyas registered in Malaysia. Many Rohingya Muslims escaping the communal violence have also sought refuge in Bangladesh and Thailand. Though it is a dangerous journey and after all that trouble, most of them are turned back. According to the Bangladesh Coast Guard, at least 350 would-be refugees have reportedly drowned in the sea since July 2012. This figure, however, reflects only those incidents that have been reported by survivors or their families. Actual numbers could be much higher.

Rejected as citizens by both Bangladesh and Burma, they continue to be victimised in the camps where they seek shelter.  Deliveries to camps on Myebon camp have to be made by boat, and attempts to get proper sanitation and supplies into Taung Paw have so far been blocked. Rakhine Buddhists control the jetty and are refusing to allow aid agencies’ regular access to the Rohingya camp. Obstruction by the Buddhist community was preventing aid workers from doing 90% of their work. Only the Burmese military could force the aid through, but it has so far refused to intervene.

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Rohingyas who have crossed over to Bangladesh, reside in Madham Charpara and are not registered as refugees. Since 1992 the Bangladeshi government has denied permission to the UNHCR to register Rohingya refugees. They are still considered illegal migrants and are not entitled to food, healthcare or education provided by the UNHCR and its partner organisations.

According to a survey conducted by “Doctors without Borders”, 40% of deaths in unregistered camps are caused by diarrhoea. There is only one toilet for every ten families. “The unhygienic life these refugees are leading here is the main cause of their illnesses,” said Professor Pran Gopal Datta, vice chancellor of Bangabandhu Medical University.

Director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee programme in Bangladesh, Mr Bill Frelick, said: “This is sheer inhuman treatment.” He added that unregistered refugees cannot get healthcare facilities outside their camps, and the aid agencies with better medical treatments are not allowed to reach them either. Bangladesh government has ordered at least three international aid organisations to cease assistance to Rohingya refugees living outside registered UNHCR camps. “This is a cruel policy,” remarked Frelick.

Since the Rohingyas are ethnically Bengali, many chose to seek refuge in Bangladesh, which now has an estimated population of some quarter of a million Rohingyas. Bangladesh does not appreciate the presence of the Rohingyas, despite their ethnic ties to the country and has been striving to make life as difficult as possible for them in the hope that they will leave.

The Thai government has decided to temporarily detain Rohingya migrants for six months, without upgrading their status as refugee. Thai National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Lieutenant General Paradon Pattanathaboot said that Thailand will not set up permanent refugee camps, though it could still build temporary detention centres. Bangkok promised to receive Rohingyas for a maximum of six months, but warned that it would deport those who escape from detention centres. More than 1,400 Rohingya have been rounded up since early January. Thailand has provided them with food and water on humanitarian grounds. NSC is of the view that after the six-month period, the UNHCR should take care of them. Bangkok Post has reported that on January 31, Thailand stopped entry of boats carrying 340 Rohingya Migrants, officials ordered migrants to continue their travel to Malaysia after delivering them water and food!

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The question is whether these arrests, humiliations and deportations could restrain the wretched Rohingyas from emigrating to neighbouring countries. As long as the Myanmar government continues to treat the Rohingyas as non-citizens, the problem would persist. All countries have a moral obligation to accept refugees who are in danger and to help them to resettle.

The UN needs to take bold steps to resolve the issue in a wholesome way, beyond the ‘refugee dimension’ of the issue. It needs to act with the speed and will with which acted in case of East Timor.