One of the largest challenges in the news todays is migration. People leave their home for many reasons, some positive, and some negative. The waves of “boat people” coming from Myanmar – mostly members of the Rohingya minority – are similarly complex. We see in the news today that the government of Myanmar has announced that it will bar it’s Rohinga minority from fleeing, but there’s no action to deal with the underlying reasons they are leaving: as if a government dictate will stop desperate people from leaving.
The New York Times has an in depth article from Thomas Fuller in Myanmar, “Myanmar to Bar Rohingya From Fleeing, but Won’t Address Their Plight” showing how bad their plight is. I hadnt realized that the government had collected the groups the Burmese call “Bengali” into refugee camps. These are squalid, festering camps with thousands crammed into small areas.
To understand why a government dictate won’t stop migration, look to history. The Bay of Bengal has always been less a barrier than a transit route. Going back to well before the British arrived to colonize the region, the Bay of Bengal, with it’s predictable winds and treacherous currents, was a channel for trade and migration. With the coming of British colonization and industrialization, what borders had existed fell, and migration was encouraged. Hindus from Madras on the Indian coast migrated to work in the rubber plantations of Malaysia, Muslim Bengalis from what is now Bangladesh were drawn to Burma for timber cutting. Tamils from Ceylon migrated to Penang and Siam. Until the end of British rule, this was one region without borders, but with many peoples. You can read more about this in the wonderful book “Crossing the Bay of Bengal” by Sunil Amrith.
When new countries were formed, many ethnic groups were left as minorities in countries that weren’t there own. For a person born in Malaysia, but who’s family is from India, be a citizen of which new country? This problem of the Rohinga minority, in a fee basic sense, comes from on of the 20th Century’s most persistent problem: they are from an ethnic group that happened to be caught on the wrong side of a border when the lines were drawn.
As I wrote several years ago in “Bay of Bengal – A Hotspot for Climate Insecurity,” there is nowhere else in the world that faces more climate security challenges than the Bay of Bengal. That does not mean these migration and ethnic challenges are caused by climate change. Instead, this is an additional challenge- a “threat multiplier” that make solving these challenges that much harder. Read the whole New York Times piece, and watch their wonderful short film about it below.