By Ro Nay San Lwin, Rohingya Blogger and Richard Potter, Burma Human Rights Network
The first time Nurul* truly left the refugee camp he was born in he was taken to the river with human traffickers. He was 16 years old. His parents fled Myanmar before he was born and now sold what precious little they had to pay for their sons to try to escape the camps for a better life. He was loaded onto a small trawler with other men and boys and taken to sea where they were crammed side by side and overflowing on the deck. After days without water, bobbing in the center of the ocean, men jumped into the ocean to end their suffering, escaping into the nothingness below. Women were gang raped by traffickers on board. Boys were murdered. The dead were thrown overboard. And when they finally arrived on land those who survived found themselves locked into camps where they were beaten, raped and murdered. Nurul escaped the first night believing he’d be killed if he stayed. He was arrested the following morning by Thai police and shuffled around violent and overcrowded immigration prisons for two more years before he was finally resettled and allowed to begin his life. Nurul is one of tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims who’ve fled state and communal violence targeting them for their religion and ethnicity, but Nurul is one of the very few who’ve been fortunate enough to be accepted as a refugee and repatriated to a third host country where he will become a citizen after having endured a life of statelessness. One day Nurul sent us an article from Bangladesh about a man who died in a gun fight with Bangladeshi police. “This man was my trafficker. He is dead now.” He expressed no joy or sadness in it. It was part of a cycle of things that should never seem normal.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group living in the west of majority Buddhist Myanmar who are widely considered to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Government policies have marginalized the community for decades, ultimately stripping them of citizenship and fundamental human rights. The Government has periodically initiated military campaigns against the Rohingya which resulted in mass waves of exodus, including one which displaced Nurul’s family. In 2012, the Rohingya were subject to wide-spread anti-Muslim riots following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman which was blamed on Muslim men. The riots resulted at least a hundred deaths with well over 100,000 people permanently displaced in the country. Most unsettling about the riots were reports of Myanmar Security forces taking part in the riots against the Rohingya at a time they clearly needed protection. In many instances security forces were observed not interfering or attempting to stop the violence. In Bangladesh, there are 30,000 registered refugees who’ve fled violence since 1992 and estimates as high as half a million living as unregistered refugees in hiding or in squalid makeshift camps. Many observers, including those from Yale Law School and The International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, have warned that the crimes against the Rohingya may amount to Genocide. The UN’s Human Right’s office, OHCHR, has said that the Rohingya may be enduring Crimes Against Humanity.
This past fall a militant group attacked three police posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, killing 9 officers. In response the Myanmar Military and Police have waged an especially brutal campaign against the Rohingya living in Maungdaw Township and its surrounding villages in retaliation. Human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as international media have all recorded testimony and evidence of mass killings of civilians, extra judicial assassination, rape, gang rape, sexual humiliation, torture, arson of entire villages, deaths of prisoners in custody, the destruction of food and forced displacement. To date at least 65,000 Rohingya were led to Bangladesh since October 2016. About 20,000 have been displaced internally and remained in Myanmar.
While most have escaped through traffickers on boats to Malaysia and Indonesia, for others another path became possible. As the boats like the one Nurul escaped on were blocked or increasingly dangerous, some young Rohingya men found an alternate way to escape, again working with traffickers and brokers. These men sold everything they owned and everything their families owned to arrange for Bangladeshi passports, Nepalese passports, Pakistani passports – whatever they could obtain through brokers who then coordinated pilgrimages to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for them, where they could try to seek long-term refuge. Their dream was to find a place of compassion, freedom, a chance to prove their worth and finally use their lives to take care of the people they love. Hundreds have raised enough money to fund their way to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, getting to King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. Once they land at the airport their fingerprints are recorded and stored.
For many of these young men they quickly realize that the dreams they had hoped for will not come true. Many have their lives made difficult by brokers, they find themselves unable to obtain steady work, they end up having to hide constantly from the police and finally many are arrested. Since 2013 up until today more than 600 Rohingyas have been detained at various immigration checkpoints and raids in the cities of Jeddah and Makkah.
“Once we were arrested, they brought us to the police station and checked our fingerprints. They found our fingerprints in the system saying we were from Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan because we held those passports which were given to us by brokers. So here we are identified as various nationals by the documents recorded at the entry.,” A Rohingya detainee who spoke on the condition of anonymity told us. He has been in Jeddah immigration detention center, known as Semishi, for over 3 years.
“According to our entry documents in the system, the legal way here is to deport us to those countries but we are not actually from those countries. So whenever the Embassies’ officials came to verify us, we told them frankly that we are Rohingyas from Myanmar. The Embassies officials then responded that we should stay here and they told us they can’t take someone who doesn’t belong to their countries. So we remain here in the prison and no one cares about us,” the young man who is in his 20s continued.
The situation in Rakhine State is getting worse day by day. A few hundred people have been killed, thousands of homes have been burnt to the ground and a few hundred women and girls have been raped by Myanmar Soldiers. These events took place as part of clearance operation against the Rohingya which use the pretext of responding to attacks on three Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts on October 9th. The Military’s response has been indiscriminate, disproportionate and observers believe many of the actions by the Myanmar Security Forces amount to Crimes Against Humanity. According to the UN, 65,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh and 21,000 are internally displaced.
For years accounts from Rohingyas regarding the scale of atrocities committed by the Burmese Government have often been met with scrutiny and suspicion from governments and media. In some cases, maybe the degree of horror is too difficult to believe. In another regard, maybe others find it harder to believe the poor and weak over the powerful. But in these past few months every investigation has confirmed what we have reported for years, and what Rohingya in Myanmar have been shouting in hopes that anyone might hear them. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and several others have all found accounts of rape, gang rape, murder, extrajudicial assassination, torture, sexual humiliation and forced displacement to be credible. The Rohingya’s accounts are validated, yet their people are still suffering. Until the suffering ends the Rohingya will continue to flee at any chance they see where they may be able to live as free humans do, as Allah, as God, created us to do. They will brave traffickers and unforgiving seas. They will risk swimming across rivers as soldiers shoot at them from their posts. They will put their lives in the hands of nefarious men in the hopes enough money will lead them to escape. They will do all of this so they freely, as all of us were born to be.
The Rohingyas in the detention center in Jeddah had only one hope: To support their families in Rakhine State. Now they are helpless while their loved ones are killed, raped and displaced.
Some Rohingyas attempted to raise the issue at an extraordinary session meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on January 19th. The Rohingya who tried to contact them said they were unable to get their appeal letter to the OIC foreign ministers, despite trying every avenue available to them.
“We appeal to His Majesty the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz to help us. We can support our families if we are released and can work here. Our little support will be huge for many hundreds of families in our country,” the man said his appeal is on behalf of all Rohingyas in the detention center.
Speaking to more than a dozen detainees over the phone we heard them all tell similar accounts, all equally heartbreaking.
Although the center isn’t as bad as Myanmar or prison, the voices of the men inside should be heard, recognized and honored. Their most human desires for freedom and the ability to support their families should be met with compassion. These men should be released. They should be allowed the right to work in the country as the Kingdom had allowed thousands of Rohingya to do before, following genocidal campaigns in Myanmar against them which began in 1978.
According to the detainees, there are more than 600 Rohingyas currently in the detention center. We have obtained many details including the identification numbers of 248 detainees. The men in the center want to provide us with more details but they say they can not move freely within the center to gather all of the information which I have asked for in order to help raise their concerns.
We are appealing humbly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on behalf of these Rohingyas to release them immediately and provide these innocent people with work permits. With this they can finally support their families and know freedom they have been denied their entire lives. We are willing to cooperate with Saudi government to verify any of their identities. We can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Named changed for anonymity