LONDON (AlertNet) – U.S. President Barack Obama must press Myanmar to give citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya in the west of the country where ethnic bloodshed has caused massive displacement, Refugees International says.
Obama, who will visit Myanmar on Nov. 19, should also urge Myanmar’s leaders to provide protection to everyone affected by the recent explosion of violence in Rakhine State and end restrictions on access for aid agencies, the campaign group added.
Melanie Teff, a senior advocate with Refugees International who recently visited Rakhine, warned that the crisis could derail Myanmar’s tentative transition to democracy after half a century of military rule.
Scores of people were killed and at least 75,000 uprooted from their homes when clashes erupted in June between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine. Another 35,000 were displaced by violence in October.
White House officials have said Obama - the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar – will press leaders to restore calm and to bring the instigators of the violence to justice.
There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State. Many have lived there for generations but Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
They are officially stateless and the United Nations calls them "virtually friendless".
“Many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations,” Teff said. “The government must provide citizenship to all Rohingya born in Myanmar or with genuine links to the country, as well as their descendants - in line with international law.”
Teff said it was absurd to suggest there had been large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh during the military junta’s hardline rule.
“There is also the question of why would people want to come into a situation where they are treated quite so badly,” she added.
The Rohingya have suffered decades of persecution in Rakhine State, which is the second poorest state in Myanmar with acute rates of malnutrition and a stagnant economy.
Teff said she hoped Obama would also raise the issue with Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the Rule of Law Committee responsible for reviewing the 1982 Citizenship Law that rendered the Rohingya stateless.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy, has been criticised by rights groups for not speaking out on the Rohingya.
“One hopes that even if she is not taking a public stand on this that she will ensure that the law is revised in line with international standards on rights to nationality – that’s my key ask of her,” Teff added.
Most of the Rohingya forced to flee their homes in recent violence now live in segregated camps. Barriers have been erected on some roads and those still in their homes can no longer move around freely.
Teff, who visited Rakhine State in September, said aid workers had told her the situation was “worse than apartheid, because at least under apartheid the blacks could work for the whites”.
The Rohingya have traditionally worked for the Rakhine - as farmhands, fishermen or in the market in Sittwe town. But the restriction on their movement means they can no longer access work and are now dependent on aid.
Conditions in the camps range from “squalid to abysmal”, Teff said. A U.N. nutritional assessment in August found many children so malnourished they were at risk of dying.
Residents cannot cross the make-shift road barriers and told Teff they would be terrified to do so. Most Rakhine she spoke to said they could not imagine living with the Rohingya again.
Teff urged Obama to emphasise to Myanmar’s leaders the need to end segregation.
"There is clearly a desperate need for reconciliation measures. The longer it goes on the worse it will get,” she said.
“The one positive conversation we had was concerning possibilities for future economic development. Both communities said the one thing that could build links between them was an economic development plan. There is a great feeling by the Rakhine as well (as the Rohingya) that they have been left out,” Teff added.
See also: Statelessness: The world's most invisible people? - an AlertNet special package