By Qari Muhammad Asim (Senior Editor)
Senior Imam – Makkah Mosque, Leeds
This week, after weeks of being stranded on Southeast Asian seas, going from country to country, around 7,000 Muslim migrants have finally found relief. The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia issued a statement saying they would “continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea” and offer them temporary shelter, provided they were resettled and repatriated within a year.
Who are Rohingyas?
The Rohingyas are a distinct Muslim ethnic group who are effectively stateless and have been fleeing Myanmar for decades.
The Rohingyas maintain they are descendants of Arab traders who have been in the region for generations but Myanmar’s government states they are not a genuine ethnic group but are actually Bengali migrants.
They also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In Myanmar, they are subjected to forced labour, have no land rights and are heavily restricted. In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor with no documents or job prospects. They are stateless Muslims.
What has been the situation of Rohingyas in Myanmar?
The crisis of Rohingyas is not new. For the last 50 years, Myanmar governments have been introducing policies to repress the Rohingya. In June and October 2012 there were large scale attacks on Rohingyas. Even the Buddhist monks and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi who herself spent considerable time in exile, has not condemned violence against the Rohingyas.
Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands were made homeless during three months of inter-communal rioting between Buddhist and Muslim gangs in western Burma in 2012.
The systematic campaign of persecution, violence and exclusion has led many activists to argue that Rohingya are the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The UN has described them as among the world’s most persecuted people. An estimated 68,000 have been living in appalling conditions after they were forced out of their homes.
Consequently, in the past three years more than 120,000 Rohingyas have boarded ships to flee abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.
Why are Rohingyas stranded at Sea?
As many as 8,000 Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are believed to be stranded at sea. Traditionally, the smugglers have taken them to camps in southern Thailand and effectively held them at ransom. The smugglers who arranged the journeys often misled, exploited, extorted, enslaved or sold their charges. But, the plight in Myanmar was so catastrophic, the Rohingyas were prepared to take this immense risk. However, recently, the Thai government has begun a crackdown on smugglers and consequently the smugglers are now reportedly abandoning the Rohingyas at sea.
For many weeks, Rohingyas have been in the sea without much or any food and no shelter. Seeking to escape grinding poverty, violence and humiliation, Rohingyas have finally arrived in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days.
Has the Rohingya crisis been resolved?
While Malaysia and Indonesia’s temporary settlement may save the lives of the thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslim migrants who have been starving on over-crowded boats as monsoon season ramps up, it does nothing to resolve the broader issues behind the crisis.
The ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority by Buddhist mobs and Myanmar government’s denial of citizenship and other rights for the Muslim group are the real underlying issues. Unless these issues are resolved by the international community, the temporary reliefs offered are far from ending the larger crisis. There needs to be sustained pressure from the UN and wider international community on the Myanmar government to pass through legislation that recognises the Rohingya as legitimate citizens, with rights to vote and rights to civil liberties.
The role of the Muslim community is crucial as well. There needs to be a coalition of financial support from Muslim countries that looks to improve the economic disparity faced by the Rohingyas. There also needs to be a louder voice coming from the Muslim community in speaking up in outrage against the treatment of their fellow Muslims. Muslims need to show much more urgency in their desire to help the Rohingya and wherever individuals and Muslim majority governments are given the opportunity to aid them; they should do so without a second thought rather than acting after pressure from external sources. The importance in the Muslim tradition of helping those in need cannot be stressed enough. With Ramadan approaching, it is critical to act now with aid and prayer for those in such dire conditions.
Note: The views expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect that of ImamsOnline.