A people living in limbo
By Justice For All and Its Burma Task Force Staff
For decades, Myanmar’s government, military and some of its Buddhist monks and laity have persecuted the Muslim-minority Rohingya of Rakhine State on the grounds that they are “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” (BBC, Jan. 23, 2020).
On August 25, 2017, the military launched its genocidal “Area Cleansing” operation, claiming to avenge attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a self-styled armed group, on local police posts after weeks of a military enforced lockdown that created hunger in the state’s villages. The infamous and brutal battalions arbitrarily killed, burned and bulldozed hundreds of dwellings, looted properties and destroyed all signs of the Rohingya’s existence. Since then, Cox’s Bazar has hosted 1 million Rohingya refugees in its Kutupalong refugee camp.
Six years later …
ARSA members and other gangs now control the camp and are recruiting young and uneducated Rohingya males. Ruling as a government in exile, it gained greater influence around 2019, and, according to many Rohingya, seemed to be colluding with the Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (ABPN). For example, ABPN supported ARSA’s destruction of the Munna gang in 2020.
Drug smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and other crimes have increased. ABPN couldn’t secure the rule of law due to large-scale internal corruption and accepting bribes from drug smugglers. ARSA extorts money and sometimes tortures drug smugglers if they don’t pay the full bribe. As these smugglers recruit young Rohingya boys for their security and give them weapons, weapons and gangs have increased. These gangs, grown strong due to ABPN’s weakness, have become a threat.
When prominent leader Mohib Ullah (of the Arakan Rohingya Society) was assassinated in 2020, he was working to unite Arakan’s villages. The authorities and ARSA, feeling threatened that ordinary Rohingyas were following his instructions, sought to maintain their control by killing him. Since then, the ensuing instability has led to more of the following: gangs, arbitrary arrests, human trafficking, destruction of sources of livelihood and a higher level of insecurity for everyone.
During their first year in the camp, the refugees tried to recover from their communal trauma. However, the hardships experienced now exceed what they faced in Arakan (Rakhine) state. Within six years, 1,000 Rohingya died in camps and thousands more languished inside prisons across Asia. The Rohingya crisis has gone international.
One camp-based activist mentioned, “We are going through dark days in the camp … as it seems this unstable situation is … created intentionally so that we would never return to our country and will end our lives as displaced people.”
According to an on the ground analysis, crime rates have doubled over the past three years. Gangs kill at least one or two people every day, and several smaller ones fight each night. Each gang has its own territory; however, given that ARSA has tried to dominate them, all gangs are trying to destroy it.
Beyond this, almost 95% of them are jobless because Dhaka has blocked all income sources and local politicians don’t want them taking jobs from locals. And then there is the fear, according to one Rohingya youth, of going to another camp “because any gang there may torture me if they don’t know me personally. … Just a few days ago, a religious scholar was stabbed to death in front of others at around 10 am and no one spoke up because they would also be killed if they did.”
Understandably, some Rohingya have begun searching for a secure life elsewhere either by sea or by land to Malaysia via human traffickers. In the last two years, nearly 5,000 refugees have left the camp – only half reached Malaysia. Others were arrested in Myanmar and charged with traveling illegally or died due to capsized boats or starvation in the jungle.
A Rohingya humanitarian worker who entrusted his son to a broker stated, “The broker brought them to Rathidaung, Arakan state. As soon as my son reached Sharmila, a village in Rathidaung, the broker beat him and forced me to pay. I paid, but my son couldn’t go to Malaysia. They sent him back to the camp.”
As one camp resident explained, many Rohingya women are sent to Malaysia to be married. Rohingya men leave to make a better life. Sometimes women and girls are sold to brokers and are gang raped on the way. Currently, hundreds of girls are in prisons. Her own daughter and others, taking the sea route, were continually harassed by the brokers and abandoned when they reached the Thai jungle. Saved by the Thai Navy, they are now languishing in a Thai refugee camp.
Bill Frelick writes that the UN World Food Program’s reduction of monthly food rations from $12 to $10 to $8 a head, which made hunger a serious problem (June 2, 2023), has caused more refugees than ever to leave the camp despite the above-mentioned dangers.
But it seems that whether they stay or go, they always encounter abuse. Half of the Rohingya who’ve made it to India have been sent to detention centers. When they demanded to be released in early August 2023, the Indian security force fired tear gas at them, injuring many and killing a baby. They live in fear of sudden deportation to Myanmar, as India has used that option before.
A Rohingya mother asked, “Why can’t India, a large country and the biggest democratic nation in the world help her very small minority of people, the most persecuted minority in the world?”
How much longer?
This persecuted minority has faced decades of violence and discrimination in Myanmar. Those refugees living in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia seek what all refugees seek: safety, a better life, and an end to their stateless condition. However, they face similar negative realities wherever they find themselves. The international community and organizations, especially Islamic ones, need to start seriously advocating for their rights as refugees. They need to recognize that since the 2021 coup, the extremist Myanmar junta has little incentive to restore their rights and homes.
• Bangladesh. This country’s estimated 1 million Rohingya, living in an area of just over 115 square miles face severe overcrowding, which leads to lack of privacy, poor sanitation and the spread of disease. Many live in makeshift shelters of bamboo and tarpaulins, which are not durable and offer little protection from the elements. Their limited access to food and water leads to malnutrition and dehydration, especially among children. The inadequate number of health care facilities means that many refugees have no access to essential medicines and thus have to contend with outbreaks of cholera, malaria, diphtheria, and other diseases. And as if all of that isn’t enough, they also have to contend with their children’s limited access to education as well as the ongoing violence (e.g., kidnappings and assassinations) and exploitation. Women and children between 12-18 years are particularly vulnerable.
• India. The 40,000 Rohingya in India face detention in camps/prisons, are often denied access to legal representation and subjected to poor conditions. They also face discrimination from the locals and are often denied jobs, housing and education. Perhaps worst of all, New Delhi refuses to grant them asylum, which leaves them in legal limbo with no clear path to citizenship or permanent residency.
• Malaysia. Many of Malaysia’s 180,000 Rohingya have to contend with their “undocumented” status and thus are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In addition to having limited access to basic services such as education, healthcare, and housing, they risk being deported back to Myanmar.
• Saudi Arabia. The 558,000 Rohingya in Saudi Arabia face deportation to Bangladesh, given that Riyadh has forcibly returned thousands of them in recent years. Not only are they refused asylum, but they are also exploited by employers and often denied basic rights.
Prepared by Justice For All and its Burma Task Force staff on the occasion of the Sixth Anniversary of the Genocide against the Rohingya people (https://www.justiceforall.org/burma-task-force/; August 2023). Copyedited with permission.