Intermittently the media has covered the plight of the Rohingya people in and out of Burma (now known as Myanmar). You may have seen stories of boats full of refugees escaping the country and of other countries refusing to take them in, but awareness is scarce. Even finding information for this article has proven to be a challenge with an absence of consistent coverage and lack of statistics.
The Rohingya are a minority group of Muslim people who make up approximately 5% of the primarily Buddhist Burmese population. Their history and the conflict surrounding them is extremely complicated with both roots to the British annexation of Burma in 1826 and religious/political issues. There is also disagreement about just how long the group has existed. Some say for several decades, while others say for several centuries.
Today, the main problem lies in the Buddhist ethnic group called the Rakhines and a number of those in government positions. Together, these two entities have persecuted, attacked and systematically attempted to ‘cleanse’ the Rohingya population. The government denies citizenship to the Rohingya and has been known to pretend that they don’t even exist. They refuse then to give them any basic rights, including the right to work, the right to marry, education, access to food or medical care.
The government, with the help of the Rakhines, is also guilty of forcing labor, torture, rape, and murder. The government has gone so far as to create concentration camps for the Rohingya, saying that they are immigrants who are causing trouble. These camps are armed with officers and many sources of foreign aid have been stopped by the government. The World Food Programme is currently working to help people in the camps, but their abilities are limited and they cannot provide the medical care and interventions that are necessary to save them.
Despite the government and the Rakhines identifying as two groups, they are one in the same. The government is helping to supply this group and they support anyone that spouts hate for the Rohingya or the Bengalis. Due to long-existing religious strife, it is unlikely that the Buddhist Burmese people would even attempt to help the Rohingya, even if they did not support the government.
To escape the persecution and threats, many Rohingya families have attempted to escape and that’s where the media found them- on boats at sea heading for any other country that would take them. Unfortunately, the politics have prevented most Rohingya from finding refuge and has caused many to become victims of human trafficking instead.
The Rohingya have endured terrible treatment for decades, but the past few years have been some of the worst. Experts have become more cautious in using the term ‘genocide’, so the crisis in Burma is referred to at this time as an ethnic cleansing instead. Regardless of the correct terminology, the Rohingya people need help.
At this time, there are an unknown number of Rohingya still at sea with the hopes of finding asylum somewhere. Unfortunately, many are being taken advantage of and captured by traffickers. They are reportedly being smuggled into Thailand where they are forced to pay a ransom and put again into camps. From that point, their fate is unknown. They could be forced into labor, prostitution, or simply left to die.
It is understandable, to a point, that some countries are hesitant to take on these refugees. Countries like Bangladesh are over-populated already and they can’t afford to take on more people while providing for all of their needs. Other countries that have the means have refused to help because they don’t want to get involved with the human trafficking problem. Politics in this event are complicated at best and the easiest way to deal with it is to turn away. But we can’t continue to turn our backs on people and expect that to be acceptable.
As with any crisis, it is important to remember that these are people and we are truly all the same. These are families just like ours and they deserve a fair chance at life. Please help keep the Rohingya voice alive by sharing their story.
How You Can Help
Donate to Amnesty International’s Rohingya: Searching for Safety fund.
Sarah Haney is a mom, blogger, activist. and founder of the World as One Project.