Rohingya: Myanmar’s Unwanted People


YANGON – The exodus of Rohingya migrants, alongside Bangladeshi economic migrants, has attracted international attention in recent weeks after several thousands were left stranded at sea in the middle of their journey with limited food and water.

Here are the five key questions and answers about the Rohingya people and the Bay of Bengal migrant crisis.

1. Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a stateless ethnic minority group said to be one of the world’s most persecuted races. They suffer decades of state-sanctioned discrimination and ethnic violence. There are around 1.3 million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, with several hundreds of thousands living in camps around Sittwe, the state capital, and in Bangladesh. They are not recognised by the Myanmar’s government as citizens and are classified as illegal immigrants, known as Bengalis, from neighbouring Bangladesh. Their descendants were brought from India by the British to work in Myanmar, then known as Burma, during the colonial rule between 1826 to 1948. Despite having lived there for several generations, they are not considered one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups, making them ineligible for citizenship.

2. What drives them to flee Myanmar?

Because they are not considered citizens of Myanmar, they face restrictions on their family size, movement, property, and their access to the labour market, education and other social services. They also face discrimination and prejudice from the local Rakhine people, who view them as Bengalis. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country since the sectarian conflict broke out in 2012. The deadly clash stemmed from longstanding tensions between the Rohingya and the local community in Rakhine State. They have also been targeted by mob attacks in recent years.

3. How do they flee?

Many of them that chose to flee Myanmar pay a large sum of money to smugglers, who promise them a good paying job and a better life. They are joined by migrants from Bangladesh, who are also in search for a better future, in a small boat carrying hundreds of people with limited space and supplies. They usually travel by boat to the western coast of southern Thailand before continuing by car and foot to Malaysia, where they often work illegally. However, they are often exploited and abused by the smuggling network where they are held in a detention camp for ransom money from their families back home. Some that did not survive the horrendous journey were believed to be buried in a mass grave next to the camp.

4. How has this become a crisis?

The exodus that has been ongoing for several years was largely ignored until several mass graves and detention camps suspected to have been run by smugglers were discovered in southern Thailand. The crackdown on people smuggling networks by Thai authorities have alarmed smugglers to avoid landing in Thailand. Thousands of migrants were abandoned by smugglers and left stranded on their boats with limited food and supplies. Some boats ended up around small islands in the region and some were rescued by local fishing boats. In the beginning, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia prevented migrant boats from landing. But Malaysia and Indonesia later agreed to let migrant boats come ashore.

5. Has the crisis been resolved?

Most migrant boats were believed to have landed on shores of Indonesia and Malaysia over the past several weeks.  More than 5,600 migrants have either landed in destination countries of Indonesia and Malaysia or returned to Myanmar since the crisis began in May. Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to provide temporary shelter to the Rohingya migrants. A special meeting on irregular migration in Bangkok last month did not yield any permanent solutions to the migrant crisis. The migrant movement seems to have stopped for now as the monsoon season in the region begins. But it will likely start again once the storm season ends unless the pressures that drive them to leave the country have been addressed.

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