The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group located in the Rakhine (Arakan) State of southwestern Burma. According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingyas are subjected to systematic persecution and human rights abuses at the hand of the Burmese government, on account of their ethnic identity. Abuses include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, forced land confiscation, torture, and restrictions on the freedom of movement. Additionally, the Burmese government continually refuses to grant the group citizenship, rendering them stateless in their own “ancestral homeland.” The persecution of the Rohingyas in their homeland is further intensified by the fact that they are unable to seek protection from neighboring countries.
Recently, a group of 91 Rohingyas claimed that on January 19, 2011, the Thai navy set them out to sea in an engineless boat with limited food and water. The Rohingyas had fled the ethnic persecution in Burma, but were apprehended in Thai waters while trying to cross into Malaysia in search of work. They landed on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands in early February. International human rights organizations have asked India, Indonesia, and Thailand to grant the Rohingyas refugee status in accordance with their obligations under Articles 14 (right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum) and 15 (right to a nationality) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These organizations are also requesting that the three countries allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to access the Rohingyas in order to provide emergency assistance as well as counseling and advice on attaining refugee status. If the Rohingyas are denied refugee status and forced to return to Burma, they would be at risk of continued or aggravated human rights violations.
Thai authorities have denied charges that they set Rohingyan refugees out to sea and claim that they returned the 91 persons detained in Thailand to Burma in late January 2011. Panitan Wattanayagorn, the Thai government spokesperson, claimed it was “unlikely” that the Thai navy pushed the Rohingya refugees out to sea, but that a government investigation would take place. Wattanayagorn explained that the normal practice is to “prosecute refugees who illegally enter Thai waters and then deport them via land.” However, according to Amnesty International, the Thai government had previously pushed hundreds of Rohingya asylum-seekers to sea in “unseaworthy” boats in late 2008 and early 2009, leading to an undisclosed number of fatalities, and diminishing the credibility of Thailand’s denial of current charges. Further, a June 2008 report by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) gave Thailand’s refugee policy “mixed reviews”; although Thailand has hosted 1.2 million refugees over the past 30 years, it has refused to recognize most refugees from Burma and has confined thousands of Burmese refugees in camps along the Burma-Thailand border with diminished rights.
The Rohingyas are stateless persons because of direct discrimination by the Burmese government in its refusal to grant the minority group citizenship. As stateless persons, the Rohingyas have “no access to employment, schools, health care, police protection, or other public services.” They cannot even freely move about the country, as they must get permission from local authorities to travel from one village to another. This stateless condition affects every aspect of daily life. According to Human Rights Watch, the Burmese government’s “violent and discriminatory treatment” of the Rohingyas directly contributes to their chronic poverty and has forced around 300,000 Rohingyas to flee to nearby Bangladesh. However, the Rohingyas still face serious problems in Bangladesh due to their lack of official documentation, and they often live in refugee camps with “primitive and squalid conditions.” They are neither given official resident status nor work authorization, thus perpetuating vicious cycles of arrest, long-term detention, deportation to Burma, and illegal re-entry via traffickers. Still, the Rohingyas continue fleeing to Bangladesh because, according to the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, they believe the country shares “the bonds of Islamic fraternity,” and therefore has a “historical and moral obligation to endeavor for a permanent solution of the Rohingya problem.”
Although Thailand, India, and Indonesia have not ratified the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its Protocol, the countries still have legal obligations under customary international law to grant the Rohingyas refugee status. For example, the UDHR has identified universal human rights to nationality and to seek protection from persecution on account of political crimes or other acts inconsistent with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Further, India and Thailand, as members of the UNHCR’s Executive Committee, are obligated to become parties to and implement international conventions providing for the protection of refugees; admit refugees to their territories, not excluding those in the most destitute categories; and promote the assimilation of refugees, especially by facilitating their naturalization. The UNHCR’s official website explains, “States with a demonstrated interest in and devotion to the solution of refugee problems” are considered for membership in the Executive Committee. Therefore, failure of these two countries to grant the Rohingyas refugee status calls into question their dedication to protecting the most destitute refugees. More importantly, the three countries’ failure to affirmatively act deprives the Rohingyas of a universal human right under the UDHR — the right to seek and enjoy asylum — while continuing to subject them to unstable living conditions, excluded from state recognition, protections, and life-saving services.