Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingya people are a stateless Indo-Aryan people from the state of Rakhine, Myanmar. The Rohingyas have a history tracing back to the 8th century, yet the Myanmar state refuses to recognise them as an ethnic minority of the “eight national races”. The Rohingya population is concentrated in the historical region of Arakan, an old coastal country of Southeast Asia. Due to its coastline on the Bay of Bengal, Arakan was a key centre of maritime trade and cultural exchange between Burma and the outside world, since the time of the Indian Mauryan Empire.
Arab merchants had been in contact with Arakan since the third century, using the Bay of Bengal to reach Arakan. Starting in the 8th century, Arab merchants began conducting missionary activities, and many locals converted to Islam. Some researchers have speculated that Muslims used trade routes in the region to travel to India and China. A southern branch of the Silk Road connected India, Burma and China since the Neolithic period. Arab traders are recorded in the coastal areas of southeast Bengal, bordering Arakan, since the 9th century. The Rohingya population trace their history to this period. Besides locals converting to Islam, Arab merchants married local women and later settled in Arakan. As a result of intermarriage and conversion, the Muslim population in Arakan grew. Modern day Rohingya believe they descended from these early Muslim communities.
What is the Rohingya crisis?
The Rohingya crisis is a human rights crisis with serious humanitarian consequences. In Myanmar/Burma, the Rohingya have very limited access to basic services and viable livelihood opportunities due to strict movement restrictions and denied citizenship rights. This has rendered them one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
The crisis has a wider regional dimension, with record numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring countries. Following violent incidents in Northern Rakhine in August 2017, over 530 000 Rohingyas have fled across the border into Bangladesh; during the previous year, some 87 000 people had already fled after the October 2016 security incidents.
Humanitarian situation and Needs
Deadly assault by Rohingya insurgents on multiple police posts in Northern Rakhine triggered a new cycle of violence, prompting more than 530 000 civilians to flee across the border into Bangladesh over the course of merely a month. The renewed fighting has resulted in humanitarian Some Rakhine groups erroneously perceive that humanitarian aid, which is allocated strictly according to needs, is distributed unevenly and benefits only the Rohingya. In March 2014 this triggered organized attacks against international community offices, residences and warehouses, resulting in millions of euros of losses. In 2015, the flood and cyclone relief interventions, supporting affected people from both communities, allowed mitigating this perception to some extent; it however remains active, partly due to limited development opportunities in Rakhine State.
Access to the IDP camps around Sittwe is highly regulated preventing timely and adequate assistance delivery and access has been drastically reduced after the August 2017 crisis. Due to the deplorable living conditions, tens of thousands of people – including many women and children – have fled on precarious boat journeys to neighbouring countries. Many do not survive these journeys while others fall prey to human trafficking networks. On 25th August 2017, a operations across Rakhine coming to an abrupt halt, leaving more than 350 000 people deprived of much-needed regular assistance. The latest clashes come less than one year after a previous assault by insurgents on three border guard posts on 9 October 2016 triggered a series of violent incidents and military operations that saw more than 87 000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in search of refuge.
The initial influx of Rohingyas to Bangladesh dates back to 1978, with a large arrival in 19911992. Presently, 33 148 are living in two official camps managed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR source) in Nayapara and Kutupalong. While these are recognized by the Government of Bangladesh as refugees, the others are labelled “undocumented Myanmar nationals” and have no legal status in Bangladesh. The refusal of the authorities to register Rohingya at birth or provide marriage certificates and other civil documentation makes it difficult to fully assess the scale of the humanitarian needs of these people, many of whom live in difficult conditions with inadequate food intake and diet diversification, or access to health care. Without legal status they are also unable to pursue education and formal employment opportunities, and remain vulnerable to exploitation and serious protection risks.
The August 2017 violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state triggered a new massive influx of Rohingya refugees coming across the border, stretching the capacities of humanitarian agencies operating there, which had already been strained since the previous influx in October 2016. This recent influx has more than doubled the population living in the camps. In the last few years, Thailand became a major transit point for refugees and migrants, many trying to reach Malaysia. Since 2013 Thai authorities have arrested and detained over 2000 Rohingya in Immigration Detention Centres, police stations or social welfare facilities. In Bangladesh, basic healthcare and nutritional support is provided to both the unregistered refugees and the host communities In Myanmar/Burma’s Rakhine State, ECHO has been providing basic services in the IDP camps created in the aftermath of inter-ethnic violence in 2012, such as access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
The Rohingya issue has put India in the eye of a storm. The exact number of Rohingyas in India is not known as they have been trickling in from the porous border with Bangladesh for many years. It is also not clear as to how many Rohingyas have managed to infiltrate into India as a result of the current exodus from Myanmar. It is however clear that several thousands of them are residing in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mewar and elsewhere. About 16,500 have received refugee cards from the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. It is understood that more than 40,000 Rohingyas are living in the country as illegal immigrants.
On account of the serious terrorist threat from a segment of these immigrants, the government has declared that it will deport them back to Myanmar. In response to the barrage of national and international opprobrium heaped on it, India has said that it is only implementing its national law. It has quashed allegations that Rohingyas are sought to be deported because they are Muslims. India has a commendable track record of accepting refugees from several regions/countries, be they from Afghanistan and Tibet or Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The Way Forward
A solution of the issue lies in Myanmar, not in Bangladesh or India or any other country. Vitriolic criticism of DASSK will not make Myanmar change its position. Diplomacy and discussion is the only way forward. Myanmar has expressed readiness to accept the immigrants after the necessary verification process. Myanmar needs international support for its political and economic development which it will receive by becoming a responsible member of the international community.
Myanmar also appears to be ready to seriously consider implementing suggestions contained in the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine state. In several areas in Myanmar, the military still calls the shots. It controls 25 per cent of parliamentary seats as well as ministerial positions in defence, internal security, border affairs etc. DASSK’s flexibility is hence considerably restricted. A huge challenge confronts India at this juncture.
This can be overcome only by creative and adroit diplomacy. India has to undertake a creative tightrope walk with Myanmar. It is admirably equipped to do that. It has to simultaneously contend with challenges in its relations with its two extremely significant and sensitive neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as with international human rights watchdogs.
They have to be sent back to Myanmar where they have come from. Their presence in India will lead to severe social and economic stress within the communities where they might be temporarily accommodated. The matter should be taken up, on an urgent basis, formally as well as through back channels with Myanmar so that a mutually acceptable via media is arrived at and the Rohingyas are repatriated to their homeland without further loss of time.