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Rohingya people deserve Myanmar citizenship, says senior US official

January 21, 2015

A visiting US Assistant Secretary of State has said Rohingyas deserve Burmese citizenship to end their statelessness, which she identified as a root cause of their plight and displacement.

Anne Richard of the Department of Population, Refugees and Migration made the observation in a seminar in Dhaka on Wednesday.

She said the Rohingya population remained stateless as “they are not recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the country’s citizenship law”.

“Statelessness is… a key reason they flee to neighbouring countries,” she said.

The Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) organised the seminar styled ‘US policy on refugee, migration and population dynamics’ for the visiting official.

Richard arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday from Myanmar on a four-day tour, her first after she joined the post in Washington in 2012, “to learn from the Bangladesh perspective” of the situation of the refugees here.

Both Bangladesh and the US deal with the issues of refugees, migration and population dynamics.

Migration and population dynamics are the two issues Bangladesh is pressing for inclusion as separate development factors in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Rohingya refugee issue is a major irritant in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations.

Bangladesh has given shelter to thousands of refugees who fled the Rakhine province following sectarian clashes spread over the years, but Myanmar refused to grant them citizenship.

UNHCR, the UN agency looking after refugee interests, put the number in Bangladesh at over 200,000 with 30,000 documented refugees living in two government-run camps – the Kutupalong and Nayapara – within two kilometres of the Myanmar border.

Bangladesh government says more than 500,000 of them are living outside the camps here.

Chairman of the BIISS Board of Governance Munshi Faiz Ahmed said the US, as the most powerful country, also had the responsibility to help resolve the problem.

He said given the density of its population “it is difficult for Bangladesh to welcome new migrants”.

“We hope arrangements should be made inside Myanmar,” he said, hoping that “the US is aware of the problem and its solution as well”.

Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque, who worked for 11 years with the International Organisation of Migration, however, lauded the US role on the issue.

He said the US had been “extremely vocal and strong in suggesting to the Myanmar government to address effectively the issue of Rohingya refugees”.

“In fact, President Obama was very categorical in saying ‘please give (them) the citizenship back.”

He termed Richard “a passionate, experienced and committed” assistant secretary “to bring about a difference in the world of migration and refugees”.

Assistant secretary Richard thanked Bangladesh for hosting “hundreds of thousands” of Rohingyas for decades.

She also appreciated Bangladesh for giving 300,000 Urdu-speaking people citizenship that, she said, provided “a shining example” of giving stateless people nationality.

She said last year witnessed the forcible displacement of over 50 million people globally – the highest since World War II.

Each crisis in different settings was “unique”.

In Burma, Richard said, “hopes for the future are threatened by ethnic and religious rivalries and violence”.

Since 2012, fighting in the Rakhine state between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities has displaced 140,000 people.

Before arriving in Dhaka, she visited both of these areas and participated in a high-level Human Rights Dialogue.

The State Department official said the US had been urging the Burmese government “to take steps to end hostilities, build mutual confidence and establish a political dialogue”.

“At the highest levels, we have repeatedly pressed the government of Burma to take decisive action to address the root causes of conflict.”

Richard was asked whether Bangladesh could expect solutions in the near future since the US was engaged at the highest level.

She said the focus was “to try to ensure that they (Burma) recognise that many of the Rohingyas do in fact deserve the papers to show they are citizens of Myanmar”.

In coming months, a lot would be happening “to try to pin down the actual status of the people of the Rakhine state”, she said.

She, however, suggested that the same energy and productive thinking devoted to deal with the ethnic groups along the Myanmar-Thailand border should be given to the situation in the Rakhine state.

“The time is I think now.”

She said the US was also looking forward to expanding its partnership with Bangladesh in the coming years.

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