A year ago, 17 countries met in Bangkok to seek a solution to the rohingya crisis in south-east Asia. A few days earlier, a common grave unearthed in the jungle of southern Thailand had exposed a network of camps run by human traffickers. The camps were being used to hold migrants from Bangladesh and members of the Rohingya community from Burma, who had arrived there following dangerous boat crossings, until their families paid a ransom.
As these networks were being dismantled, traffickers abandoned thousands more migrants who were already on their way on the open sea. Weeks passed, with no south-east Asian nation prepared to help them. Indonesia and Malaysia finally offered temporary refuge, on the condition that they would be relocated or repatriated within a year.
Photo by Antolín Avezuela in Rakhine State
The Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority has often been described as one of the most persecuted in the world. Most of its members live in Rakhine State in north-west Burma, where they are subject to local regulations that restrict their freedom of movement.
In 1982, Burma passed a law that was designed with essentially the sole aim of excluding them. This law granted citizenship rights to 135 ethnic groups recognised by the government, but did not include the Rohingya.
The Burmese government refers to this minority as ‘Bengalis’ and they are classed as ‘illegal immigrants’ from what is now Bangladesh, which nevertheless does not recognise the community as its own. Many of the Rohingya can, however, trace their family back through several generations in Burma.
These stateless people are thus condemned to live in urban ghettos or displaced camps, unable to work and receiving very little government or international assistance.
In the hands of traffickers
To improve their daily lives, as well as their hopes for the future, many of the Rohingya place themselves in the hands of traffickers to reach Malaysia via Thailand, which for them is a transit country.
“There is a community in Malaysia that helps them to pay the ransom money and find work,” Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, explains to Equal Times. This project has been monitoring the movements of the Rohingya for more than a decade. The Rohingya do not tread this path alone; they are accompanied by many of their neighbours, Bangladeshi men and women fleeing one of the poorest and most populated countries in the world.
At the start of May 2015, the Thai authorities uncovered around 30 graves containing human remains in the jungle of southern Thailand, on the border with Malaysia. It is thought that these bodies belonged to Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who had been held in jungle camps, with little food and water, awaiting a ransom payment from their families to release them.
The discovery of these camps by the Thai authorities unleashed a campaign against human trafficking in Thailand and, subsequently, in neighbouring Malaysia, where graves containing the remains of migrants were also found. Fearing police action, the crew of some boats carrying Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants refused to take them ashore.
Instead, the traffickers abandoned them to their fate in the Andaman Sea, in boats with little fuel reserves. The only people to help the Rohingya reach land were a number of fishermen from Indonesia’s Aceh Province, who ignored their local government’s instructions not to do so.
Haunting images in the media showing hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis on the boats, along with offers of support from the international community, led Malaysia and Indonesia to allow them to land, on the condition that they would be repatriated within a year.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), around 370 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants died attempting the crossing in 2015. This figure must be added to the remains of more than 220 people unearthed in illegal camps along the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
At the end of May 2015, international organisations and officials from the 17 countries most affected by the migration crisis met to discuss possible solutions to the challenge. At the end of the meeting, they informed the media that they had reached an agreement to scale up the search for the approximately 2,000 refugees that the UN estimated were still adrift at sea, and to promote access to basic services such as housing, education and health in their places of origin. No mention was made, however, of Burma’s refusal to grant them nationality.
Refugees treated as ‘illegal immigrants’
One year on, the problems are not over for the hundreds of refugees that placed themselves in the hands of traffickers in the hope of a new life. As Malaysia and Indonesia have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines the term ‘refugee’, the Rohingya are treated as undocumented migrants, without the right to work or access public services.
While the United States has undertaken to relocate an unspecified number of Rohingya refugees, Australia has refused to allow any of them entry into the country.
The Malaysian government, on the other hand, is working with UNHCR to establish a pilot programme that would enable 300 registered Rohingya refugees to work legally.
In the case of Indonesia, many of the Rohingya who were rescued off the Aceh coast have disappeared from the temporary camps. It is thought that they might have once again placed themselves in the hands of smugglers in an attempt to reach Malaysia.
There has been no change in the living conditions in their place of origin, despite the agreements made at the meeting. Most of the Bangladeshis have returned to their homes, where they continue to live in deplorable conditions, having received insufficient international support.
Political pressure for controls has, however, managed to reduce the number being trafficked to Malaysia and, so far this year, very few traffickers’ boats have left Burma or Bangladesh. “The campaigns against trafficking and arrests in Thailand, and also in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Burma, have changed these movements. A few of the Rohingya have used other means and routes — by air or overland, not by sea — to reach Malaysia,” Lewa explains. Matthew Smith from the organisation Fortify Rights, however, told Equal Times that if the underlying causes of the problem were not tackled in Burma, we could see a new wave of people leaving at the end of the rainy season.
Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in democratic elections in November 2015, has called on the US Ambassador to refrain from using the term ‘Rohingya’ when referring to this community, thus denying them their right to self-identification.
Smith stresses that, “If the current government in Burma does not do more to bring these abuses to an end, it runs the risk of being complicit and of contributing to the regional problem of refugees and human trafficking.”
“The Rohingya tell us they are losing hope,” he concludes.