Migrant crisis: Who are the Rohingya boat people of Asia?

The 1.1 million Rohingya community – a Muslim group which claims to be descended from Arab traders – has fled in droves from their homes in Burma across south-east Asia following increasing persecution by the country’s Buddhist majority.

In recent years, the community has often been described by the United Nations and others as one of the most persecuted people in the world.

More recently, they have been described as ‘Asia’s new boat people’ and have been likened to the Vietnamese exodus by boat in the 1970s.

The Burma government has refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya minority, saying they are recent illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The Rohingya people say they have lived in the western state of Rakhine for generations.

As Burma began shifting from a military dictatorship towards a more open democracy in 2011, tensions began to increase between Rakhine’s Buddhists and Muslims, most of whom claim to be Rohingya.

Hundreds have been killed in deadly riots which have often followed reports – not always verified – of rapes or murders of Buddhists. About 140,000 Rakhine Muslims have fled their homes, with many living in squalid camps.

Increasingly, they have begun to flee by boat from the coastal state of Rakhine.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority population of nearly 1 million people in Myanmar who primarily reside in northern Rakhine state near the country’s border with Bangladesh. However, their origin is disputed by the Buddhist majority population in the state. The Buddhist majority says the Rohingya are not indigenous to Rakhine state and thus should be denied citizenship. Some say they migrated from Bengal, a region which is now present day Bangladesh and eastern India.

The deep religious and racial tensions between the two ethnic groups in Myanmar have escalated into widespread violence in recent years, killing and displacing thousands. About 140,000 persecuted Rohingya are internally displaced and living in refugee camps, while nearly 100,000 others have fled the country all together, according to the latest data.

About 88,000 people have tried to migrate by boat in Southeast Asia since 2014 and nearly 1,000 are believed to have perished due to the harsh conditions of the voyage. Migrants and refugees stranded on vessels in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea are fed only white rice and are subjected to violence, the United Nations said.

Since January, some 25,000 Rohingya are believed to have attempted the voyage by boat to neighbouring nations. Several thousand are still at sea after being repeatedly rejected by the navies of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Adding to the migrant crisis, Bangladeshis have also been attempting boat voyages to escape grinding poverty.

Increasingly, nations in the region, along with the UN and the United States, have urged Burma to improve its treatment of the Rohingya and to consider granting them citizenship.

Burma, in turn, has threatened to boycott a planned regional summit on the migrant crisis if the plight of the Rohingya is on the agenda.

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About the Author: Akhtar Jamal

Tribune International