Guest-Editorial – Rohingya Refugees: Identity, Citizenship, and Human Rights
By Chapparban Sajaudeen
Rohingyas are neither the “most persecuted minority” nor “stateless”; rather, they have been systematically reduced to the conditions in which they live in today. Their citizenship right is snatched by implementing a discriminatory Citizenship Law (1982), which paves the way for their exclusion from the 2014 Census and violation of their basic fundamental and human rights from decades. Although Arakan (Rakhine) and the Rohingyas have a distinct and independent identity, culture, ethnicity and geography, they agreed to join the Union of Myanmar in 1940. Since then they have been subjected to state-sponsored discriminations and subjugation. They face denial of citizenship, restriction on movements, forced labor, rape, child abuse, mass killings, arbitrary confiscation of property, denial of health and education facilities. Myanmar has deceitfully turned its own subjects into a state of grave humanitarian crisis starting from the 1991-92 exodus to the recent Rohingya crisis of 2017. One of the primary reasons for the problems of the Rohingyas is their deferent religious, cultural and ethnic Muslim identities in the Buddhist majoritarian state. The government of Myanmar also supports the majoritarian view and encourages the majority and military to kill its own culturally different ethnic community. This systematic exclusion led to the world’s largest forced migration in the 21st century, along with those of the Iraqis, Congolese, Syrian and Burundians.
Amidst the European Refugee Crisis, the recent violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar since late August 2017 have forced “671,000 Rohingya Muslims” to “[flee] Burma’s Rakhine State to escape the military’s large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed by the Burmese security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity” (Human Right Watch Rohingya Crisis n.p.). This has added another episode to the global refugee crisis. Refugees today are the doubly persecuted community because one the one hand they are persecuted in “home” countries and on the other they have no hope and peace in the “host” countries in the context a growing right-wing politics on the global scene. Refugees from the war-torn Middle East and Myanmar in the South East have been denied entry into the comparatively safer countries in Europe and South Asia which have multiplied their miseries and led to further discrimination and denial of their right to live. This inhuman treatment of the refugees has given rise to a new phrase in the lexicon of forced migration, “boat people” – which shows the mirror to our civilized and educated societies and shallow humanity. The denial of citizenship from homeland and denial of entry for refuge in host countries led thousands of refugees to keep floating on the waves of oceans. The heart-wrenching photo of a three-year-old boy Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, who was found drowned on the Mediterranean Sea shore of Turkey while escaping for a safer destination in Europe from the war-torn Syria, went viral and attracted the attention of policymakers, world leaders, academicians, human rights activist, international organizations to think that there is a grave need to address the refugee issues internationally.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rightly said that “we are witnessing the highest level of displacement” and forced migration in the world today due to various socio-cultural and political reasons such as state-sponsored terrorism, terrorism, civil war, internal conflicts, sectarian violence, or natural calamities, etc. The Rohingya refugee crisis is yet another chapter in the book of forced migration, what Chris Lewa aptly calls “Asia’s new boat people” (40).
According to the UNHCR, there are 68.5 million displaced people of which 25.4 million are refugees and half of them are under the age of eighteen. The following graphic given by the UNHCR shows the refugee condition and their distribution. According to this, Turkey is the topmost country to host refugees (3.5 million), followed by Pakistan, Uganda, and Iran. Syria (6.3 m), Afghanistan (2.6 m) and Sudan (2.4 m) are the most affected countries which have produced 57% of the total refugee population and Myanmar has contributed approximately 2 million Rohingya refugees which is not yet captured in the UNCHR’s world refugee statistics. As stated by the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Bangladesh alone received 1.1 Million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. According to the UNOCHA, Bangladesh has given shelter to 9,09,207 refugees from Myanmar since 25 August 2017 (Humanitarian Data Exchange n.p.).
Refugees in the South Asian Context
I personally feel that there is a desperate need to discuss and address the refugee crisis in general and the Rohingya refugee crisis in particular at least in academia in order to enhance our understanding about the subject and remove all sorts of misconceptions and misunderstandings. The refugee subject is always neglected or mishandled in South Asia because lack of legal and ethical framework to address this issue. Except for Afghanistan no country in South Asia is a state party to the UN convention for refugees. It was good to see a debate in the Indian elections in 2019 where the Congress Party promised to address the refugee issue as one of its agendas; unfortunately it failed to come to power and the refugee issue remained unresolved in India.
I was surprised to see that the teachers and academicians at Indian universities were not interested to study and explore the Rohingya refugee issue due to prevailing anti-Rohingya rhetoric and possible political complications. The Indian government called this refugee group in India “illegal” and a “threat to security”; Indian academicians subscribed to same version of the story which blurred the difference between academicians and political leaders. It is in this context I decided to edit a special issue on “Rohingya Refugees: Identity, Citizenship and Human Rights” for Café Dissensus to study this subject and try to address the misconceptions and find some legal and ethical ways to address this problem. I must thank team Café Dissensus and special thanks to Dr. Mosarrap Khan for accepting the proposal. I received an overwhelming response to this Issue from across the world. And gradually I noticed that some research is being conducted on this topic in the Indian academia.
One of the misconceptions about the refugees is that they are a burden and giving refuge to the people in need is considered more of a courtesy. However, it’s actually a duty of humanity and of a civilized society; it is also a moral obligation. Refugees are often targeted as a ‘threat to national security’ and considered ‘illegal migrants’. But one needs to understand the difference between the ‘refugees’ and other forms of migrants, particularly the ‘illegal migrants’ with whom the refugees are always clubbed. Refugees are a people who fled a country or geographical location out of fear of persecution. While they are usually assisted with the UNHRC cards, some refugees don’t get these cards because of political pressures and other reasons. This does not imply that they are illegal. Refugee can be ‘undocumented’ but they cannot be ‘illegal’ because they fled to save their lives. How could one think of carrying or having documents amidst ongoing arson, killing, rape, etc.? Unlike migrants, they migrate to save their lives. Therefore, they are entitled to the protection and assistance under the International Law and the principle of humanity.
The well-managed refugees can be an asset to the growing economies of developing and developed societies. They can be available at low/average wages and can also add a feather in the multi-cultural fabric of the host society. They cannot be a burden if they are managed systematically and are able to earn their own wages to meet their daily needs. There are many examples of accommodating refugees in India. The Tibetan refugees are an example of how refugees can be successfully absorbed in the host country. Even unskilled labor ought to be considered as human recourse instead of burden. What the refugees actually require is a peaceful place to live and space to work. The Tibetan refugees in India have their own business, a government-in-exile, reservation in education and jobs. What we can learn from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), established in 1960 with 36 member countries from North and South America, Europe and Asia Pacific, is how to properly manage and systematically address the refugee question, despite the emergence of right-wing political opposition. This group tries to integrate the refugees into the mainstream society by providing skill training, access to job, education, family reunion, preservation of language, healthcare, driving license, network, childcare and help in seeking asylum.
Although no country in South Asia, except Afghanistan (2005), is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, one can see that South Asian Countries have been always open to the refugees. The following table of the refugee population distribution and position in receiving refugees from 1990 to the 2017 in South Asian countries is created from the World Bank Data. The table shows the respectable number (around 3 Million) of refugees who live in South Asian countries. According to the World Bank data, the number of refugees in South Asia has reduced considerably and in India this number has gone down by 7.2 % from 1990 to the 2017. In 1990, there were 2,12,743 refugees in India; in 2017, this number stood at 1,97,122 in 2017. In 1990, the Islamic Republic of Iran was in the first position in accommodating refugees (41,74,410) followed by Pakistan (32,55,975), whereas India was placed 23rd in world ranking and 2nd in South Asia after Pakistan. In 2017, Pakistan remained the first country to accommodate refugees, followed by Bangladesh as the second country to accommodate most refugees in South Asia. India was placed at the third position.
*Myanmar (South East Asia Country) depicted for information.
As the above table shows, there has been a massive increase of refugees in Bangladesh. After the violence re-erupted in Myanmar in 2017, India disallowed the new entry to the Rohingya refugees and decided to deport the existing Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. This move of government erupted into a controversy over the Rohingyas in India. There was a mixed response from the political and civil society organizations in support of and against the decision. There were arrests of Rohingya refugees across India and such arrests still go on in different parts of the country. On 22 January, 2019, 31 Rohingyas were handed over to the Tripura Police by the Border Security Force at the Bangladesh Border (Reuters n.p.). These were the people who decided to go back to Bangladesh when they found that India was not safe for them. “The UN refugee agency has said it has detected Rohingyas from India are moving to Bangladesh as authorities crack down on them.” “According to UNHCR, there are an estimated 17,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in India and living across different locations. It said that since late December, it has observed an increase in movements of Rohingyas from India to Bangladesh.”
Although India has accommodated a good number of refugees, the anti-immigrant and anti-Rohingya policy of the current Indian government is a result of lawlessness depending on the whims of the ruling party’s political agenda. Since India doesn’t have a proper legal framework for migrants and refugees, they are always subject to mistreatment and at the mercy of the ruling party. The Muslim identity of the Rohingyas is one of the obvious reasons for their non-acceptance as refugees in today’s India because of a growing anti- Muslim sentiment which is backed by the ruling party, thereby politicizing the issue of Rohingya refugees. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 is a clear discrimination against immigrants and refugees on communal lines. The Muslim immigrants coming from neighboring countries cannot have the right to citizenship in India because of their religion. This Bill proposed to offer citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, but not to Muslims. By giving refuge mostly to Hindus and other religious groups from the neighboring countries, this Bill resembles the “Law of Return” (1950) in Israel. This law gives the right to the Jews to return and avail citizenship. The Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 is also introduced to strengthen the BJP vote bank and fulfill the aspiration of its supporters who dream of a “Hindu Rashtra”. In September 2017, the BJP government granted citizenship to over one lakh Chakma (Buddhist) and Hajong (Hindu) refugees who fled to India in the 1960s from East Pakistan (Bangladesh). This Bill is being objected to in the North Eastern states of India because they fear that this Bill will change the indigenous demography of the region.
Since the Rohingya coming from Myanmar are Muslims, they don’t fit into the BJP’s dominant Hindu appeasing political rhetoric. There is also a fear that these Muslim outsiders will not support the Hindutva goals of the current government and would ultimately strengthen the opposition parties. The government also fears that these Muslim immigrants and refugees would change the demography of the country. Therefore, the BJP leaders are keen to deport the Rohingyas by citing various reasons. The implementation of the NRC in Assam has removed more than 700000 people (mostly Muslims) from the voter list, affecting the outcome of 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Although the Lok Sabha has passed the Bill, it still needs to be debated and get the nod in the Rajya Sabha.
India has also accommodated thousands of registered and unregistered refugees from almost all neighboring countries. Around 30,000 Hindu Nepali ethnic Lhotshampa refugees were given refuge in India when the Bhutan government came up with a new Citizenship Act in the 1980s, which discriminated against the Nepali Hindu community living in Bhutan for generations (Minorities at Risk 2003). Another diplomatic reason for India’s anti-Rohingya stance is its bilateral relation with Myanmar, which is of immense strategic importance for India in South East Asia. Despite Myanmar’s constant expulsion of Indians, India doesn’t want to lose Myanmar as a close friend in the region by supporting the Rohingyas.
Although the Indian politcians talk about deporting the Rohingyas to Maynamr, India cannot deport the Rohingyas forcfully because it needs to respect the principle of non-refoulment. Yes, India can voluntarily repatriate the Rohingyas when there is peace in Maynmar, as the government of India did in the case of some of the Tamil rfeugees to Sri Lanka at the time of Rajiv Gandhi. India did help refugees from Burma in 2011 under the project called Aarambh SIFE IIT Delhi in which 100000 refugees from Burma, both Hindus and Muslims, were given education for their empowerment and encouraged to work in the public sector. These refugees came to India because of armed conflict in Myanmar. Despite the current government’s anti-Rohingya stand, the Ministry of External Affairf launchrd an operation named Insaniayat to help the Rohingya arefugees in Bangladesh in September 2017. There are about 1.1 Million Rohingyas living in Bangladesh presently.
The current issue received a good number of scholarly articles from different parts of the world on various themes and sub-themes contained in the call for papers. Abdullah Al Yusuf’s “A Linguistic Anthropology of Rohingya Identity” pontificates on the question of Rohingya identity. Daruge Shayad’s article “Contravention of Rohingya Refugees’ Human Rights in Myanmar” explores the human rights violations of Rohingya in Myanmar.
Ishrat Jahan’s case study of the Rohingyas in Hyderabad, “Rohingya Refugees in Hyderabad: Socio-Economic and Educational Conditions”, reflects on their socio-economic and educational situation, while Mania Taher’s article, “Rohingya Refugees in a Segregated Geography: A Case Study of Milwaukee”, gives an account of the Rohingya Refugees in Milwaukee, USA.
Vineeth Mathoor and Sunil Kumar’s “‘Rohingyas, India is not for you’: An Examination of the Political Debates on Rohingya Refugees in India”, Waseem Hussain Rather’s “The Rohingya Crisis and the Indian Government’s Response”, and Hemaadri Singh Rana’s “Deportation of the Rohingya Refugees, Indian Law and the Politics of Hospitality” analyse in detail the politics of hospitality, leading to skewed Indian response to the crisis. Kaveri Urmi’s “Politics of Statelessness and Citizenship: Rohingya Lives in the Shadows” highlights the politics of statelessness and citizenship with reference to the Rohingya refugees.
Sowmit Chandra’s “September on Teknaf Road: Forced Migrations and ‘Safe Zones’ towards a Sustainable Solution for Rohingya Refugees” offers possible solutions to the Rohingya question in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Heisnam Olivia Devi’s “The Vulnerability of the Rohingya Refugees”, Pratiti Shirin’s “The Rape and Sexual Exploitation of the Rohingyas: Transgression of Human Rights and its Aftermath” describe the condition of the Rohingyas through a gendered lens. Prerona Dey and Aasita Bali’s article, “The Rohingya Crisis: Alarming Narratives of Women and Children” address the problems of refugee women and children.
Rachel D’Silva’s “Reflections on Narratives of Plight of the Rohingyas in India” and Sabzar Ahmad Bhat’s “The Rohingyas of Myanmar: The Most Persecuted Minority in the World” account for the plight of Rohngyas, the most hunted minority in the world.
Last but not the least, Sayantan Mondal’s “Language and its People: A Comparative Insight into the Kurdish and Rohingya Genocide” explores the issue of linguistic marginalization and the right to language of two communities, the Rohingyas and the Kurdish. These communities survived long, institutionalised warfare that had been waged against them. Resisting modern nation-state terror for almost a century, these communities have gone through institutionalised onslaughts that have banned festivals and gatherings, decreed curfew, censored cultural platforms, took away their language and land, nullified their degrees, titles and rights. The article also highlights the institutionalised mechanisms which include the nullification of the right to speak, learn and live their respective languages.
The articles contained in this issue of Café Dissensus from different countries and scholars from diverse disciplines address various issues related to the Rohingya as a community and refugee group. I hope this issue will redress the question of scholarly silence around the Rohingyas in India, a “sensitive” issue, and inspire many others to research on this topic, thereby removing our misconceptions about the refugees in general and the Rohingya refugees in particular.
Human Right Watch, “Rohingya Crisis”, Available at https://www.hrw.org/tag/rohingya-crisis
Humanitarian Data Exchange, “Rohingya Displacement” Available at https://data.humdata.org/event/rohingya-displacement accessed on 11 November, 2018.
Lewa. Chris , “Asia’s new boat people” Forced Migration Review 30 Published on 01 April, 2008 available at https://www.fmreview.org/burma/lewa [Accessed on 2 October, 2018]
Minorities at Risk Project, “Assessment for Lhotshampas in Bhutan”, 31 December, 2003, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a5bc.html [accessed 3 March, 2019]
Reuters, “Indian police arrest Rohingya Muslim group stuck on Bangladesh border” Published on 22 January, 2019 https://in.reuters.com/article/myanmar-rohingya-india/indian-police-arrest-rohingya-muslim-group-stuck-on-bangladesh-border-idINKCN1PG100 [accessed on 21 February, 2019]
Singh, Vijaita. “Home Ministry clears granting citizenship to Chakma-Hajong refugees” The Hindu. Published on 13 September, 2017 Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/home-ministry-clears-granting-citizenship-to-chakma-hajong-refugees/article19675921.ece [accessed on 1 October, 2018]
World Bank Data, Available at https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.REFG 2 October, 2018.
Chapparban Sajaudeen is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Diaspora Studies at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, India. His area of interest includes Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, Migration, Diaspora, Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Migration Rights and Human Rights, Contemporary English Literature/s, Muslim Literatures, Sociolinguistics and Subaltern Studies. He has presented his research papers at national and international conferences in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Austria, Germany, Poland, Taiwan, and Sweden. He can be reached at email@example.com
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