Rohingya refugees protest their exile in BangladeshAugust 2022: Rohingya refugees gather at the Kutupalong Refugee Camp to mark the 5th anniversary of their fleeing from Myanmar. [photo: Reuters/Rafiqur Rahman via Alamy]

There is supposedly a Russian saying that a man consists of a body, a soul – and a passport. But much of humanity, throughout history, may have had little idea of which state, if any, they even belonged to, and it is only with the great migrations sparked by the past century’s world wars and revolutions that travel documents became relevant for most people. This makes statelessness a peculiarly modern condition, and the world’s largest communities of people without a country to call their own are the Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim minority, and the Kurds, whose territory has the misfortune to straddle four hostile states.

Just over a million of the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017, from what the UN Human Rights Council called ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Most of them are now in Commonwealth countries, especially in neighbouring Bangladesh, which had nearly 960,000 refugees registered last month. Malaysia has 158,000 and India has 64,000, while another 65,000 are in Thailand and Indonesia. And nearly all of these are stateless, according to the UNHCR.

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Myanmar’s agony: The struggle for democracy

Citizenship law

Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, brought in after Rohingya returned following a previous exodus in 1978, stripped most of the Muslim minority of their citizenship. Under this law, Rohingya are deemed ‘resident foreigners’ as they are not one of 10 recognised ethnic groups and cannot prove their residence predates 1823, when the British colonised Arakan (now Rakhine state). It also denies citizenship to their children, even if born in Myanmar, and requires travel permits to be carried by Rohingya while moving outside their own district.

When the Rohingya fled from the murderous pogrom unleashed by the Myanmar military, and incited by ultranationalist and Islamophobic Buddhist monks, they escaped over the Bangladeshi border to Cox’s Bazar, which is now home to Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp. Conditions there have improved significantly in some ways, such as widespread provision of gas for cooking, which has stemmed deforestation and, by removing the need for long trips to collect firewood, has also reduced the risk of sexual violence and allowed children to spend more time in classrooms (many of which have now improved to the point that they are now registered by Bangladesh’s education ministry).

In many other ways, though, life for its unfortunate residents has become even tougher. Many Rohingya were moved to a new camp on the remote and flood-prone island of Bhasan Char, on which the government intends to house 100,000 refugees. Human Rights Watch claimed the government had moved some Bangladeshis without their consent and misled them about conditions on the island, which they cannot leave and where they have no access to work or education.


Earlier this month, a huge fire swept through the main camp, destroying some 2,000 shacks and leaving at least 12,000 people without shelter. The BBC reported that police were investigating whether the fire had been caused by ‘an act of sabotage’. But according to Voice of America, a local Rohingya community leader said there had been a gunfight between two ‘Rohingya gangs’ in the camp and called it arson. Another source, referring to the insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, said: ‘Different areas of the large camp are controlled by different groups. One group is setting fire to an area controlled by a rival group. Members or supporters of ARSA set fire to some parts of the camp several times.’

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The Economist said: ‘Grown powerful on guns and smuggling yaba, a narcotic, ARSA and other Rohingya crews are terrorising Kutupalong. It is no longer considered safe to walk the camp after dark. About two dozen refugees, including community leaders, have been killed since July. Kidnapping and extortion are on the rise.’

Amid such lawlessness, and facing the repeated loss of their precious few possessions to such fires, or to devastating cyclones, such as the one that hit the camp last August, lots of Rohingya prefer to take their chances on the high seas: crossing the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life.  More than 3,500 desperate refugees attempted the risky sea crossings in 39 boats last year, the UNHCR said in January – a 360% increase on last year.

But they face a more hostile reception than they might expect. With a Hindu supremacist government in power, India is not a popular destination. Human rights groups have criticised Delhi for trying to deport refugees instead of offering them asylum. As a Muslim country, however, Malaysia was seen as a safe haven but by mid-2020 the authorities there had also turned back 22 boats of Rohingya refugees. An article last month in Malaysia’s Rakyat Post began: ‘Why does the public dislike the Rohingyas, compared to other refugees in Malaysia, such as Palestinians and Uyghurs? The common answer is that the Rohingyas have become too much annoying [sic], and some Malaysians feel they’ve started disobeying the country’s laws. The dislike is also due to Rohingyas having created their “colonies” spread throughout Kuala Lumpur. It made the city’s scenery “ugly” with refugees begging and sometimes threatening the public.’


As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum-seekers are classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ and put at risk of ‘refoulement’ (deportation to an unsafe destination) as well as being ‘subjected to harassment, extortion, imprisonment and even deportation.’ Human Rights Watch said last October that Malaysian immigration authorities had forcibly returned more than 2,000 refugees to Myanmar, including military defectors, without assessing their asylum claims or other protection needs. HRW said officials from the Myanmar regime’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur had met Malaysian immigration authorities to discuss the  refugees’ deportation and had coordinated over three chartered flights.

Though perhaps the most egregious in its hostility to refugees, Malaysia was not alone in trying to return Rohingya to Myanmar. In 2017, Australia reportedly offered to pay Rohingya refugees A$25,000 (£15,000) to return to the country they fled from as Canberra tried to shut down the detention centre it had opened far away on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. As the Economist reminds us, ‘Statelessness can thus put people in a precarious position, making it difficult to obtain basic things that others take for granted, such as healthcare or a driving licence. That is why international law guarantees everyone a right to nationality.’

Skills and language training

For Ibtesum Afrin and Deeplina Banerjee, two academics writing this month in Policy Options, Canada’s willingness to open its doors to refugees from countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Iran, Haiti and Ukraine makes it all the stranger that it has done comparatively little for the Rohingya – only 1,000 or so have come to Canada since 2006. It is much the same for the UK, which under its Gateway Protection Programme, regards this as a ‘legal route’ for up to 750 refugees a year to settle in the country.

Noting that most Rohingya lack the education sought by western countries for their immigrants, the writers suggest: ‘Helping to equip the Rohingya with in-demand skills and language training could also strengthen the Canadian economy.’ As they point out, most Rohingya refugees are still following the curriculum for Myanmar – a country they may never set foot in.

‘Welcoming the Rohingya refugees to Canada,’ they argue, ‘will enhance its longstanding humanitarian tradition of providing a safe and dignified life to the world’s most vulnerable people.’

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.

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