The Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis that Nobody Talks About

Flickr/CC/Mathias Eick for EU's ECHO

By Beatrice Loh


Since January, Europe has received a record 433,000 refugees and migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in search of a safe haven, more than double the total for all of 2014. The photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey has raised a media storm around the refugee crisis in Europe. The boy has since been identified as Aylan Kurdi. He drowned after the plastic boat he had been on overturned in calm waters from being overloaded with passengers. 12 other passengers, including Aylan’s brother and mother, also died. Aylan lent the crisis a face, showing the plight of the thousands of refugees who share similar devastating stories. Humans of New York, a popular photoblog documenting street portraits and interviews in New York City, has since begun a new photo series that offers its global audience a glimpse into the tragic experiences survivors have had in their journey to Europe.

On the other side of the world in Southeast Asia, another refugee crisis has been unfolding. As the monsoon season in the region comes to an end, boatloads of Rohingya Muslims will flee their homes in Myanmar to find safety in other Southeast Asian countries that include Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Rohingya Muslims are considered one of the world’s most persecuted minorities and among the world’s least wanted. Why is no one helping them?

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority mostly living in the Rakhine state in majority Buddhist Myanmar. The Myanmar government dispute the Rohingya people’s status as Burmese citizens, rendering them ‘stateless’ after the enactment of the Burmese nationality law in 1982. They claim that the Rohingya are Bengali and that their presence in Myanmar is the result of illegal immigration. The Rohingya, however, along with other scholars, claim to be pre-colonial residents of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with the earliest known appearance of the term Rohingya in 1799.

Currently, most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in the state. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in Rakhine in 2012, and forced to seek refuge in displacement camps.

Why are they being persecuted?

The persecution of the Rohingya is rooted in two main issues – the origins of the Rohingya people and their religion.

Under British colonial rule, lax immigration laws in the 1800s led to an influx of Bengali Muslims into the region. The British installation of South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of this new colonial territory displaced Myanmar Buddhist peasants, leading to an enduring hatred for the Bengalis. The failed Rohingya secessionist uprising between 1948 and 1961 worsened tension and the 1982 Burmese nationality law essentially legitimized discrimination against the Rohingya by denying them citizenship, as the Rohingya are not recognized as one of the 135 legally recognized ethnic groups in of Myanmar. The government argues that they are from neighbouring Bangladesh and that migrants, to gain citizenship, have invented the Rohingya identity. The Rohingya are subject to wanton violence and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and the on-going dispute over their origins.

Islamophobia is another problem in the country. Persistent fears of Islamic encroachment on Buddhists fuel much of the violence, with widespread and strongly held fears circulating among Buddhist Rakhines that they would become a minority in their ancestral state. In June 2012, tension between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya escalated into deadly clashes that decimated whole villages. Whilst the conflict first targeted Muslim Rohingya, by October, there was a wave of violence against Muslims of all ethnic groups. 

Why haven’t the Rohingya found a safe haven yet?

The Rohingya face violence and lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. In an attempt to flee their terrible circumstances, the Rohingya people have become among the world’s least wanted, denied resettlement in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Australia.

The main problem the Rohingya face as they flee persecution from Myanmar is that their perilous journey never ends. In May 2015, Malaysian patrol ships turned back two boats carrying approximately 600 people, many in critical physical condition. Thailand and Indonesia have reacted in the same way, leaving thousands stranded at sea.

International organizations have described the situation as a “three-way game of human ping pong” played by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and one that may result in a massive humanitarian disaster. Aid workers estimate that up to 6,000 refugees may be at sea with nowhere to go.

It seems that the plight of the Rohingya will not end any time soon. The Myanmar government is not willing to take measures to stop the discrimination and violence against the Rohingya. Positioning oneself against the Buddhist majority is not a popular choice amongst Myanmar politicians. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar, has been conspicuously quiet on the issue.

As we follow news of the Syrian refugees as they make their way to Europe in hopes of a better life, let us not forget the plight of the thousands of Rohingya Muslims stranded at sea, clinging onto life by a thin thread. More attention needs to be given to the issue to pressure the Myanmar government to make necessary changes to remove the institutionalization of racism, as well as to pressure other Southeast Asian nations to offer aid to this persecuted minority.