Burma’s Rohingya people: a story of segregation and desperation
Posted on 05/06/2013
children play on a tent at Bawdupah camp for internally displaced people on the
outskirts of Sittwe. Photograph: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
June 3, 2013
The international community must put pressure on Burma to protect Rohingya Muslims and end segregation in Rakhine state
How desperate and distrustful of your
government do you have to be to refuse an offer of relocation when a cyclone is
about to hit your home? That many of the displaced Rohingya people in Burma‘s Rakhine state took
this decision demonstrates how difficult their lives have become.
For months now, the Rohingya Muslim people
have been targeted in a campaign that a Human
Rights Watch report (pdf) has described as “ethnic
cleansing”. Rohingya Muslims in Burma have been forced into
segregated settlements and camps, and – in many
cases – cut off from lifesaving aid.
I visited displacement camps in Rakhine in
May with Refugees
International and Burma Campaign UK, meeting
with displaced people who – after suffering horrific attacks by members of the
Rakhine Buddhist community in October –were forced to flee into remote areas of
the countryside, areas completely unsuitable for displacement camps.
Drinking water had to be brought in on boats by NGOs, and primary
healthcare was provided one morning a week. If you needed medical help at other
times, you had to hope an NGO would come by boat to get you.
Residents of this squalid community fall ill
frequently due to insanitary conditions. I travelled by boat for two hours to
Pauktaw, where a UNHCR-supported
camp is home to thousands of Rohingya people. The shores adjacent to the camps
were covered in faeces, with dead rats floating in the water just metres from
where children were bathing to keep cool in the heat.
Since it was attacked, the Rohingya community
has been totally cut off from markets and job opportunities; living in a segregated
area, its people are barred by the authorities from travelling to the sites
where they used to work and trade. Donor governments – including the UK – have
helped provide some basic services, but it is nowhere near enough to give these
people a safe and dignified existence.
The Rohingyas I met were living in flimsy tents so close to the shore
that there was no way they could survive the monsoon season, let alone a
cyclone. Even the emergency evacuations now underway will not be enough to get
them safely through the coming months. During my visit, I was told that it
would take at least two months to build temporary shelters on higher ground,
and the government has delayed allocating the necessary land, perhaps in an
attempt to assuage local Rakhine extremists. All of this demonstrates the
unwillingness of the government to prioritise the safety of the Rohingya
Aid agencies have had real difficulties
in getting help to people. Apart from the logistical problems created by the
camps’ isolation, the government has introduced bureaucratic obstacles,
including serious delays in providing travel authorisations and visas for aid
staff. Most troubling, some Rakhine Buddhist political and religious leaders
have made threats against aid agencies because they object to assistance being
offered to to the Rohingyas. Instead of taking action, the government refuses
to let aid workers operate in areas where threats are made.
Displaced people told me about family members
they had lost in the October attacks, speaking of their grief. Most wanted to
return home, but were too scared to do so without appropriate protection. And
they were aware that rather than focusing on moving people to higher ground
during April, the government was conducting a “verification exercise”
in displacement camps, in which they tried to force Rohingyas to sign forms
admitting that they were “Bengalis”. This only added to their
distrust of the authorities, which was already high after many of the securityservices either committed or condoned
attacks on their community last year. People told me that they would never be
allowed to return home because local authorities were trying to create
In a discussion with a group of
Rohingya women, I listened to stories of family members
being killed; some had lost seven, eight, nine loved ones. After hearing these
testimonies, I wasn’t surprised that some Rohingya people took the seemingly
irrational decision to refuse relocation in the face of a cyclone. They are so
desperate that they do not know who to trust or where they may be sent next.
And, as a woman who lost her entire family
said, “If, after having lost everything – including my whole family –
because we are Rohingya Muslims, [the government] still don’t recognise me as
Rohingya in my own country, then I might as well be dead”.
The UK government, together with the rest of
the international community, must keep the pressure on the Burmese government
to facilitate full humanitarian access to the Rohingya, end segregation in
Rakhine state, provide them with the protection they need to return home, and
restore their Burmese citizenship.
• A video documenting Rushanara Ali’s
trip to Burma can be found here