Saudi Arabia has long projected an image of itself as a defender of Muslims, that claim is increasingly being challenged as it now sends Rohingya refugees back to Bangladesh – a country they had fled.
Saudi Arabia has long proclaimed itself to be the “guardian” of Islam’s holiest sites, and by extension Islam itself, thus promoting the Kingdom as defenders of the Muslim “ummah,” or community, a spurious claim given its questionable mistreatment and indifference towards Muslim minority refugees fleeing genocide and persecution.
To that end, Saudi Arabia again finds itself under increasing scrutiny but this time for its mistreatment of Rohingya Muslim refugees, all of whom have fled an ongoing genocide in the country of their birth – Myanmar.
Recently leaked video footage sent to Middle East Eye shows handcuffed Rohingya refugees in a detention center in Jeddah. One described how he has been held in a Saudi detention center for five long years and that now he’s being sent to Bangladesh “starving without any food,” while another Rohingya man said, “We have no other choice but to kill ourselves.”
Saudi Arabia is preparing to forcibly remove as many as 1,000 Rohingya refugees, including hundreds of children, "against their will" to Bangladesh after holding them for indefinite periods in detention centers throughout the Kingdom, Rohingya activists have told me.
“Genocide is ongoing,” Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya blogger and coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition, told me. “There are more than a million Rohingya Muslims in the camps in Bangladesh. We know that both the Saudi and Bangladesh governments are acting in accordance with their laws. Yet, as persecuted people, they shouldn’t be persecuted again while searching for a safe heaven.”
While Myanmar’s recent and ongoing crackdown on the Rohingya, which has been described by the UN as “textbook ethnic cleansing,” began in August 2017, the predominantly Muslim minority has been violently persecuted since 1992, resulting in periodic waves of displaced Rohingya fleeing for Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Lwin explained to me how Rohingya refugees who fled to Saudi Arabia in the years between 1992 to 2011 did so by obtaining passports using fake documents provided by organized human trafficking groups. With these forged documents, Rohingya refugees were able to obtain temporary immigrant status and work visas in the Kingdom, but then “all this changed in 2011 when Saudi Arabia introduced a fingerprint-based immigration control system,” said Lwin.
“The Rohingya who arrived after 2011 are very unfortunate. They couldn’t manage to have residency permit like their fellow Rohingya who arrived earlier. They had to stay illegally. Many of them detained at various immigration checkpoints or raids. As their fingerprints were registered according to the passports they have presented at entry points, they have been identified as different nationality than their original country, Burma or Myanmar,” Lwin told me.
Saudi Arabia has launched an unforgiving and uncompromising crackdown on its Rohingya refugees, carrying out a series of immigration raids and incarcerating those who possess fake documents or confess to entering the country illegally.
Shumaisi detention center is where most have ended up, with some for as long as six years without adequate food and medicinal supplies, while being separated from family members in some instances.
“It’s hard to find the words to summarize the outrage I feel as a Muslim, when I see the government of the land from which the Prophet lived treating the Rohingya people this way,” Jamila Hanan, a human rights activist and blogger with All Rohingya Now.
Now that Saudi Arabia’s mistreatment of Rohingya refugees has received some global media attention as a result of leaked cell phone video footage, government authorities have confiscated all mobile phones within the Shumaisi detention center.
This, of course, is the least of the problems facing upwards of 1,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in the Kingdom. Rather, what keeps these genocide survivors awake at night is the immediate fear of being deported to Bangladesh, where they not only face the harsh realities of establishing a life in squalid refugee camps, but also the increased likelihood of being moved on to Myanmar, where they face almost certain death.
The deal signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees was temporarily halted in November due to growing criticism by the international community and the approaching election in Bangladesh, but now that the election is over, and with the political climate in Myanmar’s neighbouring country becoming ever more hostile towards the refugees, the likelihood of the repatriation deal being restarted is almost certain, which spells pending doom for those Saudi Arabia plans to deport.
“My appeal to Saudi government is not to deport any Rohingya and release them as soon as possible,” Lwin told me. “Let them have residency permits like their fellow Rohingya who are settled in Saudi for decades. So they can support their families who are now in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and who are trapped inside Arakan State.”
Similarly, Lwin calls on the government of Bangladesh to refuse to accept Rohingya refugees who are deported from Saudi Arabia, arguing that to do so will only add to the already unsustainable refugee numbers in the impoverished Asian country.
Ultimately, responsibility lays with the entire international community, particularly the United Nations, to enact measures that not only guarantee security for repatriated Rohingya refugees, but also full citizenship rights in Myanmar.
Only then will these horrors come to an end for the “world’s most persecuted minority.”
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