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The Rohingya refugee making factory

A Rohingya protests against the UK's training of the Myanmar military outside the Myanmar embassy in London. (Photo: Demotix/See Li)

By Amal de Chickera
March 28, 2014

If the production of refugees was an industry, Myanmar would be among the world’s market leaders. And of all its products the Rohingya would be one of the most lucrative. A niche but growing market of global proportions, the culmination of decades of tireless endeavour to hone a specialist craft.

If the production of refugees was an industry, Myanmar would be among the world’s market leaders. In the creation of the product, the Burmese regime has pulled out all the stops and ended up with something unique.

For the Rohingya are more than refugees. They are also stateless, they are considered illegal immigrants (though they are not), they are seen as outsiders, they are feared and hated by other Burmese. The discrimination, persecution and abuse they endure invoke human rights law, humanitarian law and international criminal law. Their history has been denied and so is their future. Their identity, ethnicity and membership have been questioned, scrutinised, erased. 

If we didn’t know better, we’d think they were a fiction, an imagined people, a dream. Their voices have been silenced by denying them the tools of language – education, freedom, information. Those among them who are brave and privileged enough to speak out have been dismissed, their credibility questioned. Their friends are at best notional and their enemies take their job very seriously. They are seen as a problem and behind closed doors, in barely audible whispers, masked men with ulterior motives would admit that they would like to make the problem go away. 

The Rohingya are eternal refugees. Their vulnerability has been designed using state-of-the-art methods, with a universal lifetime guarantee that remains valid across borders and generations. So perfect is the creation that countries to which they flee rarely integrate them, and where they do it is only by accident, with reluctance or solely due to the perseverance of the Rohingya and the kindness of local people, not governments. So perfect, that resettlement doesn’t figure as a solution. 

No one wants them. Not Myanmar, not Bangladesh, not Malaysia, not Thailand, not Australia, not the UK, not the USA, not the EU. The Rohingya are the ultimate refugees: ones with no place to go. If the production of refugees was an industry, Myanmar would not have to plunder its environment to satiate its economic appetite. 

A profitable business

The creation and existence of refugees can be a very profitable business. Profitable to politicians who sell fear and hatred, traffickers who sell escape and promises of a future, state authorities who sell protection and security. The persecution of refugees by repressive states also creates a dilemma for the profit oriented. It tarnishes their image to deal with repressive states; it undermines their geo-political leverage. There is a correlation between refugees and business, but it is not an industry.

Neither is it an issue of national security, although it is increasingly perceived as such. The mighty state demonstrates hysteria and fear at the sight of the vulnerable, starving, hopeless Rohingya woman and her child in a half sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. She is intercepted. She is pushed back. She is helped on. 

She is detained. Not on the territory of the mighty state - that would be far too risky - but on a barely inhabited island. She is detained. She who has lost everything; her nationality, her dignity, her family, her home. She is detained in a detention centre on an island. The production of refugees is not an industry, but detention is.

The production of refugees is not an industry, but perhaps it serves as a test. If so, the production of Rohingya refugees is a very difficult test. It tests our resolve, our integrity, our courage, our humanity. It is a test we are failing. If only we could take a re-sit. If only it were that simple. If only each passing day of inaction, indifference, hypocrisy, exclusion, discrimination and further persecution did not cost human lives. 

They must be a threat

Well over a million Rohingya refugees have been produced. No one knows the exact number. They are not important enough to be counted. Bangladesh boasts a population of 300,000 – 500,000. Saudi Arabia, 400,000 – 700,000. The Malaysian population is in the tens of thousands. Unquantified populations live in India, Pakistan and throughout the Middle East. None of these countries have ratified the refugee convention or the statelessness conventions. To them, this is not a protection issue. There is no protection framework through which it can be approached. 

Thus, the Rohingya are seen through a different lens, a lens which fits the frameworks already in place. Their story is shaped, their credibility undermined, their legitimacy questioned. Just as Myanmar has denied the history of the Rohingya, these countries deny their suffering. There is no refugee protection framework or statelessness determination procedure, so they must be ‘illegal’ economic migrants. They must be opportunistic and conniving. They must be an economic threat, a security threat, a threat. 

Pull factor

The inaction of states, their failure to protect is justified using sophisticated jargon filled arguments. ‘Pull factor’ is possibly the most widely used. ‘We will tolerate them but we cannot protect them – if we do, more will arrive, our kindness will pull them to us like moths to a flame.’ Never mind the persecution they face in Myanmar. Never mind the incredible dangers of the boat journey. Never mind the massive financial burden that drowns them in a lifetime of debt. It is the ‘pull factor’ that counts. 

When the ‘pull factor’ argument is used, the opportunity cost of not protecting the vulnerable is never factored in. What is the cost of having a large, growing, disenfranchised, vulnerable and ‘illegal’ population in country? What is the cost to the individual, and what is the cost to the state? 

The inaction of states receiving Rohingya refugees has caused a regional stalemate. No one is willing to break it. The persecuted individual continues to suffer on new shores as a result. Imported vulnerability becomes home-grown vulnerability with the passing of a generation. Rohingya children born in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries are not allowed to access the nationality of these countries. Many are not even registered at birth. The cost of protracted, inter-generational statelessness is profound. Denied the right to work, to access education and healthcare, Rohingya refugee families live vulnerable, insecure and poverty-stricken lives. Illiteracy and poverty grow with every generation. The snow-ball effect of inter-generational statelessness should not be underestimated. 

No dignity is afforded them

Discrimination too follows the Rohingya, remains with them, sticks to them. Their lack of legal status, their lack of a nationality, their foreignness, their otherness – these are all factors that play a role. Discrimination impacts on their access to basic human rights. It also impacts on their dignity. It is not intended that the Rohingya have dignity. They are unwanted, tolerated at best. 

The Rohingya do not have many options. Persecuted in Myanmar, discriminated against and excluded elsewhere, they are not allowed to live normal lives, do normal jobs, have normal dreams. They have been forced into the periphery; unregulated, unprotected, unsafe. 

They are then blamed for living on the margins, as if it were their choice to take a dangerous boat journey, work an unsafe job, live an undocumented existence. As if they turned down the much cheaper and safer economy class plane ticket, the much more secure legitimate job, the much sought after birth certificate. 

The states that receive large Rohingya refugee populations should not be singled out. The Rohingya issue is an international one. We all have a responsibility. The states that can take more Rohingya refugees through resettlement programmes, the states that can use their influence over Myanmar to push for the protection of their rights, the states that are members of the United Nations. They all have a responsibility to protect.

Where there is a will, it should shared

This situation cannot continue. Myanmar must get its act together. It is the source of the problem. The creation of refugees is not an industry. In fact, it must be seen as a barrier to other industry. Economic relations with Myanmar should be conditional upon its treatment of all persons, all minorities, even of the Rohingya. Rohingya-receiving states must take on more responsibility too. Their inaction amounts to complicity. Their failure to protect the Rohingya has a dual impact – Rohingya refugees remain unprotected and their offspring, born in new countries are born into new vulnerability, new statelessness. The international community at large must step up. Their silence, their half-hearted statements, their mixed messages must end. Stronger, more principled intervention is required. 

There are no easy solutions, not because they are not obvious, but because there is no real political will across the boards to resolve this situation; to protect the most vulnerable. States need to accept their individual responsibility but also to push each other into shared responsibility. 

The production of refugees is not an industry, but the protection of refugees is an obligation. It is not a profitable one to undertake, but a costly one to ignore. Costly to the individual, to the state and to our collective humanity.

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Rohingya Exodus