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    Burma’s Rohingya people: a story of segregation and desperation

    Rohingya
    children play on a tent at Bawdupah camp for internally displaced people on the
    outskirts of Sittwe. Photograph: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

    The Guardian:
    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
    community.
    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
    Muslim-free zones.

    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