The Rohingya in Myanmar

The Rohingya are an ethnic group of over 2 million people worldwide, mostly Muslim, from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Rohingya are stateless: no country, including Myanmar which has a majority-Buddhist population, recognises them as citizens. They are one of the largest stateless populations and have been labelled by the United Nations as the most persecuted minority in the world.

In 1982, Myanmar passed a law effectively denying the Rohingya citizenship. The law also removed their rights to freedom of movement and access to education and services. In 1995, the government began issuing Temporary Residency Cards (“white cards”) conferring voting rights to the mostly Rohingya residents who were without citizenship papers. In 2015, these white cards were invalidated, with the national parliament and President Thein Sein legislating to deny white card holders voting rights and disqualifying Rohingya candidates from the national election.


The Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar in large numbers at several points in time, including 1978, 1991-1992, 2015 and 2017-2018.

In 2015, approximately 25,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar by boat through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Around 8,000 people became stranded on human trafficking boats, after initially being turned away by Indonesia and Malaysia. They were kept in inhumane conditions, beaten, starved and many reportedly died.

However, the vast majority of displacements, with upwards of 700,000 Rohingya crossing into Bangladesh, occurred following the military crackdown on the Rohingya in August 2017. It resulted in unconfirmed estimates of thousands of civilian deaths. This was in response to a fatal assault by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 police facilities. Senior United Nations human rights officials have called this latest military crackdown on the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing”, “crimes against humanity”, and “potential genocide”. The Myanmar Government has denied committing such crimes against the Rohingya.

By the end of 2017, there were an estimated 470,000 stateless Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Over a million Rohingya have been displaced over the past few years, with approximately 900,000 now living in Bangladesh, over 200,000 dispersed across South-East Asia and 125,000 held in camps for internally displaced people. The Bangladeshi Government, struggling to respond to the refugee influx from Myanmar, is planning to move 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, in late 2018.

The Myanmar Government has agreed to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State and has a signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN Development Programme and UN Refugee Agency to that effect. The UN are preparing to visit Rakhine State to create suitable conditions for return.

Australia's response

In response to the 2015 stranding of Rohingya refugees on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, when asked whether Australia would resettle any of them, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously answered "nope, nope, nope". Australia was subsequently criticised for refusing to resettle any of those Rohingya refugees. This response has been contrasted with Australia's offer to accept an emergency intake of 12,000 Syrians fleeing violence in the Middle East.

More recently, Australia’s response has focused on the provision of significant aid funding for affected Rohingya populations in Myanmar and Bangladesh. While condemning the violence in Rakhine State, the Australian Government has refrained from condemning the Myanmar Government or State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the basis that it has not been confirmed they are to blame for what is happening and that it is important to keep the lines of communication open. The Australian Government has also refused repeated calls to suspend cooperation with the Myanmar military and has been accused of softening human rights council resolutions against Myanmar.

Rohingya refugees who were intercepted attempting to reach Australia by boat have been held in offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. In September 2017, Rohingya refugees reported being offered up to A$25,000 to return home, despite the ongoing security situation in Myanmar at the time. One Rohingya refugee in offshore detention was resettled under the Cambodia deal, while others have also been resettled under the United States resettlement deal. In May 2018, a Rohingya man on Manus Island died after deliberately jumping from a moving bus.

Despite the Australian Government’s refusal to resettle Rohingya refugees who arrived by boat, Myanmar has been in the top four countries for visas granted for offshore protection applications over the last few years. Read more about Australia's humanitarian program here.


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Last updated 27 August 2018