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Persecution, dire living conditions keep pushing Rohingya to seek better refuge

Rohingya Muslims sit on a a wooden boat adrift on the water off Lhoksukon, Aceh, Indonesia, in June 2020.
Zikri/EPA

Myanmar’s military coup earlier this month has revived questions about the persecution of Rohingya, stoking fears among the refugees.

The United Nations has described Rohingya as “the most persecuted minority in the world” due to the systematic discrimination that they face.

The coup might have put Rohingya in an even more precarious situation. Many of them are now more fearful of returning to their homeland.

Ever since they were rendered stateless through the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh.

Malaysia has been another destination country for Rohingya since the 1970s. However, being registered as refugees with the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Malaysia does not guarantee legal rights to employment, education and healthcare.

Rohingya people live at the margin of the society and are considered illegal migrants under the local laws.

What factors, then, compel Rohingya to take perilous journeys by sea and land to seek safety?

Journey to safety

Rohingya people habitually reside in Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, which shares borders with Bangladesh. Thus, settlements in Bangladesh refugee camps are one option for the majority of Rohingya due to its proximity.

Repatriation deals with Bangladesh have not worked because of the ongoing persecution in Myanmar.

Desperate refugees in the camps resort to smuggling and trafficking networks to reach Malaysia for a better life.

The perilous journey usually starts with crossing the Andaman Sea by boat to reach southern Thailand.

Upon arrival, human traffickers would detain them before they were released to enter Malaysia overland after paying a huge sum of money. Those who could not pay would be tortured and sold into slavery.

However, increased patrols by Thai and Malaysian authorities caused Rohingya to be stranded at sea for months due to boat turnbacks.

Fortunately, some found refuge in Aceh, Indonesia, after being rescued by fishermen and sheltered by local authorities.

But their journey did not stop there. Many were trafficked across the Straits of Malacca to reach Malaysia. This is due to family reunions and lack of livelihood opportunities in Indonesia.

Local fishermen take matters into their own hands to rescue dozens of Rohingya people drifting on a broken boat in waters off Lhoksukon in Aceh in June 2020. Rahmad/Antara Foto

Read more: Whoever wins the US election, human rights in Southeast Asia are losing


Push factors

Two main factors push Rohingya to keep taking these risky journeys.

First, decades of systematic discrimination and persecution by Myanmar force Rohingya to flee.

Having no citizenship means Rohingya are deprived of basic rights of livelihoods and freedom of movement.

Following the military crackdowns in 2017, which led to 745,000 Rohingya seeking shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the International Court of Justice ruled that Myanmar must take measures to prevent genocide against this ethnic minority.

Last week’s military coup put Myanmar under a one-year state of emergency. Leaders of the National League for Democracy – the party that recently won an election in a landslide – and other key politicians were detained.

Worryingly, the military general in power, Min Aung Hlaing, engineered the 2017 brutal crackdowns targeting Rohingya people, which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi regrettably defended.

Second, lack of livelihood and educational opportunities cause refugees to leave Bangladesh and continue to look for a better place, such as Malaysia.

Being marooned in overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps in Bangladesh means that Rohingya cannot live even at subsistence level.

Competition for resources with the impoverished locals also creates friction between the refugees and host society.

The lack of jobs and proper schooling leads Rohingya people to seek a better future, only to find themselves becoming victims of human trafficking syndicates.


Read more: Why Aceh is a rare place of welcome for Rohingya refugees


Could international sanctions work?

Myanmar has faced various economic sanctions due to its poor human rights record.

For instance, the US imposed broad sanctions on Myanmar after the crackdown on student protests in 1988 before finally lifting them in 2016.

To minimise the impacts of sanctions on the general public, the US then targeted sanctions against certain individuals and industries. In 2019, following the military operations against Rohingya, the US imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar military officials.

However, these efforts did not stop the genocide against Rohingya and the oppression of other ethnic minorities like Kachin and Chin.

On the one hand, such sanctions would apply some pressure on Myanmar to be accountable. On the other hand, these actions could also be used by the military junta to justify and maintain their authoritarian rule and suspicion of the West.

Moreover, Myanmar is continuously backed by China and Russia for their geopolitical interests.

Sharing responsibility

Moving forward, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must abandon its “non-interference” policy regarding the plight of Rohingya.

Over the years, rhetorical condemnations of Myanmar – one of the last three members to join the regional bloc – have been directed by Malaysia and Indonesia individually instead of collectively by ASEAN members.

In this regard, there should be closer co-operation with and support for Bangladesh, which bears the strains of hosting over 1.2 million refugees.

Besides the monetary cost of hosting Rohingya – estimated to be over US$7 billion by 2024 – Bangladesh needs to be supported through development projects that meet the needs of both refugees and the locals hosting them.

Livelihood and educational opportunities are crucial to empower the Rohingya community and instil a sense of dignity and hope in their future.

Most importantly, the repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar must come with citizenship and equal rights.

ASEAN should uphold its Human Rights Declaration as an inclusive regional community that acts to save lives rather than merely becoming an economic bloc motivated solely by trade and investment at the expense of human rights.

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