The Forgotten Migrants of Central America

Traditional indigenous attire of a Mayan woman from the Quiche region of Guatemala. Credit: UN Photo/John Olsson

By Caley Pigliucci
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 12 2019 – Rural and indigenous populations in countries like Guatemala and Honduras are increasingly on the move – either migrating internally or to neighbouring countries.

But the focus on these populations has been limited, leaving them forgotten and marginalized as they continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change.

The disappearance of farmlands and unreliability of crops due to climate change have led families to experience increased food and economic insecurity—that have forced some of them to migrate.

“In general, we can say that the majority of rural migrants are poor people, but often not the poorest, because the latter cannot afford the significant costs of these journeys,” Ricardo Rapallo, Senior Food Security Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IPS.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), between 2000 and 2010, the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased by an average of 59% and the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increased from 50,000 during 2010 to over 400,000 in 2016.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Honduras, told IPS, “When we talk about climate change, we have to think about historical and social factors that leave certain groups more impacted than others…many of the people who farm and fish on the lands most vulnerable to climate change have been historically mistreated.”

“Realizing that those most impacted are indigenous is critical, because it hasn’t been part of the main stream conversation, and it needs to be,” Kennedy added.

The United Nations does not label those forced to migrate due to climate change as ‘climate refugees.’

A change in language would require an agreement among member-states altering the definition of refugees (currently defined as: “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence”.

And a refugee also has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

However, Kennedy emphasized that “Indigeneity is a protected factor, and that is a reason to claim asylum.” But she warns that in the case of migration from Central America, “many people around the US, including lawyers are not aware that they need to be looking at historic and systemic inclusion.”

She added that this is true “even in Guatemala and Honduras. This is in fact demonstrative that the state doesn’t take it seriously.”

Researchers, like Kennedy, are frustrated as they see little data and few programs that help indigenous and rural people which also take into account the fraught history that indigenous people have in Central America, a place where a number of massacres occurred in 1996 and many are still recovering from the violence.

Kennedy said there are six indigenous groups in Honduras and over 30 in Guatemala, but she expressed her desire to see “updated statistics on the various indigenous groups.”

Many climate migrants are also left out of the public eye because they only migrate within their own country.

“It is important to stress that, even if the international migration is the one gathering public attention, and motivating political reactions, internal migration is by far larger,” said Rapallo..

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated external migration in 2015 at around 244 million people, while internal migration (as of 2009) was estimated at 740 million people.

For many who experience food insecurities, families will send one member to another country to provide for the family from afar, but the rest of the family will remain in their home country.

The FAO says “what has been observed is that young people represent a major part of the international migrants.”

Alongside the increase of internal migration and external migration among youth, Kennedy also sees an increase in family units migrating away from Guatemala and Honduras in recent years, which, she says, “shows that more is happening than needing to just provide economic stability to the home.”

Rapallo said: “If we want to give people options and make an impact on migration movements, we should work on the root causes of migration.”

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken a specific policy initiative to protect climate migrants: the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD).

UNHCR representatives told IPS that the PDD “…promotes policy and normative developments to address gaps in the protection of people at risk of displacement or already displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disaster.”

UNHCR says that member-states and stake-holders will have an opportunity to “…deliver concrete pledges and contributions that will advance the objectives of the Global Compact and highlight key achievements and good practices” at the Global Refugee Forum on the 17 and 18 of December 2019.

But, thus far, it remains unclear to what extent the PDD has had an effect on the admittance or protections of climate migrants.

The 2019 Climate Action Summit will take place this September during the UN General Assembly sessions.

Luis Alfonso de Alba, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the summit responded to a question from IPS about the potential need to update language surrounding climate migrants.

At a press briefing on May 28th, he said: “This is not a meeting for negotiations… So I think the topic of language will continue to rather be an issue for member states.”

“We are obviously taking into account the impact of climate change into migration as a topic,” he added, but said “We are not negotiating language.”

Though de Alba assured IPS that indigenous populations will be involved in the summit, rural and indigenous populations migrating internally and externally in Central America are still largely over-looked.

Kennedy worries that not enough is being done. “They need targeted programs, they need targeted statistics, and these are not provided,” she said.

Rapallo said: “The right to migrate also involves the right not to migrate. Migration should be an option, but not the only option to pursue a better life, or sometimes even to survive.”

Uganda’s Rare Tree Climbing Lions and Endangered Primates Threatened By Climate Change

Elephants in an area infested by the invasive sickle bush. The Uganda Wildlife Authority fears that the management of the shrub could be a challenge as the plants rapidly colonise grasslands in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the country’s most diverse park. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

By Wambi Michael
KASESE, Uganda, Jun 12 2019 – As climate change leads to increased temperatures in East Africa, a thicket of invasive thorny trees with the ability to withstand harsh climatic conditions have begun threatening Uganda’s second-largest park, home to a rare breed of tree climbing lions and one of the highest concentrations of primates in the world.

The Queen Elizabeth National Park forms part of the Greater Virunga Landscape, considered the richest part of the African continent in terms of vertebrate species. The park is Uganda’s most diverse and boasts 5,000 species of mammals, including: 27 primates such as chimpanzees, red-tailed and monkeys, and baboons; birds; amphibians; reptiles; hippos and elephants.

But conservation experts at the Queen Elizabeth National Park are fighting to stop the spread of Dichrostachys cinerea, commonly known as sickle bush.

There is a fear that the further spread of of the shrub, which has a long tap root and various lateral roots that make it difficult to remove, could further place at risk the already endangered species that exist here. A recent  Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report found that there is massive loss of biodiversity globally that could “undermine human well-being for current and future generations,” according to Sir Robert Watson, the outgoing chair of the IPBES.

Though not new to the country or the region, the invasive plant, which is native to South Africa and known for its medicinal uses, has begun spreading rapidly across the park, taking up in recent years an estimated 40 percent of the almost 2,000 square kilometres that the park covers.

Edward Asalu, the chief warden here, told IPS that the spread of these thickets was affecting animal settlements in this ecologically diverse part of the country.

“This issue is being studied but we know that it is largely linked to climate change,” he said, alluding to the increased temperatures in the country. He added that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also contributed to the fast spread of the sickle bush.

According to a climate risk assessment report on the country by the Climate and Development Learning Platform, which aims to integrate climate change into development programming, “climate projections developed for Uganda … indicate an increase in near-surface temperature for the country in the order of +2°C in the next 50 years, and in the order of +2.5°C in the next 80 years.”

Robert Adaruku is a tour guide with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and has noted that increased temperatures have affected the growth of the sickle bush.

“As the temperature goes high, such kinds of plants like the sickle bush are able to survive in a hotter environment are able to expand. Because the weather or environment will be favouring their expansion,” he told IPS.

The sickle bush and its recent rapid growth due to increased temperatures has led it to become the latest threat to Uganda’s wildlife conservation efforts. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Thicket drives away animals
The spread of the sickle bush is evident as one drives along the road overlooking the Kazinga Channel, a 32 kilometre stretch of water that joins Lake George and Lake Edward. The channel has previously been considered the ideal spot to view game.

A lonely male elephant is spotted in the early afternoon under a thicket of sickle bush. There is no grass underfoot.

Asalu told IPS the thickets were not easily penetrated by most animals and that “grazers like antelopes, warthogs and buffalos are avoiding those thickets because they can’t find food under there.”

“We have areas which were grasslands but are now being taken over by thickets. Animals, especially the herbivores, like open areas where they can be able to see the carnivores trying to eat them. That is why you cannot find them in area colonised by the sickle bush,” Asalu explained.

Adaruku explained that he first noticed the sickle bush in the park way back in 1997. “The sickle plants were there but on a very small scale. As time goes on it has been able to expand and colonise this area.”

Sickle bush spreading rapidly across Africa and beyond

But it is just not this park that the sickle bush is taking over. Asalu confirmed that Tanzania’s Randilen Wildlife Management Area also recently had to deal with the spread of the sickle bush.

Quoting a study by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), a non-profit inter-governmental development and information organisation, Asalu said that Dichrostachys cinerea spreads very fast because it can produce up to 130 shoots from the mother stem.

Studies from West Africa have found that the sickle bush is mostly found in warm, dry savannahs but it can grow in more than three climate groups.

CABI said the subspecies spreading in East Africa is thought to have originated in countries such as Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa and is spreading all over the world.

Dichrostachys cinerea has a high reproductive rate, meaning that they produce many seeds throughout the year. Although not all offspring are successful, the plants that do establish themselves can typically expect a long lifespan due to their tolerance to natural disturbances like fire, drought and pests,” reads part of a 2017 report by CABI.

It added that the ability by the sickle bush to prosper on nutrient-poor soils and disturbed areas made it very adaptive and resilient in its native region of South Africa.

A 2017 study in the journal Nature Communications found that alien invasive species, like the sickle bush, have the ability to expand rapidly at higher latitudes and altitudes as the climate warms, out-pacing native species. The park is estimated to be 914m above sea level, while Uganda is about 140 kms above the equator.

Geofrey Baluku is a part-time tour operator around Kilembe and Kasese, the areas alongside the Queen Elizabeth National Park. He is also concerned about the spread of the sickle bush.

“It is a serious problem. What will happen to this park if all the animals go away?” Baluku said in an interview with IPS.

He told IPS that the sickle bush is not entirely new to the area but the rate at which it is expanding was.
“We have used those same plants to treat some diseases. It is very good soothing to tooth ache.
“But …even elephants don’t eat their leaves. Other small animals don’t want to stay in areas colonised by sickle bush so they move to other areas, including where there are human settlements,” Baluku said.

Uganda Wildlife Authority wardens at one of the areas formerly colonised by the sickle bush. The authority has undertaken restoration efforts since July to clear the Queen Elizabeth National Park of the shrub. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

A problematic plant

Dr Peter Baine, a research officer at Uganda’s invasive species research unit, told IPS that the sickle bush forms a canopy in a colonised area, releasing chemicals that kill the grass underneath.

“It is quite problematic to other plants because of its ability to spread fast, grow fast, disperse numerous seeds, and the seed’s ability to last in soil up until a year,” he said.

Baine did not rule out the fact that its rapid spread could be linked to climate change. He told IPS that invasive species and climate change are two of the primary factors that alter ecological systems.

He said the National Agricultural Research Organisation and UWA were conducting studies to understand the interaction between climate change and the sickle bush for a possible management plan to fight the problem.

Restoration Effort

The UWA has in the past burnt the sickle bush but discovered that the tree would sprout again after a few weeks.

Since July, the authority has embarked on a new restoration effort, involving the uprooting and burning of the plants in colonised areas.

About six hundred hectares of sickle bush had been uprooted by May when IPS visited the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Asalu told IPS that there remains a huge challenge ahead because uprooting and burning the sickle bush requires huge financial resources that are not readily available.

But in the meantime the current efforts for eradication are making a difference. IPS saw a number of animals, including buffalo and bushbucks (African antelopes), in parts of the restored area.

*Writing with Nalisha Adams in Johannesburg

An Uncertain Future for Palestinian Refugees

By Charlotte Munns
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 12 2019 – The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been forced to justify its existence at the United Nations ahead of a pledging conference later this month.

UNRWA came under fire by Jason Greenblatt, US Special Envoy for International Negotiations, at a Security Council meeting late last month.

Allegations and criticism raised by Greenblatt did little to aid the already precarious financial situation of the Agency. Last week, UNRWA held a press conference at the UN in an attempt to raise awareness — and funds for their work.

The organisation supports around 74% of Gaza’s population, and also has major operations in the West Bank and Jordan, where millions of Palestine refugees reside. The Agency provides food aid, social services, education and infrastructure.

UNRWA requires US$1.2 billion to fund all its operations in the coming year. However, fears have been raised regarding their ability to do so. Unless the Agency is able to secure at least US$60 million by the end of this month, their ability to provide food aid to over 1 million Palestine refugees seems uncertain.

The Agency is funded predominantly by UN Member States, the European Union and regional governments. These sources contribute 93% of funds. Private individuals and non-governmental sources contributed over US$17 million in 2018.

Matthias Schmale, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, noted at the press conference last week, “right now, strictly financially speaking, we don’t have the money to guarantee the opening of schools in the fall.”

These financial concerns have largely arisen following the United States’ refusal to continue funding the organisation. Greenblatt justified Trump’s decision to the Security Council last month.

“The UNRWA model has failed the Palestinian people,” he said, describing the Agency as an “irredeemably flawed operation” and a “band-aid” solution. Instead, he proposed an integration of the Agency’s services into government and non-governmental organisations’ structures.

In his explanation of the United States’ decision, he reaffirmed the country’s support of Israel, stating “the United States will always stand with Israel.”

This prompted criticism that the decision to cease funding UNRWA was a political move, rather than for issues with the Agency’s functioning.

Peter Mulrean, Director of UNRWA’s Representative Office in New York, said in a statement to IPS that “UNRWA regrets the U.S. decision to stop funding UNRWA after decades of being the Agency’s single largest donor and strong partner.” However, he refused to speculate on the motives behind that decision.

Greenblatt claimed the politicisation of UNRWA, despite its intended neutrality, meant “year after year, Palestinians in refugee camps were not given the opportunity to build any future; they were misled and used as political pawns and commodities instead of being treated as human beings.”

In his response, Mulrean said: “UNRWA is a UN humanitarian Agency that has no political role in Palestine or anywhere else.”

Despite this, UNRWA was asked at the press conference to respond to claims its members have involvement with Hamas after weapons were found stored in a school, and tunnels were located beneath multiple UNRWA educational buildings.

The Agency noted its officials reported all such incidents, and measures were taken to remove the weapons and close the tunnels.

Criticism of UNRWA seems at odds with the Security Council’s stance on the Agency.

Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, said in a press briefing last week, “the Secretary General has been speaking on support of UNRWA for a long time,” adding, “his position remains unchanged, that he very much feels that UNRWA is a stabilizing force in the region through the education services it provides, through the health services, and through the support services.”

At the Security Council meeting last month it was only the United States and Israel that spoke against UNRWA. All other 14 member states reaffirmed their support for the Agency.

“That is a reflection of the broad support UNRWA enjoys in the international community,” Mulrean told IPS.

Despite this, UNRWA has for years struggled to meet its budget. Last year, around 42 countries and institutions increased their contributions to erase an unprecedented deficit of US$446 million.

Greenblatt noted the United States was frequently called upon to fill budget gaps. Having pledged around US$6 billion to the organisation over the course of its existence, he reaffirmed his government’s refusal to continue to do so.

Instead, the United States has called for a conference in Bahrain—June 25-26– to discuss possible solutions to the Palestine refugee crisis. Many see this as compensation for withdrawing funding for UNRWA.

While Mulrean refused to take a formal position on the upcoming conference in Bahrain, he did say that UNRWA doesn’t see this as in competition with the Agency’s work.

UNRWA has fought Greenblatt’s criticism before press in order to garner support for its mandate. Within a context of escalating violence in Gaza – some saying the worst since 2014 – and ever- increasing numbers of Palestine refugees, the Agency continues to seek funding from member states so as to continue its operations in the coming year.

“This is our reality,” Mulrean said, “we have schools to run, we have clinics to run, we have people to feed.”

15 shortlisted participants of the Greenpreneurs 2019 program to take part in a 12-week global competition

15 shortlisted participants of the Greenpreneurs 2019 program to take part in a 12-week global competition

Jun 12 2019 (IPS-Partners)

SEOUL, Republic of Korea  (GGGI) – Out of more than 200 participants, 15 were shortlisted from GGGI’s Member countries and countries where GGGI has operations, including Cambodia, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Jordan, Morocco, Nepal, the Philippines, Rwanda, Uganda, the UAE, and Vanuatu. This year, GGGI is pleased to have a variety of project ideas designed to facilitate the achievement of green growth and climate change action in developing countries, including innovative uses of solar PV systems, recycling solutions, and waste management innovations.

In 2019, 50% of applications consisted of teams with female leads with regional diversity of 43% (Asia), 7% (Small islands), 30% (Sub-Saharan Africa), 17% (MENA), and 3% (Latin America).

GGGI would like to congratulate the following 15 participants who will take part in a 12-week support and development program, receiving mentoring and training through a virtual webinar. The top three teams who win the Business Plan Competition will win USD 5,000 per team in seed funding to invest in their business ideas plus bursaries.


15 shortlisted participants of the Greenpreneurs 2019 program to take part in a 12-week global competition


In April, GGGI kicked off a global competition to support young entrepreneurs develop sustainable ideas or solutions that would positively impact their communities and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We are hoping to foster a generation of young leaders passionate about promoting green solutions and a sustainable future”

Dr. Frank Rijsberman, Director-General of GGGI

Now in its second year, the Greenpreneurs 2019 program aims to serve as a platform for young entrepreneurs with ideas for business development, that is environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive.

“Young entrepreneurs have innovative business ideas to accelerate the transition to green growth in developing countries, however, they still lack access to right technical training, network, mentorship, and seed capital. Thus, together with Student Energy and the Youth Climate Lab, GGGI launched a pilot Greenpreneurs program in 2018 with the aim of providing support for green growth startups, particularly in developing countries.”

Believing in the potential of the youth, Greenpreneurs is designed to provide opportunities for young entrepreneurs to transform innovative ideas into green businesses in sustainable energy, water and sanitation, sustainable landscapes and green cities – all of which are GGGI’s thematic priorities.

“We are hoping to foster a generation of young leaders passionate about promoting green solutions and a sustainable future. Last year, we launched a business competition limited to virtual mentoring over the web, but this year, we are envisioning to have physical incubators to join the green streams to nurture green entrepreneurs,” said Dr. Frank Rijsberman.

GGGI’s partner, the Youth Climate Lab, shared how “youth play a crucial role in combating climate change. Their active participation provides intergenerational viewpoints of present and future citizens, which are fundamental to sustainable development.”

About Greenprenuers Program 2019

Greenpreneurs is a twelve-week virtual global competition open to youth between the ages of 17 and 35 focused in GGGI’s Member countries. The four priority themes (Sustainable Energy, Water & Sanitation, Sustainable Landscapes, and Green Cities) reflect the urgent issues impeding growth in developing countries in the context of green growth, climate change, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


15 shortlisted participants of the Greenpreneurs 2019 program to take part in a 12-week global competition


Burmese Muslims: Still looking for a permanent home!

By Syed Neaz Ahmad FRSA
Jun 12 2019 (IPS-Partners)

They are thought to be the world’s most persecuted refugees. It is also argued that they are one of the most forgotten too. Some five year ago I saw and met hundreds of inmates from Burma in a Jeddah prison. Thousands of Burmese Muslims from Arakan – often called Rohingyas – were offered a safe haven in Saudi Arabia by King Faisal but with the change in rulers in Saudi Arabia the rules underwent a change too. A permanent abode of peace that was offered to these uprooted Arakanese is now nothing less than a chamber of horrors.

A Rohingya woman and her child at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Credit: Kamrul Hasan/IPS

There are some three thousand families of Burmese Muslims in Makkah and Jeddah prisons awaiting their deportation. Women and children are held in separate prisons nearby. The only contact the men have with their wives and children is through mobile phones and clandestine courier service provided by hawkers of food & water – aided & abetted by the prison officers for a small fee!

But the interesting question is: Where will they be sent? Burma (Myanmar) doesn’t want them. Bangladesh with a large population, porous border and poor economy doesn’t have the inclination or the ability to handle a refugee population of this size. The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are having a rough time as it is. Pakistan’s offer to accept part of the Rohingyas – awaiting deportation in Saudi prisons – is seen as mere a diplomatic exercise. Against the background of Islamabad’s treatment of some 300,000 stranded Pakistanis – living a miserable life in camps in Bangladesh – senior Rohingya inmates look at Pakistani overture with suspicion.

But who are these people called Burmese Muslims, Arakanese or Rohingyas? The people who call themselves Rohingyas are the Muslims of the Mayu Frontier area, present-day Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships of Arakan (Rakhine) State, a province isolated in the western part of the country across the river Naf which forms the boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

After Myanmar had gained independence, a concentration of nearly ninety per cent of the area’s population – of Islamic faith formed an ethnic and religious minority group on the western fringe of the republic. In the beginning they favoured a policy of joining Pakistan. This policy faded away when they could not gain support from the government of Pakistan. Later they began to call for the establishment of an autonomous region instead.

Their insistence to call themselves ‘the Muslims of Arakan’ and adoption of Urdu as their national language indicated their inclination towards the sense of collective identity that the Muslims of Indian subcontinent showed before the partition of India (Department of Defence Service Archives, Rangoon: CD 1016/10/11).

In June 1951 All-Arakan Muslim Conference was held in village Alethangyaw, and ‘The Charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims’ was published. It called for ‘the balance of power between the Muslims and the Maghs (Arakanese), two major races of Arakan.’ The demand of the charter read: North Arakan should be immediately formed a free Muslim State as equal constituent Member of the Union of Burma like the Shan State, the Karenni State, the Chin Hills, and the Kachin Zone with its own Militia, Police and Security Forces under the General Command of the Union (Department of the Defence Service Archives, Rangoon: DR 1016/10/13).

It is noteworthy that in the charter these peoples are mentioned as the Muslims of Arakan and not Rohingyas. The word ‘Rohingya’, it is claimed, was first suggested by Abdul Gaffar, an MP from Buthidaung, in his article ‘The Sudeten Muslims’,

During his campaign for the 1960 elections, Myanmar Prime Minister U Nu promised statehood for Arakanese and Mon people. When he came to power the plans for the formation of the Arakan and Mon states were forgotten. Naturally, the Muslim members of parliament from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships denounced the plan and called for the establishment of a Rohingya state. (SOAS bulletin of Burma research, 2005)

In 1973, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council sought public opinion for drafting a new constitution. The Muslims from the Mayu Frontier submitted a proposal to the Constitution Commission for the creation of a separate Muslim state or at least a division for them (Kyaw Zan Tha, 1995).

‘The proposal was turned down. When elections were held under the 1974 Constitution the Bengali Muslims from the Mayu Frontier Area were denied the right to elect their representatives to the “Pyithu Hlut-taw” (People’s Congress). After the end of the Independence war in Bangladesh some arms and ammunitions flowed into the hands of the young Muslim leaders from Mayu Frontier. On 15 July 1972 a congress of all Rohingya parties was held at the Bangladeshi border to call for the Rohingya National Liberation’ (Mya Win, 1992).

Myanmar’s successive military regimes persisted in a policy of denying citizenship to most Bengalis, especially in the frontier area. They stubbornly grasped the 1982 Citizenship Law that allowed only the ethnic groups who had lived in Burma before the First Anglo-Burmese War that began in 1824 as the citizens of the country. By this law those Muslims had been treated as aliens in the land they have inhabited for more than a century.

‘According to the 1983 census Muslims in Arakan constituted 24.3 percent and they were categorized as Bangladeshi, while the Arakanese Buddhists formed 67.8 percent of the population of the Arakan (Rakhine) State’ (Immigration and Manpower Department 1987:I-14).

‘In the 1988 Democracy movement Muslims raised the Rohingya issue. Subsequently when the military junta allowed the registration of the political parties they asked for their parties to be recognized under the name “Rohingya.” Their demand was turned down and so they formed the National Democratic Party for Human rights (NDPHR) that won in four constituencies in 1990 elections – eleven candidates of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) were elected to the legislature. However, the Elections Commission abolished both the ALD and the NDPHR in 1991. Some of the party members had to go into exile.’

In 1978 the Burmese junta created a situation for the Arakanese Muslims that forced them to leave their country for safety elsewhere. However, those who crossed over to East Pakistan or Thailand were never considered as welcome visitors. The Myanmar government has consistently refused to recognise the Rohingyas as citizens, who have been forced to flee their homeland since 1978 – to neighbouring Thailand and as far as Japan.

According to Amnesty International, in 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the Burmese army’s Operation Nagamin. Most – it is claimed by Yangon – were eventually repatriated, but around 15,000 refused to return. In 1991, a second wave of about a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled Myanmar to Bangladesh

The reports that in January, shocking news emerged of the mistreatment by Thai security forces of over a thousand ‘boat people’ travelling from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia. Most of them were Rohingyas. They drifted at sea for weeks, without sufficient food and water, after having been beaten, towed out, and abandoned. The Indian navy rescued about 400 in different batches; Indonesia rescued a further 391. The rest were reported missing, presumed dead.

In Bangladesh, it is said that there are over 250,000 Rohingyas, some 35,000 of them in overcrowded camps.

There are a further 13,600 registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia (although there are thousands yet unregistered), an estimated 3,000 in Thailand, and unknown numbers in India.

All of these countries have not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Most Rohingyas in Asia are considered irregular migrants. Without official papers, they are often subject to arrest, detention, punishment for immigration offences and deportation. Forced to work in the informal labour market, they are often exploited and cheated.

In Malaysia, where some Rohingyas have resided since the early 1990s, they continue to be rounded up in immigration operations, whipped, and handed over to human traffickers on the Thai-Malaysia border. Some have been deported multiple times; some have ‘disappeared’ along the way. Around 730,000 remain in Myanmar, most of whom live in the Arakan state. The State Peace and Development Council, the military regime that rules Myanmar, continues to disavow Rohingyas as citizens.

Consequently, the Rohingyas are still subject to forced labour, forced eviction, and land confiscation. Strict restrictions are placed on their freedom of movement, freedom to marry, and freedom to own property. Many who return from abroad have been imprisoned for years, punished for crossing the border ‘illegally’. Conditions in the Arakan state continue to deteriorate, increasing the likelihood of further outflows into neighbouring countries.

The UNHCR has been allowed limited access inside Burma. The UN agency claims that it has helped more than 200,000 to get better healthcare and some 35,000 children to education. But this kind of help is merely a drop in the ocean. It’s an irony that countries in Asia and elsewhere – particularly Muslim countries – have shown little or no desire to help ease the situation.

The UNHCR spokesman in Asia, Kitty Mckinsey says: ‘No country has really taken up their cause. Look at the Palestinians, for example, they have a lot of countries on their side. The Rohingyas do not have any friends in the world.’

Obviously, an immediate and sympathetic solution is needed; otherwise, it can plunge Rohingyas into deeper suffering, cause resistance amongst host societies, and fail at stemming the onward movement of Rohingyas into the region.

The late King Faisal’s decision to offer them a permanent abode in Saudi Arabia was a gesture that reflected his noble approach to the problems faced by Muslims in other countries. However, later Saudi rulers have found the Burmese Muslims a thorn in their side. With strict regulation on their employment and movement within the Kingdom Saudi police find them easy targets for extortion and torture.

Although Myanmar Muslims have showed collective political interest for more than five decades since the country gained independence, their political and cultural rights have not been recognised. On the contrary, the demand for the recognition of their rights sounds like a direct challenge to the right of autonomy and the myth of survival for the Arakanese majority in their homeland.

It is said that there are some 250,000 Burmese Muslims in Saudi Arabia – majority living in Makkah Al-Mukarramah’s slums Naqqasha and Kudai. They sell vegetables, sweep streets, work as porters, carpenters, unskilled labour, and those fortunate enough become drivers.

The correct number of the Rohingya refugees living in Asian countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Saudi Arabia – is anybody’s guess. But this diaspora of refugees attracts human traffickers. It is not uncommon for poor Rohingyas to marry off their very young – sometimes underage – daughters to old and affluent Saudis in the hope of getting ‘official favours’. But with a high rate of divorce in Saudi Arabia in the Saudi society this hasn’t worked for many. Rohingya wives of Saudi men are not easily accepted in the Saudi society and they have to survive – as second class wives – on the periphery of the social infrastructure.

Those whom I met in Jeddah prisons seem to have accepted the situation as fait accompli. But it is unfair that these innocent people be made to suffer in a country which is considered the citadel of Islam that houses the two holiest places of worship on earth and the rulers style themselves as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

King Abdullah is not only the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques; he is also the Custodian of those living in that country, including Rohingya refugees who were invited by one of his illustrious predecessors. Will Saudi Arabia live up to its promises and expectations? Dhaka – with friendly ties with Saudi Arabia – must impress upon Riyadh to find an early solution to this thorn in the side of humanity.

(Syed Neaz Ahmad, who taught at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah, is a London-based journalist. He writes for British, Arab & Bangladeshi press. He anchors a celebrity chatshow on NTV Europe).