A Crisis of Belonging: Re-Thinking Solutions for Stateless People

By Celine Thomas and Jessica Farber

The United Nations has called the latest mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar the result of “ethnic cleansing.” Scholars have referred to it as “an ongoing genocide,” and NGOs consistently use the term “apartheid-like conditions.” Since August 25th, 2017, nearly 600,000 Rohingya have attempted to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh. According to a UNICEF report released on October 20th, 58% of those who have fled are children.

Journalists, human rights workers, and humanitarian agencies report that government soldiers have committed unfathomable and inhuman atrocities, including systematically burning houses with entire families inside, summarily executing groups of men, gang-raping women and girls, and throwing babies into fire. While the government has refused independent investigations, satellite imagery shows that 288 villages in Rakhine State have been completely burned.

The government also continues to block any humanitarian aid from entering the country, leaving the starving and sick no choice but to make the dangerous journey to Bangladesh in the hopes of any chance at survival. Because the Rohingya have been effectively rendered “stateless” by the government, which has denied the group citizenship since 1982, most arrive in Bangladesh without any form of identification and face limited prospects of gaining refugee status in any country. Yet despite the swell of media coverage we’ve seen, any political action on a national, regional, or international scale so far has been insufficient to quell the violence that is forcing thousands to flee each day.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh can hardly be considered a place of refuge, and the perilous journey across the border by foot or on rickety boats is not a solution. With limited road access to the camps, lack of drinking water and toilets, and makeshift tents exposed to the elements, the camps are breeding sites for disease and the vast majority of the nearly one million Rohingya living in Bangladesh have not received aid. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), one of the few agencies providing aid in Cox’s Bazaar, reports an acute health emergency, with many Rohingya consuming just one meal of rice each day. If an outbreak occurs, MSF predicts catastrophic consequences.

A Protracted Crisis

The roots of the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State date back to World War II, when the Rohingya stayed loyal to British colonizers and Rakhine Buddhists sided with the Japanese invaders. Since independence in 1948, both groups have faced persecution, though the military of the predominantly Buddhist country has carried out several organized attempts to alter the ethnic makeup of the country. In 1978, the military drove out over 200,000 Rohingya in a rampage of bloody killings, rape, and arson. In 1991, the military again forced over 250,000 to flee to Bangladesh only to be forced back and placed in camps in northern Rakhine. Locked away in these informal settlements, the government prohibits Rohingya from working and moving freely, accessing health care and education, and from involvement in the market. On August 25th, 2017, a conflict between Rohingya militants and local police posts precipitated the third and largest mass exodus of Rohingya from the country.

The Need for Concerted Action

The ongoing wholesale pillaging of innocent civilians represents a failure at all levels of governance and actors. It represents a collective acceptance of the systematic devaluation of a group of individuals; an acceptance that the Rohingya, and all other stateless groups are of a lesser value, and therefore do not deserve the same rights and protections afforded to other citizens of the world.

Under The Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, it is prohibited to render someone “stateless” on racial, ethnic, political, or religious grounds, yet no enforcement mechanisms exist. In the case of Myanmar, the military government has no interest in providing citizenship or protections to Rohingya, and continues to exclude them without penalty. Furthermore, at the international level, there are no clear mechanisms on what to do with stateless people and no obligations on the part of countries to offer refugee status or legal pathways to citizenship. Meanwhile, stateless people can only claim citizenship in the country where they were born, or where one of their parents was born.

Indeed, at the political level, the onus to resolve the crisis should be on Myanmar’s de facto prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi and other governmental actors. “As the only one controlling the government agenda, and the only person with enough power to influence public opinion, Aung San Suu Kyi must remain the target of regional and international pressure,” Kevin Malseed, Program Manager in the Asia team at Inter Pares, emphasized to us in an interview. Furthermore, he stressed that national leaders must strive for greater concerted action by going beyond UN conventions, and imposing additional embargoes and political pressure not only on Myanmar’s leaders but on countries selling them weapons. Neighbouring countries — namely the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — must coordinate a regional response to absorb some of the migrants and to regulate dangerous trafficking situations.

Additionally, western countries, including Canada, must provide greater support to host nations and should open up pathways to resettlement for Rohingya in their own countries. For example, Canada has taken in just 300 Rohingya refugees in the past 11 years. Prime Minister Trudeau has spoken with Suu Kyi and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland with the head of Myanmar’s military, though the outcomes of these conversations remain unclear. Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau has also increased Canada’s aid up to $25 million this year for those affected by the crisis, but this is little for the more than half a million people. Canadian Ambassador to Myanmar, Karen MacArthur, is one of few Canadians to have witnessed the result of the atrocities firsthand, but is in a delicate position of diplomacy to take abrupt measures.

Despite the Trudeau government’s engagement in the crisis so far, relative to other Western countries, there is much more Canada can do. Perhaps most promising is the recent appointment of Bob Rae as Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar. This appointment provides a stronger political voice and stance on the matter and will allow Canada to conduct a more detailed investigation within Myanmar. However, this inquiry must lead to strengthened coalitions of actors, both in Canada and in the region. Without a united and collaborative response, there will be little hope of mounting sufficient pressure on Myanmar’s government, and effectively ending this genocide.

Towards an Inclusive International Community

Yet it is not solely up to governments and politicians– the onus must also rest on all of us. Until we afford equal value to all individuals, simply on the basis of being a human inhabitant of this planet, the crisis in Myanmar — and in other countries where groups of people are de-valued and denied citizenship simply because of their ethnicity — will continue.

The fundamental question remains: who or what is the international community if it does not include every single one of us? By labelling groups of people as “stateless,” society has written off and excluded nearly 10 million people worldwide from belonging to this amorphous collective. Everyone can play a part in re-writing this narrative. We must start by questioning the collective acceptance that it is okay to deny rights and citizenship to a group of people because they are “less than.” We must recognize the right of every individual to belong to a community, to belong to a nation, to belong to a land. This starts with the individual, but it must translate to profound legal change. We need enforcement mechanisms that hold countries accountable for the deprivation of nationality and citizenship, and we need laws that allow stateless people to seek asylum or apply for citizenship in countries of refuge.

By re-defining what it means to be part of the international community, we can begin to build a society where all rights are respected and recognized regardless of visible or invisible differences.