By Pamela Eapen:
The peculiar tragedy of refugees and immigrants is the fact that because they are devoid of citizenship, they are denied their humanity.
One of the worst humanitarian failures in recent times has been that which is currently plaguing the Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, Myanmar. Persecuted by Burma and denied refugee status by Bangladesh, thousands have been fleeing to neighbouring countries by boat; but as many as 8000 migrants have been turned away by the authorities at the shores of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Unwelcome at either side of the journey and stranded for weeks without food or water, the Rohingyas have been perishing at sea.
The dehumanisation of these stateless people does not end there. People have sold everything they own to earn passage on smugglers’ boats. Many women are raped, and others forced to sell themselves into marriage with men who would then pay for the boat trip. Parents starve so they can feed their young children, who are given no food on the boats. Boat crews leave passengers stranded and unable to fend for themselves in the ocean. The Rohingyas are something worse than homeless – they are imprisoned wherever they go.
A Muslim minority in a Buddhist majoritarian state, they have lived there since British colonial times and consider themselves Burmese – but the authorities have declared them illegal Bengali immigrants according to a 1982 citizenship law (enacted after thousands of Rohingyas migrated back from Bangladesh in 1979) that does not recognise the Rohingyas as one of the 135 national races of Burma. It is desperately sad that even though the largest population of Rohingya Muslims in the world are situated in Rakhine State, they are considered outsiders in their own home. Burmese president Thein Sein, even went so far as to ask the UN to resettle the displaced Rohingyas in refugee camps or abroad – a proposal the UN immediately rejected.
Their plight received international attention after the 2012 Rakhine State Riots where conflict between the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists escalated fatally, with official counts declaring an estimated 80 dead and around 90 000 people displaced. Since Rohingyas are denied citizenship, they are unable to travel, marry without a permit, or have more than two children. Since then, people have been campaigning to send assistance and resources to the Rohingyas. One of Burma’s own well-known humanitarians, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (who has announced her intent to run for presidency in Myanmar’s 2015 elections) has been heavily criticised for her allegedly politically-inclined silence on the issue.
The Rohingyas are not the only ones facing mass displacement right now –Africans have been fleeing to Europe from war-torn and poverty-ravaged countries like Libya and Somalia. They too, have been making perilous journeys across the ocean to find safe haven. In a state ominously parallel to that of the Rohingyas, 1800 of the 60 000 African migrants that attempted to cross the Mediterranean in 2015 alone have died. The survivors have been better received than their Rohingya counterparts – but even that might change soon. America, Britain, Canada and Australia did not respond positively to the UN’s pleas to assist Italy and Greece with taking in refugees; and the EU plans to limit their refugee intake by proposing quotas and “distributing immigrants among member states” in the near future.
The European situation is, in fact, likely to worsen owing to the events of the past week – it has been claimed that ISIS terrorists are masquerading as refugees aboard Mediterranean vessels so they can infiltrate Europe. This will probably only tighten laws surrounding refugees and their acceptance into the continent. Additionally, Australia has put forward the idea that the EU follow their immigration reduction procedure – to stop the boats before they have the chance to carry the immigrants across, and leave them trapped in the country they were trying to escape. And again, similarly to Burmese officials, African leaders are eerily silent about their dying countrymen.
The message we receive from the Rohingya and Europe crises is clear – immigrants have no place in the world. They are driven from their homes by oppressive governments and hopeless living conditions, and then are rejected from potential sanctuary. The middle ground is possibly even crueller – they are left to drift and waste away in the rancid stench of their own terror. The cold calculation with which authorities, who are really the ones at fault, decide the fate of thousands of lives, is terrifying, and it doesn’t feel any better to know that activists close to the cause are seemingly turning a blind eye in order to further their political ambitions.
Why do countries like Burma and Libya feel like they can persecute their people as though they aren’t human, and wait for the UN to fix their problems? What makes countries like Bangladesh and America feel as though they can toss immigrants back and forth between countries like dirty chattel? The great powers of the world – be they the small authorities that head our local municipalities; the larger-than-life humanitarians we look to as role models; the presidents of our nations; or the superpower countries that lead by example – have a fundamental responsibility to do everything in their given power to better humanity. But the atrocities we see before us belie our ideals. We are of a world that disowns its people – and then kills them for not belonging.