SITTWE, Myanmar — Not only do many Rohingya refugees have to rely on smugglers to reach their country of destination, but there have been numerous reports of human trafficking involving local authorities in Thailand.
Rakhine State is in the far western corner of Myanmar, also known as Burma, where it is home to the Rohingya people. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority numbering approximately 2 million in Myanmar alone. Since Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948, the waves of interethnic violence have forced many to flee.
It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people are now displaced. Furthermore, the Rohingya are denied their right to citizenship under Burmese law, rendering them affectively stateless in their homeland.
During the past few years, ethnic violence is again on the rise in Rakhine State and elsewhere in Myanmar. In what may be considered a campaign of ethnic cleansing, many more Rohingya are once again seeking refuge. The perilously clandestine journeys of the latest Rohingya exodus have been further complicated however, by a lack of legally binding agreements in the states in which they are seeking asylum.
None of the states surrounding Myanmar are party to the 1967 Protocol or the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). This lack of legally binding agreements allows destination countries to treat Rohingya asylum seekers poorly or to reject them altogether.
The lack of government accountability in neighboring countries makes Rohingya refugees vulnerable to human rights violations. Most often traveling by sea, refugees have been rejected entry and forcibly pushed back to sea or detained and treated brutally.
A case that demonstrates the necessity to increase legal mechanisms for refugee protection in South and Southeast Asia involved Singapore—Southeast Asia’s most prosperous nation—rejecting a Vietnamese boat that had rescued more than 40 Rohingya shipwreck survivors from entering its harbor.
The official reason that the Singaporean government provided was that the asylum seekers were not carrying any valid identification and thus were not eligible to enter Singapore.
Singapore is not the only country to react in such a manner. The Thai navy towed two boats, together containing more than 200 passengers, back out into the sea.
In another instance, a boat drifted from Myanmar to Sri Lanka. When it was found, it contained 96 casualties that had succumbed to starvation and dehydration.
These practices are contradictory to the principle of non-refoulement, a part of international law that is enshrined in both the aforementioned Convention and Protocol, in which victims of persecution must not be returned to where they are being persecuted.
The calamity that is happening to the Rohingya people is nothing less than a genocide that deserves more attention from the international community. In a region where refugee protection legal instruments are insufficient, the situation of the Rohingya is especially precarious. Thus, this ongoing, yet little discussed, humanitarian crisis illustrates the need for the countries of the region to finally implement internationally accepted norms and standards for the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
– Peewara Sapsuwan