Rohingya crisis not an isolated tragedy, it's the future


  • People
  • Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Migrants react from their boat as they are towed away from Thailand by a Thai navy vessel, in waters near Koh Lipe island on May 16. Photo: Reuters/Aubrey Belford

[vc_row][vc_column width="1/3"]Unwanted: Migrants react as their boat is towed back out to sea by the Thai navy, in waters near Koh Lipe, Thailand, on May 16. Photo: Reuters/Aubrey Belford[/vc_column]

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We've all seen the photographs of these refugees.

We’ve seen them hanging their emaciated limbs off the sides of their boats.

We’ve seen the scars on their backs, earned in fights over scarce food and water.

We’ve read their harrowing stories of being abandoned at sea, rejected by one government after another.

Whether we like it or not, the Rohingya and other refugees like them are a global problem. And it's a problem that's not going away.

According to the United Nations, there are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time since the Second World War.

As more people flee their countries, it raises an important question about the grim prospect we face as global citizens:

Are we ready to face the future?

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A Rohingya boy, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, holds his ball as he walks at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Aceh, Indonesia on May 19. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

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I remember when the Rohingya refugees first started arriving in Bangladesh.

It was in 1982, after the Rohingya had been stripped of their rights by a Myanmar law that refused to recognise them as one of the 135 “national races” of the country. Faced with state-sanctioned persecution, they began to flee across the border.

In the years since then, they have been evicted from their lands, made the victims of arbitrary taxes and forced labour, and banned from travelling or getting married without a permit. It is illegal for them even to have more than two children.

In a cruel irony, the Myanmar government has now taken to calling the Rohingya “illegal Bangladeshis” even though generations of their people have lived in Myanmar.

There are now 30,000 documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the UNHCR estimates that up to 200,000 more are living in villages along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Bangladesh pleads lack of resources: as a poor country, we just don’t have the means to support an influx of refugees. But we could do much more to support our neighbours.

Worse, western governments have been so enthralled with Aung San Suu Kyi that they have overlooked her shameful stance on this minority community. The Myanmar authorities are known to have refused to attend any event in which the word “Rohingya” is uttered.

[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"]A Rohingya boy, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, holds his ball as he walks at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Aceh, Indonesia on May 19. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

It is estimated that up to 8,000 refugees are marooned in the sea between Bangladesh and Malaysia. Most come from Rakhine state, in Myanmar, where identified as Rohingya they are denied the basic rights of citizenship. The rest are economic migrants from Bangladesh.

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[vc_row][vc_column width="3/4"]Plywood with the words [/vc_column][vc_column width="1/4"]Plywood with the words "We are Myanmar Rohingya" is seen on an abandoned boat that carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 20, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta[/vc_column][/vc_row]

[vc_row][vc_column width="3/4"]Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who were rescued by the Myanmar navy alongside Bangladesh refugees, are interviewed by immigration officers at a Muslim religious school used as a temporary refugee camp, at the Aletankyaw village in the Maungdaw township, in Rakhine state, on</p><p>May 23. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/4"]Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who were rescued by the Myanmar navy alongside Bangladesh refugees, are interviewed by immigration officers at a Muslim religious school used as a temporary refugee camp, at the Aletankyaw village in the Maungdaw township, in Rakhine state, on May 23. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun[/vc_column][/vc_row]

[vc_row][vc_column width="3/4"]A Rohingya boat migrant woman covers her face as she waits for breakfast inside a temporary refugee compound in Kuala Cangkoi, Lhoksukon, in Aceh, Indonesia, on May 17. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/4"]A Rohingya boat migrant woman covers her face as she waits for breakfast inside a temporary refugee compound in Kuala Cangkoi, Lhoksukon, in Aceh, Indonesia, on May 17. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta[/vc_column][/vc_row]

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But blaming Bangladesh or Myanmar, or indeed the countries that are refusing to send rescue vessels, can take us only so far. The only way the Rohingyas’ condition will improve is if there is a concerted international, multilateral pressure on all the countries of the region.

The time has come for us to take a global view on migrants. There are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time since the Second World War. People fleeing persecution, poverty and conflict are risking their lives to find refuge.

[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/4"][/vc_column][/vc_row]RohingyaCrisis10A[vc_row]

[vc_column width="1/3"]Rohingya migrant boys, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, eat breakfast inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi, Lhoksukon, in Aceh, Indonesia on May 18. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta[/vc_column]

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Welcome to the age of migrants

The Rohingya refugees, 25,000 of whom have taken to the seas this year, say they would rather take their chances with people-smugglers than remain in Myanmar to face certain death.

The truth is, we are entering an age of migrants, and we must adjust our sense of fairness and morality, and even our concept of national borders, accordingly. Climate change is about to force upon us a refugee crisis that is unprecedented in all of human history.

Already in Bangladesh, 50,000 people migrate to the capital city every month because rising sea levels have made their villages uninhabitable and have destroyed their arable land.

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The floating refugees are giving us a glimpse into our collective future.

In this future, perhaps it will be the already unfortunate countries, such as Bangladesh, that first fall victim.

But soon, even wealthy countries will begin to suffer from extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels. We still don’t know exactly how climate change will affect each of our countries.

Given this uncertainty, we need to take a radically new approach to our shared resources.

I may dream of such a future, but I know it will not come readily. Many thousands of boat people will have to perish before we make sweeping, transnational changes to the way we approach refugees.

We are poorly prepared for what is about to hit us. We have neither the political will nor the moral courage nor the sense we need of a collective fate to face the challenges of the future.

Let the images of these people be our clarion call. – Guardian News & Media/Tahmima Anam

[/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"]Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Aceh, Indonesia on May 11. Photo: Reuters/Roni Bintang[/vc_column][/vc_row]

Acehnese fishermen pass near an abandoned boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

[vc_row][vc_column width="2/3"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/3"]Acehnese fishermen pass near an abandoned boat which had carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 20. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta[/vc_column][/vc_row]

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