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Mass Deportations Only Fuel A Cycle Of Violence And Migration
Mass Deportations Only Fuel A Cycle Of Violence And Migration
Report 261 / Asia

Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State

The highly volatile situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State adds dangerously to the country’s political and religious tensions. Long-term, incremental solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole.

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Executive Summary

The situation in Rakhine State contains a toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim communities, and extreme poverty and under-development. This led to major violence in 2012 and further sporadic outbreaks since then. The political temperature is high, and likely to increase as Myanmar moves closer to national elections at the end of 2015. It represents a significant threat to the overall success of the transition, and has severely damaged the reputation of the government when it most needs international support and investment. Any policy approach must start from the recognition that there will be no easy fixes or quick solutions. The problems faced by Rakhine State are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict. This crisis has affected the whole of the state and all communities within it. It requires a sustained and multi-pronged response, as well as critical humanitarian and protection interventions in the interim.

Failure to deal with the situation can have impacts for the whole country. As Myanmar is redefining itself as a more open society at peace with its minorities and embracing its diversity, introducing the seeds of a narrow and discriminatory nationalism could create huge problems for the future. Political solutions to the decades-long armed conflict, including the building of a federal nation, will be much more difficult.

The largest group in the state are the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority, including the Rohingya – a designation rejected by the government and Rakhine. The Rakhine community as a whole has tended to be cast internationally as violent extremists – ignoring the diversity of opinions that exist, the fact that the Rakhine themselves are a long-oppressed minority, and rarely attempting to understand their perspective and concerns. This is counterproductive: it promotes a siege mentality on the part of the Rakhine, and obscures complex realities that must be understood if a sustainable way forward is to be found.

The grievances of the Rakhine are similar to those of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities – including longstanding discrimination by the state, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalisation, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression. Decades of Rakhine anger have begun to morph. Since the transition to the new government, many Rakhine have increasingly felt that the most immediate and obvious threat that they face in rebuilding their communities and re-asserting their ethnic identity is one of demographics. There is a fear that they could soon become a minority in their own state – and, valid or not, there is no doubt that it is very strongly felt in Rakhine communities.

Muslim communities, in particular the Rohingya, have over the years been progressively marginalised from social and political life. Many have long been denied full citizenship, with significant consequences for their livelihoods and well-being. There are now efforts underway in the legislature to disenfranchise them, which could be incendiary. The Rohingya see this as their last remaining connection to politics and means of influence. Without this, it would be hard for them to avoid the conclusion that politics had failed them – which could prompt civil disobedience or even organised violence.

Current government initiatives to address the situation are centred on a pilot process to verify the citizenship of undocumented Muslims, and an “action plan” to deal with a broader set of political, security and development issues. Both contain deeply problematic elements. The refusal of the government and Rakhine community to accept the use of the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, have created a deadlock. The verification process is going ahead without resolving this, and it may be boycotted by a majority of Rohingya.

The action plan envisages moving those who are granted citizenship to new settlements, rather than back to their original homes, potentially entrenching segregation. Those who are found to be non-citizens, or who do not cooperate with verification, may have to remain in camps until a solution can be found – which could be a very long time. An additional problem is that many Muslims may be given naturalised citizenship, which is more insecure and does not confer many of the rights of full citizenship.

Citizenship will not by itself automatically promote the rights of the Muslim population. This is made clear by the plight of the Kaman, who are full citizens by birth and a recognised indigenous group, but whose Islamic faith has meant that many are confined to displacement camps with no possibility to move freely or return to their land. Citizenship is thus necessary but not sufficient for improving rights. An end to discriminatory policies, including movement restrictions, and improved security and rule of law are also indispensable.

The government faces a major challenge in that the demands and expectations of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities may not be possible to reconcile. In such a context, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected while also finding ways to ease Rakhine fears. Important too are efforts to combat extremism and hate speech. Only by doing so can the current climate of impunity for expressing intolerant views, and acting on them, be addressed. Ringleaders and perpetrators of violence must be brought swiftly to justice, which has rarely been the case. Doing so will help ensure not only that justice is done; it can also contribute to political stability and enhance the prospects for peaceful solutions.

Political solutions may not bear fruit quickly, but this must not lead to complacency. Solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Pre-empting extremist violence requires starting a credible process now that can demonstrate to the Rakhine and Muslim communities that political avenues exist. More broadly, unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country’s huge cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide. In the meantime, it is essential for the international community to support the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable populations, which are likely to remain for years. It is also vital to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment of all communities in the state, particularly through equitable and well-targeted village-level community development schemes.

Yangon/Brussels, 22 October 2014

Mass Deportations Only Fuel A Cycle Of Violence And Migration

Originally published in Huffington Post

Every day a stream of anxious passengers disembarks at San Pedro Sula airport, weary from the flight and weighed down by a lifetime’s worth of luggage. But these passengers are not coming to Honduras by choice: They have been deported, from either Mexico or the United States.

Between January and April 2018, the reception center at the transport hub received 23,601 arrivals, about 64 percent from Mexico, which has for some time acted as the long arm of U.S. migration control. The country stops many Central American migrants before they ever reach the U.S. border. 

Now, across the U.S., some 57,000 Hondurans, along with 195,000 Salvadorans, are asking when they might face the same uncertain future. In early 2018, the Trump administration announced the termination of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for beneficiaries from both El Salvador and Honduras. The program allowed recipients to work and live legally in the U.S.

The administration decided that the conditions justifying the TPS for both countries – natural disasters that happened close to 20 years ago – no longer applied. This decision will pose challenges not just for the U.S. (It will cost taxpayers $3.1 billion to deport 252,000 TPS holders and their 245,000 children), but also for Central America. The increased deportations will put even more stress on countries struggling with economic hardship and rampant gang brutality.

Deportation will leave many feeling uprooted: Between 30 and 50 percent of TPS holders has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades. For many arrivals in the San Pedro Sula and San Salvador airports, home is Maryland, Los Angeles or New York. Their official “welcome back” to Honduras or El Salvador lasts for a few hours in a crowded airport annex, where functionaries shout instructions about getting national ID cards. “That is the last time you hear from them,” said one young Salvadoran deportee.

Most deportees will struggle to make a living without interacting with organized crime, which owes its prevalence in Central America partly to previous waves of U.S. deportations.

After that, deportees must fend for themselves. If they’re lucky, they get jobs in call centers, a booming industry in Central America thanks to generous tax incentives, low operating costs and a constant flow of newly arrived English-speaking employees. In El Salvador, call centers employ about 20,000 people.

However, most deportees will struggle to make a living without interacting with organized crime, which owes its prevalence in Central America partly to previous waves of U.S. deportations. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, whereby non-U.S. convicts had to be deported to their home countries.

As a result, Central America absorbed 46,000 deportees with criminal record from the U.S. between 1998 and 2005. This prompted the expansion of U.S.-bred gang culture across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and midwifed such notorious groups as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. El Salvador has the highest population of gang members – some 65,000 – with a further half a million people considered sympathizers or dependents.

Today, should new deportees want to start a business, most will have to deal with the local gang – the de facto authority in many barrios. Gangs are present in 247 of 262 of El Salvador’s municipalities and extort 70 percent of businesses there, according to the online newspaper El Faro.

“Every single thing that takes place in this neighborhood has the green light of the clique [the gang’s local cells],” said an NGO worker as we walked in a San Salvador district controlled by the MS-13. “You may not see them, but they are watching you right now.” The damage of gang activity to El Salvador’s economy is estimated at 16 percent of the country’s GDP.

Youths are perhaps the most vulnerable to gang influence. Many boys are asked to join the local gang and threatened if they refuse. Entire families are displaced trying to prevent their kids from being forcibly recruited, usually when they are 12 to 16 years old. Girls may face worse. A social worker in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, told me about a girl who an MS-13 gangster had made a sex slave. Every day for two years, he snatched the girl up after school, raped and abused her, and returned her home in the morning. She eventually ran away with her parents. Why didn’t the family report what was going on? The social worker replied: “Fear is a big thing here…. And where would they go? The police?”

Despite a recent fall in the murder rate and police reform efforts, Hondurans have ever more reasons to flee.

Despite a recent fall in the murder rate and police reform efforts, Hondurans have ever more reasons to flee. Security forces are understaffed and poorly trained – and very often corrupt. Their links to gangs scare many victims away from reporting crimes due to fear of retaliation. Meanwhile, the country’s chronic political crisis has intensified since the 2017 general elections, which sparked violent unrest following a dispute over the results. In the months following the clashes, the number of undocumented Honduran migrants apprehended in Mexico rose sharply.

Conditions in El Salvador are similarly inhospitable. The country’s murder rate rose slightly more than 15 percent in the first three months of 2018 compared to the previous year. In 2016, the country’s Congress approved of a set of “extraordinary measures” ― prison and law enforcement rules aimed at limiting inmates’ communication. The gangs’ violent response to these policies, as well as internal tensions inside the country’s largest criminal organizations, can explain much of the increase in violence.

And so ever more Central Americans flee northward, in spite of the manifest dangers and intensifying border control in Mexico and the U.S. In 2017, both countries received most of the 294,000 new asylum seekers – 58 percent more than the previous year – from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. agency attributes the increase to more cases of “forced recruitment into armed criminal gangs and death threats” in northern Central America.

And yet, last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that victims of gang violence no longer qualify for asylum in the U.S. This decision closes the door to thousands fleeing life-or-death situations. It could force other countries in the region like Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama to absorb the burdens of a humanitarian crisis that, in the long-term, will only be worsened by another wave of massive deportations from the U.S.

Sure, the future wave of TPS deportees will not be made up of convicted criminals. But if the precarious security and political conditions awaiting them in their home countries are not addressed, many of these returnees are unlikely to stay long. This will only fuel a pernicious cycle whereby deportations swell the ranks of violent criminal groups in Central America with new recruits, in turn forcing more people to flee north, leading to still more deportations.

The U.S. could do more to support refugee reception, especially in Latin America, so that those who have credible fears meriting safe harbor can find it. Washington could also invest more in security, justice and development across Central America by funding rehabilitation programs for gang members who want to leave criminal life (approximately 70 percent of jailed gang members in El Salvador, according to one survey).

Against the backdrop of its inhumane zero tolerance migration policies, emphasizing these more supportive initiatives would be a good way for the U.S. to signal to its southern neighbors that it understands its stability is linked to theirs and to demonstrate its commitment to investing in their future.