The Rohingya are an ethnic community from Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. Their histories in the area far predate modern state borders, which emerged in the 20th century amid Myanmar’s separation from British India and later independence from the United Kingdom. Yet members of the ethnic group, who are predominantly Muslim, have been denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for more than four decades.

Activists and rights groups have documented systemic persecution and genocidal acts against the Rohingya for more than four decades. Dramatic escalations in 1978, 1991, 2012, and 2016 all were followed by mass exoduses of Rohingya to other countries—mostly Bangladesh. Yet the asylum protections they have received have often come up short. In 1978-79, approximately 180,000 Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar; an estimated 10,000 more died in Bangladesh due to malnutrition and related ailments. Between 1993-95, approximately 200,000 Rohingya were returned to Myanmar through a process that members of the community and aid workers have subsequently described as coercive. Amid the 2012 flight, more than 1,000 Rohingya asylum seekers were reportedly pushed back at the Bangladesh border, in violation of the fundamental international law principle against refoulement.

At the start of 2017 there were approximately 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar, a country of 54 million; hundreds of thousands subsequently fled following a wave of violence from state security forces, who consider the Rohingya to be irregular migrants from Bangladesh. As of late 2020 there were reportedly more than 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and hundreds of thousands in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and countries farther afield.

The Myanmar government’s large-scale deprivation and denial of Rohingyas’ citizenship has been a central component of this population’s persecution. Over the course of decades, Myanmar has arbitrarily stripped the nationality of and imposed statelessness on the Rohingya, facilitating serious violations on their rights including the right to work and access education. Rohingya activists, journalists, and human-rights advocates have documented cases in which security forces engaged in systematic killings, rapes, and destruction of entire villages. The policies have been part of a broader strategy by the government of Myanmar, which has struggled to consolidate legitimacy from a range of ethnic groups, that Rohingya advocates believe violates Article 11 of the 1948 Genocide Convention forbidding “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law is the central legal instrument behind Rohingyas’ statelessness, implemented in a manner that particularly targets the Rohingya community. Their stateless condition has reinforced the state’s narrative that they are foreigners—or, in the government’s terminology, “illegal immigrants”—who are unworthy of state protection. Officially, most Rohingya are not citizens of Myanmar but “resident foreigners.” As such, the Rohingya are positioned as a group with no history or connection to their country. Powerful nationalist voices outright deny that there is such a thing as a Rohingya ethnic group, and instead refer to them as “Bengali.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar have attempted to repatriate large numbers of the Rohingya at multiple points since the 2017 flight—including a planned effort in 2021, to which Burmese military leaders have recommitted in the wake of the coup—but the efforts have so far largely come to naught. Myanmar, UNHCR, and the UN Development Program agreed on a memorandum of understanding regarding the circumstances of repatriation in 2018, and twice renewed it in 2019 and 2020. Many Rohingya in Bangladesh have opposed repatriation under current circumstances, saying they were not consulted on the agreement and demanding recognition of their right to Myanmar nationality as a condition for repatriation.

Read the full article about the Rohingya ethnic group by Amal de Chickera at Migration Policy Institute.