Who are the Rohingya refugees?

Video footage has emerged of police officers in Myanmar casually beating and kicking Rohingya villagers.

This comes after the release of our December report explaining how Myanmar security forces are responsible for killings, rapes and the burning down of houses and villages in a campaign of violence against Rohingya people that may amount to crimes against humanity.

So who are the Rohingya? And how did they come to be one of the most persecuted minorities on Earth?

Who are the Rohingya?

Three years ago, religious and ethnic tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists (who make up the majority of the population in Mayanmar) escalated into widespread, deadly rioting. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee.

Since then, ongoing violent attacks have forced even more people to leave their homes – but Rohingya people are rejected almost everywhere they seek safety. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people are now living in limbo as refugees across Southeast Asia.

The Myanmar Government says that Rohingya people are not Burmese citizens – but the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations. Today, they are a people with no home or citizenship. Even their name (the very word ‘Rohingya‘) is denied them in Myanmar.

Rohingya people are being widely abused and exploited. They are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Boy behind bars in a detention center
© EPA/STR THAILAND OUT. Boy behind bars in a detention center.

Seeking help, but finding none

In May 2015, thousands of Rohingya people were forced to cross the dangerous Bay of Bengal, off the coast of south-east Asia, in search of a safe place to live. Many people became stranded at sea and it is estimated that hundreds died.

Boats containing desperate Rohingya refugees were pushed back by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Almost 20,000 Amnesty supporters urged our government to call for, and assist with, immediate search and rescue operations and champion new, humane solutions for refugees in the region.

But as recently as November 2016, authorities in Bangladesh were forcibly pushing back Rohingya people attempting to cross the border to escape current violence.

Those who reach countries like Malaysia are still not guaranteed safety. They often end up in crowded detention centres with no timeline for release, and have little access to proper healthcare, food, or clean drinking water. Even those granted refugee status by UNHCR in Malaysia are denied formal legal status. This means they have no right to work and can be re-detained at any time.

Though few Rohingya people can afford the boat journey to Australia, some have little option left but to travel here. After a dangerous and desperate journey, they face some of the harshest policies towards asylum seekers in the world, with a number of Rohingya held on Manus Island and Nauru.

Rohingya people are forced to risk everything for a chance at safety.

What is life like for the Rohingya people?

Imagine you were denied an identity and a place to call home. Your rights to study, work, travel, marry and practice your religion didn’t exist – because you belong nowhere.

You’re not given any way to prove who you are or where you’re from, so gaining citizenship status anywhere is almost impossible. Wherever you go, you’re locked in detention – simply because of who you are.

This is the life of a Rohingya person.

Rohingya women and children are at particularly great risk, both when travelling and once they arrive in neighbouring countries.

Yasmine, a Rohingya woman, was forced to flee Myanmar with her young children, Amina (six) and Tasmin (three). They boarded a fishing boat late one night, hoping to register as refugees in Malaysia and be allowed to stay. Instead the family endured 16 days of seasickness and overcrowding before they were taken to Thailand.

Yasmine knew the dangers of escaping, but felt she had no choice. Her only form of identification, a household registration card, was taken away by authorities and never replaced. No identification means no rights. The family’s only option was to leave.

Now, trapped in a tiny room on the outskirts of Bangkok, they live in constant fear that the Thai authorities will arrest and deport them.

Rohingya woman and children sitting on a boat.
© EPA/STRINGER. Rohingya woman and children sitting on a boat.

Imran Mohammad, a 22-year old Rohingya man, fled from Myanmar at the age of 16 after his life was threatened. He arrived on Christmas Island by boat and was moved to Manus Island, where he has been imprisoned for more than three years.

“I’m a refugee who refuses to surrender my hope”, says Imran. “I hold on to my belief in humanity and freedom. I never got the chance to attend school or university; these words in English are my own – painstakingly studied with limited resources”.

What needs to happen?

The Myanmar Government should immediately end the violent crackdown on the Rohingya and amend or repeal the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law to provide the Rohingya people with full citizenship in the country.

Bangladesh and other governments in Southeast Asia must ensure those fleeing violence and seeking protection, are granted access. Guaranteeing they will not be pushed back or arbitrarily detained and instead that all their rights will be respected.

With your support, Amnesty International has the global reach and ability to shine a light on the suffering of asylum seekers and demand action.

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This article was contributed by a guest blogger. This blog entry does not necessarily represent the position or opinion of Amnesty International Australia.
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