by David Verberckt
Displaced Rohingya girl and victim of inter-ethnic violence. Thau Chaung camp for displaced Rohingya from Sittwe. Sittwe township, Myanmar, October 2016. Photograph by David Verberckt
During the past several years, I have been documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority by capturing their dire everyday life in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Portraying them as human beings deprived of their social, civil and human rights which are so often taken for granted in our society, my intention is to give them a face and increase the awareness of their plight and bring to our attention the too often unnoticed humanitarian crisis and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Festival MESS, “Modul Momorije 2017” (Modul Memory) is hosting an exhibition in Sarajevo for the first time about the topic. It will be very interesting to see the reactions of the public in a place that has not so long ago itself suffered war, destruction, displacement, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
Since October 2016, tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya people have fled Myanmar, mainly crossing by land into Bangladesh, and those who can manage, turn to the sea to flee towards Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. This recent surge in refugees results from a long-building crisis caused by the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government in Rakhine State for decades. The plight of the Rohingya is further exacerbated by the reluctant responses of Myanmar’s neighbors to act and their inability and unwillingness to handle the influx of asylum seekers.
Following the attack on police and military checkpoints that left nine people dead in October 2016, a vast military security operation has been ongoing in northern Rakhine State targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority. Those security operations amount in most cases to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, where rape, abduction, summary killings, torture and unlawful imprisonment are common.
This current wave of extreme violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority is not the first one. Successive violent crackdowns have taken place in 1978, 1991, 2008 and in 2012 with systematic mass exodus towards Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (during the 1970s and 1980s), Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia as a result. This is the first large-scale crackdown under a democratically elected government in Myanmar though.
Meanwhile, security restrictions against the Rohingya minority in the rest of Rakhine State and the internment camps around Sittwe have been further intensified. Access for humanitarian aid and independent media has been all but impossible in northern Rakhine and severely restricted in the camps since the recent military operations and their aftermath. What is described as camps for internal displaced persons around the city of Sitttwe is nothing short of open-air concentration camps where approximately 120,000 Rohingya live without possibility of leaving the camps or having access to proper basic healthcare, education, food and work.
A Rohingya man, part of the first generation that came as a refugee from Burma toward the end of the 1970s. Arkanabad, Rohingya neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, December 2016. Photograph by David Verberckt.
In Bangladesh, their situation is very precarious. The Rohingya live in squalid conditions, are unwanted and are mostly un-registered as refugees which means they do not have access to basic commodities, humanitarian aid, healthcare, education and work. Out of the more than half a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, now, less than 10% are officially registered as refugees. Latest arrivals from Myanmar are utterly traumatized, having no shelter and no psychological support. They dwell in newly self-made camps and form an endless community of mainly women alone with small children, having no news from family left behind or lost along the expulsion trail.
The situation of the Rohingya refugees in other countries varies. In Pakistan, where the 300,000 strong Rohingya community in Karachi is relatively well integrated, they still face problems to obtain documents and consequently access to education and employment, although most were born in Pakistan as their parents and grandparents arrived there from Burma and East-Pakistan (nowadays Bangladesh) in the 1970s.
30,000 Rohingya refugees fled or were trafficked into India, where their situation and living conditions are very similar to those in Bangladesh. They are locked in a situation of bonded labor that borders on slavery at the hands of their traffickers/human smugglers.
In Thailand, about 10,000 are scattered around the country and most of them have been living there for 20-30 years. However, some are victims of the 2015 boat exodus and they ended up in traffickers’ camps in southern Thailand. They are now in administrative detention awaiting re-settlement in third countries.
Malaysia has for the past 20 years been the main country of destination for Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. More than 150,000 now live in Malaysia. Although their situation is far from being good and acceptable compared to standards set for the hosting of refugees, they have more opportunities to find jobs in wholesale markets and construction and as such support their families at home.
The few thousand Rohingya stranded in Indonesia are in limbo and have been waiting for many years before being re-settled to other countries. Most of them were apprehended while trying to reach Australia and turned back to Indonesia. They are strictly forbidden to work in Indonesia, being completely dependent on UNHCR handouts to survive. Most of them have been in this situation for five to seven years.
I would like my photos to contribute to the social responsibility and awareness and bring forth the changes to ameliorate the fate of the people whose life has been on the verge of existence.