There's An Asian Refugee Crisis, Too, And Obama Plans To Spotlight It | KERA News

There's An Asian Refugee Crisis, Too, And Obama Plans To Spotlight It

Nov 20, 2015
Originally published on December 22, 2015 10:38 am

As Europe grapples with its refugee crisis, another one has been unfolding in Southeast Asia. That's where members of a stateless minority called the Rohingya have been taking dangerous journeys by sea in pursuit of a better life. As President Barack Obama swings through Malaysia this weekend, he's putting a spotlight on them.

"I have no passport, I have no citizenship," 28-year old Mohammed Rayas tells us, when we meet him in a rundown office in Kuala Lumpur. He's an ethnic Rohingya, born in Myanmar. Even though Myanmar is home for generations of his family and his people, Rayas isn't afforded basic rights.

The majority Buddhist government denies the one million Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar rights to citizenship, education, work and marriage. Many Rohingya are sent to squalid, crowded internment camps where food is scarce and disease is common — but Rohingya are often turned away from hospitals, too.

"Very difficult for Rohingya," Mohammed says. "Cannot another place to place move."

It is no surprise then, that Mohammed and so many like him take their chances on the seas to flee discrimination and abuse. Mohammed wound up in Malaysia after first leaving Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh to Thailand by boat. On ocean 21 days," he explains. He then came from Thailand to Malaysia on foot.

A Refugee Crisis at Sea

This kind of journey is not unusual for Rohingya. Six months ago an estimated 10,000 Rohingya boarded rickety fishing boats to seek refuge in neighboring nations. But Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand squabbled over letting them come ashore.

"People were found essentially floating on boats with inadequate food and water, essentially starving," says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

During the spring crisis, the neighboring countries eventually struck a deal to rescue the Rohingya. But now that the summer rainy season is over, the Rohingya who can afford it could try to sail again.

"We're trying to see what's going to happen and we're trying to figure out how we're going to have to operate to keep the governments...faithful to the idea of receiving these people and providing them with humanitarian assistance and support," Robertson says.

An Effort to Help in Kuala Lumpur

In Malaysia, one group providing support for Rohingya refugees — as well as the urban poor — is a not-for-profit called Dignity for Children.

"We look at them as people who can be given an opportunity, who can contribute back to society and influence their communities," said the Rev. Elisha Satvinder, founder of the organization.

Dignity for Children runs a school for more than 1,000 students and vocational training at its own coffee shop. It's fully staffed by the students.

"This is where they get trained. Back of house. Front of us. So it's a skill. And you know what? I think some of them are really good," Satvinder says.

The center caught the attention of the White House. President Obama will visit Dignity for Children on Saturday. For the administration, it's a chance to highlight the uncertain plight of refugees in Southeast Asia — and beyond.

"Lifting up that piece of work by Malaysia is not focused just on Malaysia or Asia, but rather speaks to the global responsibility that countries have to provide support for refugees," said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

A reminder that refugee crises aren't limited to any one part of the world.


Chan Kok Leong contributed to this story. For a behind-the-scenes look at our reporting from East Asia, check out Elise Goes East.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are nearing the end of a year that tens of millions of people around the world have spent on the move. We've heard so much about Europe's refugee crisis, people flowing out of the Middle East and North Africa. Another crisis has been unfolding in Southeast Asia. That's where a stateless minority called the Rohingya have been taking dangerous journeys by sea in pursuit of a better life in neighboring nations including Malaysia. And now their plight comes out of the spotlight as President Obama visits Malaysia. NPR's Elise Hu reports.

MOHAMMED RAYAS: Elise?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hello, nice to meet you.

In a rundown office in Kuala Lumpur, we met 28-year-old Mohammed Rayas. He's an ethnic Rohingya, born in Myanmar. Even though Myanmar is home for generations of his family and his people...

RAYAS: (Laughter) I have no passport. I have no citizenship.

HU: The majority Buddhist Burmese government denies the one million Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar any rights to citizenship, education, work and marriage. Many Rohingya are sent to squalid, crowded camps, where food is scarce and disease runs rampant, but Rohingya are often turned away from hospitals, too.

RAYAS: Very difficult for Rohingya. Cannot eat, cannot another place to place move.

HU: It's no surprise then that Mohammed and so many like them took their chances on the seas to flee discrimination and abuse. Mohammed wound up in Malaysia after first leaving Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh.

RAYAS: Bangladesh to Thailand by boat. On ocean, 21 day.

HU: You were on the ocean for 21 days?

RAYAS: Twenty-one days.

HU: He then came from Thailand to Malaysia on foot. This kind of journey is not unusual for Rohingya. Six months ago, tragedy unfolded as an estimated 10,000 of them boarded rickety fishing boats to seek refuge in neighboring nations. But Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand squabbled over letting them come ashore.

PHIL ROBERTSON: People were found essentially floating on boats with inadequate food and water, essentially starving.

HU: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

During the spring crisis, the neighboring countries eventually struck a deal to rescue the Rohingya. But now that the summer rainy season is over, the Rohingya who can afford it could try to sail again.

ROBERTSON: We're trying to see what's going to happen, and we're trying to figure out how we're going to have to operate to keep the governments faithful to the idea of, like, receiving these people and providing them with humanitarian assistance and support.

HU: In Malaysia, one group providing support for Rohingya refugees as well as the urban poor is a nonprofit called Dignity for Children. It's led by Rev. Elisha Satvinder.

ELISHA SATVINDER: We look at them as people who can be given an opportunity, who can contribute back to society and influence their communities.

HU: Satvinder's nonprofit runs a school for more than 1,000 students and vocational training at its own coffee shop. It's fully staffed by students.

SATVINDER: So this is where they get trained, back of house, front of house. So it's a skill. And you know what? I think some of them (laughter) are really good.

HU: The center caught the attention of the White House. President Obama will visit the Dignity for Children nonprofit on Saturday. For the administration, it's a chance to highlight the uncertain plight of refugees in Southeast Asia and beyond. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

BEN RHODES: The president going to a refugee center, lifting up that piece of work by Malaysia is not focused just on Malaysia or Asia, but rather speaks to the global responsibility that countries have to provide support for refugees.

HU: A reminder that refugee crises aren't limited to any one part of the world. Elise Hu, NPR News, Kuala Lumpur. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.