Stranded by the Sea

A Refugee is a term we read and hear about often, on the internet or the news and dissect into it like any other topic that we came across on a particular day. Be it the Syrian refugee crisis, the Afghanistan refugee crisis, people displaced in the Middle East fleeing to Europe for desperate rehabilitation, the partition of India or the result of a civil war. These are all issues originating in different parts of the world, delineated by boundaries and separated based on geography or the cause or origin of conflict. However, even though conflicts might vary in terms of nature- political, economic or social - it’s corollary remains immutable across borders and religion, that is, displacement of people and wreckage of homes.

Once you’ve fled your country (or have been chased out by the majority population/authoritarian government), it’s nearly impossible to come back. The unsafe and riotous situation in certain countries caused by wars or feud creates conditions that make it fatal to a come back to a place they once called home.

The Rohingya are one such community, facing persecution and fleeing from one place to another since 58 years, circa 1962.

The history of the persecution of the Rohingyas can be traced back to the colonization of India by the British, which endured for over 200 years. Tracing back to the British colonial period in the 1800’s, many people from India and Bangladesh were brought to Myanmar to work in the British led administration, doubling the Muslim community in Myanmar. This decision was received with acrimony by the local Myanmar people. This stands as one of the root cause of the animosity against the Rohingyas. During the World Wars, this hostility further deepened its roots since the majority of the Muslim population supported the British whereas the Buddhist population was predisposed towards the Japanese. This incongruity, as a result of the disparity between The Allies and The Axis Powers, aggravated the situation for the Muslim population in Myanmar.

The official status of “refugee” is something the Rohingya people have struggled with for years now. In 1962, military rule became the norm and law throughout Myanmar. As a result, the Muslim population in Rakhine State was overpowered by militants and the Buddhist majority, thus causing the refugees to flee to Bangladesh. Since then, from 1962 to 2017 a large number of Rohingya people have migrated to the neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, having faced oppression in their own country. In 1982, an official Myanmar announcement declared 135 nationally recognized ethnic groups and the Rohingya were not included in the list, leaving them stateless and without citizenship. Further, in 2012 riots were waged against the Rohingyas and 200 people were killed while leaving 15,000 homeless and displaced. The Myanmar government even prohibited them from participating in the national census and the voting procedure during the elections. These acts of negligence, violence and repression continued till 2017 causing more than 600,000 Rohingya people to flee the Rakhine State since their communities were destroyed. But that doesn’t mean that things are any safer for them now.

Today, there are some 860,000 Rohingya people seeking refuge in Bangladesh and at least 1.3 million people — Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities — who rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. More than half of them are children. These populations live in desperately overcrowded camps and communities, highly vulnerable to oncoming monsoon and cyclone seasons, violence, sexual harassment and unhygienic environment. These camps provide them with less than the meagre amenities, leaving them to live a life of ignorance, in a vicious cycle of poverty, violence and substandard living.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (also known as Doctors without Borders) describes the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted people in the world. The world we live in prides itself on its safety and peacekeeping system at the international level. Since after the Second World War, many nations came together and pledged to save vulnerable people and nations in crises. Yet, their (Rohingyas) struggle and oppression has been one of the most under-reported humanitarian crises in the world. The international media and community have practically ignored the situation of these people.

And all of this because of one reason, deeply entrenched in our parochial minds: ethnic animosity and conflict on the grounds of religion and historical beliefs of territory and ownership. This practice has left the Rohingya people without a beacon of hope for a better future. It has normalized a humanitarian crisis of this gravity, leading us to believe that it’s okay to treat a community of people with mindless hostility and utter disregard for their lives. (Because they might’ve done something to deserve it)

After having faced persecution even in the camps of Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar (and Myanmar, of course) the Rohingya people have made attempts to reach Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries for years now. Since they lack visas, travel documents and are subjected to strict restrictions, boats are often the only option left for them to undertake transnational crossing.

According to MSF, it is estimated that around 167 countries across the world have fully or partially closed their borders during COVID-19 pandemic and 57 states made no exception for people seeking asylum. Even though closing borders is an acceptable reaction to the pandemic, not providing a concession for people looking for a refugee status amidst these tough times, stranded by the sea and in between nations is unacceptable. Countries such as Italy and Malta closed their ports for refugees and are using the excuse of the pandemic to reject refugees from entering their land and water borders. Several hundred Rohingyas fleeing persecution at home and refugee camps in Bangladesh have been stranded for months after countries sealed their borders to block the spread of the coronavirus.

People have reported that their relatives are stranded by the sea and their traffickers, holding hundreds of Rohingya refugees, are demanding money to release them from boats that have been off Southeast Asia since February, trying to find a place to land.

Material cupidity has yet again taken precedence over humanity in a situation of a deadly life-crisis. The refugees travelling on these boats could hardly gather the money and documents to take this journey across the sea, and now with the pandemic having engulfed the world, they’re stuck on these boats, suffering, starving and seething in pain, waiting to get across any border to find some refuge and shelter from these treacherous circumstances. On top of this, they are being exploited for money in a situation of utmost helplessness.

To think why these people landed in such a chronic crisis, which has persisted for over five decades now; to think why we as a community allow and tolerate a humanitarian crisis at such a cosmic level. It is because somewhere deep down, we all have our own set of ideas and beliefs tied by social norms of caste, creed and culture. Because we all have ingrained the idea of Us vs Them, so concretely in our heads that it’s almost impossible to break down those walls around us. But if there’s something that this pandemic has taught us, it’s that we’re all in this together. No problem is a standalone issue - it’s always linked to a larger affliction and it’s not outside the ambit of possibility for it to find its way to you. If we don’t untangle this issue as a community and for the community, it’ll always remain unresolved and will surface time and again.


Poorvi Gupta

A struggling student at Delhi University, pursuing Economics honours. You'll find me mostly hibernating, during while I read and write. I love everything old, be it books, music or buildings.

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