The plight of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic minority from Burma’s western Rakhine state, has long been a source of tension and conflict with other communities. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have sought shelter in Bangladesh. Most flee with the aid of human traffickers, paying the agents and often going into debt.
A lack of progress in gaining greater rights and recognition remain key reasons why the Rohingya take to boats, says Lynn Yoshikawa, an advocate with the Washington-based Refugees International. “So they are taking quite a perilous journey off into Malaysia, Indonesia, this year. And, if that’s a sign then the outlook for the Rohingya remains bleak. The root cause lies in as much the government’s citizenship laws as with the intolerance with the minorities,” she said.
Thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh in recent decades, especially around the town, Cox’s Bazaar. In the camps of Nayapara and Kutupalong, some 30,000 Burmese refugees receive United Nations assistance. A further 200,000 refugees living in the camps are undocumented.
In early December, Burma and Bangladesh jointly agreed that the Burmese living in Bangladesh could be returned to Burma. The agreement followed a two-day visit to Burma by Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says a political solution is necessary to the plight of the Rohingya, often referred to as the “forgotten people”. “There has to be some political will from the leaders of Burma and Bangladesh to want to deal with it and so far neither the Burmese Government nor the government of Shiekh Hasina in Bangladesh have indicated in any way that they want to do anything except the continued abuse of this community and let them go on to rickety boats possibly to float off into perilous situations and their deaths,” he said.
Under the joint agreement, Burma agreed to take back the refugees but only after a verification process of the almost 30,000 registered refugees by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
Chris Lewa, spokesperson for the rights group, the Arakan Project, says the international community should press President Thein Sein’s administration to end discrimination against the Rohingya.
"I think all the governments now engaged, including Australia, who engage with the Burmese government should also engage on that issue - to put concerted pressure to try to create some changes in that area and make the conditions more sustainable for the Rohingya to survive in Burma so they don’t have to flee,” Lewa said.
In 2009 regional governments from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other governments under the 38-member nation Bali Process on human trafficking attempted to solve the issue after reports of hundreds of Rohingya refugees perishing at sea.
Rights groups had accused the Thai authorities of seizing boats that landed on Thai coasts, removing their motors and towing them back to sea where some 550 people died while adrift. Thailand officially denied the allegations but called on regional governments, including Burma, to support efforts to find a solution.