Refugees in Burma, Malaysia and Thailand: Rescue for Rohingya

Brad Blitz, May 2010
The World Today, Volume 66, Number 5

For months monitors have reported on the crackdown against stateless Rohingya refugees in south eastern Bangladesh and allegations that the Thai Navy is pushing back boatloads of them in the Andaman Sea. As Burma, Bangladesh and Thailand all gear up for elections, these practices seem more common. One fear is that anticipated changes in Burma following polling there will send more unwanted Muslim migrants to seek refuge in neighbouring states.

In March, physicians for human rights documented the effects of overcrowding, denial of access to food, health, and work among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The Thai newspaper Phuketwan reported the disappearance of boats filled with Rohingya following naval activity near Phuket and suggested they had been intercepted and set adrift by the Thai Navy. Then, CNN and other media published claims that 92 Rohingya boatpeople had been chased out of Thai waters, only to wash up in Malaysia where they were detained.

Approximately 725,000 Rohingya are concentrated in North Arakan, also known as Rakhine state, a region of Burma that borders Bangladesh. No country will accept them as citizens, and they have suffered rape, forced labour and killings. Several hundred thousand have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere in South Asia where they have received only very limited protection from nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hundreds of thousands were expelled in the 1960s by the military-socialist regime of General Ne Win during the Burmese Way to Socialism nationalisation programme. Subsequent expulsions include the murderous ethnic cleansing campaign Operation Dragon King (Naga Min), which drove more than two hundred thousand Rohingya into Bangladesh in 1978, where an estimated ten thousand died from starvation and disease.

The source of the latest tragedy lies in the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Burma by a 1982 Citizenship Law which legalised their exclusion. Denied citizenship inside Burma, further discriminatory policies and an increasingly brutal regime, precipitated a series of refugee crises.

In 1991, the Burmese army expelled more than 250,000 Rohingya, destroying villages and buildings on its way, and forcing them into towns in southern Bangladesh, primarily around Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar. Three decades later, the Bangladeshi response has hardened with the government accused of withholding food aid, frustrating NGO access to camps, and with the exception of a small minority of Rohingya, generally refusing to recognise their rights as refugees.

As documented by Physicians for Human Rights, thousands of Rohingya refugees are now crammed in squalid settlements and only two, Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar district, have been designated by the government as official UNHCR assisted refugee camps where there is food, healthcare and education for the children. Just 29,000 of the estimated two hundred to four hundred thousand Rohingya in Bangladesh have been given refugee status. And this number of displaced people is growing as new refugee movements continue, fuelled by systematic repression in Burma.

Arriving migrants face a challenging reception in Bangladesh. Denied access to UNHCR supported refugee camps because the authorities describe them as economic migrants, new arrivals are immediately faced with the threat of removal. The government of Bangladesh has stepped up efforts to return large numbers of Rohingya to Burma after new conflicts erupted over the two countries’ 320 kilometres maritime border.

One of these conflicts was exacerbated following an agreement between the government of Burma and South Korea’s Daewoo International Corporation, which was granted oil and gas exploration rights in contested waters. Since then, increasing numbers of Rohingya living in the border area have been expelled by Bangladeshi forces.

Tensions worsened throughout 2008 and in March last year Rohingya labourers in Burma were forced to start construction of a two hundred-kilometre fence to prevent future ‘push backs’ of Rohingya into Burma.

One consequence of the tensions between Burma and Bangladesh has been the increased presence of Bangladeshi troops in the border region. Fearing arrest and abuse, thousands of Rohingya have flooded into makeshift camps, putting a strain on resources and the local community and threatening thousands with starvation.

In addition, developments in Burma have thrown up a new wildcard: the promise of elections. In a contradictory move, Burmese authorities have permitted Rohingya non-citizens to vote in the planned elections and started issuing temporary identity cards. The prospect of thousands of Rohingya voters in Arakan is not welcome to xenophobic and parochial interests, giving rise to fears of further destablisation. Bangladesh has responded to the anticipated tensions by continuing the forced removals of Rohingya before Burmese authorities complete the fence that is intended to seal off the area.

The Thai authorities have been equally inhospitable to the arrivals of refugees from Burma and Bangladesh. In 2008, the then Prime Minster Samak Sundaravej was reported as saying that Thailand would relocate Rohingya refugees to a deserted island.

Phuketwan journalists and the Arakan Project, a Bangkok based monitoring organisation, later raised the alarm about Thai security forces’ alleged practice of detaining Rohingya refugees on the remote Ko Sai Deang, before towing them out to shark-infested waters and abandoning them. Though challenged by the Thai government, recent press reports suggest that some of these practices have continued.

While Burma remains isolated, western and donor governments should call on the governments of Bangladesh and Thailand to stop the push backs on land and at sea. All receiving states in the region should ask the UNHCR to help determine the status of migrants from Burma and ensure that their human rights are respected, including access to aid and assistance. It is time for a regional plan for the Rohingya which addresses both the geo-political and domestic sources of their persecution.

Brad Blitz, Professor of Political Geography at Kingston University London, Director of the International Observatory on Statelessness.


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