The desperation of the Rohingya people should have shaken the conscience of the world long before haunting footage of migrants stranded for days at sea surfaced. When men, women and children, risk their lives and get on cramped, rickety boats leaving their homes behind, it is because there is nowhere else to go. There needs to be no better reason or justification for other countries in the world to give them asylum and offer a home, or to open their eyes to the persecution. Yet, the world has ignored the Rohingya minority far too much, for far too long. Many, including some UN officials, still refuse to recognise them by name and refer to them as ‘Bengali’, a derogatory and inaccurate term used by Myanmar authorities to depict Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Failure to call Rohingya by their name is a reflection of how far the world is from recognising their plight.
Rohingya Muslims are more than just “boat people”. They are a stateless, ethnic minority that has been subjected to systematic persecution for decades. And in recent years, since the widespread violence in Rakhine State in 2012, between Buddhists and Muslims, left nearly 200 dead, tens of thousands of Rohingya homes have burnt to the ground, while thousands of people have been displaced and forced to live in camps. Since the 2010 communal violence, an estimated 120,000 people from the minority community have boarded boats to flee poverty and persecution, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In the first three months of 2015 alone, an estimated 25,000 people, which is double the number than last year, took to the seas in hope for survival. People have died on board or jumped from boats because of mental suffering, while women and children have been subjected to human smuggling.
But countries in Asia, particularly Thailand, that is most accused of human trafficking of Rohingyas, have had the most deplorable response to the human rights abuses and consequential exodus from Myanmar. Over the past months, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have pushed back migrant boats, leaving hundreds to die at sea. It was not until surmounting international pressure and horrifying images of people stranded with little food and water went viral, that Malaysian and Thai authorities allowed the migrants to land.
It is indeed a global struggle to respond to the refugee crisis the world is faced with today. According to the UN, it is the worst refugee crisis since World War II. In Europe alone, in 2014, more than 220,000 migrants and asylum seekers reached the continent by sea — four times as many as in 2013. But the “fortress of Europe” has cost many human lives. The EU’s response to the migrants arriving by sea is inhumane and its policies are reflective in the high death tolls of refugees and asylum seekers. More than 3,200 died in 2014, which was four times the number in 2013. And in the first quarter of 2015, the death toll is well over 1,500, compared with 96 during the first four months of last year. The ‘crisis’ in the current scenario is not migration, the crisis is the ongoing human rights violation.
Pakistan’s role and response to the rights violations in Myanmar, meanwhile, has been both ironic and interesting. In its statement, Pakistan has said it believes in peaceful coexistence of all communities in Myanmar and fundamental rights of citizenship, freedom to practise religion and security must be granted. While Pakistan’s concern and monetary assistance should be greatly appreciated, it also begs the question how authorities are so blind to the plight of thousands fleeing persecution from Pakistan today. Pakistanis, particularly Shia Hazaras, just like the Rohingyas, get on rickety boats everyday in hope for survival elsewhere. Many of them die at sea, but their desperation remains ignored. Is Pakistan responding to the Rohingya only because they are Muslim? And if so, then are its own persecuted sects not Muslim enough for the state?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2015.
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