This year there are 65 million displaced men, women and children in the world. Just as shocking as the number of the stateless and homeless, the average stay in a refugee camp is over 17 years. This fact clearly indicates that government policies prolong misery and isolation for decades. Some refugee communities are registered and receive regular meals; many, many others are caught between fear and bureaucratic red tape and receive little assistance. Few families are granted the right to work or any access to education.
Because of the current Syrian refugee crisis this humanitarian challenge is a main theme of the 2016 World Humanitarian Day observed each year by the United Nations. It is significant that the majority of displaced populations are Muslims fleeing war, terrorism and Islamophobia. The suffering Rohingya, a Muslim minority community of Burma, embodies this tragic pattern.
International humanitarian leaders have called the Rohingya, “the most persecuted people on earth.” Eight Nobel Prize winners have called their plight a “genocide.” Rohingyas are indigenous people living in their ancestral lands on the Western borders of Myanmar/Burma whose citizenship has been cancelled by the Burmese military dictatorship.
This long-established Burmese dictatorship removed the rights of the Rohingya people one by one and constructed a legal framework to maintain this oppression. Rohingya lost their rights to work, travel, get an education, marry and bear children freely and finally, in 2014, the right to vote. Currently, after excluding Rohingya from the 2014 National Census, Burmese authorities are offering temporary, foreign guestworker status to some Rohingya. Some are accepting these papers out of desperation, faced with state sponsored xenophobia and flare ups of deadly violence.
Neighboring nations have taken in hundreds of thousands of these fleeing Rohingya refugees over the years. More Rohingya are dispersed outside Burma than the over 1 million that remain in their ancestral homeland. Countless others have disappeared into the slavery of organized trafficking, with an unknown number of mass graves throughout the region.
Rohingya live in poverty in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Though the United States has taken in a very large number of other ethnicities fleeing conflict at the borders of Burma, there are so far only 3,000 Rohingya refugees in the United States. Why is this?
About 125,000 of Rohingyas are forced to live in the detention camps which New York Times calls the Concentration camps of the 21st Century with very limited food rations. Myanmar government now led by a Nobel Peace Laureate must allow the world humanitarnian organization full access to provide them food.
The international community provides crucial emergency feeding programs throughout the region but UN agencies fear to be banned from Burma, as happened to Doctors Without Borders in 2014 after state orchestrated violence against their emergency medical assistance to Rohingya. This exclusion meant that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had no access to any medical care at all and many died for lack of basic care. Therefore, international humanitarian agencies can be overly careful, some of them even avoiding reporting on their work to assist Rohingya families. On top of this pressure, many UN agencies are confronting a reduced budget as needs out-race resources, and some member agencies fail to pay their fair share in emergency assistance.
In this way we see how “humanitarian” considerations can come to “outweigh” human and civil rights. But this approach is short-sighted, since it ignores root causes of suffering. Human rights and humanitarian agencies should work together both to solve and prevent oppression. In addition, the development and business sector should see refugees as communities to invest in and not simply a source of cheap labor.
As a friend to the Rohingya People, Burma Task Force is promoting World Rohingya Day this year on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, to raise awareness of the shameful lack of political will in Burma to restore their rights. In the last year the world celebrated the first democratic election in Burma in over 30 years, but Muslim candidates were excluded from the ruling NLD party. The military elite has maintained their stranglehold on government and society and the new government shares power with groups that initiated genocidal policies. Despite being a human rights icon, the new de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has even demanded that international agencies and governments stop using the name “Rohingya” in violation of recognized rights to self-identify. Given such signals, is it unsurprising that attacks against mosques and neighborhoods have now extended beyond the Rohingya community to impact other Muslim minorities.
This Humanitarian Day let the voice of humanity be heard in all its diversity. Let nations commit to better and more inclusive political and social policies. Most critically, let the needs of the Rohingya be recognized, along with the beauty of their human potential. We look forward to a day of homecoming and of acceptance. And, maybe, even to a day when Burma celebrates a Rohingya winning a gold medal in the Olympics.