Know Their Name

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Nicole/" title="View all of this person's work">"Nicole</a></span>

graphic by Nicole Ng

They have fled by foot. They have fled by boat. 80,000 of them have streamed across the border since early 2015. Those remaining face threats of torture or concentration camps. Attacks on them have been labeled as “crimes against humanity” and a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” yet most Princeton High School students have never heard of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (Burma). An ethnic group drawing roots to the Arakan Kingdom that ruled the region in the 15th century, the Rohingya have endured decades of oppression from violent Buddhist majorities, oxymoronic as it is tragic.  

The country’s relatively new de facto leader, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has done little to help the Rohingyas; in fact, on her state visit to the United States, she requested that Obama not use the word Rohingya. Having spent years imprisoned by the Burmese military junta that led the country for decades, one might have thought she would have some empathy for other oppressed peoples. Disappointingly, there are still sporadic massacres and atrocious concentration camps for the Rohingyas, leaving them little choice but to flee.

Similar to the Syrian refugee crisis, hundreds of people are packing onto hopelessly under-equipped rafts to be transported hundreds of miles in unforgiving waters. Unfortunately, the Rohingyas are not fleeing to Germany and Greece where they would be welcomed with yellow blankets and critical medical aid. They are instead fleeing to India, Malaysia, and Indonesia—all countries that did not ratify the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. That means they are not bound by international law to award the refugees basic humanitarian relief or even to recognize them as refugees, which would allow them to stay. Because of this, the Rohingya Muslims do not only flee from a country where they are not welcome, but they flee to a country where they are unwanted as well.

As seen repeatedly over the last year, Indian, Indonesian, and Malay officials have turned away the boats, leaving thousands stranded at sea. They have only taken them in after firm admonishment from the international community. The leaders of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia all point to their own poverty levels and their need to prioritize their citizens first. The issue here is that all refugees are a burden on society, but they are refugees and have few other options. It is crucial that countries recall the benefits of having international agreements to aid refugees. When a country helps those in a time of desperate need it ensures that the protection will be reciprocated if they ever need the same humanitarian aid.    

Although, in a country as stable as the United States, it seems unfathomable. If political upheaval gripped our land, forcing thousands to chose between exodus or execution, we would desperately call for the help of the international community. If we fail to set a precedent of aiding those in need now, who’s to say there’d be a safety net for us? It is a painful thing to have to leave one’s home, something made much more difficult when you don’t even have a home. Impossible as it is to have empathy for those who are suffering while living in such a stable nation, remember that even Rome was sacked eventually.

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