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Rohingya Refugees in Asia

Photographers: Jaipal Singh, Nyein Chan Naing, Lynn Bo Bo, Dedi Sinuhaji, Rajat Gupta


They are Rohingya, about one million predominately Muslim people living in the nation’s poorest Rakhine state in western Myanmar. A religious minority group, Rohingya have faced waves of persecution, according to human rights groups. More recently, those in the northwest of the state have faced brutal human rights abuses: beatings, murder, house burnings, disappearances, extortion, rape, and harassment.


The Rohingya have been called perhaps the most persecuted minority group in the world. In recent violence, more than 94,000 people identifying as Rohingya have been displaced since October, among them 75,000 who have fled the Rakhine, searching refuge, legitimacy, a better life, and asylum in nearby countries. Most fled to the Bangladesh border with Myanmar, and then many onwards, risking perilous journeys on overpacked boats and dangerous overland journeys, entering neighboring countries such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and Thailand. But who are the Rohingya? Some claim they are descendants of Arab traders, that may have been already in the area in the 15th century. Others cannot officially approve their ancestry but have been living in Myanmar for many generations. To the Myanmar government, they are illegal immigrants from Bengal. They may be many generations living in Myanmar, but still, they do not recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group, they do not acknowledge the term Rohingya, and they deny they have borne the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in a majority Buddhist nation, or are a focus of a brutal crackdown and allegations of systemic human rights abuses.


The Bangladesh government, where hundreds of thousands have fled to live in camps on the border between the two countries in terrible and uncertain conditions, says they are not Bengal migrants. So they too will not accept the Rohingya back and carry out forced repatriations. It is a game of ping pong with the balls marked Rohingya. In India, the government is working to detect and deport illegal Rohingya immigrants hiding in places like Jammu. There are about 45000 Rohingya Muslims living in India mainly in Delhi, Maharashtra, Jammu, having fled from Myanmar, up to 11,000 likely to be in the Muslim area of Jammu.


In Malaysia, another Muslim nation where Rohingya have sought safety, there are about 56,458 Rohingya refugee and asylum seekers and in Indonesia, the official number has dropped to 910. In Myanmar, Rohingya live with restrictions that make them stateless, they cannot claim citizenship unless they can provide their ancestors settled before 1823, or access education, they must request permission to travel, at times have faced a two-child policy and forced labor. Many live restricted lives under police and soldier control. 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar has been criticized for her silence on allegations of alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya. Her National League for Democracy government has formed its own internal investigative committee, its independence questioned by some, and responded to allegations of human rights atrocities and a systematic discrimination of the Rohingya as exaggeration and propaganda.


The most recent resurgence of violence in the Rakhine stems from attacks on 09 October 2016, targeting a Border Guard Police post in the area. The Myanmar government blamed the attack that killed nine police personnel on Muslim insurgents and launched a counter-insurgency campaign, 1500 homes were burnt in the wave of violence that followed. And with reports of human rights abuses continuing to leak, including refugee interviews from Bangladesh citing mass rape and killings, the United Nations (UN) pressed for a full international commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged atrocities and search for accountability, raising the specter that they may even be classed as crimes against humanity.


According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in recent months of those who fled, about 16,000 people are estimated to have returned to their places of origin where they face hardship due to the loss of their homes. Prior to October more than 150,000 in the northern Rakhine area were receiving food, nutrition and protection services, an already vulnerable people.


“With humanitarian access for international staff severely restricted and for media, there has been no comprehensive needs assessment possible, their living conditions and condition unable to be verified but serious incidents continue to be reported in the affected area,” according to OCHA’s humanitarian report.