As Suu Kyi Visits the United States, Refugees International visits the Rohingya

As President Obama welcomes Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, to the United States this week and celebrates her country’s democratic reforms, Refugees International will be traveling to Southeast Asia to meet with a population that is not welcome in her country: the Rohingya.

The government of Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, rendering the minority group one of the largest stateless populations in the world. For the one million Rohingya within Myanmar, this means restrictions on the most basic of human rights including freedom of movement, to marry and have children, and the rights to education and to work. For the 120,000 Rohingya still displaced by violence dating back to 2012, it means hardship and isolation in squalid camps.

Over 100,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar by sea in recent years with well over a thousand believed to have died in transit. 

But for the hundreds of thousands who have fled violence and oppression in Myanmar to seek protection in neighboring countries, the situation is not much better. Over 100,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar by sea in recent years with well over a thousand believed to have died in transit. They live today in communities of Rohingya who have been displaced even longer in crowded living spaces in cities like Kuala Lumpur, unrecognized as citizens of any country. Stateless, they find it difficult to access education, healthcare, and work, and are regularly targeted for exploitation. Many have been abused by human traffickers or remain in detention centers.

In May 2015, the crisis finally captured international headlines when thousands of Rohingya were abandoned at sea and mass graves in jungle camps were discovered, prompting regional governments to crack down on human traffickers. The initial response of Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in the region was to deny the marooned and desperate Rohingya safety on their shores. International pressure eventually led to rescue efforts and agreements to take in those who had been abandoned at sea for up to one year. Several high-level meetings and statements have emerged since then, but it is unclear how the response to any future similar crisis might be any different.

Just as much as the triumphs and trials of Aung San Suu Kyi, these are the voices that need to be heard in the halls of the United Nations and in Washington, D.C.

Refugees International’s team will meet with United Nations and government representatives to look into what efforts are being made to prepare for and prevent dangerous flights and to protect Rohingya both outside and within Myanmar. This includes how they are addressing the root causes of the plight of the Rohingya, a key question for Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Malaysia and in Thailand, our team will meet with communities of Rohingya who have experienced the trials of flight from a country that does not recognize them and the challenges of exploitation in countries that aren't quite sure what to do with them. Just as much as the triumphs and trials of Aung San Suu Kyi, these are the voices that need to be heard in the halls of the United Nations and in Washington, D.C.