Statelessness is a concept so alien to our modern world that we have little idea of how to make it work. People – refugees included – are supposed to have a parent country, somewhere they actually came from. And yet the Rohingya people find themselves tragically unwanted, with nowhere to go.
The majority of the Muslim Rohingya live in the state of Rakhine – formerly Arakan – where Myanmar borders Bangladesh to the west. Despite decades of migration around the region, this is what they consider their natural home. But in the eyes of the national government, it’s a very different story.
‘Fundamentally, the Rohingya are seen to be Indians,’ says Fan. ‘There’s actually a list of 135 official ethnic groups that are recognised in the citizenship law. And the Rohingya are not on that list. They have next to no access to any form of public services. They really struggle to get access to even basic things, like healthcare.’
“There’s an ongoing protracted humanitarian crisis within Rakhine state, and very little hope for the Rohingya to see an end to that situation”
She explains how the state of Rakhine, with ‘hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history’, has consistently found itself in the crossfire between competing groups, including the First Anglo-Burmese war in the 1820s. And so the people living there found themselves in an impossible situation when the first lines to signify national borders for the new Asian countries were drawn up in the aftermath of World War II.
‘They are borderland people,’ says Fan. ‘They are from an area which at some point in history wasn’t divided between two or three countries. After borders started to be drawn, then you have one group that is on one side of the border, and one group on the other side of the border.’ The countries and their names may have changed over the subsequent years, but as long as the borders existed, then the Rohingya found themselves divided and persecuted on the land they once thought of as home. ‘These people have come to be seen as being distinctly foreign,’ she adds.
The result of this complete non-acceptance of the Rohingya within the Myanmar national and political identity has led to many major incidents, including the violence of 2012, when an unknown number of people – certainly many hundreds – were killed when rioting broke out between the Rohingya and other residents of Rakhine, leading to buildings being burnt and the displacement of 140,000 people. This, and other similarly tragic incidents, were amongst the driving forces behind the decisions by many of the Rohingya to flee Rakhine for countries including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims 25,000 people attempted to cross the Bay of Bengal between January and March 2015, double the numbers from the year before. Of that number, 300 are believed to have died from either starvation, dehydration, or abuse.
Last month, Thai authorities shut down the main docking point for migrant boats trying to enter the country. The people smugglers fled, leaving their boats and all the people inside abandoned in the Andaman Sea. While some have been able to return to Myanmar, and hundreds more have been picked up after drifting as far south as Sumatra, the UNHCR believes there could still be thousands of people stranded out at sea.
‘There’s an ongoing protracted humanitarian crisis within Rakhine state,’ continues Fan. ‘There’s very little hope for the Rohingya to see an end to that situation. There’s very little in terms of a plan for recovery or return or relocation in any respect. The plans seem to be more oriented towards keeping the Rohingya a permanent segregation, away from the Buddhist community. And that’s really what you see now if you go to Rakhine state, a very segregated society where you walk down the main street and don’t see a single Muslim.’
While the ‘boat crisis’ in the Andaman Sea continues to grow throughout the year, and the political manoeuvres of various regional governments are analysed as to whether they will improve or hinder the plight of the Rohingya – plus all the other people attempting to flee on the boats – it appears as though it’s the root causes of this crisis: principally the humanitarian situation in Myanmar and the tension of the various identities involved, which will need to be addressed in one way or another, before the flow of impoverished refugees risking their lives at sea can be reduced.
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