BANGKOK - The Rohingya people are like plants that have little space for roots or no space at all. So to survive, they cling on to each other and stay resolute in their struggle for self determination and to face any danger.
These were the words of a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, who shared them with internationally renowned and acclaimed photographer Greg Constantine.
Greg has visited Bangladesh eight times in the last eight years and Myanmar twice in the last two years to highlight the plight of Rohingya refugees, who are persecuted in Myanmar and are either living in Bangladesh as refugees or living in Southern Thailand as stateless people.
The Rohingyas arrive in Thailand usually on their way to Malaysia through the network of smugglers who make them prisoners and keep them in camps to extort money from their families. Some have managed to reach and settle down in Malaysia.The world was shocked when some days ago Lt-Gen Pharnu of Thailand Police said that 1,300 Rohingyas have been sent back to Myanmar. But, there was confusion about the whole situation and The Nation on Monday contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Thailand to bring some clarity on the issue.
Senior Regional Public Information Officer UNHCR Vivian Tan, who was interviewed some days back by this scribe about the Rohingya people, said that about a thousand Rohingya refugees still remain in Thailand and the situation has not changed for them.“From the group last year we started with 1,800. Now there are less than 100 left. This year there is a new group who were found after the Thai authorities raided a smugglers camp. They are being hosted in south. Some are in immigration detention centre while some others are in mosques,” the UNHCR officer said.
“UNHCR has been pushing for them to be placed at somewhere other than a detention centre. We have seen that those in detention centres developed health and psychological problems. We are trying to avoid that this year,” she added.
Vivian Tan said they were talking to Myanmar government to address the root problem. “These people are forced to leave the state because they face so many restrictions there and can’t move about freely or enjoy basic rights. They have little access to education and healthcare. The Myanmar government needs to promote reconciliation and recognise them as citizens of country,” she maintained.
UNHCR does not have an office in southern Thailand. The staff from Bangkok goes to visit them and interview them to find out about their needs. About the option of third country settlement, Vivian said it was a limited solution because a limited number of countries are willing to settle refugees and these include USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and Netherlands.
“We have to really try and help the most vulnerable ones, unaccompanied children and victims of torture or gender based violence. A very small number has been resettled. Many who were in the process of being resettled or whose cases were being considered, decided they were better off escaping,” she explained.
About the language problem, Vivian said the UNHCR had to bring in the interpreters to help in daily communication. “That has been a big problem since most people in southern Thailand do not understand them. People have really tried to categorise what exactly is that they speak. It seems to be mix of Chitagongian dialect with many Urdu words and some Arabic words. So a regular Burman, Karen and all that would not understand them,” she said.
“Our main priority is to make sure they have a decent place to live and do not have to go to detention centres. We have offered that we will build it and furnish it or whatever it takes. We cannot work autonomously here and are waiting to see what the government tells us,” she said.
Explaining his first hand experience in the field photographer Greg talking to this scribe said the situation in Myanmar was quite desperate. “There seems to be no sign of any solution anywhere in the near future for this community. From my experience in Sitwai a town that has a history of Muslims living there has no Muslim presence. All have been forced to leave. For the Rohingya community that is quite traumatic.”
Greg opined, “For things to change for Rohingyas it will take political will inside of Myanmar and right now there seems to be absolutely no political will. It does not seem any solution is in sight as elections are coming up in 2014. All political parties are trying to find their own political space. All Rohingyas want to go home that is Arakan, which means Myanmar, but only if some positive changes happen there which unfortunately seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.”
Rohingya Association of Thailand President Maung Kyaw Nu thought it was all a vicious circle. “The Thai authorities put the Rohingyas into boat and push them towards Myanmar. When they go off the shore they are again caught by the smugglers, who again bring them back to misery in their camps and sell them. They again fall into the hands of these people and the vicious cycle of exploitation goes on. It has been going on for years now,” he said. The fate of Rohingyas still hangs in the balance. A lot of media attention in the recent years has helped but this community has still a long way to go before they find peace.