Citizens of Nowhere: the Rohingya of Myanmar

The appalling actions being perpetrated against the Rohingya people need to be addressed urgently
Forced labor, restrictions on travel and the confiscation of land and property in Myanmar’s North Rakhine State leave many Rohingya destitute and with no choice but to flee to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, Rohingya fortunate enough to find employment on fishing boats or in the salt works earn less than US$1 a day. Greg Constantine

Ethnic cleansing. Genocide. Terrorism. These are some of the terms that have been used to describe the actions being perpetrated against the Rohingya people, not only in Myanmar but in the surrounding countries where they have been subjected to continuous victimisation.

The plight of the Rohingya was once again flung onto the world stage last year when a number of boats filled with passengers fleeing persecution were thwarted from docking at a number of different shores across the region. This journey is by no means uncommon: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have made this journey over the last few decades, despite it being one of the most deadly irregular migration routes in the world.

Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division has called the Rohingya the ‘world’s most forgotten, abused people’, and the UN has called them one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Despite this black mark on Myanmar’s record, the West has been quick to lift sanctions against the country in order to encourage its transition to democracy. Many have warned against this perhaps premature decision, especially when the violence against the Rohingyas continues to escalate unabated.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group that live mainly in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, and have been doing so for generations. In 1982 however, the Burma Citizenship Law stripped the vast majority of Rohingyas of any national belonging to what is now Myanmar. Along with official citizenship, they have been deprived of the accompanying rights this affords one.

Although this minority group has been victimised for decades, the situation has become particularly dire over the last few years following violent clashes between the Buddhists and Rohingyas. Following the initial violence, the government retaliated against the Rohingya and have since then spearheaded a campaign of relentless and increasing terror against them.


Greg Constantine


The abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya population have been flagged by a number of organisations including the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the results are chilling.

Accusations of rape, torture, forced removals, forced labour, child labour, detention and killings are widespread and have been well-documented. Further, there have been major restrictions placed upon Rohingya reproductive rights, the ability to move freely and access to basic social services.

These policies of discrimination are far from being an exaggeration. In 2012 for example, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs, told parliament that the authorities were, “tightening the regulations [against Rohingya] in order to handle travelling, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, construction of new religious buildings, repairing and land ownership and right to construct building [sic] of Bengalis [Rohingya] under the law.”

This complete dehumanisation of the Rohingya has become commonplace throughout Myanmar and the region, and has infiltrated political and religious discourse. Important government officials have referred to them as ‘viruses’ and ‘foreign entities’ and many important Buddhist leaders have fuelled this kind of sentiment using social media and anti-Muslim rallies.

Why statelessness matters

This blatant oppression and abuse is largely due to one major issue affecting not only the Rohingya, but approximately 15 million people worldwide: statelessness (Editor’s note: The UNHCR report only for only 50% of the world). Statelessness excludes people from accessing basic human rights, such as the right to safety, education and access to medical care. Beyond this, it has to ability to prohibit one from participating politically, finding legal employment, owning property, travelling, opening a bank account, registering your children and getting married. In many cases, statelessness acts as a conduit for serious abuse, be it state-sanctioned or due to the fact that state protection is not afforded to these ‘legal ghosts’. While every person has the right to citizenship under international law, there is ambiguity around who is responsible for granting this citizenship. In the end, it is at each state’s discretion whether or not to fulfil this obligation.

The Rohingya are a prime example of the danger of statelessness. According to the government of Myanmar, the Rohingya ethnicity does not exist- they are instead illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as ‘Bengalis’. This is not simply a matter of semantics: it forms the basis for a complete violation of the basic rights of well over a million people under the guise of cracking down on illegal immigration.

A group of Rohingya men push their fishing boat onto shore. Most Rohingya men in the Shamlapur area of Bangladesh work as bonded laborers and are trapped into debt to local Bangladeshi boat owners. Greg Constantine

In a world where the possession of a nationality offers one the possibility of participation, freedom and protection, ending statelessness should be very high on the agenda. The UNHCR has been a great advocate of this, and the recent launch of the global #IBelong campaign is a much needed step towards eliminating statelessness completely.

The recent open elections and the possibility of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president has for many signalled the birth of a Myanmar which upholds human rights and a respect for the rule of law. One can only hope that this respect extends to a population who are homeless in the only home that they have ever known.

Human Rights
Laura Naude

Laura is originally from South Africa and recently graduated with a master's degree in conflict, security and development from King’s College London. She is particularly passionate about refugee issues, human rights and humanitarian assistance. Previous experience includes Amnesty International and various organisations in the UK and South Africa. Her skills include photography, journalism, advocacy, social media, international relations and research. Laura is currently working for Lighthouse Relief, a refugee organisation in the Idomeni area in Greece. She can be reached at [email protected] or through LinkedIn.
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