An outstretched hand for Rohingyas (Philippine Star)

The images of hundreds of refugees crammed in a boat built for a dozen or so people and drifting on the open sea is not new on our television screens. We first saw it during the 1970s as thousands of “boat people” fled Vietnam after the Americans left. For over a year, as a result of wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, there are all those migrants, crammed in similar small boats, crossing the Mediterranean Sea heading for Europe through Italy and Greece.

There are other stories just as tragic but not as well covered. Recently, thousands of children were crossing into the United States from Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala) to escape gang violence and poverty.

In all these stories, these migrants are victimized by human traffickers, pirates and corrupt officials. In every wave of migration the root causes are the same poverty, genocide, civil wars, ethnic cleansing. And the victims are not the leaders of nations who cause the suffering but men, women and especially the children who are not asking even for a decent way of life but simply to exist without being killed, abused or preyed upon.

The most recent stories of another migration crisis is happening on our nation’s backyard in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea which borders the countries of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The “boat people” are refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar. But it is the story of Rohingya Muslims who are considered by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted people. For decades they have been migrating from Myanmar to other Asian countries. But their plight attracted worldwide attention in 2012 when the Buddhist majority started attacking this Muslim minority.

The plight of these refugees worsened, and came alive on television screens all over the world, when the government of Thailand decided to crack down on illegal migration and made it hard for the human traffickers to land their human “cargo” in that country. Suddenly boats and passengers were abandoned and cast adrift. Nearby countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, at first, refused to accept these refugees. International pressure forced these countries to temporarily accept these refugees cast adrift in the open. But this is obviously just a temporary solution.

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The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority group living in state of Rakhine which is in the western part of Myanmar, adjacent to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the Rohingyas, they are an indigenous group to the state of Rakhine. A similar example are minority groups living in the Cordillera region in the Philippines or the indigenous peoples living in Mindanao. However, Myanmar’s officials state that the Rohinyas are actually Bengalis, from the present nation of Bangladesh, who migrated to Myanmar when both countries came under British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. That is why Myanmar considers Rohingyas as migrants and not as citizens of their country.

Rohingyas are, therefore, not allowed to register their marriage and not allowed to attend Myanmar public schools. For a while they were not allowed to have more than two children.

Today there are an estimated two million Rohingyas but only 800,000 of them still living in Myanmar. Approximated 500,000 are in Bangladesh, 400,000 in Saudi Arabia, 200,000 in Pakistan, 100,000 in Thailand and 40,000 in Malaysia.

The massive migration accelerated in the 1970s when violence by the Buddhist majority against the Muslims in Myanmar started. Because of an internal civil strife in Bangladesh, ten million Bengalis fled the country and more than half a million went to then Burma (now Myanmar). A number of Buddhist monks, fearing they would become a minority in the region, staged a hunger strike to force the government to tackle the immigration problem. The Burmese government launched a military operation and expelled around 200,000 Muslims. After intensive negotiations by the United Nations, the 200,000 were allowed to return.

Then in 1982, the Bangladesh government passed a law declaring that all Rohingyas are not considered nationals or citizens of Bangladesh. In the same year, the Burmese government enacted a citizenship and declared that all Bengalis which was their term for Rohingyas were considered as foreigners.

The Rohingyas became a people without a country neither Bengali or Burmese. In 2012, violence erupted as Buddhists and Muslims clashed in the Rakhine. Hundreds of the minority Muslims have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since 2012. The exodus began.

But the difference in the stories of the Andaman Sea and the Mediterranean Sea crisis is very stark. In the Mediterranean Sea, the refugee destinations are the rich countries of Europe. In the Southeast Asian stories, one destination at leastIndonesia is struggling with its own poverty problems.

In the fishing town of Langsa located in the province of Aceh, Indonesia, there were already 700 illegal migrants. The town refused to accept 400 additional migrants rescued by fishermen. Usman Abdullah, mayor of the town of 190,000 explained: “You can look around here in Langsa, many of our people live in poverty. Langsa is not a rich city.”

The United Kingdom, certainly one of the richest countries in the world, have refused to accept any of the fleeing immigrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott when questioned whether his country would accept any of the Rohingya Muslim simply said: “Nope, nope, nope.” He explained that accepting refugees would make the problem worse.

Another sad story emerging from this crisis is the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, once hailed as the heroic symbolic of political courage for her fight for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. She has kept quiet about the whole issue. It is said that she is an ambitious politician who is set on one day ruling Myanmar.

The good news is that Myanmar has agreed to attend an emergency meeting in Bangkok next week. Malaysia and Indonesia are asked to allow 7,000 migrants still at sea to come ashore. It is clear that the root cause of the crisis is the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Migration will not solve this problem.

Perhaps we can also learn some lessons from the Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees by Pope Francis last year. He started by explaining that “our societies are experiencing in an unprecedented way, processes of mutual interdependence and interaction on a global level. In spite of problems, risks and difficulties “great numbers of migrants and refugees continue to be inspired by confidence and hope in their hearts they long for a better future for their families and those closest to them.”

The real solution is for each country to “create better economic and social conditions at home, so that emigration will not be the only option left for those who seek peace, justice, security and full respect of human dignity.”

But for those who are forced to migrate, Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were migrants who experienced initial rejection “…because there was no place for them at the inn.” Until someone reached out with a helping hand.

Perhaps that is the best we can hope for at this moment that in the words of Pope Francis to the migrants and refugees “never lose hope that …you will encounter an outstretched hand.”

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