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The Vulnerability of the Rohingya Refugees

By Heisnam Olivia Devi 

The Rohingyas are the Muslims of Mayu Frontier area of the Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar. Rakhine has always been an independent kingdom, but Myanmar conquered it in 1784. The Rakhine State was known as Rohang, and the Muslim communities who lived in Rohang were known as Rohingyas. The term ‘Rohingya’ doesn’t exist in Myanmar. Only the Rohingyas and the international communities employ the term ‘Rohingya’ to refer to the Muslim communities living in the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar. The people of Myanmar call the Rohingyas illegal Bengali migrants from Bangladesh. It is known that back in the 1950s some Bengali Muslims residing in the Rakhine State started to call themselves as Rohingya but in the British colonial records they were referred to as Chittagonians. Burma’s Muslims can be traced back to the 13th and 14th centuries when they arrived as traders, servants and mercenaries. Most of them were of Arab, Persian and Indian origin. They were granted land for services they had rendered to the Royals. These Muslims and their descendants were Burmese who spoke the local language and dressed as Burmese; the only difference being their religion, Islam. Under the British rule in Myanmar, a large number of Muslims migrated to Myanmar between 1824 and 1886. There are four types of Muslims in the Rakhine State: the Chittagonian Bengalis; the descendants of the Muslim Community of Arakan in the Mrauk-U period; the descendants of Muslim mercenaries in Ramree Island; the Muslims from the Myedu area of Central Burma. The Rohingyas in the Rakhine State in Myanmar are concentrated in the three townships of Northern Rakhine State – Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung (Equal Rights Trust, 2014). For the last many years the Rohingyas have been forced to leave their house, property and belongings and become refugees in other countries. They are one of the most vulnerable stateless people, who are being persecuted in their own country. The population has suffered harsh treatment and discrimination, and are denied every right and ownership. The recent Rakhine conflict happened with the emergence of the Rohingya insurgent group known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The group attacked the posts of Myanmar soldiers twice in October 2016 and August 2017. Because of these attacks, the search for militants led to the displacement of thousands of Rohingyas and loss of lives.

The Rohingya issue is not a new thing. In 1947, when Myanmar got independence, it formally recognized all the national groups. With the introduction of the new Citizenship Law in 1982, the Rohingya community got excluded from fitting into any citizenship category and became a stateless ethnic group living in Myanmar. There are certain restrictions put on them, which force them to take permission for conducting their ordinary life. The decline of citizenship to the Rohingyas is directly connected to the loss of their basic rights, leading to discrimination and abuse. It is a country with a Buddhist majority with almost 88 per cent of the population (50 million) practicing Buddhism, followed by Christianity (6.2 per cent), Islam (4.3 per cent), Hinduism (0.5 per cent), and others (2 per cent). Since Buddhism is the majority religion in the country, the Buddhists have more political power than any other religion. The Rohingyas are politically, socially and economically marginalized. Their issues are never taken into consideration by both majority communities and the government. The Buddhist-dominated Myanmar wants to lead a mono-religious country by suppressing and forcefully driving away the Rohingyas with the use of violence and mass murder.

Five months after the violence in the Rakhine State, more than 655,500 people fled Myanmar through Naf River and sought refuge in Bangladesh. The journey to the camps was quite long; some took days and even weeks to reach Bangladesh. They lived in tiny huts, very poorly constructed tents on dusty, barren land. Kutupalong has the largest official refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. The hostile circumstances of the camps make access difficult. There are no proper roads; therefore, the refugees have difficulty accessing the aid services. Many young mothers usually don’t have options to leave their children and go to the distributor. Most of the camps are made up of cheap plastic sheets as an immediate shelter. With the huge influx of the Rohingyas, it also impacted Bangladesh, the developing country where more than 31% of the population live under the poverty line. Around 1 million Rohingyas are living in the camps. The living conditions in the camps are dire. Most of the families do not get enough food, and they struggle to sustain a livelihood.

There are insufficient sanitation facilities, as large numbers of people share a single toilet. Some of them live very far and some very near the toilets; those who live far are unable to access the toilets and the ones who reside near the toilet face difficulty because of the foul stench. The improper installation of the tube wells and sanitation system is hazardous to health. Due to the unplanned work, the water also becomes contaminated. According to the UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac at a press briefing in Geneva, “the latest figures from the WHO suggest that 62% of water available to households is contaminated… we are concerned by an increase in cases of acute watery diarrhoea, which have included several deaths” (UNICEF, 21 Nov 2017). Most of the tube wells are either placed very near the toilet or dug less than 40 meters deep which makes the water bacterial contaminated. Therefore, a major concern in the camp is the access to clean water.

Being a stateless community, the Rohingyas find it hard to get jobs in Bangladesh. Sometimes women find jobs in a factory or as a housemaid. But because of gender segregation and conservative culture among the Rohingya Muslims, most women are encouraged to stay home taking care of the household chores and children, whereas men are entrusted with the responsibility of feeding their families. Women and girls are restricted to their limited space, whereas men occupy the public sphere. The restriction of mobility for a girl child and the absence of toilets near the learning centres force fewer girls to attend schools. Since women are never considered to be the head of the family, they face difficulty in running a family without a male member. The Rohingya women are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.

The absence of cooking gas in the camps makes women spend more time in the preparation of food. Children are usually sent to search and collect firewood instead of playing or going to learning centers. The children and women who stay inside the tent most of the time inhale toxic emissions and suffer from respiratory problems and eye infections. The collection of wood poses a high risk of sexual violence for the girls and women. They often face attack from the local people, traffickers, and animals. Thus, collecting firewood is a big challenge and a risky task. During rainy days it is harder to collect firewood, forcing the families to skip meals. The distribution of food is limited in the camps, forcing many families to go through the shortage. And due to financial difficulties, they cannot afford to buy food. Since it is harder for refugee men to find any job, they stay in the camp while women work both indoors and outdoors. The Rohingya women do weaving and tailoring; they also work as housemaids, cooks or helpers in hotels and restaurants. Some women are forced to take up sex trade. Despite being a breadwinner, the women face domestic violence from their partners.

Myanmar soldiers used Rohingya women as sex tools during the armed conflict simply because they belong to the Rohingya Muslim community. Since the Myanmar government denies them citizenship, they are vulnerable to harassment and torture by the Myanmar soldiers. The majority of Rohingya refugees are women and children. Most of the male members cannot go outside the camp to earn money as most of them do not own a refugee card, effectively rendering them illegal to work. Women as breadwinners are vulnerable to traffickers who promise them a decent earning, like working in a garment factory, as a housemaid, etc. The women and girls are lured to get work, eventually ending up as victims of trafficking. Many Rohingya women who flee Myanmar to other countries in the hope of surviving the horrific violence in the Rakhine State often end up in desperate conditions both in camps and at the workplace. Thousands of Rohingya women living in Bangladesh, who faced sexual violence in Myanmar, do face similar challenges in refugee camps.

Child marriage is rampant among the Rohingya refugees: “More than half of Rohingya Muslim girls who fled violence in western Myanmar ended up becoming child brides, according to a United Nations survey that also showed widespread domestic abuse” (Thomson; Reuters, 4 May 2017). Many girls are married off early to make their husband their protectors to avoid sexual assault and to feel safe; in return, most of them face physical and psychological damages.

Since the outbreak of violence against the Rohingya community in Myanmar in August 2017, mass migrations occurred from the Rakhine State to Bangladesh. Among the Rohingya refugees, more than 60% are children (around 378,000). Among them, approximately 2,689 do not have parents, either lost to the violence or death. According to Bertrand Bainvel, a UNICEF Representative in Yangon, “When violence drives people from their homes, children who are displaced and those in the host communities suffer… displacement puts children at greater risk of family separation and domestic violence, they miss out on schooling and too frequently they experience physical and emotional damage” (UNICEF, 8 Oct. 2013). Almost all the Rohingya children are vulnerable in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, and it will continue without any necessary protection in the area for the Rohingya community. Many Rohingya children are raped, gang-raped and killed in the conflict. Some flee to Bangladesh and other countries to seek refuge, and nobody knows till when they will remain as a refugee. Most of the children’s life and education have taken a worse turn. These children can be considered a lost generation. Most of the Children face malnutrition, as 72% of them do not receive the minimum needed diet. Due to malnutrition, children can develop a nutritional risk that can result in morbidity, mortality and poor development. Some children in the camps are encouraged to work to support the miserable situation of the family. The labour agents exploit almost all the children by letting them work in hazardous places like construction sites and factories with a minimum wage and sometimes without any wage. Most of the girls work as a housemaid and many experience both physical and sexual assaults. By not allowing access to proper education, the Myanmar government is targeting the whole community. In the case of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the future of Rohingya children is no different. Most of the Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh are unregistered. Since Bangladesh is not a state party of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Rohingya refugees lack certain rights that are guaranteed by the Refugee Convention. Thus, most of the unregistered refugee children only receive informal education from the NGOs.

The inhuman treatment of the Rohingyas foregrounds the prejudices against the community within their homeland and also in the places where they immigrate to. There are various reasons why this minority group face persecution in their homeland. Symbolic threats like differences in looks, customs and beliefs contribute to seeing them with prejudice. Their religion being Islam is also another factor contributing to prejudices against them, especially in the context of larger anti-Islamic sentiments worldwide. The stereotypes against them in the homeland follows them into immigrating lands which see them as threats. These discriminations against them affect their women and children the most as women are at the edge of any society. Women and children bear more than their share of the burden of prejudice against them. They are, at any given time, the most vulnerable within their homeland and outside it.

Photo: Waseem Hussain

Works Cited

36th session of the UN Human Rights Council; Human Rights in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing. Friday 15 September 2017. Palais des Nations, Geneva,

Akhter, Shamima, and Kyoko Kusakabe. “Gender-Based Violence among Documented Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies. Vol 21, Issue 2, 10 June 2014, pp. 225 – 246,

Advisory Committee on Rakhine State, Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine, August 2017,

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Heisnam Olivia Devi completed her graduation in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi and currently doing Masters in IIT, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. Her research interest revolves around cultural studies, gender studies and identity politics. She is currently working on “Scripts in Manipur”. She can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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