The Rohingya people are an Islamic ethnic group mainly concentrated in the Burmese state whose population is predominantly Buddhist from Rakhine, on the border with Bangladesh. They are not recognized as a minority and Myanmar does not even ensure them the basic rights of citizenship. Persecuted and victims of violence and discrimination in the homeland and rejected by the neighbouring countries in which they tried to find accommodation, the Rohingyas are nowadays a population without a land, invisible to the authorities’ eyes.
A population without rights: who are the Rohingya and why are they escaping?
About eight hundred thousand in a country of over fifty million inhabitants, the Rohingya population is labelled by many as the “World’s least-wanted people”. The beginning of the persecutions against them started in the 18 th century, when the Burmese conquered Arakan (the current Rakhine State) in which they lived, and the violence has continued to the present day; while the difficult coexistence between the divergent ethnic groups of the region has progressively exacerbated and deteriorated.
The government of Myanmar does not recognize their citizenship rights, considering the Rohingya population as Muslim Bengali, and hence, does not integrate them to the rest of the Burmese population. The Rohingyas do not have documents and are subject to a long series of legal restrictions. According to a law passed in 1982, they can not move and travel without having first obtained an official permission. They do not have property rights, they can not buy or sell lands and properties and, legally, when they get married they have to subscribe a document in which they accept the ban to give birth to more than two children. They are constantly victims of abuse from the Buddhist majority, often working in slavery conditions. Moreover, as the violence against them has increased, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to escape to flee the cruelty.
In May 2012, the spark that triggered the struggles was the indictment of three young Rohingyas, accused of the rape of a Buddhist girl. The Muslim minority has protested and in the first weeks, about thirty people were killed. Since then, tensions have intensified. It has been constituted a liberation army, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has been afterward defined as a terrorist group by the national legislation. The rebels have arisen against the national militias and hostilities culminated in August of this year when government forces implemented a real campaign of ethnic cleansing, condemned by the Refugee International as a crime against humanity. Entire Rohingya villages have been destroyed and burned to the ground. Those who managed to escape talk about flames, rapes, civilians killed for the sole guilt to be part of the Muslim minority. Thousands of Rohingya remained without house and have no other choice than taking shelter in the refugee camps on the border with Bangladesh.
The Rohingya people on the run: the exodus to Bangladesh
The situation, already extremely dangerous, has been made even more problematic since the neighbouring countries, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, have rejected to receive refugees, repulsing them to the border. The large majority of Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh. The UN estimated that more than six hundred thousand new crossings occurred from 25 August 2017.This huge wave of arrivals in a short period of time strained the country’s ability to provide appropriate assistance to everyone and has resulted in one of the most dramatic humanitarian crisis of the recent times. The reception centres are now collapsing. The government of Dhaka, intimidated by the international community, tried to find a solution, since the proposals of the last year – for instance, to move all the refugees to an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal – were strongly criticized by the UN agencies. Last October, the Bangladeshi Minister of Transport has announced to build a single enormous refugee camp to host all the eight hundred thousands of migrants arrived in the country. However, he has even added that their reception has become, as the
CNN reported, an “unbearable burden” to his country.
Repatriation and integration: what is the solution to the Rohingya issue?
Bangladesh, in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, has expressed on several occasions the hope that Myanmar would take responsibility for safeguarding its own citizens and that the Rohingya people could return to their homeland. China, through the Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has proposed a solution, in which the main issue concerns the achievement of a ceasefire in the Burmese regions where hostilities take place. Only by stopping the fighting and guaranteeing stability and public order, it will be possible to hypothesize the repatriation of refugees.
In this regard, an agreement between the parties has been reached and the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister argued that, according to what the BBC reported on 23 November, civilians could begin to return to Myanmar within two months. The details of the accord, however, have not been divulged and the human rights organizations fear that migrants could be forced to leave Bangladesh against their will and that the repatriation process would not be conducted with respect of the security of the people involved.
Furthermore, the return to Myanmar of the Rohingya minority will not put an end to the problems that have afflicted it for centuries. Without a long-term effort aimed at guaranteeing a peaceful coexistence with the Buddhists, the Rohingya people will continue to be discriminated and rejected by the majority, marginalized in a society that does not want them. It will be fundamental, therefore, that the central government will enhance an effective plan to support the Rohingyas, to facilitate the escape from extreme poverty and, especially, to favour the integration. An integration that has been missing for centuries and that can no more be postponed after such a tragic crisis.
Translation by Anna Tagliapietra