Outcast: Adrift with Burma’s Rohingya

Persecuted Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar face a dangerous journey on their way to freedom in Thailand and Malaysia.

Ten years ago, in November 2006, Al Jazeera English was launched. To mark that anniversary, we’ve created REWIND, which updates some of the channel’s most memorable and award-winning documentaries of the past decade. We find out what happened to some of the characters in those films and ask how the stories have developed in the years since our cameras left.

In 2012, Rakhine Buddhists tore through Rohingya Muslim communities in western Myanmar (formerly Burma), attacking anyone in their path.

It sparked a wave of sectarian violence that spread to other parts of the country, with little hindrance from the authorities. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were housed in primitive camps under government-armed guard, while others tried to flee overseas to Malaysia or Thailand.

There is a complete blackout in northern Rakhine state, so the government is completely denying access to aid agencies, journalists, and to human rights monitors.... More than 1,000 children could die, if access is not granted.

by Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights

But as this People & Power film shows, the refugees were soon being exploited and abused by human traffickers, while aid agencies and governments failed to protect them.

So what has changed since our cameras left?

REWIND talked to Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, about the current situation in Myanmar and the region.

Al Jazeera: What has changed since our cameras left?

Smith: Unfortunately the situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees today is no better than what it was in 2014. This is a group of people who experienced human rights violations not only in their homeland in Myanmar, but also in the various places where they seek refuge: Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other countries.

So unfortunately today we’re still seeing Rohingya refugees detained in Thailand, we’re still seeing a lack of protection for Rohingya refugees throughout the region, we’re still seeing human trafficking networks, that are poised to continue their work and their crimes, not being held accountable, impunity continues. There’s a lack of justice, and unfortunately we’re not seeing the improvements that we had hoped for.

What is the root cause of the problem?

The issue of statelessness. The Rohingya population who are denied citizenship status, they’re denied equal access to citizenship. This was the case in 2014, and this is still the case today. And this issue of statelessness – there are more than a million Rohingya who are denied citizenship – this is at the root of the problem. So Myanmar needs to ensure that Rohingya have equal access to full citizenship rights.

What if anything has changed to protect the Rohingya refugees in the receiving countries?

Governments in the region today have shown no improvement in protecting the rights of Rohingya refugees since 2014 and before. So, unfortunately, we haven’t seen any fundamental improvements. And as a result of these protection gaps, human traffickers come in and fill the void and layer on a litany of additional human rights violations…. We documented a number of mass grave sites throughout the areas of southern Thailand and on the Malaysian border, and these were graves that were filled with Rohingya, victims of human trafficking.

The Thai authorities, under pressure from the international community, decided to take action to stop some of the human trafficking pipelines going through Thailand. Unfortunately, however, the way in which they decided to stop the human trafficking syndicate was not in a way that was respecting human rights, they essentially sealed the border, they prevented survivors of human trafficking from seeking refuge in Thailand. As a result, there were dozens of boats filled with survivors, or people who were potentially going to be trafficked, that were abandoned at sea. This created a crisis situation.

Al Jazeera: What is the current situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state?

In Rakhine state, in Myanmar, the situation has become drastically worse than it was in 2014. It should be noted that their situation has been severe for decades. But recently we have seen a small group of armed Rohingya, attacked Myanmar police force, on Oct 9. This set in motion a very brutal crackdown that’s unfolding now. We’ve documented the Myanmar army moving into Rohingya villages, committing, killing civilians, men, women and children. Burning down entire villages, several hundred structures just in the last weeks have been raised by the Myanmar army. The situation there is worsening.

Have there been reactions from the UN or human rights groups?

The biggest issue right now with the situation in respect to the UN response in Rakhine state is that the UN lacks access. So the government in Myanmar and the military are denying UN access to critical areas in Rakhine state, where as of right now there are 30,000 Rohingya who have been forcibly displaced from their villages, their villages have been burned down, they’re isolated, the government is not allowing aid agencies to access them. 

There are several thousand children among the Rohingya who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. More than 1,000 children may die very soon, if access is not granted.

There is a complete blackout in northern Rakhine state, so the government is completely denying access to aid agencies, journalists, and to human rights monitors. This is creating an environment in which atrocity crimes are being committed right now.