Rohingya Vision

Human Rights Advocate Speaks to CRC About Rohingya Refugees

Human Rights Advocate Speaks to CRC About Rohingya Refugees
June 30
11:46 2015

In mid May, Steve Gumaer boarded a speedboat off the coast of Thailand and went searching for Rohingya refugees crammed in boats on the Andaman Sea.

Along with members of the international media and others, they sought to rescue and bring relief to ethnic Rohingyas who were fleeing persecution in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

“We spend the day chasing rumors. We heard the location of one boat, but we missed it by a half hour,” said Gumaer, chief executive officer of the non-governmental aid and advocacy organization Partners Relief & Development.

“We learned that Thai fishermen later came on the boat, which was carrying hundreds of people, and tried to help, but the human traffickers who were running the boat shot at them and drove them away.”

Even though they traveled some 400 kilometers in international waters that day, they were not able to find a boat themselves, said Gumaer in a presentation to a group at the Grand Rapids office of the Christian Reformed Church.

Gumaer’s visit was sponsored by the CRC’s Office of Social Justice.

“I feel a lot of rage over what is happening to the Rohingyas,” said Gumaer. “But I also feel hope because this year their situation has drawn media attention from around the world. Perhaps that attention will put pressure on the Myanmar government to change its policies.”

Not long before they went out on the sea, said Gumaer, the Reuters news agency reported that a journalist had taken a speedboat from Thailand’s southern coast and came abreast of a boat of migrants being towed out to sea by the Thai navy.

“The journalist said the people aboard had little shelter from the blazing sun. Some of the women were crying, and some passengers waved their arms and shouted,” according to the Reuters story.

Other news organizations have also chronicled the plight of the Rohingyas who have been paying human traffickers large amounts of money to help them flee oppression in Myanmar.

Although the Rohingyas have been taking to the sea in large numbers for about two years, it is only recently that the media has started to pay widespread attention, said Gumaer.

“These people face a desperate situation in Myanmar, but they are also in danger when they are on the water,” said Gumaer. “They are living in hell on earth.”

Peter Vander Meulen, director of OSJ, made a trip to Myanmar last year to report on the situation facing the Rohingyas. Gumaer’s organization helped to set up the fact-finding trip.

In his report, Vander Meulen writes that Myanmar is a place where “1.4 million people of the Rohingya ethnic group have only one realistic hope: find enough money to bribe their jailers (government officials) and coyote boat owners to take a risky sea voyage to Malaysia or Thailand.”

He said underlying the persecution of the Rohingyas are  various factors, especially economics. The Myanmar government wants their land and their resources. Removing them, stripping them of their citizenship and placing them in “concentration camps” is how the government has been dealing with them, he said.

In late May, Dr. Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRC and Andrew Ryskamp, co-director of World Renew, wrote a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to “express our deep concern for the Rohingya people presently suffering through an alarming humanitarian crisis in southwest Myanmar and the surrounding waters.”

The Rohingya have been oppressed for many years in Myanmar. But things grew worse in 2011 after a quasi-civilian government came into power following decades of military rule. And then in May 2012, state sponsored  violence broke out between the Buddhist Rakhine people and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya.

After the fighting, Myanmar’s government forced thousands of Rohingya people in Western Burma into camps.

Gumaer says his organization is doing all that it can to provide emergency relief to those in camps near the capitalAkyab ( Sittwe), including rice distribution, basic medical support, tarps for shelter as well as animals, seeds and fertilizer to help establish a more sustainable food supply.

Despite the help they can give, it is not enough to lift people out of despair, which leads to many people turning to human traffickers, he said.

“Over the last three years, the repression of the Rohingya has caused thousands of people to board ships to flee Myanmar in the hope of finding a better life,” says Gumaer.

The situation this year became especially acute when Indonesia and Malaysia stopped accepting refugees and currently it is believed over 3,000 Rohingya remain stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, said Gumaer.

After they came to shore in their speedboat without finding any migrants last month, Gumaer’s team traveled to the province of Aceh in Indonesia, which has become one of the few places to welcome Rohingyas.

This is where fishermen from Aceh rescued boats filled with Rohingyas and brought them to shore to live in temporary camps. “The people in Aceh totally embraced them. They were very welcoming which was encouraging,” said Gumaer.

While there, they had a chance to provide relief and to interview Rohingyas in the camp.

Through a translator, they heard their stories, says Gumaer in a report about the visit to Aceh.

“They told us how they had spent more than four months at sea… They told us how they were crowded in the hold below deck with hardly any food or water.

“They told us how they were forced to live in their own filth. They told us how their friends had been killed.”

While the camp in Aceh seemed to be meeting the basic needs of the boat people, conditions in camps in Myanmar remain dire.

There is no food, no water, health conditions are terrible, and there is little hope for the future, said Gumaer.

In his report, Gumaer writes, “Ongoing advocacy on the international level is required to resolve the underlying issues that have caused the trafficking and ongoing displacement of the Rohingya.

“We will continue… to tell their stories and get data from this crisis into the hands of international actors to help bring change.”

Note:Changes have been made,CRC is not responsible for these.




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