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World Refugee Day and Rohingya Refugee

This photo taken on May 22, 2015 shows an ethnic Rohingya refugee child from Myanmar looking on with other residents inside a house in Ampang in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is a beacon for ethnic Rohingya fleeing oppression and a precarious existence in Myanmar, but countless migrants like Mohammed Ismail are still searching for the promised land years after arriving. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN

Aman Ullah
RB Opinion
June 20, 2015

“Imagine you had no identity or a place to call home. Your rights to study, work, travel, marry and practice your religion didn’t exist – because you belong nowhere. .....You have no way to prove who you are or where you’re from, which restricts the ability to gain full citizenship status. Wherever you try to find refuge and you’re locked up in detention because of who you are......This is the life of a Rohingya.” --- Amie Hamling

On Sunday June 10, 2012, Myanmar declared a state of emergency in the western state of Rakhine after clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya left 50 people dead. Ten days later, on June 20, more than 90,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to the Bangladeshi border, only to be denied access. The irony is that, June 20 is World Refugee Day. 

JUNE 20 marks World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is a day to celebrate the strength and resilience of nearly 60 million people worldwide who have been displaced by war and human rights abuses. They are ordinary people, living through extraordinary times, trying to find safety for themselves and their families, and to rebuild their lives in dignity. The theme, ‘Real People, Real Needs’ recognizes the plight of refugees around the globe and the work yet to be done to ensure their health and welfare.

For years, many countries and regions have been holding their own Refugee Days and even Weeks. One of the most widespread is Africa Refugee Day, which is celebrated on 20 June in several countries.

The UN General Assembly, on 4 December 2000, adopted resolution 55/76 where it noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had agreed to have International Refugee Day coincide with Africa Refugee Day on 20 June.

The General Assembly therefore decided that 20 June would be celebrated as World Refugee Day.

As Prof Dr C R Abrar of Dhaka University remarks, “this year the World Refugee Day is being commemorated at a time when on the one hand the plight of refugees and asylum seekers has reached new heights, while on the other, globally a compassion fatigue appears to have set in. Termed as 'the worst refugee crisis' since World War II, 2014 witnessed a steep growth in the number of people forced to flee their homes with 59.5 million people forcibly displaced, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier. The recent media footage and reports on desperate people escaping violence at home and undertaking perilous journeys across the Gulf of Aden, the Red, Mediterranean and the Andaman Seas, are glaring testimonies of the scale of this humanitarian crisis.” 

The UN estimates that one in every 122 persons that inhabit the globe is now a refugee, internally displaced, or an asylum seeker. A recent UNHCR report goes on to record that “Were this the population of a country, it would be the world 24th biggest”. The UN figures further inform that almost nine out of every ten refugees (86 percent) were in regions and countries considered economically less developed. 25 percent of the total stock is based in what the UN has ranked as Least Developed Countries. Therefore, the global distribution of refugee remains massively distorted away from wealthier nations and towards the poor nations. 

In the Rakhine State of Myanmar, about 140,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in the aftermath of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The majority of them are the Rohingya, with smaller numbers of Rakhine, Kaman and other ethnicities. Most of the Rohingya are living in temporary camps and shelters with restriction on their freedom of movement and a lack of basic healthcare. Reports suggest that they are subjected to different forms of extortion, forced labour and arbitrary taxation including financial restrictions on marriage.

Under the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982, Myanmar has granted citizenship to 135 different ethnic groups, but not the Rohingya. Instead the Rohingya population remains stateless and the Myanmar government constantly reaffirms that this group is not welcome in Myanmar. Therefore, the plight of the Rohingya is twofold -- they are subjected to serious human rights violations and they are also stateless.

Given this situation, thousands of Rohingya have continued to flee Myanmar and sought safety elsewhere. Abuse and exploitation are common along the way and many lose their lives at sea. A statement published by UNHCR last week shows that an estimated 86,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have sailed on boats since June 2012. More than 1,300 have died on the journey and hundreds have been ill-treated in overcrowded camps run by traffickers and people smugglers.

The conflict in Rakhine State in Myanmar has given rise to a regional problem that now spans across Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India. UNHCR is advocating for these host countries to grant the Rohingya temporary stay arrangements until the situation stabilises sufficiently in Rakhine State for them to return.

Although UNHCR can alleviate the suffering of displaced populations, it takes political decisions to resolve the root causes of conflicts and achieve peaceful co-existence of communities. On this World Refugee Day, let us all urge the international community to pave the way for a peaceful solution which will allow the Rohingya to finally return to the society that they were once part of.

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