Chris Lewa[i],  

Paper submitted for publication in a book edited by Omprakash Mishra on "Forced Migration in South Asian Region", Centre for Refugee studies Jadavpur University, Calcutta and Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement.

28th February 2001In the eyes of the media and the general public, whether in Bangladesh or further afield, the situation of the Rohingya from Burma[ii] is usually referred to as a “refugee problem”.  Over the last two decades, Bangladesh has born the brunt of two mass exoduses, each of more then 200,000 people, placing them among the largest in Asia.  Each of these massive outflows of refugees was followed by mass repatriation to Burma.  Repatriation has been considered the preferred solution to the refugee crisis.  However, this has not proved a durable solution, since the influx of Rohingyas over international borders has never ceased.  And it is unlikely that it will stop, so long as the root causes of this unprecedented exodus are not effectively remedied.  The international community has often focussed its attention on the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, rather than on the root causes of the problem, namely the denial of legal status and other basic human rights to the Rohingya in Burma. This approach doubtless stems from the practical difficulty of confronting an intractable military regime which refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens of Burma, and of working out solutions acceptable to all parties involved. The actual plight and continuous exodus of the Rohingya people has been rendered invisible.  Though they continue to cross international borders, they are also denied the right of asylum, being labelled “economic migrants”.  The international community has preferred to ignore the extent of this massive forced migration, which has affected not only Bangladesh, but also other countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, etc.  Images Asia, Thailand

This paper attempts to examine the root causes as well as the extent of the forced migration of the Rohingya people from Burma, the “refugee problem” being only the visible part of this exodus.  In order to understand the dynamics of the Rohingya issue, this paper first touches on the geopolitical position of Arakan and the historical origin of the underlying situation. It thereafter studies the context in which forced displacement has and is still taking place — i.e. the policies implemented by the Burmese government towards the Rohingyas — and looks at the problem of statelessness which is a central factor of their flight.  It then highlights the consequences of these policies, and the extent of the out-migration of Rohingyas throughout the region.  Finally, it analyses the international community’s response and the role of UNHCR. 


Historical background

 Arakan, now incorporated into Burma, finds itself at the crossroads of two continental entities, South Asia and South-East Asia — between Buddhist Asia and Muslim-Hindu Asia and between the Mongoloid and the Indo-Aryan races.  The border between Bangladesh and Burma was delimited arbitrarily, carved out by the British colonial power with little regard for the homogeneity of cultural groups. Geographically, the whole Arakan region is cut off from the rest of Burma by a mountain range, the Arakan Yoma, which has also acted as a natural obstacle to permanent settlement by people from India. “These geographical facts explain the separate historical development of that area […] until it was conquered by the Burmese Kingdom at the close of the eighteenth century” as Moshe Yegar says.[iii]   At the intersection of two worlds, the geopolitical position of Arakan has retained a strategic importance throughout history. Arakan was an independent kingdom until 1784, encompassing at times the southern part of today’s Bangladesh, and was famous as a land of economic opportunities, on the shipping routes between Asia and the Persian Gulf. Since early historical times, Arakan has been inhabited by the Rakhine people, believed to be a mixture of an indigenous Hindu group and the Mongols who invaded in the ninth century. The Rakhine people today are Buddhist and speak a language often considered as a dialect of Burmese.  They constitute the ethnic majority in Arakan. Both the Chittagong region of south-eastern Bangladesh and the neighbouring Arakan region came into contact with Muslim Arab merchants in the 9th Century.  The Rohingyas, as an ethnically distinct group, claim to be descendants of those first Muslims, and were racially mixed with Bengalis, Persians, Moghuls, Turks and Pathans who came to the area later.[iv] Persian was the main language of the Rakhine court until the late eighteenth century. They share many similarities in language, customs, and religion with the Chittagonian Bengalis, and constitute an ethnic minority in Arakan, mostly concentrated in the northern part bordering Bangladesh. Under British colonial rule, during the 19th Century and until Burma Independence in 1948, there was a massive immigration of male workers to Arakan, many of whom came from the Chittagong area as seasonal agricultural workers. Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists have thus co-existed in the region for many centuries.  Until World War II, the two communities did not show any sign of strong animosity.  However, in 1942, the Japanese conquest sparked the flight of thousands of Indians from Central Burma trying to reach British India via Arakan, and at the same time the evacuation of the British from Arakan created a political vacuum which gave room for the accumulated tensions to explode.  Communal riots broke out in Arakan between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. During the Japanese occupation of Burma, the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British.  In 1947 some Rohingya leaders approached President Jinnah of the newly-created Pakistan and requested him to incorporate northern Arakan into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It was undoubtedly this move more than any other which determined the present-day governmental attitude towards the Rohingyas: they had threatened Burma's territorial integrity in the eve of independence and could never be trusted again[v].  After Independence, some Rohingya leaders formed a Mujahid movement and demanded autonomy. The Rohingyas’ claim to be an ethnic group of Burma was nevertheless recognised by the democratic government of U Nu in the 1950s, though most observers consider this move politically motivated.  However it has been denied consistently following the military take-over in 1962[vi]. Since that time, the Rohingyas have become subject to restrictions and harsh treatment by the state authorities designed to encourage them to leave the country.   At the end of 1977, the Burmese government launched an operation called Nagamin (Dragon King) aimed at curtailing illegal infiltration into Burma. While the program was nation-wide, in Arakan it degenerated into brutal attacks on Rohingyas by both the army and local Rakhines. This precipitated a mass exodus of Rohingyas out of Arakan, and by May 1978, over 200,000 Rohingyas had fled to Bangladesh. Within 16 months, they were repatriated under a bilateral agreement between the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma. Subsequently in 1982, the military junta enacted amendments to the Citizenship Law, clearly targetting the Rohingyas and making it almost impossible for them to be recognised as citizens. Neglect by the central government in Arakan was marked by a lack of development projects, and exacerbated by the absence of planning to integrate the refugees who returned in 1978 and 1979, many of whom remained landless and without documentation[vii].  Surprisingly, the Rohingyas were not only allowed to vote in the May 1990 elections but were represented by two parties which captured 80 percent of the votes cast in their constituencies.  By 1991, the government needed a scapegoat, a distraction or common enemy to unite a populace disillusioned and angry at the regime’s failure to implement the election results. They chose the Rohingyas[viii].   Forced labour, rape and summary executions followed a dramatic increase in the army presence in northern Arakan State and caused a new mass exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh. By March 1992 over 270,000 refugees were scattered in camps along the Cox's Bazar/Tefnak region of Bangladesh.  However, to justify the military build-up in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, the SLORC gave another reason: Rohingya insurgents. The insurgents, they claimed, were Islamic "extremists" who had been stirring up the local population, making them leave and then telling lies to the international press in order to encourage Islamic countries to support the rebels.[ix]   While the Rohingya insurgencies have a long history, they do not appear to have much support from the local Rohingya people they claim to represent.  In 1991,  "impartial observers" said that they only had a combined strength of 800 men[x].   Predictably, the military regime first denied there were any problems in Arakan State at all, and later consistently underplayed the scale of the problem. However, in April 1992, following a move by Bangladesh to take the matter of the refugees and the Burmese military build-up along the border to the Security Council, a UN Envoy, Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson, was sent to the region. The result of his mediation was that Burma agreed to the repatriation of those "Myanmar residents" who wished to return "to their homes".[xi]   The two Governments called on UNHCR to assist in the repatriation process which would "facilitate the reduction of international concern". That the SLORC still did not recognise the Rohingyas as Burmese citizens is clear from a statement in December 1992, by then Minister for Foreign Affairs, U Ohn Gyaw to the UN Special Rapporteur that: "it is a rubbish thing that people have left Myanmar. These people who are in the refugee camps in Bangladesh are perhaps from Dhaka, but not one single person has left Burma."[xii] 


The Context of Displacement: The Policies of the Burmese Government

 Since Burmese Independence in 1948, the Rohingyas have had a history of exodus and forced migration, resulting from the policies of exclusion imposed on them by successive Burmese governments.  These policies have acted as push-factors for forced migration to other countries whether as refugees or migrants.  They can be summarised as follows: 1)     Denial of citizenship: Lt-Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary-1 of the State Peace and Development Council, stated in a letter to former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs Sadako Ogata, that: “Suffice it to say that the issue is essentially one of migration, of people seeking greener pastures.  These people are not originally from Myanmar but have illegally migrated to Myanmar because of population pressures in their own country. … They are racially, ethnically, culturally different from the other national races in our country.”[xiii]   However, an historical analysis of the settlement pattern of the Rohingya people in Northern Arakan reveals that nationality rights are for most of them a legitimate aspiration.  Following amendments in the Citizenship Act in 1982, they found themselves deprived of the rights inherent to citizenship. Their present legal status amounts, in international law, to de facto statelessness. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law was promulgated shortly after the Rohingya refugees of 1978 were repatriated, and was clearly designed to exclude them from citizenship rights. This Law distinguishes between three categories of citizens: full citizens, associate citizens, and naturalised citizens.   Full citizens are those belonging to one of 135 “national races” among which the Rohingyas do not feature, or those whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the start of the British colonisation of Arakan.  Very few could be included under any of these categories, due not only to their individual histories, but also to the difficulty of providing evidence.[xiv]  After UNHCR’s intervention in the mid-1990s, the vast majority of Rohingya were only granted a temporary registration card, which clearly states that it does not constitute evidence of citizenship.  Their status as foreigners restricts their freedom of movement, their right to education, health, employment in the civil service, and land ownership. Citizenship, or nationality, is a fundamental human right that facilitates the ability to exercise other human rights.  Burma, however, continues to treat the Rohingya as foreign residents, on the basis of their ethnic origin.   The Rohingyas’ lack of citizenship, being integral to the discrimination and human rights abuses they suffer, lies at the heart of why they fled to other countries and why most cannot return to Burma.  According to Human Rights Watch, “[w]here an entire group is arbitrarily denied this basic right on the basis of ethnicity, this constitutes discrimination rising to the level of persecution”[xv].  2)     Restrictions on freedom of movement: As a direct consequence of the denial of legal status, Rohingyas in Northern Arakan are not granted the same freedom of movement as other citizens/residents of Burma, regardless of their documentation.  They are virtually confined to their village tracts.  In order to travel to a different area, they need a pass from several levels of authorities, which they have to pay for.  Restrictions on movement also have direct economic implications for the community.  Most cannot afford regular travel permits, and for others, the burdensome procedure limits their access to health facilities, to higher education, to employment opportunities, and to markets.  The lack of mobility also results in obstacles to trade, reducing the range of goods available and thus increasing the costs of basic commodities.   3)     Forced labour: Although forced labour is a nation-wide practice, Rohingyas have been especially targeted for compulsory labour in the construction and maintenance of military camps, portering for the army, on military-owned shrimp farms and plantations, in the establishment of villages for new settlers, etc.  The amount of work largely depends on the proximity of the different authorities and their resulting needs, as well as on government development projects.  However, exaction of labour for road building purposes decreased somewhat after UN agencies became involved in road building.  Since the demand for labour is often uncoordinated among the various authorities, the accumulation of work can reach up to 12 days a month, with disastrous consequences for the economic survival of the poorer strata of the community, who rely on a hand-to-mouth existence.   Compulsory labour is very rarely paid.  Moreover, the labourers are often at risk of abuses by the soldiers if they do not perform their assignment in a satisfactory manner. 4)     Land confiscation and forced relocation: In Arakan, land confiscation and forced relocation are generally to provide land for the building or expansion of military camps, the construction of Buddhist religious edifices, and for the implantation of “model villages” for new Buddhist settlers from others parts of Arakan State, Yangon, and even from Bangladesh[xvi]. The establishment of “model villages” to resettle Rakhine Buddhists onto Muslim land has been ongoing since the 1950s.  It is a policy of demographic engineering designed to alter the ethnic composition of the region, specifically to dilute the Rohingya ethnicity.  By 1997, 100 such new villages were created.  In 1999, another 15 were established, while existing ones are being extended.  After having their land confiscated without compensation, Rohingya farmers are compelled to build houses for the new settlers.  Not only land confiscation, but also forced labour is directly related to these programmes, which especially affect small landowners, and contribute to landlessness.   The letter from Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt to Ms Sadako Ogata also stated: “At the same time, these people, by using all sorts of means including violence, had driven away the Rakhine people who were previously living in those areas.  To cite an example, Buthidaung and Maungdaw were previously inhabited by Rakhines, but now the population of these townships is composed almost entirely of people from outside.”  The Government discourse seems to legitimise such policies by invoking the communal violence of 1942. 5)     Compulsory contributions and informal taxes: Compulsory food procurement, extortion and arbitrary taxation are common practices and have serious consequences for the economic viability of the community.  These informal taxes can range from vegetable and poultry taxes to cattle registration fees.  Moreover, a private brokerage system has been instituted whereby licences for fishing, woodcutting or prawn breeding have to be obtained at high cost.  This does not include the multitude of ad-hoc donations to be made to the authorities in kind or in cash[xvii]. 6)     Government control on rice production and trade: The rice tax, based on a pre-set quota of baskets per acre rather than on yield, is especially burdensome for small farmers and can represent up to 40% of their paddy production.   Moreover, a general rice deficit in Northern Arakan combined with tight restrictions on imports has resulted in high rice prices, nearly double those of the state capital Sittwe.  Government control on rice production as well as on trade has prompted food shortages and is another reason for the exodus of people to Bangladesh[xviii]. 7)     General neglect in providing public services: Apart from the restrictions faced by the Rohingyas in accessing education and health services, there is a general neglect of the facilities available.  Rohingya children are generally allowed to attend primary schools, but secondary education is reserved for citizens only.  Health care is almost non-existent outside the towns and large villages.  UNHCR has attempted to improve the educational and health delivery system by rehabilitating government-run schools and health centres, and providing training to teachers and health workers.  However, obstacles were encountered as Rohingyas cannot apply for any government posts, and there are very few Muslim teachers and health staff.  The majority are Rakhine.  In principle, there are enough trained teachers and health personnel, but it proves difficult to attract Rakhines to isolated, rural areas dominated by Rohingyas.  Some of the newly built facilities therefore remain unused[xix].  The realities in which the Rohingyas live in Arakan are a result of the policies listed above, and demonstrate that there is no willingness on the part of the Burmese government to recognise and integrate this population.  As long as these policies remain in place, any attempt at development of these communities is bound to fail, and the cycle of exodus will not be stemmed. 


Consequences of Exclusion

 These policies have led to dramatic forced migrations by the Rohingyas, especially from the lower socio-economic strata of the population, from Arakan to other countries.  Bangladesh has been the principal country affected, and has to bear the main burden of this exodus. These forced migrations over several decades can be viewed in two categories, even though they have identical root causes: (1) highly visible refugee movements, which have prompted programmes of repatriation, and (2) massive irregular migrations, which remain invisible and are generally not even acknowledged.  The visible – the “refugees”: At the height of the two outflows, the refugee movement numbered over 200,000, both in 1978 and 1991/92.  This represents between a quarter and a third of the total current Rohingya population of northern Arakan.  These forced migrations across an international border became recognised as “refugee flows” because they were mass exoduses triggered by specific operations conducted by the Burmese military regime: the Nagamin operation in 1978; and the sudden military build-up of 1991/92.  These led to gross human rights abuses, which spread fear and rumours.  Because of their sudden and large-scale nature, the Bangladesh government could not ignore these influxes, and lacking adequate resources, was compelled to appeal for assistance to the international community.  These two refugee situations prompted programmes of repatriation, negotiated under bilateral agreements between the governments of Bangladesh and Burma, the latter repatriation under the supervision of UNHCR. However, the voluntary character of such programmes was seriously put into question.  Since basic conditions which would guarantee a safe return were not achieved, these solutions have proved not to be durable.  Moreover, about 22,000 refugees remain today in two camps in Cox’s Bazar district.   The invisible – the “illegal migrants”: However, the mass refugee movements were preceded, accompanied and followed by even larger flows of irregular migration whose extent is unknown, but which could be as high as one million individuals[xx].  This invisible exodus has primarily affected Bangladesh.  Estimates of the number of those undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh, often referred to as “new arrivals” (although not all are new in the strict sense of the term), vary between 100,000 according to UNHCR, to 250,000 as reported in the Bangladesh press[xxi]. Even though the reason for their flight is in most cases identical to those recognised as refugees, and took place under similar conditions, they have been labelled as “economic migrants”, and have been denied any form of protection or humanitarian assistance. Moreover, an equally massive forced migration took place to Pakistan, especially in and around Karachi.  In a report dated March 1994, the Sindh police[xxii] estimated the number of illegal Burmese living in and around Karachi in 1993 at around 200,000, an increase of 700% from their previous survey of 1988.  The police records also indicate that Burmese (who are all Rohingyas) comprise 14%, and Bangladeshis 80%, of the total undocumented immigrant population in Karachi.[xxiii]  However, the real number of Rohingyas in Karachi is likely to be much higher since many of them would conceal their origin to the police in fear of deportation to Burma.  Rohingya community leaders in Karachi speak of a total Rohingya population of over 300,000.   The Rohingya population in Pakistan is mostly concentrated in the suburbs of Karachi, including Korangi, Orangi and Landhi.  In these areas, the names of some of the Rohingya settlements reflect the migrants’ place of origin, for example, “Arakanabad”, “Burmi Colony”, “Arakan Colony”[xxiv]. The migratory movement of Rohingya Muslims to Pakistan started in the ‘50s, but took off in the early ‘60s when the military grabbed power in Burma.  Since then, there have been two major increases of population in the settlements of Karachi, in the late ‘70s and the early ‘90s, which are clearly linked to the two mass influxes of refugees into Bangladesh.  At present the flow of newcomers seems to have slowed down, but still continues.  Most of those have transited through Bangladesh, and been smuggled or trafficked across the Indian subcontinent.  About 8,000 Rohingyas fled to Malaysia, mostly at the time of the mass refugee exodus to Bangladesh in 1991/92.  Although many applied for asylum, they were not accepted as refugees fleeing persecution, but considered as aliens subject to detention and deportation.  Since the Burmese government refuses to take them back, they are usually deported to Thailand.  They were informally tolerated in the early 1990s, but their situation has deteriorated significantly in recent years[xxv]. In India, their number is unknown.  In addition, Rohingya leaders claim that there are about 50,000 Rohingyas in the United Arab Emirates, and that another 2-300,000 Rohingyas have migrated to Saudi Arabia, especially to Jeddah and Medina. These irregular migrants include those who did not settle in the refugee camps at the height of the influx, those who were denied access to the camps after the repatriation started, and those who continue to trickle out of Burma.  They have remained invisible because being stateless, they are afraid of deportation and do not wish to draw attention to themselves. Their invisibility is increased by the failure of the international community to recognise their status and provide them with the international protection to which, as stateless persons, they are entitled[xxvi].  However, it should be noted that many of the countries to which they migrated have managed to some extent to absorb the influx.  Although they have not been provided with any legal protection, they have often been tolerated on humanitarian grounds.  They usually provide cheap labour, sometimes in situations tantamount to slavery.  Because of their conditions of statelessness, the Rohingya migrant population has avoided drawing attention to their plight and has tried to keep invisible.  However, the political circumstances prevailing in the host countries put them at risk.  Rumours of official crackdowns circulate regularly, and many Rohingyas are held indefinitely in jails in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and most likely other countries, after serving their terms for illegal entry.  Therefore, we can say that this migratory movement has been largely ignored and has generally not even been acknowledged. 


Response by the international community

 The two highly visible refugee movements triggered a response by the international community, and the adopted solution was repatriation to Burma.  However, this response did not provide any durable solution and, as the continuous irregular migration indicates, it has only helped to conceal the predicament.  Following the implementation of these programmes, considerable pressure was put on the refugees to repatriate, even though basic conditions for safe return had not been achieved and the fundamental situation in Burma had not improved. In both cases, the Burmese government felt compelled to take back the refugees under external pressure.  However, by accepting them back, it has also implicitly recognised them as having a genuine and effective link with Myanmar, therefore making void its claim that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.   In 1978, the repatriation was negotiated under a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar governments.  The exercise took place with a good deal of coercion to the refugees to return and within 16 months, the repatriation was concluded. UNHCR was involved in the camps providing humanitarian assistance but did not play any active role of protection in the repatriation itself. In 1991, the Bangladesh government initially accepted the new mass influx of Rohingya refugees, seeing it as a short-term problem.  In April 1992, the two governments again signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding for repatriation.  Based on that agreement, 50,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated, most of them forcibly and without UNHCR supervision.  UNHCR had started providing assistance in the refugee camps but the agency withdrew in December 1992, in protest against the forcible return.  In May 1993, Bangladesh agreed to UNHCR’s involvement in the registration of volunteers for repatriation, and in November 1993, UNHCR signed another agreement with Myanmar to establish a presence in the returnees’ areas in Arakan. 

The monitoring role of UNHCR

 However, after gaining access to Arakan, the UNHCR abandoned the system of individual interviews in favour of a mass registration programme in which thousands of Rohingyas returned each week.  At that time, NGOs providing services in the refugee camps questioned the voluntary nature of the repatriation programme[xxvii].  A majority of the refugees who repatriated did so under intimidation or with insufficient information. UNHCR's monitoring role in Burma should be assessed against this backdrop. 

The UNHCR monitoring programme in northern Arakan State was intended to ensure "… through a continuous dialogue with the Burmese authorities, that the basic rights of returnees are respected", and to "… provide socio-economic interventions to stabilise the population and provide a basis for ongoing reintegration and development"[xxviii].


However, some factors hampered the ability of UNHCR to carry out an effective monitoring programme. Important protection issues such as denial of citizenship, compulsory labour, forcible relocations, and restrictions on freedom of movement were not placed in the context of the nation-wide human rights situation in Burma. Under these circumstances, notwithstanding UNHCR’s public statements about "unhindered access to returnees" who are able to freely "approach the UNHCR offices … to discuss any issue, problems or concerns", the agency could not fulfil its mandate successfully[xxix].


Moreover, the presence of UNHCR in Arakan State has been having a negative influence on the protection of Rohingya asylum-seekers in Bangladesh.   Soon after UNHCR gained access to the Burmese side of the border, new Rohingya arrivals were no longer allowed to take shelter in the existing refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District.  The UNHCR has never strongly challenged the restrictive policies of the Bangladesh government in labelling all Rohingya newcomers as “economic migrants”. The claim to protection of new asylum-seekers in Bangladesh has been secondary to the goal of maintaining the momentum of repatriation, and this has deliberately kept the relentless outflow of Rohingya out of Burma invisible[xxx].  


The other major objective of the UNHCR presence in Myanmar was to anchor the population and prevent a future exodus. However, this proved difficult to accomplish in view of social, economic and political factors beyond the control of UNHCR.  In spite of positive intervention by the World Food Program and NGOs, the root causes of the exodus have not been eliminated. A serious constraint to reintegration and development is undoubtedly the lack of willingness on the part of the government of Myanmar to improve the conditions of the Rohingyas.[xxxi]


The assessment of other international actors

  UNHCR’s assessment of the situation in Arakan appears to contradict those of other international actors.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, the International Labour Organisation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance and the US State Department, among others, – have adopted a human rights approach.   Their reports have focussed on the human rights situation in Burma, which resulted in forced migration of the Rohingyas.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar stated in his report to the 2000 UN Commission of Human Rights that: “As an ethnic group, it is said that the Rohingyas continue to suffer from the consequences of discrimination and gross abuses” and they are denied citizenship.[xxxii] More recently, his report to the General Assembly refers to the situation in Arakan: “The Special Rapporteur has at the last moment also received reports of, among other complaints, a number of killings, rapes, disappearances, forced labour, forced relocation and extortion by members of the border security force (Na Sa Ka) and SPDC soldiers in Arakan state”[xxxiii].  In July 1998, the ILO Commission of Inquiry on labour practices in Burma declared: “Finally, the situation in the northern part of Rakhine State appears to be more severe in all respects than that prevailing in most other parts of the country. Most of the witnesses questioned on this subject, who were members of the Rohingya ethnic group, and who had left the country very recently, claimed to have been subjected to systematic discrimination by the authorities; the discrimination took the form, in so far as work on the roads is concerned, of an overwhelming workload. […]Working conditions are excessively arduous; tasks must be performed in an atmosphere where insults, abuse, ill-treatment and torture are commonplace.”[xxxiv] The 2000 report of the US Department of State has listed ‘severe legal, economic, and social discrimination’ against the minority Rohingya community.  The report agrees with the assessment that the 21,000 Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh camps could be subjected to human rights abuses, including religious persecution, on their return. In fact, returnees have “complained of severe government restrictions on their ability to travel and to engage in economic activity.”[xxxv]   Conclusion 

If human rights abuses are the cause for departure, respect for human rights must be the basis for return[xxxvi].  The solution to the Rohingya problems lies in changing the policies of the Burmese Government that lead to human rights violations. In the event that a democratic government would replace the current military dictatorship, there is no guarantee that policies towards the Rohingya will be positively affected.  The Rakhine Buddhist population as well as the pro-democratic opposition in Burma is not favourably disposed toward recognising the distinct ethnic identity of the Rohingyas. Until policies that eradicate their statelessness and respect their fundamental human rights are put in place, many Rohingyas will continue to seek protection abroad.  Until then too, Bangladesh and other countries in the region will have to bear the burden of the exodus. Under these conditions, assistance and protection to the unfortunate victims of forced migration is both a moral and legal obligation of the international community and the neighbouring states.



[i] The author is thankful to David Arnott, Director of the Burma Peace Foundation, for his comments and suggestions.


[ii] In this paper, Burma and Myanmar have been used interchangeably.


[iii] Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, 1972.


[iv] Human Rights Watch, “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?”, Sep 1996.


[v] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Zed Books 1991. 
[vi]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Zed Books 1991. 

[vii] Human Rights Watch, “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?”, Sep 1996.


[viii] Bertil Lintner, “Diversionary Tactics: Anti-Muslim campaign seen as effort to rally Burmans”, Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), 29 August 1991. 

[ix] Human Rights Watch, “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?”, 1996.


[x] Bertil Lintner, "Diversionary Tactics…." Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 August 1991.  

[xi] Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh and Myanmar Issued at the Conclusion of the Official Visit of the Myanmar Foreign Minister to Bangladesh from 23 – 28 April, 1992.


[xii] UN document E/CN.4/1993/37, para 41.


[xiii] Letter from Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1 of SPDC to Mrs Sadako Ogata dated 5 February 1998.


[xiv] For a full discussion, see Human Rights Watch, “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of Exodus?”, 1996.


[xv] Human Rights Watch, “Living in a Limbo, Burmese Rohingyas in Malaysia”, July 2000.


[xvi] The Rakhines, and their ethnic cousins, the Marmas, are indigenous minorities of Bangladesh practising Buddhism, and have been encouraged through incentives to settle in Arakan.  


[xvii] UNHCR, Myanmar – “Reintegration programme at a crossroads, Note on Issues of Concern to UNHCR”, 1997.


[xviii] Lisbeth Garly Andersen, “Analysis of the livelihood situation of the Muslim population in Northern Rakhine State”, Consultant UNHCR, 31 July 1997.


[xix] Lisbeth Garly Andersen, “Analysis of the livelihood situation of the Muslim population in Northern Rakhine State”, Consultant UNHCR, 31 July 1997.


[xx] Human Rights Watch, “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?”, 1996.


[xxi] Daily Purbakone, Dhaka, 7 October 2000 (in Bengali)


[xxii] In 1993, the Sindh police conducted a comprehensive survey on illegal immigration.  Their findings reveal that over one million Bangladeshis and 200,000 Burmese were living in Karachi without proper documentation.


[xxiii] Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), “Trafficking of women and children in Pakistan, The flesh Trade report, 1995-1996”, Karachi.


[xxiv] Chris Lewa, Images Asia, “Trafficked from Hell to Hades, The plight of the Rohingya women from Burma trafficked to Pakistan”, November 1999.


[xxv] Human Rights Watch, “Living in Limbo, Burmese Rohingyas in Malaysia”, July 2000.


[xxvi] The UNHCR has a statutory responsibility to provide international protection to stateless persons.


[xxvii] Medecins sans Frontieres, MSF France, “The Rohingyas: Forcibly Repatriated to Burma”, 22 Sep 1994, and MSF Holland, “Awareness Survey: Rohingya Refugee Camps, Cox’s Bazaar District, Bangladesh”, 15 March 1995.


[xxviii] UNHCR in Myanmar, Programme Briefing Paper, 1 January 1997.


[xxix] David Petrasek, “Through Rose-Coloured Glasses: UNHCR's Role in Monitoring the Safety of the Rohingya Refugees Returning to Burma”, May 1998.


[xxx] David Petrasek, Ibid.


[xxxi] Lisbeth Garly Andersen, “Analysis of the livelihood situation of the Muslim population in Northern Rakhine State”, Consultant UNHCR, 31 July 1997.


[xxxii] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar to the 56th Session of the UN Commission of Human Rights, E/CN.4/2000/38, 24 January 2000, para. 51. 
[xxxiii] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar to the 55th Session of the General Assembly, A/55/359, 22 August 2000, para. 56. 
[xxxiv] Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) Geneva, 2 July 1998 – para. 435. 
[xxxv] 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom: Burma, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000. 

[xxxvi] David Petrasek,  Ibid.