Rohingya Need to Be Treated as Burmese Citizens: US

By Feliz Solomon 3 June 2015

RANGOON — US migration envoy Anne C. Richard on Wednesday briefed reporters on the Southeast Asia migrant crisis, calling for continued regional support and citizenship for Burma’s stateless Rohingya Muslims.

“The Rohingya need to be treated as citizens of Burma, they need to have the papers to show that,” Assistant Secretary of State Richard said during a conference call from Jakarta following a visit to migrant holding centers in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Stressing the need for immediate search and rescue efforts to save an estimated 2,000 people still stranded at sea, Richard said saving lives, tackling criminal gangs and addressing “root causes” of the exodus are top priorities.

Thousands of traumatized and emaciated men, women and children reached the shores of Indonesia and Malaysia in recent weeks after a crackdown on human trafficking by Thai authorities led to the abandonment of boatloads of migrants.

Most of the passengers, who have come to be referred to as “boat people,” were Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in western Burma’s Arakan State, while others were found to be migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Nearly all of Burma’s estimated 1.1 million Rohingya are denied citizenship and many have lived in apartheid-like conditions since inter-communal riots in 2012 left hundreds dead and about 140,000 confined to displacement camps.

The Burmese government and much of the population do not recognize Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group, calling them “Bengalis” to imply that they are illegal immigrants. Unlivable conditions in Arakan State have been cited by the US State Department as a key driver of the exodus.

Richard said during Wednesday’s briefing that northern Arakan State was among the most oppressive environments she had ever seen.

“I went to one community where people were afraid to talk to us,” Richard said. “That’s just not normal.”

At least 25,000 people are believed to have fled from northern Burma and Bangladesh since just the start of this year to seek work or refuge in countries such as Muslim-majority Malaysia, many ending up in the hands of human traffickers.

The early May discovery of mass graves in southern Thailand prompted a crackdown on the trade that led traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea.

A representative of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Wednesday that some 2,000 people could still be floating on rickety ships in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Thousands of others have been brought to shore in neighboring countries that have agreed to shelter them for one year pending resettlement in third countries.

The UNHCR spokesman said registration has been completed for those who arrived in Aceh, Indonesia, including about 1,000 Rohingya refugees and more than 800 Bangladeshi migrants currently being sheltered at five sites. Nearly 350 unaccompanied minors are among those registered with the UNHCR.

Richard said a boat carrying more than 700 people recently found by the Burma Navy will be disembarked on Wednesday morning. The Burmese government has said it will scrutinize the passengers to determine their origins and return them to their places of departure “in accordance with their wishes.”