If you look at the major cities around the world, from New York to London, you will find the Rohingya are there. You can be sure that wherever they are, be it in Riyadh or Vancouver, they have gone by one of three routes—seeking asylum, UN agency resettlement or entry with a counterfeit passport from a third country. And so it is, that an estimated 42,000 Rohingya are in Saudi Arabia. Worryingly, they face deportation to Bangladesh.
The situation has arisen because in the last four decades, there has been mass exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar, which is their native land. Unlike other Asian migrations, we are not talking about transnational labour migration. We are talking about permanent deportation and displacement. Bangladeshis know all too well that recently this resulted in the fastest growing refugee crisis the world has seen.
The reasons are well known, so much so that António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently said: "I have no doubt that the Rohingya people have always been one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world, without any recognition of the most basic rights starting by the recognition of the right of citizenship by their own country."
The very grave situation has led to a genocide trial against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In January 2020 the Court declared the Rohingya a protected group and slapped no less than four binding orders on Myanmar, including one to stop any acts of genocide against them.
At the same time, the International Criminal Court is investigating crimes of deportation and crimes against humanity by the Myanmar regime.
This is why Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar—to save their lives and the lives of their families and out of despair for the future. What the world has vowed over and over again not to let happen again, is happening—that is genocide.
A million Rohingya refugees reside in the camps of Bangladesh. There have been failed attempts at sending them back. Not surprisingly, not a single humanitarian agency or rights group judged the conditions in Rakhine state to be safe. Rohingya also have a memory like other human beings.
There have been repeated forced repatriations. These were followed by repeated episodes of catastrophic violence. Some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are third time refugees. Additionally, Rohingya within Myanmar continue to be held in Internally Displaced People camps. They have seen no material difference in their lives whatsoever. They are prevented from working and are dependent on miserly handouts. Medical facilities are atrocious.
Why then would any right-thinking person want to go to Myanmar?
Under these genocidal conditions at home, and very challenging circumstances in the camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya have favoured two survival options. One has been to take an extremely hazardous boat journey to Malaysia and the other has been to get smuggled into Saudi Arabia by holding a counterfeit Bangladeshi passport. People have chosen one of these two options in their desperate, and often painfully problematic belief, that this is the only way to feed their families who remain in Myanmar or in the camps in Bangladesh and to somehow survive.
Paraphrasing a report by Fortify Rights: In the period 2012 to 2015, an estimated 170,000 Rohingya men, women, and children arrived in Thailand and Malaysia on countless boats. Human traffickers working together with various authorities operated many of the boats. Traffickers killed an untold number of refugees at sea and in on-shore human trafficking camps over the period.
In May 2015, human traffickers abandoned boats at sea carrying thousands of Rohingya (and Bangladeshi) survivors of human trafficking. Thailand and Malaysia took a hardline approach and reinforced their borders. They refused to allow the disembarkation of survivors, resulting in an untold number of deaths. The Thai and Malaysian authorities went so far as to tow boats of refugees out of their territorial waters, leaving them adrift at sea.
And in Saudi Arabia, matters stand like this: 42,000 people are facing deportation. According to my sources, Jeddah Shumaisi Detention Centre houses 1,600 Rohingya. About 620 have been incarcerated since 2012.
These have been very costly decisions for my fellow Rohingya refugees. I have been campaigning for the release of these detainees since early 2017. I have had no luck till date. Rohingya refugees in the Bangladeshi camps have been begging the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their release by sending video messages, letters, etc. There is not much else they can do. The toll on families and individuals has been immense, and the psychological impact on those locked-up with no hope of release is immeasurable.
But does it really need to be like this? Saudi Arabia assumed the presidency of the G20 in 2019. It will be host to the world's most powerful gathering this year. The Kingdom is also surging ahead with its ambitious Vision 2030 plan. It is liberalising across various fronts. It has a preeminent role in the OIC, and this year, through its support, The Gambia has managed to secure the landmark humanitarian decision at the ICJ that was mentioned above.
Given these massive developments, what would Saudi Arabia gain from the deportation of these Rohingya? The old adage, "let us help them in their own country" does not apply here. They cannot be sent back to Myanmar where they actually come from, as Myanmar will not take them.
Sending them back to Bangladesh will just shift the problem elsewhere. We know what is happening in Bangladesh—that there are many kinds of pressure. And this is why refugees make life-endangering journeys every month. It was only days ago when a smuggler's boat on its way to Malaysia from Bangladesh sank, and many Rohingya drowned. Bangladesh does not even accept trafficked Rohingya back from India—why would they want these Rohingya from Saudi Arabia who took the opportunity presented to them by a lax passport system? What kind of pressure is being applied to get Bangladesh to agree?
Sending people back does not work and it is clearly not a safe solution. A recognition of who these people are, what they have been through and what their home country is going through attests to one solution—that Rohingya in the Kingdom should be regularised. This would be a just outcome. In the brave new dispensation the Kingdom is intending to carve out, an amnesty for the Rohingya would be a fitting course of action, and it would chime with the role Saudi Arabia aspires to in the world.
Nay San Lwin is Co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition.