Rohingya: A Stateless Struggle

Exhausted from their journey out of Burma, 20 Rohingya were detained by Bangladeshi authorities as soon as their boat had crossed the Naf River from Burma and landed in the Shapuridip area of southern Bangladesh. Fifteen of the people in the group were women and children. Several of the children were sick. Border authorities pushed the entire group back to Burma the same night, but many in the group returned to Bangladesh the next day. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2012.

It is 9:00 a.m. in the outpost town of Teknaf in southern Bangladesh. The streets are teeming with rickshaws, street vendors, motorbikes, buses and thousands of people shuffling off to various jobs for the day. Not too far from the heart of central Teknaf, beyond the stench of fish drying near the Teknaf port at the main Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) post, 21 Rohingya from Burma sit in the shade. Exhausted and thirsty, they look out into the bright courtyard with a daze in their eyes. The group consists of only five men. The rest are women and young children of various ages.

The group had left Burma earlier that morning, crossed the Naf River in small wooden boats at dawn, and landed in Bangladesh, only to be apprehended by BGB troops. Their trip, this time, had come to an end.

This was my second visit to the BGB post in three days. During the first visit, another group of young Rohingya men, 11 in total, sat clustered together on the concrete floor 20 feet from the desk of the BGB commander. All were younger than 25 years of age.

And several days before that, at another BGB check post on the main road to Cox’s Bazar, one-and-a-half hours north of Teknaf, another group of 11 young Rohingya men, most from the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in the North Rakhine State of Burma, sat on the dirt floor in the corner of the hot and dusty check post. They too had crossed the Naf River in the morning only to be apprehended while en route to Cox’s Bazar. Huddled together at the check post, they spent the next few hours watching BGB troops stop and check every car, bus, microbus and even rickshaw passing through. While the searches were mostly intended to intercept drugs and other contraband being smuggled in from Burma, they were also being used to curb the number of stateless Rohingya entering into the country.

As the euphoria over Burma continues to gain momentum, have decades of criticism by the international community over human rights abuse in Burma taken a back seat? This week the European Union decided to suspend sanctions against Burma, opening up the door for aid and development funds to flood into the country. The U.S. recently eased sanctions that had been imposed on Burma since 1988 and will name an ambassador to Burma as well. Other governments, including Australia and Norway, have also eased sanctions. High level diplomatic missions to Burma have increased in the past six months, including British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Burma and meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein. What implications will this scramble for diplomatic positioning in Burma—as well as the economic opportunities related to Burma’s vast natural resources—have toward relieving the denial of fundamental rights to ethnic groups like the Rohingya?

Denied most social, civil and economic rights—including citizenship—the Rohingya in North Rakhine State of Burma have always been one of Burma’s most oppressed minorities. The migration of stateless Rohingya being smuggled from Burma and Bangladesh, across the Andaman Sea to Malaysia in unseaworthy boats, is now an annual occurrence. It is a problem ASEAN nations acknowledge as an issue that requires a regional solution. Yet, little has been done and it is unlikely there will be any solution in the near future, especially during this time of celebration over the changes in Burma.

For Bangladesh, which sits on the front line, absorbing much of the traffic of Rohingya fleeing Burma, the Rohingya present a constant challenge. Every day, Rohingya slip across the Naf River into Bangladesh seeking sanctuary, but in Bangladesh they are denied refugee status and receive little or no humanitarian assistance. In recent years, especially in late 2009 and early 2010, crackdowns against unrecognized Rohingya by Bangladesh authorities, police and anti-Rohingya groups resulted in thousands of Rohingya being arrested, put in jail or forcibly "pushed back" to Burma. Still, Rohingya, like the groups detained at the BGB check posts, continue to have little or no choice but to flee Burma for a better life.

BGB commanders I spoke with at all of these check posts explained how almost every day they were apprehending newly arrived Rohingya. Each commander also explained that unless things changed for the Rohingya inside Burma, the flow of Rohingya across their border would remain a problem for Bangladesh.

As one BGB commander described it: “Burma doesn’t want these people.”

Yet, when asked what would happen to those Rohingya being detained, the answer was quite clear. Bangladesh doesn’t want the Rohingya either. For all three of the groups of Rohingya detained at BGB checkposts, their day in detention passed, and in the evening, in the middle of the night, BGB pushed them back across the border at a time when Burma’s special military, border and intelligence force, found only in North Rakhine, could not see them through the darkness.