Before Mohammed fled Burma, he was often stopped by the authorities on his way to school and sent to work in military camps. There he was made to cook, clean and carry heavy building materials, and he was punished when his captors were unhappy with his work.
Persecuted by the authorities for being Muslim, one night Mohammed was offered an opportunity to escape to Thailand with his uncle. Around midnight, 29 people – all ethnic Rohingya – left by boat on what would be an 18-day journey. After three days, they ran out of drinking water and were forced to drink seawater, making them sick.
Shortly after they arrived in Thailand they were arrested and sent to the Thai border city of Mae Sot where Mohammed would spend six months in immigration detention. Terrified of being sent back to Burma, beaten and left to die as his father was, Mohammed fled again. With his little remaining money he crossed into Cambodia and applied for asylum.
Mohammed is typical of the many Muslim Rohingya refugees forced to flee their homes in western Burma. Forced labor, land confiscation, and restrictions on their freedom of movement and religious expression are common features of their lives. Excluded from accessing public health and education services and prevented from taking up employment, they are forced to live in destitution.
In late 2009, Rohingyas started arriving in Cambodia; this more or less coincided with the implementation of new refugee procedures, transferring responsibility for status determination from the UN refugee agency to the Cambodian government.
The Cambodian government has not yet resolved any applications from Rohingya asylum seekers. Regrettably, the new framework does not afford any formal rights to asylum seekers, leaving them in legal limbo, and at the mercy of government officials turning a blind eye to their employment in the informal labor market.
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The mission of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA is to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and the forcibly displaced, a vulnerable and often forgotten people.