Who are the Rohingyas?
They are a Muslim ethnic minority group living in Myanmar's western Rhakine state.
There are about 800,000 of them in the country, while an additional million are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia.
According to historians, Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for seven centuries, with early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan dating back to 1430. They have developed a unique blend of Sufi-infused Sunni Islam.
Despite that fact, they are refused citizenship status by the state, which classifies them as "Bengali" migrants from across the border.
Why are they leaving Myanmar?
They’ve been targeted by the government for decades now.
Sophie Ansel is the author of a book called "First they erased our name", a biography of a Rohingya who fled Myanmar.
“They have no rights. Since the 1960’s, a lot of programs have been put into place to push them out of Myanmar” she explained to RFI. “But in 1982, there was a special law that made them stateless. They lost all their rights to citizenship, and their rights became tough and unbearable. They lost their rights for marriage, to move to another village… They were also arrested and killed.”
Ansel calls what the Rangoon government is doing as “ethnic cleansing”.
Why is the government targeting them?
The short answer would be that they are a Muslim minority is a country where 80 to 90% of the population is Buddhist.
Some Buddhist nationalists even believe that they are participating in what they call a Muslim invasion.
“To be honest, it’s largely driven by islamophobia and racism” explains Hanna Hindstrom, a member of Minority Rights Group International based in Rangoon, Myanmar's capital.
“These people were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 by the military government, and the government still uses the Rohingyas as a tool to fuel divde and tactitcs” she notes.
Ansel adds that the central government has been persecuting them for years due to the Rakhine province wanting more independence.
“You have to know that in Rakhine they have their own army and a strong will to be independent from the country’s central power” she explains. “Since the 1960s, the generals have been trying to make the entire country Buddhist.”
What kind of threats do they have to face?
The United Nations has called the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
According to a report by The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rohingyas face segregation, hate speech, physical violence, restrictions of movement, sexual violence, voting restrictions...
The list of abuses goes on and on.
In 2012, more than 140,000 of them were put into displacement camps due to an ongoing conflict on the border with Myanmar.
Hindstrom visited the camps and describes them as “effectively open air concentration camps”.
“I have visited the camps and they are absolutely appalling” she says. “There’s no access to health care, no sanitation… people can’t leave the camps so they can work. They basically live completely trapped, and that’s what's driving them to leave by sea.”
With the international attention given to the Rohingyas, will their situation improve?
It is true that Malaysia and Thailand have pledged to help migrants stranded at sea. Myanmar also promised some humanitarian aid.
But Hindstrom points out these are just short term solutions.
“The solution here lies with Myanmar” she says. “The government needs to recognize Rohingyas as an ethnic group, to stop denying their rights to identity. They need to guarantee citizenship and other basic rights to this very vulnerable minority.”
“If they don’t,” concludes Hindstrom, “they’ll have two choices, either to stay and suffer persecution or risk death at sea."