LONDON – Stateless Rohingya must be recognized as citizens of Myanmar and given identity documents so they can safely stay in the country instead of fleeing abroad like hundreds of thousands of members of their community, an award-winning lawyer said on Sunday.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer from Myanmar who was named the winner of the Aurora humanitarian prize, has for decades fought for the rights of the world’s largest stateless minority.
Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar where they numbered more than 1 million as of last year.
But about 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August after insurgent attacks triggered a response by the army.
“We belong on this land. This government is denying our citizenship,” Aung told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Armenia, where the award ceremony was held.
“We are citizens of Myanmar, so why have we become stateless?” added Aung, who spent 12 years in prison due to his work. “We cannot keep going from our land to other countries.”
The Rohingya Project estimates there are 4 million Rohingya around the world, the majority living outside their ancestral land since Myanmar excluded them from the country’s recognized ethnic groups in 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.
The United Nations refugee agency says the Rohingya are the biggest minority among an estimated 10 million people who are stateless, a status that deprives them of an identity, rights, and jobs.
The latest exodus of Rohingya Muslims followed a crackdown last August by the military in the northwestern Rakhine state. Rohingya refugees reported killings, burnings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces.
The U.N. and aid agencies have described Myanmar’s counteroffensive as ethnic cleansing, which the state denies.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees by 2020, followed up by an agreement with the U.N. last month aimed at eventually allowing those in Bangladesh to return safely and by choice.
Yet Aung said the lack of documents and citizenship for the Rohingya would hinder their ability to go home and resettle.
“How can these people produce their documents for the government? They are trying to do such things to call us stateless,” added Aung, who said he would give most of his $1.1 million prize money to aid groups helping Rohingya refugees.
The Aurora prize runner-ups were Indian campaigner Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of the anti-trafficking charity Prajwala, and Hector Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, a Franciscan friar in Mexico who provides shelter for migrants headed to the United States.