Solution Sought for 'Boat People' Fleeing Burma, Bangladesh
May 29, 2015
Ethnic Rohingya who fled to India are able to make living driving rickshaws provided by an indigenous ministry.
Southeast Asian nations convene a conference today in Thailand on the crisis besetting the region's migrants adrift at sea, with representatives of one of the primary countries they're fleeing – Burma – in attendance.
For decades Burma (also known as Myanmar) has denied rights to the ethnic Rohingya who make up most of migrants stranded at sea this month. Officials have refused to participate in any conference that mentions them. Last week, however, Burma agreed to attend today's meeting only after organizers promised to avoid mention of the Rohingya and refer to them only as "irregular migrants."
The primarily Muslim Rohingya have long faced discrimination and expulsion from mainly Buddhist Burma, as well as attacks by the military. Though many trace their roots in Burma back to the 19th century and some much earlier, the government regards the more than 800,000 Rohingya there as illegal immigrants. Some 100,000 have fled Burma, while more than 100,000 are forbidden to leave the dilapidated displacement camps the government has assigned them to.
Burma President Thein Sein refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis, implying that they came from Bangladesh, where approximately 300,000 Rohingya are a despised ethnic minority. Many Rohingya say they and their ancestors have always lived in Burma's Rakhine state.
Last year Burma's government gave the Rohingya a choice: apply for second-class citizenship by presenting evidence of their residency in Burma since 1948, or be sent to displacement camps to await word on their probability of being deported. As many lacked residency papers and/or did not fulfill extensive requirements for residency, the result was a huge wave of Rohingya trying to get out of the country last October and November.
At least 14,500 Rohingya went to neighboring Thailand in hopes of reaching Malaysia at that time, and the U.N. estimates 25,000 Rohingyas climbed aboard decrepit boats in the first three months of this year – some escaping oppression in Burma, and some fleeing economic hardship in Bangladesh. This month's crisis erupted when smugglers, who had mistreated the Rohingya aboard boats for months, abandoned them in the face of a crackdown on smuggling rings by Thailand.
Last week an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 mostly Rohingya men, women and children suffering malnutrition, exhaustion, dehydration, and disease at sea hoped for landfall at countries that officially do not give asylum and have not signed the U.N. Refugee Convention – Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. More than 3,000 of them managed to reach the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia, with survivors reportedly saying some passengers starved to death, their bodies tossed overboard.
U.S., Malaysian and Indonesian naval vessels have conducted search-and-rescue operations, and Burma's navy also recovered 208 Bangladeshis adrift at sea; Burmese officials said they would return them to Bangladesh. Initially denying access, Malaysia and Indonesia have reluctantly agreed to provide shelter for one year to some of the Rohingya and other refugees.
Bangladesh also assigns the Rohingya to displaced people camps, and officials in Dhaka announced this week that it plans to relocate the "Rohingya camps" to Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal.
Christian Aid Mission assists a ministry that originated in Bangladesh in 1986 and serves the Rohingya.
Rohingya in Bangladesh who received Christ receive their first Holy Communion.
"This ministry in Bangladesh decided to bring them the gospel," said Christian Aid's South Asia Director, Sarla. "They asked us for fishing nets first, which would give the Rohingyas a way to make a living. So beginning of 2013, we raised funds for fishing nets."
Empowering the Rohingya to earn their livelihood by fishing has helped the ethnic minority to overcome discrimination and diminished the economic hardship that drove thousands of Rohingya into smugglers' boats. With assistance from Christian Aid, the ministry also provides bicycle-rickshaws so that new arrivals can make a living driving them.
Proclaiming Christ among this people group remains paramount.
"The first step of translating and dubbing the Jesus Film into the Rohingya language is going well," the Bangladeshi ministry director said. "But please pray that the Lord provides the necessary money to complete the next steps. Please pray for the financial assistance to work among the Rohingya people group in Bangladesh."
There are at least 100,000 Rohingya in India, and a Rohingya member of the ministry team in Bangladesh who had become a Christian in Burma felt a responsibility to serve his people in New Delhi. Christian Aid Mission assists the ministry he established there.
"This group is doing a wonderful job," Sarla said. "Ten families accepted the Lord in a year's time through our help."
The Rohingya also face discrimination in India.
"In 2014, I visited their camp in New Delhi and saw first-hand how they were suffering," Sarla said. "Since then, we have been helping them with children's education, building temporary shelters, buying them rickshaws and also adult education."
The ministry is also helping the Rohingya to learn Hindi, which will help them integrate into Indian society – countries denying them asylum or residency commonly argue that they do not assimilate well.
"The reason for helping them was that this was a completely unreached people group, and an indigenous ministry was working among them," Sarla said. "They asked us for help, so by God's grace we did."
The leader of the ministry in India said Rohingya who receive Christ are especially challenged to make a living, as they leave behind the support of their Muslim social structures.
"They are tempted in every corner and are being challenged in their livelihoods every day," he said. "We Christians are less than 1 percent of the population of the Rohingya community. We feel that God answered our prayers, and now the number of believers is increasing day by day."