A regional solution for Rohingyas

 MARCH 20 — In January this year, shocking news emerged of the mistreatment by Thai security forces of over a thousand ‘boat people’ travelling from Bangladesh and Burma to Thailand and Malaysia. Most of them were ethnic Rohingyas from Arakan State in Burma.

Graphic pictures emerged of desperate, skeletal men aboard old boats without engines. They bobbed aimlessly at sea for weeks, without sufficient food and water, after having been beaten, towed out, and abandoned. The Indian navy rescued about 400 in different batches; Indonesia rescued a further 391. The rest are missing, and given the timeframe, likely dead.

After weeks of denial, the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva finally admitted the complicity of Thai authorities in pushing these boats out into sea. Malaysia’s response was ungenerous. In language reminiscent of (then Deputy Prime Minister) Mahathir Mohamad’s edict on the earlier waves of Indochinese boat people, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi called for states in Southeast Asia to respond firmly and to push back any boats carrying Rohingyas seeking asylum.

The Rohingyas are part of much wider movements of refugees from Burma (Myanmar), who have fled into surrounding countries because of political repression, conflict, persecution and human rights violations.

In Bangladesh, there are over 200,000 Rohingyas, 28,000 of them in over-crowded camps.

There are a further 13,600 registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia (although there are thousands yet unregistered), an estimated 3,000 in Thailand, and unknown numbers in India.

All of these countries have not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Most Rohingyas in Asia are considered irregular migrants. Without official papers, they are often subject to arrest, detention, punishment for immigration offences and deportation.

Forced to work in the informal labour market, they are often exploited and cheated. In Malaysia, where some Rohingyas have resided since the early 1990s, they continue to be rounded up in RELA/Immigration operations, whipped, and handed over to human traffickers at the Thai-Malaysia border. Some have been deported multiple times; some have ‘disappeared’ along way.

Around 730,000 remain in Burma, most of who live in Arakan State. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime that rules Burma, continues to disavow Rohingyas as citizens.

In Burma, Rohingyas are still subject to forced labour, forced eviction, and land confiscation. Strict restrictions are placed on their freedom of movement, freedom to marry, and freedom to own property. Many who return from abroad have been imprisoned for years, punished for crossing the border ‘illegally’.

Conditions in Arakan State continue to deteriorate, increasing the likelihood of further outflows into neighbouring countries.

Asean leaders have acknowledged the need for a regional solution for the Rohingyas. Asean Foreign Ministers decided at the 14th Asean Summit held in Hua Hin, Thailand between 27 February and 1 March that formal discussions would take place through the Bali Process scheduled for 14-15 April, a voluntary, non-binding intergovernmental mechanism aimed at addressing human trafficking and transnational crimes in the region.

There is no doubt that a regional solution is needed. However, in order for it to be effective, it must be carefully designed – otherwise, it can plunge Rohingyas into deeper suffering, cause resistance amongst host societies, and fail at stemming the onward movement of Rohingyas into the region.

Firstly, states must recognise that Rohingyas will continue to move outwards into the region, unless their basic needs are met and their human rights protected. There is a danger, especially with the use of the Bali Process as a platform for discussing solutions, that states will treat these recent movements of Rohingyas as issues related to smuggling and trafficking alone, failing to recognise their need for international protection as refugees and stateless persons.

Secondly, there must be multi-site humanitarian interventions to stabilise living conditions for Rohingyas, especially in Arakan State in Burma, Bangladesh, and all other countries that host Rohingyas, including India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Interventions cannot just focus on the several hundred ‘boat people’ who made the headlines this year; measures must be taken to alleviate poverty and to safeguard the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Rohingya in the region. This can only happen if they are given legal status, allowed to work, and are able to access adequate housing, healthcare, education, and necessary social services.

For this to happen there must be multilateral cooperation with the international community. Donor countries, UN agencies and other international organisations must provide host countries with support in the form of capacity building, technical expertise, financial assistance, development aid, and allocations for strategic resettlement for specific individuals.

There must be short-, medium-, and long-term plans addressing both the needs of Rohingyas and the local communities within which they live. As highlighted by the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network in a statement released on 6 March 2009, “A regional solution is only achievable if states share responsibility for the international protection of the Rohingya, not if they attempt to unilaterally shirk their obligations to refugees and neighbouring states.”

Groundwork for such multilateral cooperation has begun. The High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, announced last week after a visit to Burma that UNHCR would upgrade their level of activities in Arakan State.

In December 2008 in Geneva during the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protracted Refugee Situations, he unveiled comprehensive plans to address the situation of Rohingyas in Bangladesh. The intent of the UNHCR, and their preparedness for action, is clear – what they need is the political and financial support of the international community.

In the meantime, Rohingyas remain detained in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. On Monday this week, the Indonesian government stated that it would allow the 391 Rohingyas to stay on in Aceh until solutions were found.

On the same day, the SPDC announced that it would take the ‘boat people’ back on condition that they proved they were from Burma.

Given that no fundamental change has occurred in Burma, the return of the Rohingyas is a dangerous move; they are likely to be punished and thrown into jail. If any repatriation is conducted, there must be procedural safeguards to ensure that those who return do not suffer human rights violations.

Repatriation must be voluntary, based on informed consent, and conducted under the supervision of international organizations concerned with international protection including UNHCR. Otherwise, it would be refoulement, which is prohibited under international customary law.

Earlier this month I received an sms from Ahmad (not his real name), a Rohingya who was detained in Semenyih Detention Centre in Selangor for more than two years after getting arrested for immigration offences. He endured the over-crowding, insufficient food, lack of water, poor access to healthcare, verbal abuse and violence, hoping against hope that UNHCR Malaysia would take pity on him and process him for resettlement.

UNHCR did not. He gave up eventually, opting for deportation to the Thai-Malaysia border. He returned to Malaysia after paying the requisite fee to traffickers; he had nowhere else to go. He smsed me: “Hello kakak, how are you? It is I, Ahmad. Please help me to go to a third country, I am in great difficulty.” I send him a feeble reply: “I am happy to hear from you. I am sorry, I don’t know the way to a third country”.

Rohingyas in Asia have been waiting a long time for durable solutions; some have been seeking sanctuary for two to three decades. Children have grown up inheriting marginalization — many in poverty and without access to education. They live in the same shadow world as their parents, eking a living, trying to survive, despised and rejected by their host societies.

Until a comprehensive regional solution is provided — one that provides them with legal identity, protects their rights, and upholds their dignity — they have no choice but to continue living in uncertainty, their dreams curtailed.

   A regional solution for Rohingyas The Malaysian Insider

One Response

  1. […] Read the original here:  A regional solution for Rohingyas « San Oo Aung’s Weblog […]

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