Saiful Huq Omi | The Disowned and the Denied

Country of origin: Bangladesh
Project location: United Kingdom
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

The UN Commissioner of the Human Rights  described the Rohingya peoples to be among the most persecuted people in the world. And yet until last year, when  a group of Rohingya fleeing Burma were discovered by Thailand authorities and subsequently beaten, then abandoned and left to die at sea, the Rohingya story remained virtually unreported in global media.  This  June, the first international investigation of the human rights violations against the Rohingya was released, and the Irish Centre for Human Rights found at four counts of Crimes Against Humanity committed against the population.

The population of 3.5 million, the vast majority without citizenship and thereby without protection, lives primarily in Western Burma where they face systematic persecution by the military regime or as refugees and illegal immigrants in surrounding regions. In 2010, 198 Rohingya were granted refugee status in U.K. and resettled in Bradford, England. Saiful Omi Huq, who has documented the Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps, travels to Bradford to document the Rohingya in yet another foreign land.


Saiful Huq Omi is a photographer based in the Dhaka City, Bangladesh. His project, The Disowned and the Denied focuses on the Rohingya refugees who escaped from Burma in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Bradford, UK.

Amal de Chickera is the Head of Statelessness and nationality Projects for The Equal Rights Trust.

Saiful Huq Omi and Amal de Chickera spoke about the history of Rohingya people in Burma, their current immigration and refugee situation, and what the future may hold to a people who have historically been disowned by society and denied their human rights.

OMI: Could you give us some brief background on the Rohingya?

AMAL: The Rohingya are a Muslim community of South Asian descent, closely related to the Chittagonian Bengali of neighboring Bangladesh. They are an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority in Burma. Approximately one million Rohingya live in the Arakan state of Burma today, and over 700,000 of them are concentrated in the northern region. Despite the large numbers of Rohingya in Burma, there may be even more Rohingya living outside Burma in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The 1982 Citizenship Law of Burma stripped the Rohingya of their nationality, making them legally stateless. Furthermore, the Burmese Government refuses to recognize the existence of a Rohingya ethnic community. Since then, this law has been the basis for discriminatory practices against the Rohingya people of Burma. As a result, their human rights and basic freedoms have been systematically eroded through a series of draconian policies and arbitrary taxes.

For example, the Rohingya do not have the right to move freely within Burma. In order to simply visit a neighboring village, they must pay for travel permits and travel beyond the three townships of northern Arakan is strictly forbidden. These restrictions severely impede the Rohingya's already limited access to employment, education, health, and trade. Furthermore, the Rohingya who leave Burma are denied the right to return, have their names taken off family lists, and face long-term imprisonment if captured upon re-entry. The NaSaka, Burma's border security force, also places severe controls on Rohingya marriages. A marriage permit must be obtained through a lengthy and expensive process, rife with bribery and corruption. Couples who marry without a permit can be imprisoned for up to ten years.

OMI: What are the major obstacles for protecting the rights of the Rohingya?

AMAL: As we've discussed, the entrenched racism in the legal system is the greatest obstacle to protecting their rights within Burma. While many individual citizens of Burma experience human rights violations, the Rohingya are specifically targeted and face discrimination as a group. Outside of Burma most Rohingya are irregular migrants with no legal status. Because they are stateless they have to travel illegally, and are thus targeted as illegal migrants and often become victims of arbitrary detention, deportation, extortion, trafficking and smuggling.

The majority of the countries the Rohingya live and migrate to have not yet ratified the International Refugee Convention, preventing the Rohingya from being recognized as refugees and protected accordingly.

OMI: So have the Rohingya successfully received asylum in any other countries?

AMAL: Yes they have. Bangladesh is probably the country that has the largest number of registered Rohingya refugees who originally came to Bangladesh during the mass exodus of 1992. But you can also find Rohingya refugees in many Western countries around the world including the United Kingdom, Australia, and the USA.

OMI: How are the Rohingya unique from other refugee crises facing the world?

AMAL: I guess that every refugee crisis is unique in its own way, and comes with its own specific set of challenges. The Rohingya crisis is unique because it hasn't resulted from a war or natural disaster. It is instead the result of the entrenched and institutionalized long-term racist policies of a country which has stripped the Rohingya of their nationality and increasingly clamped down on their rights and freedoms. Because there has been no recent catalyst for a mass exodus of Rohingya from Burma, the outflow of Rohingya into Bangladesh and beyond has been more of a steady trickle than a massive outburst. This can be contrasted with the two mass exoduses of Rohingya in 1978 and 1992, which resulted in a positive refugee status for many. As a result, the Rohingya who flee Burma to escape persecution and find better economic prospects are most often viewed as economic immigrants even though they are both stateless and refugees.

OMI: What is the movement for Rohingya rights working towards?

AMAL: There's no one coherent unified movement for the Rohingya. There are Rohingya diaspora groups in countries with sizable Rohingya populations, there are also other organizations which work on behalf of the rights of the Rohingya and other stateless persons. Each organization or group has its own objectives. While many do cooperate with each other on specific issues, it would be a stretch to try and identify one common goal or objective that the 'movement' is working towards. It is difficult to assess what is realistic and what is not. For example, would a campaign for the amendment of the 1982 citizenship law go anywhere? Would it be better to focus on receiver countries and lobby them to provide refugee status to the Rohingya? Or would the only realistic approach be to focus on much more operational campaigns, like working to achieve greater healthcare and housing for the Rohingya, or better labor standards?

Like all peoples who have been subject to extreme poverty and injustice over a sustained period of time, the Rohingya are often too caught up in their struggle to survive and do not have the luxury of thinking about the bigger picture and forming a unified movement. Even if they were able to self-organize, they would find it extremely difficult to make an impression due to their irregular status in most countries, and their absolute vulnerability as a result. Consequently, the Rohingya depend a lot on the international community, on people like you who have dedicated themselves to promoting the Rohingya cause, on NGOs that can carry out research and advocacy on their behalf, on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the UN Treaty bodies, and on countries that have leverage to pressure the Burmese regime to treat the Rohingya better.

OMI: Is there a realistic solution for statehood?

AMAL: It is quite dangerous to speak of 'statehood' as a solution. There is a common misconception in Burma that the Rohingya are trying to secede and form a separate State. The Rohingya do not want a separate state. They want to be recognized as citizens of Burma and to be treated as equals without discrimination. Whether this is a realistic solution is a difficult question. While the Burmese regime is notoriously anti-democratic, there have been some signs of a slight shift in attitude. For example, Rohingya were allowed to vote at the last election and a few were even elected as MPs. Whether this was a one-off gesture or whether this signifies more of a long-term change in attitude remains to be seen. We must be positive and hopeful in this situation, but we must also be realistic, and remain aware of the past track record of the Burmese regime.

OMI: What work is ERT doing on issues related the Rohingya? What services does ERT provide and what would you say are ERT's greatest accomplishments in this area?

AMAL: The Equal Rights Trust (ERT) is an independent organization whose purpose is to combat discrimination and promote equality as a fundamental human right and a basic principle of social justice. ERT has worked on statelessness related issues since 2008. A lot of our work has focused on the Rohingya because we identified them as one of the most vulnerable and discriminated stateless populations in the world. We carried out research on Rohingya populations in Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand. ERT's report, Unravelling Anomaly: Detention, Discrimination and the Protection Needs of Stateless Persons addresses migration, detention and deportation issues pertaining to Rohingya in these above four countries. ERT's report Trapped in a Cycle of Flight: Stateless Rohingya in Malaysia looks at the specific situation in Malaysia.

ERT isn't a direct service providing NGO. We do research and then use that research as a basis to carry out advocacy for legislative and policy change. We did a lot of advocacy when the Thai government began dumping Rohingya at sea in 2008-09, and we made a submission to the United Nation's Universal Periodic Review in March 2011. We are always looking for new opportunities to draw attention to the Rohingya issue and hopefully we will be able to conduct more sustainable and effective research and advocacy in the coming months and years.

OMI: Can you comment on the particular situation of the Rohingya in Bradford England? What does it mean for them to be "resettled" there? What is the difference between resettlement and being granted asylum?

AMAL: The Rohingya community in Bradford has been resettled from Bangladesh. The conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps are very basic and even quite poor so from a security and comfort perspective, they are better off in Bradford. How well they integrate into the local community, cope with the difference in culture and weather, and face the geographic distance from home is a different question altogether. They are a resilient people and I hope they find happiness and fulfillment in their new homes but also find ways to remain in touch with all that they've left behind.

Refugees are usually resettled when they have remained in a country for a prolonged period of time with no prospect for safe return to their original country, and when these countries are either unable to provide refugees with security and stability or have not yet ratified the Refugee Convention, and in some cases both. In such instances, through UNHCR resettlement programs, refugees are sent to safe countries most likely in the developed world. So a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, who by agreement between the Bangladeshi and British governments is given a new home in Bradford, is resettled. In contrast, a Rohingya who has travelled directly to the UK from Burma, sought asylum and been recognized as a refugee, is not a resettled refugee.

OMI: Do you think their Islamic identity is a reason for their suffering? And, is it only the Rohingya who are facing the oppression by the Military regime or are there other ethnic groups in Burma that are also targeted?

AMAL: I think that as with most things to do with the Burmese regime, there is no easy straightforward or logical answer. On the one hand, it is clear that the religious and ethnic minorities in Burma are more discriminated against and more vulnerable to human rights abuse than most. The Rohingya (Muslim), the Chin (the majority of whom are Christian) and the Karen (a large proportion of whom are Christian) are examples of targeted and discriminated against ethnic and religious minorities. But having said that, all communities are vulnerable to indiscriminate abuse and marginalization at the hands of the Burmese regime. Even the Buddhist clergy is not safe as the Burmese regime's ruthless raids demonstrated in 2007. Furthermore, there are other Muslim communities in Burma who are not stateless and who do not face draconian restrictions on travel, marriage etc as the Rohingya do (even though they are discriminated against to a lesser degree).

So while religion cannot be ruled out as a factor, it cannot be the only one either. The history of the Rohingya and their troubled relationship with the Burmese State probably plays as important a role. The Rohingya identity was always a little out of sync with the Burmese identity, and for example during World War Two, when Japan invaded Burma, there is evidence to show that the Rohingya remained loyal to the British while most Burmese supported Japan. In fact, when the Japanese siezed Arakan state in 1942, the Rohingya fled to Chittagong and the British promised them a 'Muslim National Area'.

When Burma received independence in 1948, their citizenship laws were ethnically based. Thus from Burma's independence, there was a clear tension between the new state and the minority Rohingya population. In the 1960s Burma attempted to disown the Rohingya by creating the myth of the 'illegal immigrant.' An attack was launched on their history and connections to the land, culminating in the 1982 citizenship law rendering them stateless. Since then, as you know, things have gotten worse. The deterioration of civil liberties is a deliberate and sustained effort to cripple the Rohingya community in Burma. Without basic civil rights, the Rohingya population has experienced massive poverty, vulnerability, poor health, and basically no educational standards.

OMI: If democracy returns to Burma, do you think the Rohingya would have a better future?

AMAL: The short answer is yes, because all of Burma would have a better future when democracy is restored. But this is a very important question as we cannot take for granted that a democratic Burma will be a fair and just Burma for all. The Rohingya's history shows that even before the military regime took power, there were tensions between the state and them. Even today we see that the Rohingya are not well-integrated into the democratic movement. So there is a danger that a democratic Burma will only go half the distance necessary to address past injustices, promote future equality, and facilitate their full integration into society. It is not sufficient to provide them with nationality and lift the arbitrary taxes and restrictions on travel and marriage. Much more needs to be done in terms of positive action like providing education and other opportunities. Furthermore, Rohingya must have a stake in the political destiny of the country and should be empowered to shape both Burma's future and their own. Given the extent to which this community has suffered, it will be a very lengthy and difficult process before we are able to see Rohingya participating in society as economic, social, and political equals.

OMI: What do you think is the best way for Bangladesh to solve the Rohingya problem? Bangladesh is a very poor country and carrying the financial load of providing for so many Rohingya is next to impossible.

AMAL: The Rohingya problem is very difficult for Bangladesh, and the first step is to acknowledge the difficulty. Having said that, I do believe Bangladesh can do better and on the broadest level, they must comply with their obligations under international human rights law and protect the Rohingya accordingly. This must be the starting position of the State in designing its policy on the matter. When you look at the problem in the abstract, it seems like an impossible situation to deal with. It is important therefore, to address the specifics; and by tackling the smaller issues you can make a massively positive impact on the individual lives affected.

For example, many Rohingya 'released prisoners' are still languishing in Bangladeshi prisons because they cannot be removed to Burma. The released prisoners are non-citizens who have served a full criminal sentence in Bangladesh and are subjected to removal proceedings to their countries of origin. Such persons remain in detention while efforts to remove them are taken. A simple policy change acknowledging the reality that Rohingya cannot be removed to Burma and should therefore not be subject to removal proceedings but be released instead, would rectify this problem. Similarly, the living standards of Rohingya outside the refugee camps in Bangladesh are even worse than within the camps but Bangladeshi authorities continue to make it difficult for organizations to work outside refugee camps. While it is acknowledged that Bangladesh would struggle to shoulder the financial burden of providing welfare to the Rohingya, it is disappointing that the State severely restricts other actors from helping within these communities. And of course, another problem is that Bangladesh has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol.

When and why did you get interested in the Rohingya issue?

OMI: Three years ago. I knew there was a story waiting for me in the coastal region of Bangladesh because every time I read something about them in the newspaper they were portrayed as the biggest problem of the country. It was as if they were the worst community in the world! I knew, as anyone would, that couldn't be true and there must be another side to the story. I always felt curious, so I finally went there and saw the camp for myself. It was my first visit to a refugee camp and when I saw those children, stateless and hopeless, I felt I needed to do something here.

I must add that my family history played a role too. In 1971 the war produced ten million Bangladeshi refugees, some of them my family members. The childhood stories I grew up listening to were not always Cinderella stories. I was raised in a way so I could never forget the war: my family lost half of its members in the war. While I was in the Rohingya camp those memories came back; I felt maybe this is how it was in the camps in India back in 1971! When there are so many personal inspirations in a story, what else does an artist need.

AMAL: When you take pictures of the Rohingya are you more interested in the artistry of the photograph or in the story of the person and the scope for advocacy through the picture? If these interests come into conflict, how do you resolve the matter?

OMI: That's a great question! I allow the concern for the people and the story to take priority and even shape the style of my photography. I think it is all about finding a visual language that effectively works to accomplish the goals of the project. My style arises from the work that I do. I do not want to force a style on any story so I keep my heart open and accepting of new visual approaches. Furthermore, I deeply believe that art is secondary to humanism. Nothing is more important than to stand by our fellow mankind. All we have to do is find the best language to stand by them. Photography won't change the world but it will tell you the world needs to be changed. So for me it is simple: are my images telling the world that it needs to change? Are my images successfully communicating to a larger audience that the world needs change?

AMAL: What would you like to see achieved through your work?

OMI: If people feel the Rohingya situation cannot continue and enough is enough, my job will be done. I hope one day through the work of photographers including myself, people will know the existence of the Rohingya people, feel the collective responsibility to fix the problem, and do justice to a long mistreated and silenced community. Only when that happens will I feel I've done my part, nothing less.