Monday, 12 October 2009 19:22 .Guardian
Syed Neaz Ahmad
They have been described as some of the world’s most persecuted refugees, and among the most forgotten, too. During my imprisonment in Jeddah I saw and met hundreds of inmates from Burma.
Thousands of Burmese Muslims from Arakan – often called Rohingyas – were offered a safe haven in Saudi Arabia by the late King Faisal, but with the change in monarch the rules changed too. What was to have been a permanent abode of peace for these uprooted people has now turned into a chamber of horrors.
There are about 3,000 families of Burmese Muslims in Mecca and Jeddah prisons awaiting deportation. Women and children are held in separate prisons nearby. The only contact the men have with their wives and children is through mobile phones.
But the interesting question is: where will they be sent when they are eventually deported? Burma doesn’t want them. Bangladesh, with a large population and poor economy, doesn’t have the inclination or the ability to handle a refugee population of this size. The Rohingyan refugees in Bangladesh are having a rough time as it is. Other Muslim countries play silent spectators.
Pakistan’s offer to accept some of the Rohingyas – those awaiting deportation in Saudi prisons – is seen as a mere diplomatic exercise. Against the background of Islamabad’s shabby treatment of some 300,000 stranded Pakistanis living in camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya inmates look at the Pakistani overture with suspicion.
The people who call themselves Rohingyas are Muslims from what is known as the Mayu frontier area, the Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships of Arakan (Rakhine) state, a province isolated in the western part of the country across the Naaf river which forms the boundary between Burma and Bangladesh. After Burma gained independence from the UK in 1948, the ethnic and religious group first favoured joining Pakistan but later called for an autonomous region instead.
The Burmese government, however, has consistently refused to recognise the Rohingyas as citizens. According to Amnesty International, in 1978 more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the Burmese army’s Operation Nagamin. Most – it is claimed – were eventually repatriated, but about 15,000 refused to return. In 1991, a second wave of about a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled Burma to Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, it is estimated that there are more than 200,000 Rohingyas, 28,000 of them in overcrowded camps. There are a further 13,600 registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia (although there are thousands yet unregistered), an estimated 3,000 in Thailand and unknown numbers in India and Japan.
Some Rohingyas have resided in Malaysia since the early 1990s, but continue to be rounded up in immigration operations and handed over to human traffickers at the Thai-Malaysia border. About 730,000 remain in Burma, most of whom live in Arakan state.
Conditions in Arakan state continue to deteriorate, increasing the likelihood of further outflows into neighbouring countries. It’s an irony that countries in Asia and elsewhere – particularly Muslim countries – have shown little or no desire to help ease the situation.
The UNHCR spokeswoman in Asia, Kitty Mckinsey says: “No country has really taken up their cause. Look at the Palestinians, for example, they have a lot of countries on their side. The Rohingyans do not have any friends in the world.”
The late King Faisal’s decision to offer them a permanent abode in Saudi Arabia was a noble gesture. However, later Saudi rulers have found the Burmese Muslims a thorn in their side. With strict regulation on their employment and movement within the kingdom, they are easy targets for extortion and torture.
There are said to be about 250,000 Burmese Muslims in Saudi Arabia – the majority living in Mecca’s slums (Naqqasha and Kudai). They sell vegetables, sweep streets and work as porters, carpenters and unskilled labour. The fortunate ones rise to become drivers.
In Saudi Arabia it is not uncommon for poor Rohingyas to marry off their young (sometimes underage) daughters to old and sick Saudis in the hope of getting “official favours”. But this hasn’t worked for many. Rohingyan wives of Saudi men, who have to survive as second class human beings on the periphery of society.
Those whom I met in Jeddah prisons seem to have accepted the situation as a fait accompli. But it is unfortunate that they are being made to suffer in a country considered to be the citadel of Islam.