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Rohingya refugees

Marie McAuliffe explains the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar
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The Rohingya people are a minority ethnic group living in Southeast and South Asia, principally in Rakhine province in Myanmar. They are thought to have lived in the region for several hundred years, although this is heavily contested. There are estimated to be around about 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, which has a population of 54 million in total.
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In Myanmar, Rohingya are referred to as Muslim Bengalis and are thought of as illegal migrants. They’ve been systematically excluded from society in Myanmar for many decades. They’re not one of the 135 formerly recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar, which has meant that they have got very limited rights in the country. They can’t access citizenship. They have very limited freedom of movement. They’re unable to get birth certificates, for example. Access to education and health services is very limited. And employment rights are significantly restricted. There are accounts of Rohingya being used as forced labour. And they’re often subject to extreme violence. So this intergenerational exclusion and persecution based on their ethnicity has forced many Rohingya to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, in particular.
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UNHCR figures indicate that around 32,000 Rohingya currently live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, with an estimated around about 200,000 living in the community. Although UNHCR notes that Bangladesh itself has estimated that the total Rohingya population in the country is between somewhere around 300,000 and 500,000 people. Then of course, there are other Rohingya that have escaped to Malaysia and to India, and Pakistan.
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Well, there are several really important frames of reference that we need to apply to Rohingya. The exclusions by Myanmar mean that Rohingya living there are stateless, in effect. And UNHCR figures indicate that they are the largest stateless group living in a single country in the world. There’s also been a significant increase in anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar since 2012. And the Myanmar government has been unwilling to protect Rohingya, arguing that they are in the country illegally. In 2012, for example, following riots in Rakhine province, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein suggested that UNHCR step in and resettle the entire Rohingya population.
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Of course, UNHCR rejected the president’s suggestion, saying that the Rohingya were located within Myanmar, so had not crossed the border, and so were not technically refugees. Of course, this situation leaves Rohingya in an extremely vulnerable situation. Their position is very, very dire and very grim. They are widely recognised as one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. And some academics have pointed to multiple pre-genocidal indicators in Myanmar.
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Well, sometimes, as we know, it’s very difficult to know the detail of the geopolitical context and the issues that are facing multiple countries and the international organisations that are affected. But there are some signs as to the challenges that the international community faces. Firstly, most people realise that origin countries must be called to account and must provide protection to their populations. Of course, this is a core principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And considerable international diplomatic pressure on Myanmar needs to continue, first and foremost. At the same time, there’s recognition that Myanmar’s ongoing transition to democracy is fragile. And it definitely needs to be supported.
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I think, secondly, the large size of the Rohingya population and the potential for large-scale displacement is a really serious concern. In May last year, around 7,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded at sea when smugglers abandoned their vessels. Indonesia and Malaysia issued a statement saying they would provide temporary assistance. But they wouldn’t allow Rohingya to stay. Australia declared that it wouldn’t resettle any Rohingya. And the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, the United States, indicated that resettlement was not a sustainable solution and that Myanmar should recognise Rohingya as citizens. So in terms of improving the lives of Rohingya, I can see that there are lots of opportunities on many fronts.
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The longer term goal, of course, is securing citizenship in Myanmar for Rohingya. And the recent elections in Myanmar increase the chances of achieving this goal, I think, and most commentators think, although, it will still be very challenging.

Interview with Marie McAuliffe, International Organization for Migration, Switzerland

We asked Marie the following questions:

Question no.1: Who are the Rohingya?

Question no.2: What kind of international protection applies to the Rohingya?

Question no.3: How can their condition be improved?

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