They have been called the world’s least wanted people. It’s a difficult title to refute for the Rohingya, the Muslim minority that has been the target of violent attacks in Burma’s Arakan and Rakhine states.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma, seeking safety and sanctuary in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. These are predominantly Muslim states, which ensures that at least they will not be persecuted for their religious beliefs.
However, while they might have relatively safe passage in Indonesia and Malaysia, the Rohingya are considered a stateless people. The Burmese government refuses to claim them, and so does that of Bangladesh, the country in which thousands have sought refuge until the country closed its doors to them nearly a year ago.
Although many Rohingya were born and raised in Burma, they are still unrecognized – and undefended – by the Burmese government. In fact, Human Rights Watch recently released a report stating that government officials had been complicit and even participated in the violence waged against Muslims in the country. Human rights advocates have even criticized revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, long a hero of the people, for not unequivocally condemning the violence against Muslims. With so little support or hope for assistance in their own home, it’s no wonder that seeking asylum in foreign states is the only hope these people see.
But life as a refugee is by definition difficult, harrowing and deeply uncertain. And the horrors have not ended even for the Rohingya who have made it to foreign shores. In early April, a fight between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in an Indonesia detention centre in which 8 people were killed. The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that the violence was initially attributed to tension over the state of Buddhist-Muslim affairs in Burma, but that it was actually sparked after three Rohingya women were raped by Buddhist fishermen from Burma.
The Jakarta Globe reported that the Rohingya refugees in Indonesia will not receive identity cards, and are classified as immigrants who will be sent to Bangladesh. This is complicated by the fact that Bangladesh “closed its doors to newly arriving asylum-seekers” after the outbreak of Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine state in June 2012, according to the UN Refugee Agency. There is nowhere for these people to go.
In addition to their stateless, immigrant status wherever they go, there are other practical social concerns that arise from their purgatorial state.
Al-Jazeera recently reported that the social stigma attached to being a “stateless groom” makes it difficult for young Rohingya men in places such as Malaysia to find suitable marriage partners. This has created a market for “mail-order” brides, with refugees seeking assistance from those in other Rohingya communities to find them potential spouses.
The Al-Jazeera article raises another aspect of life as a stateless refugee. A young man interviewed for the piece had worked odd jobs as a tailor’s assistant and on a construction site, all the while “hoping to evade authorities” while on these projects. Undocumented and “illegal” workers throughout Southeast Asia face the very real threat of exploitation and abuse, and the Rohingya are no exception.
The article also pointed out the dangers of young women being sent to places such as Malaysia and Indonesia, to marry men they have never met, in a place that is not their own. In addition to fears of being apprehended by authorities, there is a threat of domestic violence, with no authorities or family members to turn to for help.
There is certainly no definitive solution for these exiled people. Even leaders from Malaysia and Indonesia have made seemingly cautious and diplomatic statements that gave no indication of a long-term stance on the Rohingya crisis.
According to the Irrawaddy, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said this week that, “We urge the Myanmar (Burma) government to quickly resolve this problem and prevent further conflicts from erupting, so that all the people in Myanmar can live in an atmosphere of peace.”
(READ MORE: Indonesian leader airs concern on Burma violence)
A spokesman for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was similarly diplomatic and cautious, saying “Malaysia remains extremely concerned abut ongoing tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar,” according to the Irrawaddy Magazine.
One thing seems apparent in all of this: the Rohingya have few friends in power in the region. Even ASEAN has not released a collective statement firmly calling on Burma to establish a peaceful, humane solution to the Rohingya crisis.