This Tuesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that refugees fleeing the western Rakhine state in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are suffering increasing instances of abuse. This is an ongoing humanitarian issue as violence in the Rakhine state began almost exactly two years ago when clashes and riots between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted. The roots of this crisis come from the fact that the Rohingya Muslims are a linguistic and religious minority who the Rakhine Buddhists have long resented.
Regardless of the long-standing tensions between these two groups, the initial cause of the riots happened in May of 2012 when a Muslim woman was raped and murdered. Hundreds of people have since died and thousands have been displaced. Many of those affected are innocent women and children.
Authorities are considered to have exacerbated the problem by not acting quickly enough to stop the violence. Few people have been prosecuted and some of the local police even partake in the riots. Human Rights Watch called on the Myanmar government to take action but they have denied any wrongdoing.
This crisis has come into the news again because of the worsening conditions of refugees. Mostly Rohingya women and children, these refugees are fleeing to places such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. A spokesperson for UNHCR said that “more than 86,000 people have left on boats since June 2012. This includes more than 16,000 people in the second half of 2012, some 55,000 in 2013 and nearly 15,000 from January to April this year.” These boats are overcrowded and there is little access to food or water. Sadly, at least 730 people have died trying to make this journey.
The problems continue once these refugees reach land. In Thailand and Malaysia, reports of smuggling have begun to emerge. The smugglers take the refugees to camps where they are forced to live in squalor and minimal space until their families can pay the ransom for their release. The refugees suffer from malnutrition and are often beaten; some even die.
Luckily, Thai authorities are working with UNHCR to remove these smuggler camps and to offer services to the refugees. This means rehabilitation centers that offer educational services and basic community activities.
Problems still persist though as the Thai government has refused to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. This convention regulates the treatment of asylum seekers. In 2005 Thailand stopped registering refugees in an attempt to slow their arrival. However, this has not stopped the flow of refugees from Myanmar, causing many to be trapped in these refugee camps.
If the violence in Myanmar continues, as it has been for two years, the refugees will continue to leave their homes hoping to find safety elsewhere. What they find instead are smuggling camps and refugee camps as they wait with no legal status in either their home country or the country where they are trying to seek refuge. The UNHCR is trying to implement potential programs to help the refugee camps, but Myanmar as well as Thai and Malaysian governments need to work with this intergovernmental organization to to resolve this humanitarian crisis.
– Eleni Marino