In a statement for the record before the Lantos Human Rights Commission, Refugees International outlined the plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, an ethnic minority that is one of the most persecuted groups in the world. More than one million Rohingya live in Myanmar today and face wide-ranging restrictions on their rights to move, work, marry, and even have children. More than 140,000 Rohingya were displaced by violence in 2012 and another 100,000 have been forced to flee their homes during a military crackdown over the last six months.
A year and a half ago, thousands of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and asylum-seekers were abandoned at sea, shocking and horrifying many around the world. But more than a year later, little has changed. Governments and international agencies have fulfilled few promises to better protect Rohingya who, facing persecution in Myanmar, have seen flight as their only survival option.
More than one hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar in recent years. In May 2015, thousands were abandoned on boats on the Andaman Sea, after the discovery of mass graves in human trafficking camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border led to a crackdown on human traffickers. The primary desired destination for the Rohingya refugees has been Malaysia, where tens of thousands live unrecognized as refugees at risk of exploitation and in constant fear of detention. Their lives are generally better than in the home country they fled, but still far too vulnerable.
Refugees International (RI) was just on the ground in Malaysia exploring conditions for several Rohingya communities who are among the tens of thousands who have fled persecution in Myanmar in recent years. Their journeys were often more horrific than the conditions from which they fled and their lives in Malaysia are only better in relative terms. The truth of this reality is starkly illuminated in the story of two sisters, Amina and Khadija.*
It’s been six months since as many as 1,000 Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar died in the Andaman Sea. And still, neighboring nations remain resistant to recognizing the Rohingya people’s rights as refugees. Even after neighboring governments met earlier this year and agreed to protect the Rohingya at sea, no nation has taken a leadership role in permitting them to disembark from boats safely and legally. The absence of a regional plan leaves the Rohingya vulnerable to the challenges of a perilous sea voyage, and further strands those Rohingya who have lived in Malaysia and other regional nations for up to three generations without legal rights or protection.
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.