I would like to recount to you the heart-wrenching story of 10-year-old Mohammad Aesop and his 8-year-old sister Untas, two Rohingya Muslims who lost their mother to a machete attack in their native land of Burma.
Their father, working in a menial job in Malaysia, paid a broker to send his children to Malaysia via boat in the Bay of Bengal. For nearly three months, the siblings were forced to sit with their knees bent in an over-capacity boat where thousands of Rohingya were organized like human puzzle pieces to make best use of boat space. If the children tried to stretch their legs or move to change positions, they were beaten. Plagued with illness from lack of food, water and the gruesome conditions on the boat, Untas explained that she would shiver from the cold while also feeling burning sensations at the same time. Mohammad tried to keep a brave face to protect his sister, but in reality he felt helpless.
After being abandoned by the ship’s captain due to Thailand cracking down on human trafficking networks, the siblings were left stranded at sea, scared, with no mother or father to lean on.
This is the fate thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are currently stranded at sea in the Bay of Bengal in the Southeast Asian waters in what the United Nations have described as “floating coffins.” As boats approach the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, coast guards and navies have been deployed to turn them away or provide them with a little food and water and urge them to find another destination.
As a result of international condemnations, Malaysia and Indonesia are offering temporary shelter for the Rohingya at sea, but they have made no commitment to resettle them permanently or to take in future migrants. The siblings, temporarily sheltered in the shores of Indonesia, worry if they will ever be reunited with their father or forever be alone fending for themselves.
The Rohingya have no place they can call home. While the Rohingya trace their ancestry to Burma, the Burmese regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refuse to give them the title of Rohingya, instead referring to them as Bengals. The Burmese Government separated the Rohingya from the rest of the state, restricting their movement, revoking their temporary registration certificates and ultimately rendering them stateless. As such, the United Nations has described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
The fate of the Rohingya is unsettling. While there are temporary shelters, the Rohingya fear return to their home country where they will likely be prosecuted. Children are separated from their families and many, like Mohammad and Untas, are likely to lead their lives as orphans.
We must recognize the grave and inhumane conditions and injustice occurring with the Rohingya people and commit to doing more in Canada to help these persecuted minorities.