18 May 2015

Rohingya crisis: migrant status does not alter human rights

The sad story of the Southeast Asian migration crisis has saturated media publications across the world this week. Yet the issue continues to be unresolved, meaning the people crammed on boats with no food supplies and in often abusive conditions continue to drift between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, and between countries who continue to turn them away.

Along with migrants from Bangladesh, the current crisis in a large part involves the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, fleeing a harsh and violent life in a country which refuses to acknowledge their ethnic minority status.

Reportedly, the government of Malaysia has told the Rohingya to ‘go back to your country’. There have been similar reactions in the rest of the region. But how can this be the response, when Rohingyas effectively have no country to call their own?

Unrecognising the Rohingya

According to recent field research by Queen Mary University, London, conditions in the Rakhine State - home to the minority Muslim population of Myanmar – are tantamount to genocidal, and have been escalating since the 1970s.

The Rohingya face restrictions on education, movement, land rights – conditions which lead to extreme poverty, starvation and death. Outright persecution has reached a head in recent years such as the riots at Sittwe in 2012, 200 deaths there the result of clashes between Rohingya, the Myanmar army and police.

Despite the dangers of migration, for many Muslims who leave the predominantly Buddhist shores of Myanmar, it’s an escape, not a choice.

Refugees face ‘maritime ping-pong’

This past week has seen eight boatloads of migrants found in the waters off Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar and thousands of people displaced with nowhere left to turn. Almost half of those migrants are children aged 12 and under.

Described as ‘a game of maritime ping-pong with human life’ by the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok, nation after nation has declined responsibility for people discovered in their territorial waters. UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon has called for Southeast Asian leaders to uphold international human rights and refugee laws to avoid these ‘pushbacks’ which are likely to lead to more deaths out at sea.

Human traffickers take advantage

Ban-Ki Moon
Brokers and people-smugglers who ferry migrants to places like Thailand and Malaysia have been taking full advantage of the stalemate out on open water. Crack-downs on immigrants at the Thai border have prompted some traffickers to simply abandon their human cargo. Others are holding refugees on board or in Thai camps until their families can pay for their onward journey or even pay to have them returned home again, so rendering their efforts futile.

This is likely to continue, as long as authorities consider migrants and trafficked people as criminals to be dealt with using blanket actions, rather than individuals, each with fundamental human rights.
So where does the answer to the crisis lie? In challenging Myanmar’s oppressive system, one that continues to break down Rohingya rights and communities to keep them disenfranchised and powerless? In deciding who is ‘to blame’ for the boatloads of people dying as they become trapped in oceanic limbo?

There remains no clear-cut solution, not at least until nations take responsibility for the fellow human beings involved and begin to co-operate with each other, instead of passing the burden. It was Martin Luther King that said ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ and countries like Ecuador and the wider Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) reflected this as they offered support last week.

But in light of factors like Australia’s unapologetic ‘stop the boats’ policy influencing global attitudes towards displaced people, not to mention the similar crisis in Mediterranean Europe, it seems a small hope that someone will make the braver gesture, and welcome the boats in.

Images from the public domain and The Official CTBTO photostream, via Creative Commons.