By Ruhul Tarafdar

Once again we are witnessing the continual suffering of the Rohingya. Described by the UN as the most persecuted people on earth, the world stands by as thousands of Rohingya are lost at sea. People are so desperate that the BBC reports that they are drinking their own urine just to survive on the boats.  It shows how cheap the lives of these people are. I sometimes wonder if the Rohingya were Caucasian, would the world’s nations be so fast to close their doors and borders and let these helpless people drown and starve to death at sea.

rohingya woman and child
Rohingya mother with her child at refugee camp ChildrenPlus/Ruhul Tarafdar

In recent days what has been found on land has been equally disturbing. In the hills between Malaysia and Thailand, nearly 150 mass graves have been uncovered with the bodies of what is believed to be thousands of Rohingya Muslims who became victims of human trafficking whist fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

In Myanmar, out of what is already a dwindling population, there are around 140,000 Rohingya who fled the fighting in 2012 and are sheltering in camps described by UN officials as having the worst conditions in the world, inhumane and simply open air prisons.

There are approximately 200,000 Rohingya Muslims living in Bangladesh, the vast majority in the region of Cox’s Bazar. About 30,000 are registered refugees who live in the two Camps run by the United Nations. The rest are unregistered, also known as undocumented. Speaking a Bengali dialect similar to one in southeast Bangladesh, the Rohingya people are Muslims but are seen as illegal immigrants by the Buddhist-majority Myanmar Government and many of Myanmar’s citizens.

Thousands try to escape and many end up in Bangladesh. Here conditions are better than in Myanmar but not by much. Towards the end of last year, I visited two camps located in Kutupalong and Nayapara. I was there to distribute Qurbani meat from donations collected by the charity I work for.  Many of the families I visited had never tasted meat before. I had to bypass much red tape and many logistical problems in order to even get to the camps. The suffering I saw when I eventually got there is something I will never forget.

rohingya children
Rohingya children in refugee camps Photo:ChildrenPlus/Ruhul Tarafdar

For the registered refugees living inside the camps life is certainly tough but they are the lucky ones. For the 70,000 refugees living outside, conditions can only be described as horrendous. The houses are made of mud and whatever pieces of plastic and junk that can be put together to try and keep the rain and winds out. I have never witnessed such hardship, desperation and disease on such a level before.  They are living in nothing more than ghettos.

So how did this situation come about and why are they fleeing from their homes?

The 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar, which ignored the Rohingya’s claim to citizenship and thus rendered them stateless, has formed the legal basis for arbitrary and discriminatory treatment against the Rohingya community and made them subject to a series of draconian policies and controls.  Some have been ‘burnt out’ through the destruction of their homes and properties.  Those who were not displaced have been cut off from their livelihoods and face difficulty in accessing food and basic services.

Of course we need to do everything possible to address this humanitarian catastrophe but we also need to look at the role the Burmese government has had in creating it. The regime has followed a deliberately ruthless policy of using a combination of merciless repression and abject poverty to drive the centuries old Rohingya minority out of Myanmar.  The government continues to deny the very existence of the Rohingya. It is clear that without pressure from the international community, the lives of the Rohingya will continue to be one of fear and persecution.

To some extent, I understand the position of the Bangladesh government which feels allowing more Rohingya into Bangladesh would be in effect to allow the Myanmar Government to ethnically cleanse Myanmar of its Rohingya population, thus driving them out of their homes.

Governments of the world must do more and need to pressure the Myanmar government to change its policies which are bordering on genocide and ethnic cleansing.