Statement for the Record on The Rohingya Crisis: U.S. Response to the Tragedy in Burma House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee

October 5, 2017

By: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Contact:
Javier Cuebas
jcuebas@lirs.org 

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is deeply concerned about the continued mass displacement of Rohingya communities fleeing ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar. As recent news reports have shown, the crisis has fueled internal displacement within Myanmar and forced increased migration to nearby nations. As the urgency of the crisis continues to escalate, LIRS commends the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee for convening a hearing to discuss the United States’ response in the ever-growing displacement.

Since late August of 2017, nearly half a million Rohingya – an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar – have fled the country in search of safety and protection. As the Administration’s “Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2018: Report to Congress” notes, members of the Rohingya community have faced systematic persecution, without necessary protection provided under the county’s anti-discrimination laws. The plight of this vulnerable religious minority group can be traced back decades, as Myanmar’s successive governments have continued to deny the population the necessary ethnic recognition, effectively blocking their claims to citizenship. Despite the fact the Rohingya have lived in the Rakhine State for generations, the institutional denial of citizenship has resulted in their Burmese ethnic classification as “illegal Bengali migrants”, leading them – at an estimate of about a million – to become the largest group of stateless people in the world.[1]

In recent days, perpetual violence and clashes inside Myanmar has led to the mass displacement of Rohingya children, women, and families. An unknown number of internally displaced persons remain within the country, and large numbers are continuing to flee into Bangladesh. As these numbers continue to increase, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said refugee camps in Bangladesh have reached maximum capacity, leaving refugees in desperate need of food, shelter and water.[2]

As part of the global refugee community, the Rohingya make up a part of the 65.5 million displaced persons, including 22.5 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children. According to UNICEF, over 240,000 of the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since August of 2017 are children.[3]

The U.S. government is also the only country in the world that has worked with UNHCR to create a process to screen and place separated and orphaned refugee children. Unaccompanied refugee minors abroad are among the most vulnerable refugees as they are without parents or legal guardians to care for them, as such they are more susceptible to human trafficking throughout the world. As one of the only two U.S. refugee resettlement agencies providing protection to unaccompanied refugee minors, LIRS has worked to unite these especially vulnerable group with willing and loving families in the United States. The stories of unaccompanied, Rohingya refugee children mirror that of Fara, an unaccompanied Rohingya minor currently assured placement with an American family in Michigan.

Following riots in Myanmar during early 2015, Fara was not able to go to school. In fact, the teachers in her Religious school were barred from attending, and the military police would continuously come to their villages. According to Fara, Rohingya houses and villages in surrounding neighborhoods were burned down and destroyed. Following this kind of continuous suppression and terror, she and her family decided to flee the country.

During the family’s journey to Indonesia, a deadly fight took place on a boat. Fara’s father, step-mother and half-sister were tragically killed during the fighting. In order to save her life, Fara jumped into the sea, and in the process, she was separated from her younger brother and sister. After becoming separated from her family members, Fara has been unable to reunite with her younger siblings.*

Other unaccompanied Rohingya refugee minors also have been left in limbo because of the President’s Executive Orders impacting refugee resettlement. For example, ten Rohingya boys faced possible forced return by the government of Indonesia, where their lives would have been in danger, because of these delays.

The magnitude of the displacement in the country and region deserves not only a spotlight, but an adequate response from the U.S. through necessary support to international and domestic programs, including the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program (USRAP).

In the recently released “Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2018” memorandum to the U.S. Secretary of State, the administration has announced the country’s lowest refugee ceiling ever– 45,000 for Fiscal Year 2018. This figure contains a regional refugee allocation for all of East Asia, including Myanmar, of 5,000 spots.

With the overwhelming amount of need that exists in the world, LIRS considers this number to be substantially inadequate in providing necessary protection for refugees enduring unspeakable trauma. In a United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report from early 2017, Rohingya refugees recounted stories of tragedy, including gang-rape, brutal beatings and violence against them and their children.[4] In 2016, the U.S. Department of State noted over 72 percent of refugees resettled to the U.S. were women and children. Many are single mothers, survivors of torture, or in need of urgent medical treatment. Women and girls are subject to heinous forms of persecution in wartime and suffer severe trauma that cannot be addressed in camps or difficult urban environments. Survivors of rape are often ostracized in their host countries, making them priorities for resettlement. For these women, resettlement is the only solution. No amount of aid in their host country could guarantee their safety and psychosocial recovery.

We call on Congress and the Administration to respond to the plight of Rohingya refugees, and stand ready to welcome vulnerable and persecuted populations around the world. LIRS is committed to supporting our nation’s leadership role and rich history as a safe haven for those fleeing religious and ethnic persecution. Now is the time for us to act.

* Names have been changed.

[1] Eleanor Albert, “The Rohingya Crisis,” (Council on Foreign Relations October 4, 2017), available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis

[2] “Bangladesh: Refugee camp capacity exhausted; thousands in makeshift shelters,” (UNHCR September 08, 2017), available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2017/9/59b24a074/bangladesh-refugee-camp-capacity-exhausted-thousands-makeshift-shelters.html

[3] “Rohingya refuge children: UNICEF emergency response in Bangladesh,” (UNICEF September 28, 2017) https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/bangladesh_100945.html

[4] “Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh: Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016,” (OHCHR, February 3, 2017), available at:  (http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/FlashReport3Feb2017.pdf