Living in Limbo: Where are the ‘boat people’ now?

Revisiting the Rohingyas

In early 2015, the police crackdown on human trafficking camps in Thailand sparked the mass departure of Rohingya Muslims: migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The turmoil of this event as the ‘South-East Asian migrant crisis’ broadcasted globally, portrays Rohingyas as stranded on boats in detrimental conditions due to eviction from their homes. This ethnic group have faced a long history of persecution, from pre-colonial hostilities to ‘Burmanisation’ during post-independence, where full citizenship was only granted to those who were ‘National’; able to prove ancestral roots in Burma before colonialism. This was impossible for Rohingyas, and their persecution has continued throughout the 21st century, with the overpowering belief that they are undeserving of citizenship rights.

The Myanmar government continue to frame Rohingyas negatively by conjuring up evidence to prove that the ethnic group do not deserve citizenship. For example, claiming that terrorist training occurs along the Rakhine border, which they supposedly monitored through their military intelligence service. Internal state policies with substantial internal anti-Muslim prejudice also continues to exclude the Rohingya. What we see here, is how law and policy does not always equal justice. Instead, when human beings are being valued as less than human (essentially by lacking the right to live), violence becomes a natural and reasonable response. Being the ‘inferior’ group, they are designated as not being able to think or act in a ‘reasonable’ way. The oppressed Rohingyas are therefore only left with one possible identity; one of violence. This becomes their politics and it appropriates their intellect.

The president of Myanmar stated that “it is totally impossible to accept illegal Rohingyas”. Myanmar have shown a consistent disregard of Rohingyas and are unlikely to alter policies allowing citizenship, perceiving the excluded group as a ‘virus’ that requires extermination by concentrated persecution. Considering the unbearable conditions on boats and within camps, the situation has become a genocide, and ethnic cleansing is still being conducted on a mass level. ‘We see early warning signs of genocide similar to what we saw in the past’ (Andrea, U.S. Holocaust Museum), referring to Nazi camps. The community is indefinitely being systematically wiped out by the Burmese government, although they still deny alleged abuses.

Bangladesh enabled Rohingyas to live in makeshift camps on its south-eastern border since the communal clashes of 2012, with government estimates of 400,000 to 500,000 Rohingyas currently residing. However, they are reducing the breadth of shelter given to Rohingyas this year as poverty and unemployment become more prevalent. Bangladesh can only be their host for the time being and the idea of giving Rohingyas citizenship was out of reach. Authorities suggested that the Rohingya are part of Myanmar regarding their roots and culture, and should be repatriated back. Bangladesh has called on the international community for help, including aid agencies and NGOs upholding their moral imperative to assist refugees appearing within their territorial waters.

“Go back to your country” says the Indonesian president. Joko Widodo believes that the country should help, but Rohingyas must return to their home afterwards. Based on religious similarity, Indonesia accommodated migrants in the Aceh province, receiving USD 49 million from Qatar to support their accommodation. There remains a growing opinion that the government should push Myanmar to take the migrants back, as millions of poor and uneducated people exist in Indonesia, meaning they should be concerned with domestic issues and taking care of its population. Dewi Anwar (political advisor to the vice president) said:

‘Indonesia should do all it can to rescue Rohingya refugees and give them temporary shelter until they can return home or be resettled elsewhere’.

The Rohingyas are now living in limbo. They still have no place to call home, and over 120,000 remain in more than 80 internal displacement camps. Malaysia and Indonesia were praised for letting them through their borders. However, those on the boats were immediately put into detention. After promised only temporary refuge and assistance, they were given a 12-month deadline to resettle or go back to Myanmar. The majority opted to go back, but more than the 370 Rohingyas have been held in detention centres in the north-west of Malaysia.

In Indonesia, most of the Rohingyas have disappeared from the temporary camps they were being hosted in. Some have died, some have made efforts to smuggle through to Malaysia, looking for better prospects for working in the informal economy.

As less than one percent of Rohingyas are permitted to return to Myanmar, the hope is that Muslim majority countries who have shown sympathy- Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, will offer refuge. Australia was strictly deterring all refugees, but recently after the Trump election reached a deal with the Obama Administration. This included accepting 1,250 refugees on Nauru and Manus Islands; offshore detention camps proximate to Australia. Women and Children were prioritised, but not one refugee is allowed into Australia. Reporters have described the conditions in the camps as brutal, forcing refugees into despair.

The US have promised to resettle an unspecified number of refugees, while Malaysia and Indonesia are working with humanitarian agencies to try and establish communities for the Rohingyas. However, this would mean living in slums and securing the most dangerous low-paying jobs. Being treated as illegal undocumented migrants means they are subject to exploitation by the Malaysian authorities.

The Rohingyas live a tragic life, where persecution continues. Families have been separated, Rohingyas have ‘disappeared’-? Some have smuggled their way over to Malaysia, India, and possibly several other Asian states. The European Parliament have stood up to support this minority group, recognising the ethnic hatred. They have urged Myanmar to deal with the situation and have called on the pro-democracy cabinet to condemn religious hatred and implement specific measures and policies to prevent discrimination against the Rohingyas in the future.

With a historical record of persecution against Rohingyas, and the recent inability of modern governments to unequivocally address the situation,  a policy change may not ensure justice to this ethnic group. It is the entire breadth of Myanmar and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries that have a genetic code of hatred to this group, as if they are violent beings who have no rights to be alive. Unless they are accepted into the world system as valued people, a document addressing peace to the Rohingyas doesn’t mean that a switch will turn on in people’s minds and the world will become a better place for the Rohingyas. For now, they are homeless, stateless, lost and living in limbo. Unless the world acts in concordance to solve the problems in the east, the boat people will remain lifeless.