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Peacemaking

Rohingya ‘caught between the devil and the deep sea’

JEDDAH — The ongoing crisis involving Rohingya migrants being stranded at sea while trying to flee persecution in Myanmar is “unsurprising” given the circumstances that caused them to escape in the first place, said an American expatriate in Jeddah who recently witnessed firsthand the conditions the community is living in.

Samuel Shropshire, who has more than 30 years’ experience in human rights leadership, went to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand to visit Rohingya communities and refugee camps.

Speaking exclusively to Saudi Gazette about the conditions there, the 67-year-old said: “I have traveled throughout the world, but I have never experienced such human tragedy.

“The Rohingya people are among the most persecuted peoples on earth, but, for the most part, the world has been guilty of silence, and silence has been deadly.”

He also suggested Buddhist religious officials appointed directly by the Myanmar government were responsible for the ongoing repression of Rohingyas, not the Buddhist community at large.

Many Rohingyas fled by boat or foot to Bangladesh, usually to stay in refugee camps, and it was there Shropshire witnessed the harrowing circumstances they lived in.

He said: “I visited one UN refugee camp; and there are two refugee camps in total containing 60,000 Rohingyas, but there were another 200,000 refugees on the streets.

“And among these 200,000 people in the streets, there is tragedy in the faces of the children.

“They have no parents, they are walking the streets, prostituting themselves, selling heroin.

“These are kids who were born to Muslim parents and they have absolutely no hope.

“When they see you are a Westerner, they will say, ‘Mister, can I give you a massage?’ “[The children are only] 6 or 7 years old.”

Shropshire finished off his fact-finding mission in Thailand, where he stayed with a Rohingya community leader and learned how refugees had fled Myanmar for a better life in neighboring countries, only to find that the reality was starkly different.

As has been widely reported, currently thousands of Rohingya refugees are stranded on boats off the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Small boat owners and human traffickers seeking to profit from the Rohingya crisis offer their services to ferry men, women and children in exchange for thousands of dollars.

They take them on overcrowded, dilapidated fishing vessels that are usually at risk of sinking or breaking down at sea.

Discussing the crisis, Shropshire said: “Literally thousands monthly continue to flee the country by boat or on foot.

“Boat refugees are seeking asylum in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. “They simply want help and hope to survive in this world.”

Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give those at sea temporary asylum, but Shropshire said a long-term solution must be found, including repatriation to Myanmar or permanent resettlement and citizenship in other nations.

He said: “What has occurred in southwestern Burma has been described in some quarters as a sectarian conflict between two communities that simply hate each other.

“This is a lie, and a look at the situation in the country provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

“The Rohingya population has been severely controlled by the Myanmar state to the extent that Rohingya men and women are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.”

Shropshire was inspired to get an understanding of the persecution the Rohingya people were facing from his friend Shafik Zubir, a muezzin at a Jeddah mosque who is a member of the local Rohingya community and who also played a key part in the American’s recent conversion to Islam.

According to estimates, there are around 300,000 Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia. Shropshire is working on plans to help those stranded at sea and said he would release further details soon. If you would like to help, please contact him at sam@mvpr.org.

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