In the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, displaced Rohingya Muslims face a severe health crisis as malnutrition spreads, and treatable illnesses and injuries go unattended.

The country’s recent history of ethnic tension has disfavored the minority Muslims, pushing them to regions along coastal Myanmar where many of the displaced are settled in refugee camps. The plight of the Rohingya has caught the attention of international aid organizations that set up medical centers and ration distribution facilities.

However, medical aid to the ostracized group was all but completely cut off by government officials who accused Medicins Sans Frontieres-Holland (Doctors Without Borders-Holland) of favoritism to Muslims in Myanmar, promoting anti-government sentiment, and ordered them to leave in February of 2014.

As a result of the expulsion, the 700,000 people that depended on MSF’s service were left without proper medical care. By late July, when the government declared that MSF could return, the Rohingya had already endured months of a bleak health crisis with no help to turn to.

In a Reuters report from one of the camps, Aisyah Begum told the story of her husband who was injured while working in the forest. The man would have been taken to the nearby MSF clinic had it been open. The couple was left with no other option but to drive two hours to the nearest private doctor in Maungdaw who then refused to help. The man eventually passed away from what was most likely a treatable infection.

Around the time MSF was granted permission to return, the United Nations publicly commented on the refugee camps’ inhumane conditions. Yanghee Lee of the UN human rights envoy for Myanmar released a 10 page report, calling the living situation of the camps’ inhabitants “deplorable,” noting concern that “the government’s plan for peaceful co-existence may likely result in a permanent segregation” of the two groups.

Ethnic tensions between the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the dominant Rakhine Buddhists spans back a few years. It erupted in 2012, leaving 200 dead and an estimated 140,000 internally displaced – 135,000 of which were Rohingya. The clash between the ethnic groups left the bitter taste of mistrust in the mouths of both sides, with one side much more disadvantaged than the other.

The Rohingya suffer from continued apathy and exclusion on part of the Rakhine, and face the threat of violent attacks if they cross the wrong person, keeping them isolated in their lacking communities. They essentially live as prisoners, eating only donated rice and chickpeas, fishing their protein from the nearby ocean.

Ethnic persecution is systemic in Myanmar, to the point where those in the minority group are not even recognized as citizens by the government. They are classified as illegal Bengali immigrants and therefore have no legal rights or representation. They severely lack the means to sustain themselves.

Conditions have reached such a critical point in recent years that tens of thousands have tried fleeing by boat. Human Rights Watch has accused the government of leading an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslims in Myanmar.

“By virtue of their legal status (or lack of), the Muslim community has faced and continues to face systematic discrimination, which includes restrictions in the freedom of movement, restrictions in access to land, food, water, education and health care, and restrictions on marriages and birth registrations,” said Lee in her report.

Myanmar is a country of 55 million people. In sheer numbers alone, it is clear what the Rohingya are up against as the nation’s abhorred minority. Years of military rule subjected them to hard labor, rape, torture and relocation, extending from a 1982 citizenship law that declared them stateless. However, the increasingly democratic reform of its government brings some hope.

Many Rohingya retain complete skepticism of the future and MSF is “cautiously optimistic” about their invitation to return. However, it appears that the bind of Myanmar’s displaced Muslims may quickly improve with increased international attention and the possibility of greater involvement by the United States.

“We’re working to continually help address problems on the ground,” said Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Myanmar. “What we are doing out here is in anticipation of continued reform, although we need to remain patient as the country deals with increasingly difficult issues going forward.”

– Edward Heinrich

Sources: Reuters, Helsinki Times, Al Jazeera
Photo: Reuters

Ramadan entails a month of spiritual reflection and increased devotion for practicing Muslims, and the predominant custom is fasting from dawn until sunset. But this can be a taxing requirement for those who find it difficult to feed themselves on a daily basis, such as those in the poor communities of Gambia. Luckily, the Netherlands is pitching in to help Muslims in Gambia celebrate the holy month.

The International Humanitarian Hulporganisatie Netherlands (IHHNL) donated and distributed food aid to Muslims in Gambia throughout the month of Ramadan. The items included 32 rams, 500 25-kg bags of rice, 500 five-liter gallons of cooking oil and 500 10-kg bags of sugar. IHHNL also provided a local well for the community.

The donation was made by IHHNL in collaboration with the Gambian Cemiyatul Hayr Relief Organization (CHRO), and the foodstuffs were apportioned among 23 Gambian villages. The presentation and slaughtering of the rams took place at Kiang Kwinella village in Gambia’s Lower River Region.

The joint IHHNL-CHRO program was intended to provide gifts and food to help those in need participate in the Ramadan festivities and traditions, especially considering Ramadan is a month dedicated to sharing and compassion. Alkalo Lamin Manjang, a speaker at the presentation in Kwinella village, thanked IHHNL for being a “true friend” to the poor of Gambia.

Alhagie Demba Sanyang, the Chief of Kiang Central, thanked the organization for doing “everything possible to ensure the entire district enjoys meat with their families… specially in Ramadan.” The Chief and the community presented IHHNL with a certificate of appreciation for their contributions to the poor.

The donors from IHHNL spoke of their wish to help the needy in Africa in places without war and thanked the Gambian government for such a peaceful environment where the presentation of such donations could be made possible.

The IHHNL and CHRO have been collaborating on aid efforts such as this for more than ten years. According to CHRO Country Director Musa Jallow, the IHHNL learned of the CHRO in 2003 and agreed with its operating structure. The two organizations “restarted their operations and went into formal agreement with all codes of conduct to be adhered by both organizations.” Since 2003, they have been working together to provide and distribute food aid packages to Gambians, usually during Ramadan.

Because of the IHNHL and CHRO’s efforts, even the poor and needy of Gambia can participate in the fasting of Ramadan, knowing that there will be adequate food available at nightfall.

Mari LeGagnoux

Sources: All Africa, The Point
Photo: Biyokulule

islamic relief
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims around the globe are fasting from dawn until dusk. Those fasting are reminded of the suffering of those less fortunate. Last Ramadan, 650,000 people in 25 different countries received food thanks to the efforts of Islamic Relief. This year the organization has set out again to help those in need worldwide.

In Saint Denis in Paris, the program “Tables du Ramadan” offers between 900 and 1,000 meals per night with the help of 60 volunteers. Solidarity is an important part of Ramadan for many, so the program works to bring people together and provide a space to share the meal together. Whether someone is fasting or not, and whether they are Muslim or not, everyone is welcome to come and enjoy delicious food.

Also in the spirit of Ramadan, which is about sharing without limits, 5,500 packages were sent to remand centers in France so that they know they were not forgotten in the holy month of Ramadan.

In Gaza, despite the dangerous environment, Islamic Relief is doing everything they can to help citizens. The representative of Islamic Relief France in Gaza reported the difficult situation. Electricity is only available eight hours per day, all points of entry are blocked and basic necessities are becoming more and more expensive.

Only four out of 10 citizens have access to daily food. There are emergency kits as well as food kits, which include rice, sugar, oil and lentils. Food packages are in the process of being distributed and emergency kits are ready to be sent out.

French Islamic Relief in Morocco teamed up with two other local organizations to help those living in poverty, orphans, elderly people and widows. So far 1,315 families have been helped equating to almost 7,890 people. Packages including sugar, flour, oil, chickpeas, lentils, vermicelli rice and dates have been distributed to those in need.  A Moroccan widow, Fatna, is in her sixties. She has five kids, but due to her health condition, she cannot work. She says she does not know what she would do without the help she has received during the holiday month, and is extremely grateful.

Many more citizens, both Muslim and not, are able to break their fast with delicious meals thanks to Islamic Reliefs efforts around the world.

– Kim Tierney

Sources: Youphil, Secours Islamique, Islamic Relief, Le Matin, AJIB, Islam & Info
Photo: Islamic Relief

asylum in brazil
The World Cup is over for another four years, and while Germany celebrates and fans from all over the world return home, at least 200 Muslims from Ghana are seeking asylum in Brazil.

The Ghanaians, who went to Brazil as tourists supporting their country in the World Cup, claim that they are afraid to return home due to violence in Ghana stemming from religious conflict. The Ghanaian government has released a statement saying that there is no such violence in the country.

The religious makeup of Ghana is 71 percent Christian, 18 percent Muslim and 5 percent indigenous beliefs. The Muslim population resides primarily in northern Ghana, which coincidentally is also where poverty rates are highest. Southern Ghana has seen promising economic growth in the past 30 years and in 2011 the country received the status of lower middle class, but poverty in the north is declining at a much slower rate.

A major reason for this is little economic opportunity outside of agriculture, and a tendency for droughts and food shortages. Farmers in the north do not have access to modern technology that would result in higher crop yields.

The Ghanaians have been allowed to stay in Brazil for now, while the Justice Ministry listens to their cases and makes rulings. The Brazilian city in which many have applied to live, Caxias do Sul, is a very prosperous one and a magnet for foreign workers. It is more than 1000 miles away from where Ghana’s national team, the Black Stars, competed in the tournament. The Stars were ousted early on after losing to both the USA and Portugal.

The number of Ghanaians seeking asylum in Brazil could jump to 1000 now that the World Cup is over, but to be given asylum they will have to prove that conditions in their home country are unsafe. Ghana is frequently cited as one of Africa’s most peaceful nations, with cooperation between Muslims and Christians. However, those seeking asylum claim that the conflict and aggression is between different Muslim factions and not other religions. Whether or not their claims are true or they are simply searching for a new life with better economic opportunity remains to be seen. The Ghanaian government has proclaimed that they are scandalized by the ordeal.

While the Justice Ministry reviews these cases there are many Syrians in Brazil seeking asylum for the same reasons. Those who live in Caxias do Sul do not seem particularly open to the idea of hundreds of new residents, saying that the area is overcrowded as it is.

– Taylor Lovett

Sources: New York Times, BBC, Rural Poverty Portal
Photo: London Evening Standard

France's face veil ban
The European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s face veil ban on the wearing of face-covering veils in public settings. The ban, which went into effect three years ago, has caused widespread backlash from Muslim communities in France, which claim the ban imposes on their religious freedom and identity. Labeled as a means to help protect public safety and bridge social gaps, the imposition of the ban was strictly “due to the concealment of the face” and had no correlation with religious animosity, according to the Court.

A woman by the alias of S.A.S. testified against France’s face veil ban in court. A university-educated woman and French citizen, S.A.S. told the courts that she voluntarily wore the veils (the niqab, which leaves the eyes exposed, and the burqa, which covers the body from head-to-toe) and felt no pressure from her husband to wear the dress in public. S.A.S. wished to wear the veils during certain circumstances and felt the ban imposed on her religious obligation to do so.

At the time it was enacted, the Interior Ministry in Paris estimated only around 2,000 women in France still wore the niqab. This is a considerably low number for France’s Muslim community, which — at up to six million — is Europe’s largest. Only about hundreds of women have been fined for wearing the veil, which is usually at around 150 euros, or $215 US dollars.

The European Court, while aware the ban did affect certain members of the Muslim community specifically, upheld it on account of the veil’s restriction from those wearing it to show their face, which is considered a social right and safety concern. While the court denied the ban’s justification on improving public safety or women’s rights, they did agree that it improved social cohesion.

“Some people now feel entitled to attack women wearing the veil even though the infringement is no more severe than, say, a parking ticket,”  Ray said.

Nevertheless, the French government has remained satisfied with the ruling, claiming it a victory for “gender equality.”

Nick Magnanti

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Mail Online, The New York Times
Photo: Telegraph

Tripoli, Lebanon, a city that prides itself as an intellectual hub of the world, suffered devastating losses in early January when unknown arsonists set fire to a valued library, destroying two thirds of its contents. Saeh Library, translated as “Travelers Library,” contained over 80,000 rare religious and philosophical texts, which some speculate may have been the motivation behind the attacks.

Tripoli has a starkly divided demographic of Christian, Sunni, and Shi’ite inhabitants among several other religions prominent in the area. Father Ibrahim Sarouja, the Greek Orthodox priest who is the library’s founder, is well known and loved in the community for preaching religious tolerance and harmony between neighbors.

An unknown security source reported to authorities that the fire was started in direct response to an anti-Islamic pamphlet found in one of the library’s book, which allegedly took a derogatory stance towards the prophet Muhammad. This would make the fire another tragic instance of sectarian violence that already plagues Lebanon.

The book burning has received significant outreach from Tripoli’s Muslim community, however. Salafist cleric Sheik Salem Rafei stated, “Islam denounces any unjust act against anyone,” and was highly critical of the attack. Many other Muslim leaders in the city, who have also spoken against the attack, share his opinion and are willing to do whatever political measure is necessary to make amends.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, also condemned the arson, exclaiming, “We denounce the burning of the library and reject any harm being done to Tripoli and its people, as it has been, and will remain, the city of the world and of intellectuals.”

Sarouja has found the communal response to the fire overwhelmingly up-lifting. Hundreds have come out to assist with clean up efforts and donate books to refurbish the library. Since January, $25,000 has been raised through online crowd-funding. The expected amount required to repair and replace what has been lost is $35,000.

To quote the priest, “(It was) a great source of joy for me that the burning of this library brought together Muslims and Christians, and especially clergy and Muslim sheiks.”

– Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Los Angeles Times, NPR, Huffington Post
Photo: CNN

In northern Malaysia, human traffickers were discovered holding Rohingya Muslims prisoner in houses. According to details from the prisoners, they were abused, demanding to be freed by ransom from their families and suffering from severe malnutrition.

Rohingya are Muslims from Burma and are one of the most oppressed minorities in the world; many have been killed and many have been forced to live the life of a refugee because of the violent mistreatment.

This is, unfortunately, far from the first human trafficking case this year.

Several raids on Malaysian houses have been organized within the past few months, one of which conducted in February, found four Rohingya men chained together in an apartment by iron links. These men had been attempting to flee Myanmar when human traffickers captured them as they attempted to escape by water.

These men were then caged, where they were not fed and suffered from severe malnourishment.

Relatives of the prisoners were willing to pay upwards of a $1,000 in order to have their family members released.

According to Reuters, Thai police said they also rescued hundred of Rohingya Muslims in January from a trafficking camp south of Thailand. The raid that prompted the rescue of the captives was part of an investigation to find those in charge of the human trafficking that keeps occurring through southern Thailand through Malaysia.

During the raid in January, three Thai males of whom police suspected to be ringleaders were arrested.

Malaysia is concerned that these most recent events will compromise their anti-human trafficking record and expose the insecurity of their borders, which is currently allowing thousands of illegal immigrants across despite the strong stance the Malaysian government has against illegal immigration.

In June, the United States State Department will be releasing a Trafficking In Persons report, which lists countries in order of their performance to counter human trafficking.

– Rebecca Felcon

Sources: Reuters, Trust, The Malaysian Insider
Photo: Russiatrafficking