By Mohsin Raza Malik
June 13, 2015
Although the UN has acknowledged the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in the Rakhine province of Burma (Myanmar), as ‘the most persecuted minority in the world’, yet the world community has hardly made any significant endeavours to minimise the miseries of these long-suffering people of Southeast Asia. The way they are being treated and persecuted is simply unprecedented.
The most agonising aspect of the current Rohingya refugee crisis is that they are being treated as if they are some extra-terrestrial species from an alien planet. Carrying these ‘alien creatures’, their ‘Unidentified Sailing Objects’ still continue to wander aimlessly in international waters. And no country seems to be inclined to accept these unfortunate ‘boat people’.
In fact, no municipal or international law has yet determined or otherwise defined their status on this planet. Completely denying basic citizenship rights to them, Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law reduced the status of the Rohingya population to ‘stateless entities’. Ever since then, they have been living in apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar. It is quite unfortunate that, despite having lived in Burma for decades, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have yet not been formally naturalised by the Myanmar government. This practice is absolutely inconsistent with the recognised rules of naturalisation in the contemporary civilised world.
Following the 2012 Rakhine state riots, a lot of Rohingya people fled to ghettos and makeshift refugee camps near the border of neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Thailand. This year, in order to escape systematic persecution from both the Myanmar government and Buddhist majority, thousands of Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to seek shelter in other Southeast Asian countries, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, in small rickety boats through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.
Giving rise to one of the worst refugee crisis in the world, the governments of these Southeast Asian countries have denied the entry of the Rohingyas into their territory terming them economic migrants. Sadly, these countries are now playing a game of international ping pong vis-à-vis these helpless migrants.
Thousands of Rohingya people, including women and children, are helplessly stranded at sea in their boats. It is a great tragedy that a Rohingya Muslim can’t get any place in the world even as a refugee – which is considered the worst status on earth in terms of the humanitarian miseries necessarily associated with it. Refugees are generally identified or categorised as IDPs, international refugees, international migrants etc. Ironically, the current Rohingya crisis has introduced another novel description of a refugee – one who is just helplessly stranded at sea. Therefore, it is quite advisable to coin another term to depict the exact status of these unfortunate Rohingya migrants.
Despite knowing the nature and magnitude of the current humanitarian crisis, the UN has done nothing significant beyond paying lip service to this issue. Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a consensus resolution urging Myanmar to provide full citizenship to its Rohingya Muslim minority and to allow them to move freely throughout the country. Similarity, the UN has also asked the Southeast Asian countries to respect international law, and help the migrants stranded at sea. However, in the absence of the required degree of resolution and commitment to resolve this crisis, all these half-hearted efforts have failed to achieve desired objectives.
The so-called Muslim world has also chosen to remain indifferent to the miseries of the oppressed and stranded Rohingya Muslims. The OIC, the official ‘mouthpiece’ of the Islamic world, has maintained complete silence over this issue so far. Pakistan has recently announced it would raise the issue of the Rohingyas at international forums like the UN and the OIC. However, similar pledges and stances made by our governments on any international issue have never lasted long. The international media, especially the electronic media, have also failed to truly highlight the magnitude and intensity of the suffering of the ‘boat people’.
The doctrine of non-refoulement is the basic principle of international refugee law. Article 33(1) of the UN Convention Relating to Status of Refugees, 1951 prohibits states from refouling, or returning, a refugee to “the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. This law also prohibits the mass expulsion of refugees.
Similarly, the UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum, 1967 calls on states to refrain from measures such as rejection at the frontier of persons seeking asylum. Therefore, the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries should fulfil their obligations under international law. The UNHCR should also positively extend full cooperation to these countries to overcome this grave refugee crisis.
Since the Myanmar government has ignored altogether the UN General Assembly Resolution to grant citizenship right to its Rohingya population, the UN Security Council must now proceed against Myanmar under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The UN should ensure the security and settlement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by effectively applying its coercive enforcement apparatus.
In the past, the international community had forced the apartheid regime in South Africa to end its discriminatory policy of racial segregation against the black people in the country. The Myanmar government must also abandon its policy of ethnic-cleansing against the Rohnigya Muslims. But indeed, first of all, the world community should come forward to own and rescue these hapless, stateless and status-less ‘boat people’.
Mohsin Raza Malik is a Lahore-based lawyer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org