Stateless people

October 17th, 2017

Helicopters come to a village

Mizanur Rachman was working in a rice paddy near his village in Myanmar on August 25 when the helicopters came. “Immediately, I had fear in my heart,” he told The New York Times. Rachman escaped with his wife and infant son to the forests nearby, where they watched in horror as their home was set ablaze and Myanmar security forces descended on the village.

The next day Rachman saw his brother dead on the ground along with several others. He fled with his family for Bangladesh, losing his mother along the way after she was shot by a Myanmar border guard.

Rachman and his family are among the more than 400,000 ethnic Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar in the wake of a brutal campaign against them. Thousands more have been displaced within the country.

Over 800,000 Rohingya lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, before this latest round of violence. Denied official status within Myanmar, the Rohingya are the largest group of stateless people in the world. The roots of this crisis are specific to Myanmar, but the global problem of stateless people is growing worldwide.

A short history of the Rohingya in Myanmar

The current situation in Myanmar dates back to the 19th century when the region was under British colonial rule. As FirstPost, an Indian news agency, puts it, British leaders favored the minority Rohingya population, a Muslim people living in a predominantly Buddhist country, at the expense of other groups. This became particularly clear during World War II when Rohingyas were recruited by the Allies to fight the Japanese, who were supported by much of the Buddhist population.

After Myanmar gained its independence in 1948, the Rohingya, who are concentrated in the western state of Rakhine, began to face persecution. In 1982, a law was passed that stripped them of their citizenship. Myanmar’s leaders don’t even allow the use of the term Rohingya, preferring the word Bengali to imply that they’re immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. They’ve since been denied freedom of movement and state education and endured periodic violent clashes with Rakhine Buddhists, who see the Rohingya as competitors for resources in the state, where the percentage of people living in poverty nears 80 percent. In a recent Atlantic article, Krishnadev Calamur notes that the Rohingya also face continuing suspicion that they’re attempting to set up a separatist Islamist state that would be a haven for terrorist activity.

In October 2016, a group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) began attacking Myanmar forces, prompting a violent crackdown that triggered a wave of Rohingya refugees to flee to surrounding nations. On August 25 of this year, the ARSA launched another attack on an army installation. The brutal government response has led to the massive exodus currently underway.

The silence of a Nobel laureate

Military officials in Myanmar have disputed narratives about burned villages, alleging that the Rohingya are burning their own homes and exaggerating the number of people affected by the operations. Human rights observers, however, say the Myanmar military is using widespread violence and displacement to move the Rohingyas out of the area. Rashed Ahmed, a farmer from Maungdaw Township in Myanmar, told The New York Times, “There are no more villages left, none at all. . . . There are no more people left, either.” United Nations human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein called the operation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar, has been noticeably circumspect in addressing the crisis. Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her advocacy of democracy and human rights in her native Myanmar. After her party won national elections in 2015, Kyi agreed to share power with the long-dominant military, in effect accepting a reduced role as state counselor.

Kyi has condemned “human rights violations and unlawful violence” in general, but she hasn’t directly addressed abuses by the military. “People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she was reported to have said in The New York Times.

Ben Rhodes, a former U.S. deputy national security advisor, joined with other international observers in questioning Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya exodus. Time reported him as saying, “She sees herself . . . now as a political actor inside of a changing Burma, not as an icon that essentially speaks out on human rights. . . . Her single-minded pursuit of that objective of political reform inside of Burma has created a very glaring and tragic blind spot.”

The global migration crisis

The Rohingya join a growing crowd of global refugees. The Syrian conflict alone has displaced 5.5 million people, making a total of 65.6 million people worldwide who have been forced to leave their homes. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) calls these “the highest levels of displacement on record.” Their statistics show that “nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.” Over half of the 22.5 million global refugees are under the age of 18. While the question of how many refugees to accept has been a contentious political issue throughout the United States and Europe, less wealthy nations are accommodating the vast majority of refugees. According to UNHCR, the top hosting countries are Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (979,400), Uganda (940,800) and Ethiopia (791,600). In light of the unprecedented number of refugees in need of resettlement, the UNHCR budget has grown to $7.7 billion.

The plight of stateless people

Of those displaced globally, 10 million can be classified as “stateless,” with the largest single group being the Rohingya. According to UNHCR, a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Without official recognition, a person effectively has no country to call home.

Statelessness can happen for a variety of reasons, including the transfer of lands in border exchanges and the emergence of new states. Recently, I sat with a resident of East Jerusalem who was at a loss when I asked about her nationality. Her neighborhood was claimed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967, but her papers still list Jordan, a country where she has never lived. She personally considers herself Palestinian, a nationality without an officially recognized state.

United Nations agencies have been working to reduce the numbers of stateless persons and eliminate the vulnerability of living without official citizenship. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works on “improving birth registration and civil registries,” while the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) helps governments to “design and implement national censuses,” and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “supports monitoring of the human rights of stateless people.”

Wandering Arameans

The gospel message invites us to be a Christian community that breaks down the barriers that would exclude others. The Book of Ephesians is written to Gentiles whom most Jews would have considered “strangers to the covenant of God’s promises” (2:12). Because of the reconciling work of Christ, the book goes on to say, “you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).

A Christian vision for stateless people is a world where there’s a place for everyone to be included as full citizens, a place where everyone can belong. Christians can envision this reality because they’ve seen in Christ how ethnic distinctions can be overcome and people can be brought together.

The long history of God’s people has included many times when they had no state to call their own. Indeed, one of the basic affirmations made by the Jewish people when reciting their history is to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5, NIV). God’s people can reach out to groups like the Rohingya because in their wanderings, we see an echo of our own.

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