Learning from the Rohingya's plight
In recent months, images of Rohingya refugees have flooded the media, drawing increasing attention to the Myanmar government, the UN and Asean. The Rohingya's moments of despair, frozen in photographs, have mobilised world opinion to their cause.
The first massive displacement of the Rohingya started in the late 1970s, but political, economic and identity grievances date back decades. Scholars and academics have written extensively on the Rohingya in relation to human rights issues, ethnic conflict, international non-governmental infrastructure, the UN, Asean and US policy studies and Myanmar international relations. The growing piles of literature and reports seem to convey one underlying theme — complexity.
The Rohingya became a discussion topic during my lunch hour, dinners with friends and calls with family members. The general sentiment is disbelief at the situation; however, the opinions, understanding, perceptions, causes and solutions vary widely. Some friends believe that the UN should do more. Some said that the Thai government and Asean should do more. Others are in shock that statelessness remains a problem in the 21st century. Of all the different opinions, the consensus is that something needs to be done to help.
Help sounds simple in conversation; it is a daunting task in reality. For a government to accept refugees, it needs to have the capacity to shelter the refugees for an uncertain length of time and this can be months, years or decades. Managing refugees requires a tremendous amount of resources and manpower to move, feed and provide necessities such as clean water, sanitation, basic medical care and security. Most Asean governments struggle to provide these basic needs to their own people, let alone to refugees.
Many Asean and South Asian countries are criticised for failure to provide employment opportunities for the Rohingya refugees. With jobs, refugees can improve their lives. They can support themselves, their families and require less aid. Nonetheless, providing work permits to refugees means allowing them to compete with indigenous people already struggling to find employment. Issuing work permits is a complicated affair. Most of the Rohingya refugees do not have citizenship and because their homes were destroyed, most are left with no documentation for identification purposes. Additionally, for security and logistics, most refugee camps and compounds are isolated from urban centres where the majority of the jobs are located.
Integration and long-term settlement also pose another set of difficulties. Imagine the reaction of villagers being told by the government that 2,000 Rohingya will be resettled in their home village. And by the way, the new settlers may not know the law, they are looking for work, and there is no telling how long they will be in the village. The government will build shelter for the new inhabitants outside of the village but the village will not get more police officers or other resources to help with the new arrivals. A person does not need to possess a sixth sense to predict that crime, racism, resentment and prejudice would soon follow. To successfully resettle the Rohingya, thorough planning is necessary to ensure that refugees are protected and treated with respect while balancing the social and economic impacts on local communities.
Some people believe that if enough money is thrown at a problem, it can be solved. A refugee problem represents a great challenge even in the face of large international aid. The culture, community, equality, and freedom from persecution that refugees seek cannot be bought and sold. Most refugees are escaping persecution, most often due to conflict or a repressive political situation in their home country. To compel a sovereign nation to change its policy is a hard thing to do.
Though the internal crux of the Rohingya problem has not changed, the external environment has. The reach and speed of media has grown with the development of satellite and internet technology. The 1970s exodus of the Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh did not receive nearly as much global media coverage as the boat people in recent months. The world has become less welcoming to refugees than in the past. Most countries have enacted increasingly strict immigration and citizenship laws. Even America is more stringent in its admission of new immigrants. Civil society activities have also exploded in past decades; there are more non-governmental organisations advocating for the Rohingya today than there were before.
There is no shortage of options for people with the means and the time to get involved in helping the Rohingya. Organisations specialising in handling refugees are always in need of volunteers and monetary aid. Although money does help, not everyone has the time or is in a position to give. Is there something else that can be done to help the Rohingya? I believe that knowledge can help. With social media and the internet, it is easy to access information such as reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Though information is not tangible like clothing or food, it does play a small role in ensuring compassion and empathy for the plight of others.
Refugee problems are not new or unique to Myanmar. The ethnic identity aspect of the Rohingya's plight can be found in the unrest in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Will the problems in Thailand escalate to the same magnitude as the Rohingya issue? It's hard to say, but it benefits us to understand the Rohingya issue in trying to resolve our own conflicts.
Prapai Kraisornkovit is the editor of Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post Life section Editor.