No place to call home - reality for the Rohingya

20 November 2015, 16:35 UTC | New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh
© Thapanee Ietsrichai
By Kudrat - Digital Content Coordinator at Amnesty International

We all want a place to belong, a place to call home. I’m privileged to call New Zealand my home. I love Wellington’s wind, and when I look at the town, I see its houses and hills, and through them, my family. I know I’m home. I know I belong.

But there’s a group of people who have been alienated in their own land.

They’ve been ignored by the world. These are the Rohingya people and they have no place to call home.

They’ve been ignored by the world. These are the Rohingya people and they have no place to call home.

They’re told they’re not welcome, every day. Thugs harass and attack their communities, beating and killing indiscriminately. Houses, schools, and mosques are burnt to the ground, with girls and women in constant fear of leaving their homes because of violent assaults.

Children are too afraid to go to school.

Not only do authorities stand by and do nothing but in 1982, Myanmar passed a Citizenship Law which stripped the citizenship of all but 40,000 of the country’s 1.33 million Rohingya people.

Some - the ‘lucky’ ones - manage to escape this nightmare. But that’s just the beginning of a treacherous journey.

Amnesty International’s latest report, Deadly Journeys, revealed that those who managed to flee Myanmar were often trafficked into forced labour on land or at sea. The smugglers would kidnap them and hold them for ransom from their relatives.

Until recently, these people would be sent to jungle camps in Thailand until they paid up. Bamboo cages were used to imprison and torture them, hidden, out of sight. Some of these camps were found. The people who found them also found mass graves. Graves of those who might not have had the money, graves of those who might have paid anyway.

Bodies on top of bodies, mass graves, of people who just wanted to find a place to call home.

They were noticed only when the Thai authorities, who had been turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed on their soil, decided to crack down on people smugglers.

And that’s when we started seeing the images on our TV screens. Traffickers had loaded the refugees from the abandoned camps like human cargo onto prison boats.

Rusting ships crammed with men, women, and children, callously abandoned and drifting helplessly at sea. Emaciated, desperate for water and food.

These images are forever stuck in my mind.  

Virtually every Rohingya - women, men, children - interviewed by Amnesty International said they were beaten for moving, for begging for food or water, and for asking to use the toilet. Children were beaten for crying. One girl’s aunt, who suffers from a mental illness, was beaten for not staying silent. A 15 year old girl was beaten while her father listened to her cries over the phone, helpless to do anything.

The international community stayed silent. Day after day, there were images of fetid, stinking boats so crowded people had to squat together just inches apart for days on end. Sick, young children and their emaciated parents, already weakened by abuse and torture, were left to die of dehydration and starvation in the middle of the ocean.

Governments need to be held to account for this. These people are not ‘queue jumpers’. These are desperate people looking for safety. Looking for a place to call home.

The sailing season has begun again and we cannot sit back and let the tragedy from earlier this year happen again.

ASEAN leaders are meeting right now to discuss issues in the region and Amnesty International has made clear recommendations for leaders to incorporate into their domestic law.

New Zealand has an important role to play here too. Prime Minister John Key will be attending the ASEAN summit and this is an opportunity for him to show leadership by urging authorities to step up efforts to help this vulnerable group of people.

We must use our voice to protect those fleeing persecution.

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