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Between Burma and Bangladesh: Rohingya, a Stateless People

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Over the past 30 years, several waves of Rohingya have fled oppression in Burma and have settled in southern Bangladesh. Unwanted and unwelcome in Bangladesh, they are denied refugee status and most humanitarian assistance, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation and violence. These Rohingya men left Burma years ago when Burmese authorities arbitrarily seized their land. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2012.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group who predominantly live in the isolated North Rakhine State of western Burma (Myanmar). Over the course of only a few months in 1978, many Rohingya fled Burma when authorities launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), to root out people who lived in Burma illegally. In North Rakhine, the operation resulted in violence, arrest, harassment and the exodus of 250,000 Rohingya. Under pressure from the international community, Burma agreed to "take back" the Rohingya in a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. But less than three years later, the Burmese government passed the 1982 Citizenship Act, which effectively denied citizenship to the Rohingya.

Nations around the world have legislation that defines the criteria on which citizenship is extended to an individual. But the significance of Burma's 1982 Citizenship Act is that one of the motives for the drafting of the act was not to define who belonged, but rather who was excluded. Once the act was passed, some 800,000 Rohingya in North Rakhine became stateless. In many ways, the Citizenship Act formalized the exclusion that the Rohingya had experienced at the hands of the Burmese military junta since 1961, when General Ne Win took over the country in a military coup and set forth the "Burmese Way to Socialism." The Citizenship Act created three categories of citizens, and the Rohingya did not fit any of them.

Thirty years after the 1982 Citizenship Act was passed, the Rohingya remain a stateless people. It is the denial of this right to citizenship that has been used to deprive them of many fundamental rights. The Rohingya of Burma face severe restrictions on the right to marry; they are subjected to forced labor and arbitrary land seizure; they endure excessive taxes and they are denied the right to travel freely. As a result of the abuse and hardship, it is estimated that some 300,000 Rohingya have left Burma and now live in southern Bangladesh, where most are not recognized as refugees.

Many in Bangladesh see this enormous community of undocumented stateless people as a threat to national identity, yet the Rohingya represent a significant proportion of the local workforce in many industries, especially in manual labor jobs in the fishing industry, salt production, construction and agriculture. In recent years, authorities have clamped down on the Rohingya in southern Bangladesh, arresting and forcibly returning thousands back to Burma. These "push backs" continue even today as does the steady trickle of Rohingya out of Burma.

Every night, Rohingya cross the Naf River that divides Burma and Bangladesh. While those who do leave yearn for the day they can return to their homeland, most Rohingya say their return will only come when they are provided with a fundamental right they've been denied the past 30—citizenship.

Jafar, 34, who fled to Bangladesh with his family in 1991, feels time is running out. So do a growing number of Rohingya who have lived in Bangladesh for years.

"Myanmar is my home and that is where I want to go back to," Jafar says. "But none of us have citizenship and because we don’t have citizenship we are like a fish out of water, flapping and unable to breathe. If we were to get citizenship in Burma, we would be like the fish that you catch and then throw back into the water where he belongs. But we can’t do anything right now. We are still that fish out of water and when a fish is out of water, he suffocates to death."