This week, in a stifling hot room in Malaysia filled with more than 50 Rohingya refugees, my own work with the community came full circle. I was sitting among dozens of people who had fled the very same displacement camps in Sittwe, Myanmar that I had visited twice before in 2012 and 2014. When I arrived in September 2012, Rohingya were still entering the camps and there was almost no clean water, food, or shelter. People were literally starving. It was the worst situation I had ever witnessed.
Earlier this year, the world watched in both horror and sadness as thousands of desperate Rohingya who had fled persecution in Myanmar were abandoned on boats without food or water. As countless numbers died of dehydration and starvation each day, neighboring countries quarreled over who should take them in and how limited their assistance would be. Finally, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept up to 7,000 Rohingya, but only on the condition that they would be resettled out of their countries within a year.
Editor's Note: This blog by Sarnata Reynolds and Tori Duoos originally appeared on the website of the European Network on Statelessness.
The following is Sarnata Reynolds’ testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on the Human Rights of Stateless People on March 23, 2014. A video of the hearing is available here.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Co-Chairs McGovern and Pitts, and the members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for this opportunity to discuss the lives of stateless persons and the profound suffering they endure because they do not have legal identities.
“When we talk to people in the camps and cities, inside Syria and in Turkey, they say it’s ok if we don’t have enough food or health care, but it’s not ok if we don’t have education for our children.”
Imagine that your own birth was never officially recorded. Your family members and friends would know you, and know that you exist. You might receive services from local organizations, like the church or the fire department. But what would happen when it’s time to enroll in school, get a job, or apply for a driver’s license? Now imagine all of this is happening to you in a foreign country. You fled your home because of war. But when it’s time to return home with the rest of your family, how could you prove that you belong there?
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.
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.