Denied citizenship by the Burmese government, an estimated 25,000 have taken to smugglers to escape the systemic violence and persecution. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.

A long history of oppression leads to refugees adrift at sea

Partners Relief and Development speaking up for Rohingya

Partners Relief and Development continue to advocate for the Rohingya as their plight, adrift on the Andaman sea, reaches mainstream media.

Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority living in Burma. Denied citizenship by the Burmese government, an estimated 25,000 have taken to smugglers to escape the systemic violence and persecution. However from January to March this year the refugees found themselves trapped and dying on their vessels as Indonesia and Malaysia turned the Rohingya away, towing them back out to sea.

Partners recently welcomed the news that Indonesia and Malaysia have allowed Rohingya refugees adrift at sea to land, reversing the policy of turning away boats carrying thousands fleeing from Burma (Myanmar).

While the pressure from the international community as a result of the mainstream coverage is helping, Greg Toews, National Director of Partners Relief and Development Canada, says the root of the problem remains.

“This is good news for the people abroad the boats that made it to safety,” Toews says. “The better news would be if Myanmar allowed them to return to their homes and to live in peace in their own country.”

Toews explains the situation with the Rohingya goes back to decades of injustice.

“It’s been a desperate situation for a long time,” Toews says.

Despite being culturally diverse, the Rohingya have long stood out in Burma for their dark skin, their own language and their Muslim faith. The Rohingya have long been oppressed, but their worst blow came in 1982 when the Burmese government stripped the Rohingya of citizenship.

Rohingya family in their makeshift housing in an IDP camp - Sittwe. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.
Rohingya family in their makeshift housing in an IDP camp - Sittwe. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.

“You become very vulnerable to exploitation,” Toews says, without being recognized as legal citizens in your own country.

Tension mounted in 2012 when race riots broke out leading to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, many who were kicked out of their villages.

“They became refugees in their own country,” Toews explains. As many as 140,000 were forced to live in internally displaced persons camps.

“The situation in Burma is so desperate they are fleeing,” Toews says, adding because they don’t have citizenship, it’s impossible to know how many Rohingya have fled.

“It’s a stateless and desperate population,” Toews says. “The perfect recipe for trafficking.”

The Rohingya hoped to reach Malaysia with the hopes of a better life, paying traffickers hundreds of dollars to get them and their families out of the country.

However, very few actually reach their destination, Toews explains, as the traffickers turn around and bring refugees to their own camps, some in southern Thailand where the Rohingya are kept, starved beaten and raped while they extort their relatives to pay on threats of killing their captives. Others are sold into labour or the sex trade.

The type of boats the Rohingya travelled on. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.
The type of boats the Rohingya travelled on. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.

The situation was brought to the world stage after thousands of people were stuck on boats unable to land.

Partners founder and CEO, Steve Gumaer, is currently with some of the Rohingyas who survived a perilous boat trip.

“They knew the risk. They have heard from survivors that they may be one of those who die at sea, in the extortion camps in the jungles of Thailand, or elsewhere along the way,” Gumaer says in a release. “And still, they take that risk. The alternative in their mind is annihilation. They will cease to exist as a people. Death is a daily story in their communities. Many academics are coming out and calling this what I believe it is. That is genocide.”

Indonesia and Malaysia have said they will provide temporary shelter for up to 7,000 people for up to a year. The international community is expected to help with repatriation and resettlements.

“This is a good temporary solution, and it is better than dying at sea,” says Steve Gumaer. “However, it is not addressing the root cause of the problem which is the way the Myanmar government chooses to treat this vulnerable people group.”

Gumaer hopes a recent regional summit bringing together key stakeholders (governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar along with UN agencies) will be a catalyst for change. However, for the crisis truly to end, Gumaer says the Myanmar government must acknowledge the Rohingya people as an ethnic people group with similar rights as the rest of the nation’s people groups.

While it is a horrifying situation, Toews says Partners continues to do everything they can to bring these injustices to light, as they provide necessities like food and water to the refugees.

“We are there to show God’s love,” Toews says.

Rohingya children. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.
Rohingya children. Photo courtesy Partners Relief and Development.

 

He encourages Canadian Christians to pray for the Rohingya and to pray that God changes the hearts of the Myanmar government.

“Unless that changes, the cycle will continue,” he says.

Canadians are also able to give to Partners and other NGOs working in the region.

“It’s very costly to feed and do human rights reporting,” Toews says. And while the situation can be daunting, he adds hope remains.

“We are making a huge difference in the lives of these people,” Toews says, adding they’ve assisted more than 250,000 peopled affected by the unrest in Burma through Partners programs in 2014 alone. They’ve treated thousands in Partners clinics, and are seeing a reduction in malaria in the areas they work.

Finally, Canadians can also write to their local and federal politicians, urging the Canadian government to speak up for the Rohingya and call for change in the Myanmar government.

To learn more about Partners work with the Rohingya visit partnersworld.ca.

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