The budding refugee crisis you may not have heard about

It’s hard to wrap your head around the magnitude of the refugee crisis brought on by the Syrian Civil War; there are currently something like 2 million Syrians who had fled the country into difficult and uncertain exile, and estimates suggest that well over 4 million Syrians are internally displaced, uprooted from their homes and lives but still unable to escape the violence. What makes Syria truly horrific from a global refugee standpoint is that it had been a refugee host before the war, and now it has become exactly the opposite. Indeed, the war’s impact may have fallen hardest on Syria’s Palestinian refugees, most of whom were already refugees and who were nonetheless still considered outsiders in Syrian society (though pre-war, Palestinian refugees were treated better in Syria than probably anywhere else in the Arab world).

Meanwhile, in Africa, fighting in South Sudan has displaced tens of thousands, as many as 200,000, and the near-constant state of anarchy in the Congo-Great Lakes region creates a new flood of refugees every time a militia goes on a killing spree, or during periods of full-on civil war like we’re currently seeing in the Central African Republic. The undisputed heavyweight of refugee crises has been and continues to be Afghanistan, a country that has been so unstable and so violent for so long that it is the cause of a regional refugee crisis (around 3 million Afghan refugees are still displaced to neighboring countries, many in terrible conditions), and it is also struggling mightily with the problem of repatriating vast numbers of the formerly displaced (upwards of 6 million people), who are finding it difficult to reintegrate into Afghan society and (particularly) the Afghan economy. All told the UN estimates that there are more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world today.

There is an emerging refugee crisis that the world needs to start noticing, even though it’s in a country so secretive that I suspect the rest of the world sometimes forgets that it exists. I’m talking about Myanmar (or Burma, nobody seems to have a good answer on that point), where the Muslim Rohingya people have faced discrimination for decades and where heavy sectarian violence (arguably ethnic cleansing at this point) over the past year or so has created vast numbers of refugees and threatens to become a full-blown genocide.

Some background: there has been a Muslim presence in what is now Myanmar for well over a millennium, though there is a dispute over where the Rohingya originated. The Rohingya claim to be descended from first millennium CE Afghan migrants or from Arab traders who settled in the area, while the government and those who oppose the Rohingya insist that they are modern “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh and/or India (even though there are good linguistic reasons to reject that idea), and the government denies them citizenship based on this claim. Objective ethnic and linguistic evidence suggests that the Rohingya are a branch of a predominantly Muslim community that has existed on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border for centuries; the Rohingya language is related to the language spoken by the Chittagong in southern Bangladesh, and both are related to, but not intelligible with, Bengali. Many/most of them may have been brought into Myanmar under British colonial rule starting in the 19th century, which makes them recent arrivals but not “illegal immigrants” by any definition of that term. They are primarily concentrated in the Rakhine region on Myanmar’s northwest coast.

A Rohingya girl in a refugee camp in Bangladesh (via)
A Rohingya girl in a refugee camp in Bangladesh (via)

Muslims have generally been poorly treated by the Buddhist rulers of the region as far back as history records a Muslim presence there. There has long been a feeling among many Burmese Buddhists that Myanmar is the last bastion for Buddhism around the world, mostly because of Islam’s expansion into places like India and Southeast Asia, so those Buddhists are resistant to any Muslim encroachment into their nation. The military junta that’s governed the country since the 1960s hasn’t done anything to change national policy toward Muslims, but starting in 2012 the long-simmering tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine’s majority Buddhist population (the Arakanese) escalated in a series of back and forth attacks by both sides against one another. The Rohingya were certainly not innocent in those early clashes, but the government’s response fell disproportionately on that community, imposing a two-child limit on Rohingya families and arresting/forcibly resettling the Rohingya (according to Amnesty International) while doing little to stop or punish the Buddhist mobs who attacked them. Anti-Rohingya violence has become increasingly common and increasingly deadly, fueled in part by a Buddhist group calling itself the 969 Movement, which urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and rails against interfaith marriages when it’s not fomenting actual violence against the Rohingya (or “Bengalis” according to 969). Whatever role the Rohingya may have played in starting the chain of violence, they are overwhelmingly the victims of that violence today.

Myanmar’s government, for its part, has taken to denying that any violence is occurring at all, and its generous offer to kick all the Rohingya out and resettle them someplace else was rejected by human rights groups all over the world for some reason. There are 200,000 or more (most likely more) Rohingya refugees who have fled, most of them to Bangladesh where, despite the Myanmar government’s insistence that they are all Bengali anyway, they are living in horrific conditions. Even Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her failure to condemn the violence against the Rohingya; every time she’s asked about their plight she seems to demur and talk about the violence that has affected both sides (as though the Buddhists have suffered equally in all of this), or about the need to restore the rule of law throughout Myanmar, which is nice and a great idea but evades the point. The Rohingya are in an extraordinarily unfortunate position whereby they are members of a despised religious minority and they are also officially considered illegal immigrants. Because of the latter status, even other Burmese Muslims often don’t really seem to care what happens to the Rohingya.

The United Nations calls the Rohingya “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” Hopefully the world will start noticing. For more on this topic, I’d recommend starting here.


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