Stateless and Stranded at Sea: The Rohingya Migrant Crisis

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By: Jenna Klein

Myanmar (or Burma, if you are in the US or UK), a country uniquely situated in between major world powers in Southeast Asia, has a complex and tumultuous history. Since opening its borders in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar has begun to rejoin the international community and has attracted steadily increasing numbers of tourists who are eager to experience and appreciate a rich culture and stunning geographic landscape. I myself was one of those eager tourists. I visited Myanmar this past June and spent time traveling through the bustling city of Yangon (Rangoon), to the traditional heritage sites of Bagan and the beautiful farmlands surrounding Inle Lake. My overwhelming impression, besides awe at the incredible historic preservation and exhaustion under the oppressively humid heat, was of the genuine kindness and enthusiasm with which I was welcomed to each new place by the locals.

However, from my experience it is hard to grasp the events immediately preceding my arrival. In May of this year thousands of displaced Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, took to the sea in precariously small boats in order to flee a lifetime of persecution and abuse in Myanmar. I found the contrast perverse: how could a place so welcoming to foreigners be so inhumane and intolerant toward their own people? Moreover, what role does the international community play in ending this systemic violation of fundamental human rights? While the events over the summer sparked important international discussions and drew necessary attention to a deeply rooted cultural issue, it is not enough. It is easy to let the attention fade as the immediate crisis wanes, but the Rohingya are still struggling to live in peace and, in some cases, to live at all. We have an obligation as a global community to gain a greater understanding of the circumstances that led to the current situation and to continue discussing solutions for the protection of this marginalized population.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar and other surrounding countries for generations. They are, however, distinct from their neighbors in that the state does not recognize them as citizens of Myanmar. The Burmese government refers to this group of people as “Bengalis” to imply they are actually citizens of Bangladesh and therefore living in Myanmar as illegal immigrants (although Bangladesh similarly refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens). The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 explicitly denies the Rohingya their rights to nationality and consequently restricts their ability to travel domestically and internationally, their access necessary health and education services, and their right to privacy. To be a citizen under the law, individuals must prove that their ancestors lived within the country’s borders prior to 1823. While for most Rohingya this is true, they do not have the necessary documentation to prove it. Thus, only 40,000 out of an estimated 1.33 million Rohingya people living in Myanmar are authorized citizens according to the state. As a writer for Amnesty International bluntly stated, “To Burma (and the rest of the world it seems), the Rohingyas are not people. They are stateless.”

A History of Violence Leading to the 2015 Crisis

Hostility toward the Rohingya in Myanmar is deeply rooted in the country’s history, and state oppression of this minority group can be traced back as far as World War II. Two military juntas ruled the country from 1962 to 2010 and the human rights violations that took place under those regimes were so severe that many nations imposed punitive economic sanctions. In 2012, tensions came to a head after members of the Muslim minority were implicated in the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in the Rakhine state. This led to a series of violent riots and attacks over the next few years between the Muslims and Buddhists in the region that resulted in hundreds of deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes. In response, the government established a state of emergency and the military police were called into the region to enforce curfews and forcibly confine thousands of displaced Rohingya to temporary camps without access to sufficient food or medical resources.

To escape this systematic abuse and discrimination, but without a means to travel due to government imposed restrictions, the Rohingya turned in desperation toward traffickers. However, to get themselves out of Myanmar, they often faced continued danger and escalated violence at the hands of these smugglers. In May of this year approximately thirty bodies of Rohingya individuals were found at an abandoned trafficking camp in Thailand, close to the Malaysian border. The discovery of this mass gravesite led Thai authorities to “crackdown” on cross-border movement in order to prevent this form of human trafficking. However the crackdown did not stop the traffickers as much as it turned them to alternative forms of smuggling, such as makeshift boats across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Since 2014, an estimated 94,000 migrants and refugees have left Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea.

The Incident This Summer

Approximately 5,000 of mostly young Rohingya migrants were stranded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea this summer when their smugglers abandoned them in boats with no food or water. Reports of this event were being circulated by May 9th, but for weeks afterward none of the surrounding countries allowed these boats to disembark and in some cases even reportedly pushed them back out to sea. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these young men and women are thought to have died during this time at sea from dehydration, starvation or drowning. Some boats were rescued by fisherman or brought back to their country of origin, but it wasn’t until May 20th that the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide shelter, albeit temporary, to the almost 2,000 migrants still stranded at sea. One Malaysian government official said, in reference to the Rohingya refugees, “I would like them to be turned back and ask them to go back to their own country.” However, as long as the Rohingya remain ostracized by the Burmese government, the truth is that they have no country to return to.

The International Response

On May 29th, representatives from seventeen nations met for one day in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss solutions to the migrant crisis. A proposal was put forward with recommendations for both an immediate response and large-scale prevention of future trafficking, but it was criticized for failing to even mention the Rohingya in the official report. In fact, the word “Rohingya” is so controversial in itself (because it acknowledges Burmese nationality) that high-ranking UN officials and even Nobel Peace Laureate and chairperson for the Burmese National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi decline to use the term. These blatant exhibitions of indifference and dispassion only serve to exemplify the minority’s global isolation.

While the media drew the world’s attention to the crisis over the summer, the role the international community should play in addressing the problem is unclear. Many have criticized the ten nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for their inaction and mistreatment of these refugees. Powerful foreign players, such as the European Union, the United States and Japan, may be uniquely positioned to place necessary leverage on the Burmese government to confront the deeply embedded ethnic conflict in Myanmar. However, there has also been a backlash within Myanmar against this sort of international pressure. Burmese nationalists protested in Yangon at the end of May and in order to control the number of migrants fleeing to the sea, Myanmar intends to prevent members of the Rohingya population from leaving the country by detaining them in government controlled camps.


The stakes of this situation are high. The US Holocaust Museum published a report in May warning that the Rohingya are “a population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide.” Resolving the migrant crisis sparked by events over the summer is undeniably crucial, but it seems as though the international community is “more concerned for the moment about the refugees in boats than the ones suffering on shore.” It has never been acceptable for Myanmar to refuse the Rohingya their rightful citizenship, but it can no longer be tolerated as their ethnicity has become a means to deny them access to fundamental human rights. As citizens of no state, the Rohingya are easily ignored. As members of the international community, we must ensure they are not.

Jenna Klein is a J.D. Candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.