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.
On March 2, a 14-year-old boy named Ali Habib was put in a Kuwaiti jail and charged with disturbing the peace. He had been arrested while participating in a peaceful demonstration for the right to citizenship, one of many in a decades-long movement demanding that Kuwait’s stateless people, called the bedoon, be recognized as citizens.
After two days Ali was released, but eight other stateless activists remain in jail on trumped-up charges including participating in an “illegal gathering” and “damaging police property.”
This week, Israel submitted a legal brief to the High Court of Justice stating that it would stop issuing birth certificates to the children of foreigners born in the country. This new policy is purportedly intended to prevent migrants from making a claim to citizenship based on birth in Israel (an impossibility as Israeli law does not provide for this benefit unless at least one parent is a citizen of Israel). However, it may have the unintentional consequence of creating new stateless populations.
Juliana Dequis Pierre is 29 years old and lives in Yamasa in the Dominican Republic (DR). She attended school until the fifth grade but cannot read. Juliana has four children and works as a maid, earning the equivalent of $140 a week. And as of two weeks ago, she is stateless.
During my recent visit to Myanmar, I met with human rights activist Kyaw Hla Aung in a Rohingya village in Sittwe Township, Rakhine State. We talked about his peaceful political activism, his public service, and his humanitarian work. But mostly we talked about how he and other village elders and leaders feared for their lives.
On my research missions to Myanmar and to Bangladesh, I have met so many Rohingyas who suffered terrible abuses at the hands of the NaSaKa border force and whose everyday lives were blighted by their fear of it. In our reports, Refugees International has repeatedly demanded that the NaSaKa be reined in, and so we welcome President Thein Sein's announcement that this notorious force is being disbanded.
Last month in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Mohammed al-Huraisi, a stateless street vendor, died after lighting himself on fire. His act of protest came after months of harassment and extortion by Saudi authorities, who refused to issue a permit for his a watermelon stand. So far, however, Mohammed’s tragic death has been virtually ignored by the international community, and the larger issue of Saudi statelessness remains virtually unknown outside the Gulf.
Q: When RI visited Rohingya internally displaced people (IDPs) in 2012 and 2013, they were under a great amount of stress, with inadequate food, medical care, or shelter. Some had no shelter whatsoever. In December 2012, UN Under Secretary General Valerie Amos said that the camps as some of the worst she had ever seen. You visited the Rohingya people in November 2012 and February 2013. Can you describe the conditions you observed?