Phil Robertson
Shortly before the coup in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson laid out the devastating history of Rohingya boat refugees and the obstacles they've faced to receiving recognition and protection. This is an edited transcript of his opening remarks at the Kaldor Centre’s 21 January 2021 event, ‘The Rohingya refugee crisis: Reflections from the region’, also available in video format.

Quite a few people think that the Rohingya crisis dates back to 2015, when a Thai law enforcement action inadvertently exposed the Thai-Malaysian border camps and prompted a crackdown, resulting in the Rohingya boat people crisis. Or some people point to Burma’s Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Rakhine State in August 2017 that sent over 730,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border of Bangladesh.

In fact, this crisis is much older than that, and it's important to understand the history to see how current movements by boats in the Andaman Sea, and by land across Myanmar and Thailand more recently, are recurrences of a continuing cycle involving changing policies and responses of the frontline states of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. 

This crisis also shows a continuing failure of Australia and of regional mechanisms like the Bali Process and, of course, ASEAN and other world powers to deal with the situation – condemning it to continue to reoccur, perpetuating Rohingya misery, while offering precious little real protection. This is part of the larger failure of regional frontline States to address what is a regional crisis and a searing indictment of the limitations of ASEAN as an organisation that responds to such crises.

To put it bluntly, there's a lot of blame to go around and I think the only reason I’ll spare anyone is if I run out of time for my presentation [which begins at about 26 minutes into the video below].


First and foremost, however, let me put the primary blame on successive Myanmar governments and the Myanmar military who are at the heart of this problem, going back all the way to 1978.

The Rohingya are born and have lived all their lives in Myanmar and they should be recognised as full Myanmar citizens.

They are not from anywhere else. Myanmar must receive them back voluntarily with safety, protection and full rights to citizenship, freedom of movement, right to livelihoods, right to return to their villages of origin and compensation for what they have lost, respect for their freedom of religion and belief, and access to services and education. This is non-negotiable.

And for anyone who truly wants to resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis, they must be advocating for this and demanding that Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar, which was just re-elected in a landslide in November, make that happen.

Bangladesh is right to demand that the global community place the blame at Myanmar's door, and pressure the Myanmar government to resolve this problem. And the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU) are right to back them in that demand through UN resolutions and other mechanisms. Sadly, so far, Myanmar is not listening.

The Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh in arguably five waves – 1978, 1991-92, 2012, 2016, 2017 – and Bangladesh has consistently insisted there be no local integration, has placed restrictions on access to services, education, housing and livelihoods, has restricted freedom of movement and committed rights abuses against the Rohingya.

This is all part of a consistent strategy by Dhaka to make it clear to the Rohingya that they cannot stay, that they will have to go back to Rakhine State, the sooner the better. And the outrageous and unacceptable movement of the Rohingya to what is a defacto Rohingya “Alcatraz Island” situation in Bhasan Char, the fencing of Cox’s Bazar camps, and the restrictions on housing and services, are all part of the plan in Bangladesh to tell the Rohingya that they must go home.

We have called on the Bangladesh Government to end these transfers and to permit the United Nations (UN) to conduct a technical assessment of Bhasan Char, which cannot be assumed to be safe until that technical assessment has been done, and to also allow UNHCR to assess whether the 3,000 Rohingya already on the island have moved there voluntarily or whether they wish to move back to the camps at Cox’s Bazar.

But a second, unarticulated part of Bangladesh’s strategy has been to look the other way as corrupt government officials and security forces, brokers and smugglers arrange unofficial alternative exits. This has meant the boat departures from Bangladesh, which Dhaka has traditionally seen as one of the ways to reduce the numbers of refugees, and this has remained a constant factor throughout the years.

What has also remained a constant factor throughout the years is a durable, adaptable and cruel set of criminal syndicates composed of Rohingya, Bangladeshis and others who have moved Rohingya by boats.

Their efforts to secure exorbitant fees for moving people has been a continual variant that has helped determine how these movements have changed over time. And, interestingly, direct boat departures from Rakhine State really didn't happen prior to 2013, when significant numbers of displaced Rohingya were locked down in open-air detention camps masquerading as internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, following the violence in Central Rakhine State committed against the Rohingya and Kaman communities, including in the State capital Sittwe. Until that period of time, Myanmar's Navy prevented such departures, right up until the 2013-2015 period, when the money to be made from the smugglers was too great to resist and the government's policy apparently changed to getting the Rohingya to leave Rakhine State in any way possible.

Right now, we're seeing increased departures of Rohingya from Rakhine State being smuggled overland through Yangon and on to the Thai-Burma border, and there have been more instances of Rohingya being caught in the outskirts of Yangon, in the Karen State capital of Pa-an, and the border crossing at Myawaddy/Mae Sot, and even in Bangkok. So, for example, 19 Rohingya were arrested in the Don Mueang district of northern Bangkok earlier this month, and more than 100 were arrested in northern Yangon in December. This is, I think, just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more Rohingya who are now moving overland than we are able to count and assess.

Now, the primary destination for Rohingya fleeing Bangladesh has always been Malaysia, where there is a sizable and growing Rohingya community, a generally sympathetic government – at least until 2020 – and ample manual labour jobs and a growing economy. This has also been a constant factor throughout the years.

And, despite the fact that the Rohingya are certainly refugees, it is also interesting to note that the Rohingya primarily seek that status once they get to Malaysia, but not in the process of movements through Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. 

What is unfortunate and must be mentioned here is that the new Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia, which took power in March 2020, has continuously denied access to newly-arrived Rohingya and kept the UNHCR from accessing the immigration detention centres in the country since last year. This Malaysian government practice must change. UNHCR must be provided timely and consistent access to asylum seekers and refugees, wherever they are in Malaysia.

To the extent that the Rohingya previously sought to go on boats to Australia and ended up in Nauru or on Manus Island, it's worth noting that the profile of those Rohingya were largely persons who had been resident and had established themselves in Malaysia for a number of years, and then were deciding to take the next step.

What has changed the flows of Rohingya boat people were the policies of the frontline States, like Thailand. Prior to 2007-2008, Thailand simply treated the Rohingya as another group of Burmese to be arrested and deported to the Thai-Burma border. Actually, boats arrived on Thailand’s shores, Rohingya were arrested by immigration, held locally for a period of time, and then transferred to the main Bangkok immigration facility at Suan Plu. From there, the Rohingya were sent to Mae Sot on the Thai Burma border with other Burmese slated for deportation.

However, these deportations were what we call ‘soft deportations’, meaning that they were not being handed directly over to Burmese government officials, but rather pushed back across into an area controlled by ethnic Karen militias, in this case the DKBA, who, in cahoots with Thai immigration, set up a hold-and-release extortion racket. And for the Rohingya this worked fine, because it meant they avoided the Burmese Government refusal to consider them citizens to be taken back, the brokers would go and get the Rohingya out of DKBA detention and, for a price, illegally transport them by land across Thailand – usually in trucks and vans to the Malaysian border and across. And this was how things proceeded for years. No one really cared and thousands moved this way.

But in 2009, Thailand changed its policy. The Thailand National Security Council decided that Rohingya were a security threat, who should be arbitrarily denied access to asylum procedures and UNHCR, and also not permitted to arrive and remain in Thailand as migrant workers. And this Thai policy continues until today and has been a constant factor shaping Rohingya refugee movements.

This prompted the traffickers to try to send small boats all the way to Malaysia, and this is particularly difficult since the currents in the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea with prevailing winds, push these boats inexorably to the Thai coast. Instead of allowing the Rohingya boats to land, the NSC at that time ordered the Thai Navy to intercept them at sea and detain them.

This was about the time in December 2008 that the journalists at Phuketwan, Australian Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian, documented Rohingya men being held on beaches and certain islands by the Thai Navy personnel and then later disappearing. This was Thailand's infamous Rohingya pushback policy, and it had been noticed by journalists [that] the Thai Navy was disabling motors on boats, they were handing out some water and some dry noodles and then towing these boats and the Rohingya passengers, hundreds of miles out to sea, cutting them loose and letting them float away to die. And a number of boats of starving refugees ended up in Aceh or in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands. When confronted with questions by journalists, the Thai Government blatantly lied that they were doing any such thing.

In January 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva chaired a meeting of Thailand's National Security Council and authorised the Navy to intercept incoming boats and detain the passengers in offshore holding centres. The problem was that there weren't any offshore holding centres, and the push backs continued until Dan Rivers of CNN obtained a tape from some conscientious Thai Navy personnel showing a Rohingya boat being towed out to sea for hours. That was broadcast all around the world, drawing huge waves of international condemnation to Thailand. Prime Minister Abhisit admitted it happened and claimed that they would investigate and hold people responsible and accountable – but they didn't.

Publicly the Thais then adopted what was called the ‘help on’ policy, in which the Thai Navy would resupply boats with food, water and petrol, tow them out a little bit, and then send them on in the direction of Malaysia, which was, in fact, where the Rohingya wanted to go.

The Thai leaders could claim to the international community that the Rohingya pushbacks had stopped. Indeed, that was the case, but that was only because corruption had reared its ugly head, and instead, the policy became what I called a ‘help yourselves’ policy, with Thai officials capturing the Rohingya boats and then doing deals to sell them to traffickers.

The traffickers would then land the boats as officials looked the other way, transport Rohingya overland from the Andaman Sea coast to the jungle detention camps at the Thai-Malaysian borders. And that set the stage for what would ultimately be exposed in 2015: the Rohingya trafficking camps in the Thai-Malaysian jungles, and the involvement of senior Thai officials, including senior members of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), the Navy and other government personnel in this trade.

When those camps were actually shut down in 2015, that was what then led to the Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian policies of what we termed ‘ping pong’ pushbacks to sea, boats going missing, people dying. Because people had been coming into these camps and all of a sudden, when the camps closed, it was like somebody blocked the drain and everything backed up. You couldn't turn off the faucet but you couldn’t get through, and so, finally, there was an agreement that emerged from a regional conference, that ended up with the Malaysian and Indonesian governments agreeing to receive boats, while Thailand continued its irresponsible policy.

The post-2015 situation has been characterised by outflows of the 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. We're also seeing an increased lockdown nature to detention for the remaining 600,000 or so Rohingya who are still in Rakhine State, including 130,000 in so-called IDP camps where Human Rights Watch recently found that they are victims of international human rights crimes of apartheid and persecution. This is, by the way, the first time Human Rights Watch has determined that the crime of apartheid is happening in Asia, and our report ‘An Open Prison Without End’ details those findings.

The struggle now is that the Rohingya trafficking syndicates are trying to reconstitute a business model that works for them, and that's why we've seen a return to a pre-2008 model of small boats trying to make it all the way to Malaysia. So, we have really come full circle back to the 2008 model. But the problem, and this is an issue that also needs to be dealt with, is Malaysia’s positive reception for Rohingya is no longer a given. We've seen anti-foreigner xenophobia, combined with COVID-19 pandemic fears, and a change of government which brought the Perikatan Nasional government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The government increasingly shows that more Rohingya are not welcome. In fact, this past April, there was a massive hate-speech campaign on social media in Malaysia against the Rohingya, which I think that astonished everyone, reminding many people of the bad old days of hate speech against the Rohingya in Myanmar. 

We're now at a point where we have returned to an original model without finding any solutions along the way, and, in fact, we have a greater demand for emergency action because of the huge numbers [of Rohingya] in Bangladesh. What we’re left with is a sense of déjà vu, and an urgent need for, finally, real solutions.

Phil Robertson is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. This is an edited transcript of Robertson's remarks from ‘The Rohingya refugee crisis: Reflections from the region’, which you can watch in full here.

The event was hosted by UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as part of a UNHCR and Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network (GAIN) conference.

You may also be interested in our series of articles, 'The Andaman Sea Crisis: Five years on'.