The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine State in western Burma, historically known as Arakan. Though the Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, successive Burmese governments and local groups in Rakhine claim the Rohingya are originally from Bangladesh. Over the past 50 years, the Burmese government has refused to recognize the Rohingya. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law recognizes 135 ethnic national groups as citizens of Burma. The list conspicuously omits the Rohingya, a minority of over one million strong, effectively making them a stateless people.
In Burma, the Rohingya are often subjected to religious persecution, forced labor, heavy taxation and extortion as well as arbitrary land seizure. For years, discriminatory administrative measures imposed specifically upon them by local authorities have paralyzed the Rohingya community, mostly those who live in the townships of north Rakhine. Rohingya are not allowed to travel freely, are restricted in the number of children they can have, denied vital documentation like birth certificates, passports and national ID cards, and must receive permission from the authorities in order to get married and start a family. Over the past thirty years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their homeland to neighboring Bangladesh and other countries. Most are not recognized as refugees, receive little or no humanitarian assistance and are vulnerable to exploitation, human trafficking and other human rights abuse.
In 2012, violence erupted between the Rakhine community and the Rohingya community. The violence destroyed entire Rohingya villages and essentially erased the presence of the Rohingya from the town of Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital. Throughout Rakhine, Rohingya villages and neighborhoods that for generations had co-existed with the Buddhist Rakhine were leveled to the ground. Businesses and property were confiscated, and over 140,000 Rohingya were forcibly displaced. Since then, displaced Rohingya have lived an apartheid-like existence in hundreds of isolated internment camps for internally displaced people (IDP) where they cannot leave to find work, go to school, receive proper medical care and are completely dependent on international humanitarian assistance. In 2014, the Rohingya were excluded from Burma’s first census in thirty years while at the same time, abusive policies by the government, discrimination from local Rakhine political groups as well as continued threats from nationalist Buddhists have further entrenched the statelessness and persecution of the Rohingya. This has led human rights groups to describe the ongoing abuse towards the Rohingya in Burma as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Desperate, hopeless and increasingly at risk of more violence, thousands of Rohingya each year pay brokers to smuggle them by boat from Burma and Bangladesh to Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. An unknown number of Rohingya die each year in the journey. In recent years, thousands of Rohingya men, women and children on boats have been delivered into the hands of human traffickers in Thailand and Malaysia where they are imprisoned in trafficking jungle camps, sold into human slavery or simply disappear.