By M. Mizanur Rahman and Tasfi Sal-sabil
REFERRING to statements by some residents and an expert, Aljazeera reported on October 25 that a growing sense of despair had caused a mass migration of at least 8,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar in the last two weeks. The number of people who have fled since communal violence broke out two years ago is more than 1,00,000. Usually, the popular destinations of these Rohingya people are Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Pakistan and India. In the last few decades, thousands of Rohingyas migrated to Bangladesh from Myanmar.
The Rohingya are one of the most down-trodden ethnic minorities in modern history, having been denied citizenship and basic human rights by the Myanmar government. For the Rohingyas, security of life, food, accommodation, arbitrary arrest, detention, sexual harassment and means of earning have been major problems even after their migration.
Many of the displaced and helpless Rohingyas have been living in overcrowded camps that lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, and medical care. Currently, there are two refugee camps in Bangladesh sheltering a total population of 2,900, and a further 2,00,000 are living in unofficial camps and Bangladeshi villages located in the southeastern part of Bangladesh along the Myanmarese border.
Almost all the international legal instruments provide protection to the ethnic minorities in their home country and the refugees in the countries they migrated to. The United Nation Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the convention relating to the status of refugees 1951 and its protocol 1967, the Geneva conventions, etc. ensure the rights of the ethnic minorities and refugees. Though Myanmar has not ratified 73 important conventions, it has ratified a number of treaties and conventions which define almost all the human rights issues. The most important treaty that Burma is a party to is the UN Charter, which is considered a ‘super-treaty’ because Article 103 of the Charter mandates that “any conflict between Charter obligations and those under any other international agreement be resolved in favour of the Charter” (Global Justice Centre, 2012). Other treaties that the country endorsed include the Genocide Convention, the four Geneva Conventions, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
But no international legal instrument could protect these people who are actually not recognised as citizens by any state in the world. The Myanmar government does not want to recognise them as citizens and terms them as ‘unwanted Bengalis,’ and forces them to flee from the country. These people move to the neighbouring countries, especially to Bangladesh which is not in a position to accommodate them for various reasons.
They are also considered a ‘burden’ for Bangladesh. Support from Bangladesh government to the refugees is inadequate due to limited capacity and resources. Change in the demographic composition in the south-eastern zone, a very strategic one for the country, is always very crucial for Bangladesh. Being downtrodden from their very birth, the Rohingyas are usually unskilled, which is why there is hardly any scope for them to become an asset for any society. They cannot contribute to the human resource pool of Bangladesh, rather they are kept aside from the mainstream socio-economic activities basically for two reasons: Bangladesh has surplus human resources even in the rural labour markets and the Rohingyas do not have minimum skill and education for work. Their inability to achieve economic and social development and failure to have legitimacy often make them feel inferior and dejected. The situation in the other countries they migrate to is almost the same. So their struggle never ends.
In Bangladesh, the Rohingyas are not legally entitled to work and that is why those who are not supported by UNHCR become desperate for work even with low pay and poor work environment and condition, while some take to criminal activities. According to Rahman (2010), the Rohingya labourers are willing to work for far less than the Bangladeshi people, as a result of which a clash of interests causes conflicts. This situation between the native Bengalis and the Rohingyas creates the scope for social exclusion of the latter group, which breeds more severe social problems for both parties.
Rohingyas are kept out of all the community affairs and in almost every aspect of life, they are facing challenges and living in an inferior condition. Lack of proper health service due to unavailability of medical staff, lack of proper sanitation and scarcity of pure drinking water make their life more miserable. According to the Human Rights Watch (2007), authorities do not allow building of permanent structures in the camps as a way of encouraging refugees to return home. Children are denied access to education. The provision of health services and access to medicines are also limited by the authorities, as are work and livelihood opportunities inside the camp. Moreover, support and assistance from UNHCR are insufficient to meet the demands of the large number of Rohingyas.
In this situation, the Rakhine State Action Plan has added a new dimension to worsen the situation. Human rights groups claim that this plan will force thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims into detention camps indefinitely if they do not qualify for citizenship. Some people see this plan as a new trap of the Myanmar government as it contains a section on a process to determine whether the Rohingya are citizens. They will be required to register their identities as Bengali, but it will imply that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in the area for generations.
But when this agenda was announced by the foreign minister of Myanmar in the United Nation, the global community remained silent; there was no individual or collective protest though this initiative violates many of the international treaties and conventions which the country has ratified. Not even a Muslim country stood up to protest this heinous act. With this background, who will take the responsibility of these 1.5 to 2 million people?
The writers are, respectively, Development Researcher and post graduate student of NOHA Humanitarian Action at Uppsala University Sweden, and a Researcher on social issues.