Origins of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

Oct 12, 2017 | International, Social Policy

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Since violence erupted in the Rakhine State of Myanmar on Aug. 25, 2017, Rohingya people have been fleeing across the border at an alarming rate. The New York Times reported on Sept. 26, 2017, that the number of new arrivals in the neighboring country of Bangladesh had risen to 480,000 in just one month. Sixty percent of these are children attempting to escape the violence and an estimated 6,000 children entered the country without parents. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is the top human rights official of the UN, stated that the situation in Myanmar is a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya; however, this has been disputed by the UN representative for the Myanmar government. As the violence escalates and more casualties are incurred, international institutions are scrambling to respond both diplomatically and economically.

As sudden as this may seem, this situation was not created overnight; tensions have been brewing in Myanmar for decades. The Rohingya trace their origins in the region to the 15th century, when they began migrating to the former Arakan Kingdom in great numbers. Many more arrived while Rakhine was under the rule of British India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Rohingya are Muslim and practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam, while the majority population in Myanmar is Buddhist. In 1948, Myanmar declared independence. Since then, all successive governments in Myanmar have represented the Buddhist majority and have not recognized the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, rendering them stateless.

Statelessness is an incredibly pressing issue for the Rohingya. Because they do not have citizenship anywhere the Rohingya do not have a government to protect their rights. When they flee Myanmar and become refugees, resettling them in new places is incredibly difficult. Pakistan currently hosts the third-largest population of Rohingya in the world with estimates totaling more than 500,000 Rohingya people, who arrived during a previous exodus in the 1970s and 1980s. In Pakistan, the Rohingya live in abysmally poor settings and are deprived of basic rights. The New York Times reported that up to 30 families share a single tap of water, which often flows for less than four hours a day. There are no hospitals in the slums where they live and death rates are high among women giving birth who are not admitted to government hospitals. Moreover, police routinely harass the Rohingya. Many Rohingya have or have previously had Pakistani national ID cards for years, but are now facing discrimination or outright denial when they try to renew their cards. Without these cards, they cannot apply for jobs, their children cannot attend school, they cannot access government hospitals, and they are occasionally arrested and held on unaffordable bail for not presenting identification. These issues are compounded in refugee camp settings where there is limited access to supplies and economic resources.

A direct path to citizenship, either in their home state of Myanmar or in their current host countries, is one of the most sustainable ways to address the refugee crisis the Rohingya face. Those who have been permitted to reside in Myanmar are considered “resident foreigners,” not citizens, putting them at risk of abuses because of their religion. While those Rohingya who have managed to obtain citizenship in Myanmar still face persecution and stigma, they have also been afforded legal protection. However, because Myanmar’s army is constitutionally obligated to occupy at least 25 percent of seats in parliament, the effectiveness of this legal protection is unclear. It will take a long time for the Rohingya to overcome their marginalization, but it is nearly impossible without the provision of basic rights afforded to citizens.

International organizations, UN member states, NGOs, and the government of Myanmar should begin taking steps to ensure that the Rohingya do not remain stateless. First, financial aid should be provided to both Bangladesh and Pakistan to ensure that the Rohingya residing there are receiving basic necessities. Additionally, UN officials who have been present in Myanmar since the country gained its independence should facilitate peacekeeping talks and assist with providing aid to those who have been internally displaced. Actions taken by the international community should be weighed carefully, lest they inadvertently cause another military coup in Myanmar. Most importantly, any country currently hosting Rohingya should begin negotiating a potential path to citizenship for the Rohingya.

Image Source: The Independent


  • Leah Johnson

    Leah Johnson is a Master of Public Administration student focusing on international management. She is currently working as a research assistant intern with the American Institutes for Research and hopes to continue to work in international development and create empowering programs. Her policy interests include refugee and migrant rights, education, and fighting human trafficking.

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  • Dylan Lamberti

    Dylan Lamberti is a Political Communication student and Hart A. Massey Fellow at American University. Originally from Canada, Dylan completed his undergraduate degree at McGill University, where he ran the McGill International Review, which sparked his interest in international politics and American foreign policy.

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