Rescuing the Rohingya

October 16, 2013

They are a people without a country. As described by the United Nations—one of the most persecuted minority groups on earth.

The Burmese government denies them citizenship, despite their migration from Bangladesh two centuries ago. To the people of Bangladesh, they are an unwanted scourge from Burma.

Among the untouchables in India, they are outcasts.

They are Muslim, and even traditional Muslims have no use for them.

We are referring to the Rohingya, an ethnic group of some two- to three- million people dispersed throughout several countries in South Asia.

Some historians theorize the Rohingya are descendants of Arab traders that were shipwrecked off the coast of Burma in the 8th century. Their language, however, is a Bengali dialect related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of Bangladesh and India. Whatever their origin, the Rohingyans face an enormous identity crisis.

By far the largest concentration of Rohingyans lives in Burma. Numbering between 800,000 and 1 million people, they have faced persecution from the Burmese government for more than three decades.

The majority Buddhist population in Burma views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Muslim-dominated Bangladesh who do not qualify for citizenship. In the eyes of the government, it does not matter that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations.

The laws against them are harsh and highly discriminatory, including:

With no hope for a decent life, since 1978 over 300,000 disenfranchised Rohingyans have fled across the border into Bangladesh. They escape the oppression of the Burmese government—only to find themselves the subject of scorn and ridicule in Bangladesh.

“They have no food, no work, no land, and no help,” said the spokesman for a Christian-Aid assisted ministry in Bangladesh that works with the Rohingya and other unreached tribal groups.

“Because they are an ethnic minority and they are unregistered with the Bangladesh government, the Rohingya are caught in a dual trap,” he said. “The Burmese military will not let allow them in their own homeland, and in Bangladesh they have no identity.”

Less than 10 percent of the Rohingya exiles are officially registered. Some live in refugee camps like the one in Kutupalong in southeastern Bangladesh. Thousands more flock to the government camp but are turned away because they lack legal status. Those refused access to Kutupalong have established their own makeshift camp nearby—a slum community that the ministry leader says is devoid of latrines, safe drinking water, and hope.

With limited education and job skills, the Rohingya typically find employment as rickshaw pullers or they work in the fishing industry. This summer Christian Aid donors made it possible for the ministry to provide fishing nets for nine needy families.

In a recent report, the ministry leader described the impact of the nets for those families: “They are very happy to get these nets because they did not have their own. That is why they had to share 50 percent of their fish with the owners who loaned them their nets. So it was very hard for them to support their family. Now they will be able to provide for them well by the grace of God.”