Rohingya refugee crisis: Humanitarian challenge requires a regional solution

The only solution to such a crisis is a regional approach. SAARC, ASEAN, SCO, GCC and other important regional organisations should come forward to design a constructive policy in respect of refugee, asylum seeker and IDPs, writes Dr Bawa Singh for South Asia Monitor.

May 6, 2017
By Dr Bawa Singh
In the recent past, Myanmar's Arakan state has become a pivot of a clash of civilisations. Since 2012, the state has been embroiled in a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims (in northern Arakan) -- who are in minority -- on the one side and, on the other, the Buddhists who are in south Arakan as a majority. 
There have been widespread fears among the Buddhists that, sooner than later, they could turn into minority in their ancestral state. The Clash of Civilizations (COC) is a hypothesis, proposed by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in a 1992 lecture at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. As per this hypothesis, the people’s cultural and religious identities will remain the fundamental sources of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Religiously, Arakan has a 55 per cent Buddhist and 42.7 per cent Rohingya population. 
There are certain reasons to believe that the Rohingya crisis is a critical ethnic crisis which not only is proving to be a problem for Myanmar but also to Southeast and South Asia. 
It has been reported that there are certain reasons behind the persecution of Rohingyas. First of all, the origin of Rohingyas has been a topic of debate. They are considered as illegal immigrants from India -- even then, they have been part of the state since colonial times.
Secondly, the religious tension between Buddhists and Muslims is one of the major causes of the ethnic crisis in Arakan state. Moreover, Rohingyas' support for the British suzerainty over Myanmar long ago is continuously being reminded to them by the Buddhists and has become one of the serious causes of this crisis. It is also believed that the demolition of the standing Buddha’s statue of Bamiyan (4th - 5th AD) by the Taliban has fuelled atrocities against the Rohingyas Muslims by the Buddhists.  
As per the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Rohingya Muslims have been amongst the most persecuted minority communities in the world. The persecution of these people goes back even before the independence of Myanmar, precisely since World War II. The passing of the legislation denying citizenship to the Rohingyas made them as stateless people, despite their long association and living in Myanmar for generations. 
The Rohingya have been denied the rights of Myanmarese nationality, freedom of movement and access to education and services etc. On the other hand, arbitrary confiscation of property, atrocities in the form of rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and violence, discrimination and harassment have become part and parcel of Rohingyas' lives. These atrocities become more unbearable when these cases go unreported by the police. Against these atrocities, even the judicial officers turn a blind eye. The perpetrators have not been only the local people but the authorities and law as well. 
These people are stateless and have been denied citizenship rights. Ethnic discrimination has been manifest in deprivation of education, health care, and employment. Approximately 140,000 Rohingya have been rehabilitated in woefully inadequate camps. Here, these people are closely monitored by the authorities.  
These people used to be conscripted into forced labour. They have been forced to live a very restricted life as these people have not been allowed to move outside their villages without permission.
Due to inhuman behaviour, deprivation of civil and fundamental rights, apathy on the part of the government, the Muslim Rohingyas have been converted from human being to non-human beings. The Rohingyas and refugees have become synonymous. 
The rationale for exodus includes the deprivation of rights on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. More than 80 per cent of Rohingya families have been entrapped in dire poverty. 
The social conflict between the Rohingyas and other religious groups exploded for the first time in 2012, when a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. The Buddhists very harshly hit back by killing and torching the Rohingya men. This incident of violence against the Rohingyas was taken very seriously by the UNHRC which called this crisis and bloodshed as “crimes against humanity”. 
The persecution continues till date. In 2015, more than 40 Rohingya families were massacred and, consequently, a massive exodus has taken place. 
From Myanmar, the mass migration of Rohingya people took place in 2015, and the exodus was notoriously dubbed as "boat people". This phenomenon has continued till date. These people travelled in ill-equipped boats to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. 
Lack of prompt response to the Rohingya crisis has highlighted a continued debility on the part of the so-called developed Asian countries. However, some ASEAN countries hesitantly provided some relief to these boat people. China, which claims to be a major power, is also not ready to take any refugees.  
Similarly, though India has hosted a considerable number of Rohingya refugees, it has not been ready to engage itself with Myanmar at the political level. The same is with Japan, despite it being the fourth largest donor to UNHCR. If the major powers of the Asian region are not ready to shoulder the responsibility, then how could poor and small countries do the same?
There are reasons to believe that due to the number of ethnic conflicts in various part of Asia, the continent has become a melting pot for hosting the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers. A substantial number of internally displaced people (IDP) have been leading a miserable life in Asia. In this backdrop, it has been argued that the region is still ill-equipped to effectively reciprocate and manage the problem. This argument has been substantiated by taking the cases of Syria, Iraq and, of course, Myanmar. 
To deal with the refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs, the Asian region lacks the regional approach. Only a few countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention. It has been argued by Dr. Amy Nethery (2015) that, in the Asian region, joint or regional approach to handling the refugee crisis did not find any place unlike the other regions like the Central America and Africa which formed their own region-wide protection frameworks to comply with international laws in this regard. 
On the other hand, the Asian region has only a few formal bilateral or multilateral agreements to deal with such refugee crises. At the same time, most of the Asian countries do not have state policy in this regard. Thus, the refugee crisis is taken as an unauthorised migration issue. 
It can be concluded that Rohingyas are passing through the most inhuman crisis, rather an ethnic crisis, making it a critical challenge for the Asian region. These people have been facing a lot many problems of physical, socio-economic and even psychological nature. 
It has been seen that even during the most critical phase of the Rohingya crisis, not a single country has responded to the crisis and even at the political level, the issue has remained in limbo. Thus, the only solution to such a crisis is a regional approach. Therefore, SAARC, ASEAN, SCO, GCC and other important regional organisations should come forward to design a constructive policy in respect of refugee, asylum seeker and IDPs.    
(The author is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to 

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