The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

The Rohingya, a stateless minority in Myanmar, have been persecuted for decades. Almost one million of them live under precarious conditions in exile in Bangladesh. An overview.

Rohingya muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait in queues to receive aid at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (© picture-alliance/AP)

The Rohingya, often termed as as being "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups"[1] , is an ethno-linguistic and religious minority who have for centuries[2] been residents on the territory which is now Myanmar. Currently, about 500,000 of them live in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine State. Another 1.3 million Rohingya reside in neighbouring South-eastern Bangladesh, almost all of whom have come there in search of protection. During the last five decades, starting in 1962 when the military put the civil government of then Burma out of office and established a totalitarian regime, Chinese, Indians (Muslims and Hindus), and the Rohingya have been targets of persecution, exploitation, discrimination, and serious human rights violations.[3] The history of mass displacement of Rohingya started in 1978, when the Burmese military junta launched Operation Dragon King to drive illegal migrants and refugees, especially the Rohingya, out of the country. It resulted in the flight of 250,000 people. Four years later, in 1982, Burma enacted its Citizenship Law. It conferred citizenship to 135 "national races" but excluded the Rohingya, thereby rendering them legally stateless people.

In 1991, Burmese military initiated another operation called Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation which also aimed at driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine state. Consecutive anti-Rohingya operations forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Middle Eastern countries to escape persecution. In 2007, the Rohingya drew global media attention and attracted the concerns of human rights organisations as "new boat people"[4] as hundreds of them drowned at sea while trying to reach Thailand and Malaysia by boat. Displacement escalated in August 2017, when violence broke out in Rhakine state and more than 742,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh within two years.[5]

Statelessness is the prime source of the Rohingya’s vulnerability because no state thinks itself responsible for protecting their rights. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are thought to be "illegal Bengali migrants" whilst in Bangladesh they are referred to as "illegal Burmese migrants". However, following the recent massive influx in 2017, the Rohingya people in Bangladesh have been relabelled as "forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals".

(Forced) Migration of Rohingya to Bangladesh

The history of Rohingya migration from Rakhine state (formerly known as Arakan province) to Bangladesh began in the late seventies. The first influx of about 250,000 Rohingya took place in 1978 as a result of said Operation Dragon King. Over the years, approximately 230,000 refugees have reportedly been repatriated to Myanmar under the supervision of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). However, many of them illegally returned to Bangladesh where they lived as unregistered Rohingya in various localities of Teknaf and Ukhia, two sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar, especially in two makeshift camps called Taal (in Ukhia) and Leda (in Teknaf) that hosted about 40,000 and 30,000 Rohingya respectively. Some 350,000 to 400,000 Rohingya resided outside these camps.[6] Before 2017, only 32,000 Rohingya were officially registered in Bangladesh and recognised as refugees by the Government.. They lived in two official camps—Kutupalong of Ukhia and Nayapara of Teknaf— supervised by UNHCR. Many Rohingya, particularly those who came three or four decades ago, are now Bangladeshi passport holders and National Identity Card (NID) [7] owners and have integrated into the local society. In possession of Bangladeshi passports, many have migrated on to Gulf countries as international labour migrants.[8] Bangladesh is now home to 1.3 million Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya settlement near the border town Cox's Bazar is now the biggest refugee camp in the world.

The Rohingya Influx of 2017 and Its Repercussions

A recent report [9], published in 2018 and prepared by a three-member-panel appointed by the United Nations to investigate Myanmar's military campaign in 2017, shows that Myanmar's security forces, extremists of Bamar ethnicity and Rakhine Buddhist fundamentalists conjointly formed an alliance to perpetrate the so-called clearance operations which started on August 25, 2017. They were a direct response to attacks on 30 police and military posts in northern Rakhaing by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 24 August 2017. By September 2018, more than 725,000 Rohingya had sought refuge in Bangladesh due to military attacks. According to conservative estimates stated in the above-mentioned report, at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed in the clearance operations; hundreds of women and girls were raped, frequently gang raped, and around 392 Rohingya villages were partially or completely destroyed.[10] The degree of atrocities was so intense that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to it as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing"[11] whilst other UN investigators have called it genocide. In 2019, two years after the clearance operations, they accentuate that Rohingya in Myanmar are still endangered. According to them, many of the conditions that led to "killings, rapes and gang rapes, torture, forced displacement and other grave rights violations" by Myanmar's military are still present and Rohingya who remain in Myanmar "face a greater threat of genocide than ever".[12]

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees live in a precarious situation. They are provided with food, water and healthcare, yet not to the necessary extend. Neither the government nor the national media or civil society representatives speak up for their rights. Furthermore, the local population has become reluctant to host the Rohingya and has started to blame them for various social problems. Since both Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar are resource-poor areas, the presence of 1.3 million Rohingya means an additional burden on the local resources, job markets and social spaces. It is also a strain on the environment. A recent study [13] (2018) confirms that a total of 4,300 acres of forests were cut down to make temporary shelters for Rohingya, and nearly 6,800 tonnes of firewood are collected each month from the remaining forests and jungles in Ukhia and Teknaf. Local farmers have lost cultivable lands, and poultry and live-stock rearing areas have disappeared as most of the grazing grounds are now occupied by refugee settlements. The local security situation has become worse. There are not only clashes between locals and Rohingya but also among Rohingya themselves. Women and children are in danger of becoming victims of rape and trafficking. At the end of 2018, nearly 40 people were identified to be trafficking women and children in the camps, especially to the Middle East and Malaysia.[14] Forced prostitution is becoming a norm in the camps, as women and girls are being bought, sold, exported and lured to brothels under the pretext of marriage or with the promise of jobs.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have meanwhile made two attempts to repatriate Rohingya— one on November 15, 2018 and a second one on August 22, 2019. Both failed due mainly to Myanmar’s reluctance to take Rohingya back, the Rohingya’s unwillingness to return to a country which does not grant them protection and rights as citizens, and the opposition of international communities. Hence, it is very likely that Cox’s Bazar will become the permanent home of more than one million refugees. Without the political will on both sides of the border to solve the long-standing Rohingya displacement crisis, it has already become a protracted [15] one.[16]
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See, "The most persecuted people on Earth?" The Economist, June 13, 2015. Available at: https://www.economist.com/asia/2015/06/13/the-most-persecuted-people-on-earth (accessed: 1-12-2019).
There are different opinions about how long Rohingya have been present in the territory of modern Myanmar. According to some sources, the Rohingya's ancestral connection dates back to the 7th century, when Arab traders first landed in the northern Arakan region (today: Rakhine State) near the present-day city of Maungdaw (for details see Karim, Abdul (2016), The Rohingya: A Short Account of their History and Culture. Dhaka: Jatya Sahitta Prokash). It is certain that Muslims were already living in Arakan in the 15th century (see Wissenschaftliche Dienste Deutscher Bundestag (2017): Sachstand: Internationale Reaktionen auf die Verfolgung der Rohingya in Myanmar. https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/509980/ea510c63658bebee42469a985d01b4cc/WD-2-037-17-pdf-data.pdf (accessed: 20-4-2020).
Azeem Ibrahim, Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (London: Hurts Publication, 2016).
Lewa, Chris( 2008), 'Asia’s New Boat People'. Forced Migration Review 30, p.40-42. Available at: http://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/burma/lewa.pdf (accessed: 6-12-2019)
UNHCR (2019): Rohingya Emergency, https://www.unhcr.org/rohingya-emergency.html (accessed: 18-11-2019).
Ahmed, Imtiaz (ed) (2010), The Plight of the Stateless Rohingyas: Responses of the State, Society and International Community. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.
See for detail, Uddin, Nasir (2019): The Rohingya: A Case of ‘Subhuman’. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Muntaha, Sadia (2018), 'Expatriate minister: 250,000 Rohingya went abroad with Bangladeshi passports'."

Available at: https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/04/28/expatriate-minister-250000-rohingyas-went-abroad-bangladeshi-passports/ (accessed: 6-12-2019).
UN Human Rights Council (2018): Report on Independent International Fact- Finding Mission on Myanmar (August 27, 2018). Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/MyanmarFFM/Pages/ReportoftheMyanmarFFM.aspx (accessed: 6-12-2019).
UN Human Rights Council (2018): Report of the detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. 17 September. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/FFM-Myanmar/A_HRC_39_CRP.2.docx (accessed: 18-11-2019).
Safi, Michael (2017): Myanmar treatment of Rohingya looks like 'textbook ethnic cleansing', says UN. The Guardian, September 11. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/11/un-myanmars-treatment-of-rohingya-textbook-example-of-ethnic-cleansing (accessed: 28-10-2019).
UN News (2019): Genocide threat for Myanmar's Rohingya greater than ever, investigators warn Human Rights Council. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1046442 (accessed: 18-11-2019).
UNDP Bangladesh (2018): Report on Environmental Impact of Rohingya Influx, , September 30. Available at: http://www.bd.undp.org/content/bangladesh/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2018/09/18/Environmental_impacts_of_Rohingya_influx.html(accessed: 28-10-2019).
Ahmed, Kaamil (2019): 'Rohingya women and girls being trafficked to Malaysia for marriage.' Aljazeera, May 8. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/rohingya-women-girls-trafficked-malaysia-marriage-190507212543893.html (accessed: 1-12-2019).
In 2004, UNHCR defined protracted refugee situations as those in which "25,000 people [from the same nationality] or more have been in exile for five or more years" in a given host country. Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (2004): Protracted Refugee Situations. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/excom/standcom/40c982172/protracted-refugee-situations.html(accessed: 6-12-2019).
At the end of 2018, 15,9 million refugees were in protracted refugee situations according to UNHCR. UNHCR (2019): Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2018, p. 22. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2018/ (accessed: 6-12-2019).

Nasir Uddin

Nasir Uddin

Nasir Uddin is a Cultural Anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh. His research interests include migration and refugee studies, statelessness and non-citizens, and the Rohingya people.

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