More than 1,500 Rohingya Muslim and Bangladeshi refugees have landed in Indonesia and Malaysia since Sunday. Seven thousand more are estimated to still be on the oceans, fleeing Myanmar. If these groups of refugees are turned back, it’s not clear where the Rohingya will be sent, because they are considered stateless. In fact, they are the largest group of stateless people in the world.
Rohingya residents of Myanmar are not citizens of their own nation. In 1982, Myanmar’s citizenship law classified all Rohingya as immigrants from Bangladesh, regardless of where they were born or how long their families had lived in Myanmar. The Muslim Rohingya are an ethnic minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. During territorial disputes, the Rohingya have favored autonomy for themselves or, in the 1940s, absorption into the former East Pakistan.
The United Nations estimates that Myanmar has relegated over a million Rohingya to the status of stateless people — they constitute 10 percent of all stateless people in the world.
Over 800,000 stateless Rohingya still live in Myanmar, and 100,000 of them have been confined to restrictive and dangerous camps. Myanmar has expelled Doctors Without Borders from regions populated by Rohingya, depriving residents of medical care and of foreign witnesses to attacks and massacres.
In December 2014, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution urging Myanmar to grant citizenship to its Rohingya residents, but Myanmar has refused to relent.
The Rohingya have little to lose by fleeing a country that disavows them. It’s difficult to imagine that this week’s attempted exodus will be the last.
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong date for the passage of the UN resolution on Rohingya citizenship. It was December 2014.