About two years ago I secretly met with a dozen stateless Rohingya refugees in a hotel room in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They were new arrivals from Rakhine State in Myanmar and had waded through shallow areas of the Naf River on the Bay of Bengal to escape violence and persecution. We met clandestinely because they were afraid that if they were identified as Rohingya, they would be arrested, detained, and sent back to Myanmar. Newspapers worldwide were reporting the expulsion of large numbers of Rohingya, and the refugees knew of others who had been spotted and deported.
The very first article of the United Nations Charter states that a key “purpose and principle” of the world body is that of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” But sadly, the UN has not always lived up to this noble ideal.
When I met Amir two years ago in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, he had just graduated with a degree in Physics from Sittwe University. He was a fluent English speaker and planned to pursue a career as an engineer. Amir lived in Aung Mingalar, the only neighborhood in the capital city of Sittwe where the Rohingya still maintained a residence after 140,000 had been driven out of the city by mobs assisted by the police.
"Thailand’s pledge to repatriate 100,000 Burmese refugees sparks concern.” “Refugees fear forced return to Myanmar.” “Thai and Burmese armies to discuss refugee repatriation in August.” According to these recent news reports, the 140,000 refugees from Myanmar who are currently exiled in neighboring Thailand are about to go home, whether they like it or not.
Refugees International traveled to Myanmar’s Kayin State to test the validity of such assertions, and found the reality of the situation to be quite different.
Since a wave of violence displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya in June 2012, RI has visited Myanmar four times to document their humanitarian situation, publicize their persecution, and demand that the international community pursue a remedy for them as part of the normalization of relations with the Myanmar government. Now RI is returning to the country to push again for progress.
Thailand’s migration and refugee policies have shifted since the military’s coup d’état in May. The Thai junta has initiated a policy of labor reforms, including a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers to allegedly combat corruption and human trafficking.
In a recent meeting with a group of people displaced by the conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State, I was reminded of the lack of options with which many displaced people can be left. When I asked the group why they were unable to return to their home villages, they laughed and pointed behind my head. I turned around and saw a line of at least 50 military trucks on the road behind us. They told me that they had seen at least 200 military trucks pass by the camp that day.
More than 100,000 people are now living in displacement camps in northern Myanmar, driven from their homes by conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). While about a third of these individuals are living in government-controlled areas, the vast majority are located in zones controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the KIA’s political wing.