The Muslim Rohingya population in Burma has faced horrifying persecution for more than 30 years. Denied legal status in their own country, many flee over the border into Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand, where they are once again denied legal status as refugees, brutalized by state authorities and often forcefully repatriated to Burma. Some travel even as far as Australia to escape the life of misery and persecution. Only a handful survive the dangerous voyage to Australia, where they believe they are likely to receive refugee status. But even in a democratic country such as Australia, the Rohingya boat people can be indefinitely detained for “security reasons.”
A Rohingya refugee in Australia, detained for more than a year, attempted suicide by lighting himself on fire. He came to Australia in the hopes of claiming asylum, and then sending for his wife and three children to join him. Everyone in his batch of immigrants has had their refugee status approved, but many are still awaiting security clearance. The problem begins when such clearance is denied; then the refugee is in limbo: Australia is not allowed to deport him back to Burma due to his refugee status, but will also not release him from detention because he has been determined a threat.
In recent days, Rohingya refugees in Thailand have garned much media attention, as Thai authorities have refused to allow the UN High Commissioner on Refugees access to the 211 Rohingya detainees. 53 of those detained have been in the system since 2009. An additional wave of 158 refugees came in on January 22 and 23, 2011. Their fate in detention remains unknown. Two years ago in December 2009, Rohingya people made headlines as the “boat people” who journeyed to Thailand in search of a safe refuge, but were forcibly towed back into international waters by Thai authorities and left to die on a motorless barge.
Another country that has had contact with Ronhingya refugees is Malaysia. After intercepting a boatload of Rohingya refugees in March 2010, the UNHCR was allowed access to meet with the 93 Rohingyas in detention. They were all determined to be refugees and were immediately released from detention. However, such a happy ending is not the norm. Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are often treated inhumanely by Malaysian authorities, who are often too motivated to detain, brutalize, and deport Rohingyas, despite their refugee status.
Looking at another neighboring country of Burma, Bangladesh alone has between 300,000 – 500,000 Rohingya refugees. An estimated 300,000 of them are living outside of recognized refugee camps, where they are at risk of rape, forced labor, arrest, long-term imprisonment, and potential forced return to Burma. Bangladesh has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which governs the regocnition, treatment and rights of refugees, so the Rohingya have no way to use legal action to defend themselves.
Recent attempts have been made between Bangladeshi and Burmese authorities on what to do about the refugee problem. In 2010, Burma agreed to accept responsibility for documented Rohingya refugees recognized by UNHCR, but would not accept any undocumented Rohingya. Bangladesh has encouraged Burmese authorities to “create a friendly atmosphere, so that one the refugees are repatriated, they will be encouraged to stay on in their country.”
However, a “friendly atmosphere” is unlikely to emerge until Burma takes responsibility for its atrocious human rights record against all minorities in the country, and neighboring nations extend basic rights and refugee status to persecuted minorities seeking asylum.