As the world watches boatloads of desperate people slowly drifting over treacherous waters from Burma toward Malaysia, the heated debate over how to address the growing crisis intensifies. The scores of fleeing Rohingya clearly constitute a humanitarian emergency requiring a swift response, just as similar exoduses have warranted international action. This situation, however, requires far more than just humanitarian aid.
In responding, it is essential that the international community reviews the legal distinctions between refugees and migrants — the root of this problem is inherently political and thus requires a political solution. Often those who risk their lives on the high seas are economic migrants, seeking a better life and a change from their dire circumstances. While one cannot underestimate the need and importance of helping these individuals, the Rohingya case does not fall squarely into this category. The Rohingya Muslims are refugees fleeing political oppression in their home country, and the international community must push for an end to their persecution. Likewise, it must hold receiving countries accountable for protecting refugees, while also providing humanitarian assistance. It is essential that the international community focuses on resolving the issues causing the persecution and not simply on those that occur as a result of it.
According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, refugees are not simply people seeking a better life or economic opportunity; rather, they are people who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, [are] outside the country of [their] nationality, and [are] unable to, or owing to such fear, [are] unwilling to avail [themselves] of the protection of that country." The Rohingya fall squarely within this definition, and a resolution to the humanitarian crisis requires a focus on the persecution that underpins their refugee status.
A Muslim group that has lived in northwest Burma for generations, the Rohingya have never enjoyed basic protection in their own country. They have not been granted citizenship and are routinely subjected to everything from harassment to torture and murder at the hands of both government officials and state-sanctioned groups. This is well documented by numerous human rights organizations and journalists.
They are a group outside of their own country, unable to avail themselves to the protection of the country that they are fleeing because of their well-founded fear (and experience) of persecution. Plainly stated, they are refugees. The benefits of refugee status should be afforded to them, and states – both Burma, which has created the refugees, and those states that receive the Rohingya - should be accountable under international law.
Refugees are only produced when sovereign states fundamentally disregard their basic responsibility to protect their citizens. Burma has actively persecuted the Rohingya through the state apparatus and proxy groups. The irony of this situation is that Burma is actively seeking to restore its international credibility and status as a sovereign state in good standing on the international stage, while taking actions that prove how it falls short of its most basic responsibilities as a sovereign state.
Burma’s four year experiment with democracy-building and reintegration into the international system is at a crucial stage. The question is whether the international community will help Burma address this issue as part of its democratization and reintegration efforts, or whether it will paper over this issue in hopes that it does not derail these processes. Ultimately ignoring these victims will most likely harm Burma’s ability to democratize, stabilize, and integrate.
The international community has an important opportunity to address these matters. The United Nations can send monitors to the region to oversee the treatment of the Rohingya in Burma. Likewise, it can follow up on Burma’s claims that the Rohingya are not fleeing because of persecution by requiring that the Burmese government allow the Rohingya to return and assist in their reintegration back into society. Many of the Rohingya had been driven from their homes in the past and had lived in camps for the internally displaced; ending this untenable housing situation by allowing the Rohingya to regain their property or find adequate viable housing with economic opportunities is a key step. International assistance organizations doing long-term development projects could prioritize the Rohingya and other marginalized minorities in order to not only contribute to the overall economic development of the country, but also to show that these groups cannot be abused with impunity.
ASEAN, which has not typically been a leader on issues of democratization and human rights, has an opportunity to play a decisive role, particularly considering the impact that this humanitarian crisis could have on numerous countries in the region. ASEAN’s reputation as a regional body committed to the rule of law and international standards is on the line. ASEAN could call for the humane treatment and viable reintegration of the Rohingya back into Burma, as well as a normalization of their status, and in so doing, step into a new role in the region.
The United States and Australia have taken a particular interest in Burma and have important roles to play in ensuring that their strong rhetoric about the protection of the Rohingya makes tangible progress on the ground. Other governments, particularly those in the region, have a responsibility to advocate for their protection as well. For donor countries, bilateral assistance could be tied to progress on this issue, and specific targeted governance and human rights assistance could be added to address the root causes of this issue. Likewise, multinational corporations should also raise this issue with the Burmese government. Ultimately, the handling – or mishandling - of this issue could impact Burma’s long-term stability and economic viability. This problem will not go away, if unaddressed.
The world is watching to see not only how the humanitarian crisis will unfold, but also whether anyone in the international community will stand with the Rohingya. The handling of this case will send a strong signal to governments around the world about the accepted treatment of minorities. If the Rohingya are allowed to drift, Burma’s mistreatment of this minority group will continue, and other governments will understand that similar actions will be permissible in the future. If the international community chooses to enforce global standards, it will likely send a strong message not only to Burma, but also to all governments that choose to persecute minorities.