Like I said, I’m writing an article. For the New Yorker, maybe. Or Oprah’s magazine. I don’t know. I’ve talked to my friends and staff about it, and I’m thinking it’s really the only way to frame what I realize now is a huge discussion about an insurmountable world problem, that our poor tiny NGO stumbled into and wondered why we can’t just, oh, I don’t know, kiss it and make it better. And what everyone else apparently hopes they can ignore long enough for it to go away.
So there are 198 Rohingya refugees in the district of East Aceh (Aceh Timur) and another 193 on Sabang Island, being fed (for the time being) and wondered about by the Indonesian Navy. That’s 381 people that Aceh received as a result of the January 2009 wave of escapes from either Myanmar (Burma) or Bangladesh; many of the estimated 2,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi who began the journey died at sea, some went to Thailand but were unceremoniously ejected, some got to remain in Thailand. A friend recently asked me, “What is so special about these people that you are trying to help them?” Meaning, I suppose, that JMD’s target citizens are the poorest, hardest-to-access, most at-risk in all Aceh (and that’s saying a lot), so why drop everything for this group? The only thing I can come up with is: because they’re human, and they’re starving, they’re homeless, and they have no one. But it got me thinking, surely there are not just 398 people in the world who have no country, no citizenship, have been persecuted and evicted for hundreds of years, and end up corralled in a camp on foreign soil with no way to communicate, no way to work or feed their families, looking different, believing different, exhausted from the last escape? Only 398?
Well, a) I guess that’s pretty good, and b) why then is it like pulling teeth to get the UN and big international aid agencies/donors interested?
I mean . . . right before I left Aceh in March I drew up a needs and cost list with our staff and came up with a figure of $70,000 to house, feed, and provide medical and education services to the refugees for the next 6 months. That’s (wait for it) $2.03 per person per day for ALL their needs. Chump change for any government, right?
Economy of scale, I was told by a higher-up.
There are too few starving, frightened, persecuted individuals to justify the paperwork.
Isn’t that nice.
But! I was told, fear not: the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Order of Migrations will be conducting “refugee verification” for a month in the camp starting next week. Which is an interrogation process designed to determine your “status.”
To sum up the process, you will be categorized as one of the following:
--Rohingya from Myanmar , starving
--Rohingya form Bangladesh, starving
--Bangladeshi from Myanmar, starving
--Rohingya from Thai internment, starving and beaten.
Then presumably the interviewer gives you a piece of paper telling you what they decided you are . . . and you take a bite out of it.
Funny thing. Still starving.
And for those lucky Rohingya who are determined to have actually come from Myanmar (though they aren’t considered “citizens” because the Rohingya are everyone’s favorite piece of inhuman garbage in southeast Asia) you get to go back to the bosom of your step-motherland . . . IF you admit you’re NOT Rohingya after all but Bangladeshi!
Is anyone else besides me made physically sick by this?
I went back to my original question . . . why was it that I was so interested in these 198 people? I’d met some of them last month in the temporary camp where our staff was helping by donating food, water, etc. and they are every bit as needy and desperate as the Acehnese JMD serves every day. I just kept thinking . . . why is this tiny $70,000 problem so untouchable?
Then the rational me took over.
Get real, she said. (I call her Sheila. She’s very well dressed, perfect hair and makeup, and she sits across the table from me sometimes, when I’m bleary-eyed in a ratty robe, staring blankly into a coffee cup, and she berates me for my foolishness. I loathe her most of the time, But she’s always right.) She asks pointedly, Do you really think that 398 Rohingya refugees, or even all Rohingya refugees, or even all Rohingya for that matter, represent all people who wind up in already impoverished or war-torn places, worse off than the already decimated host country’s population, unable to prove their citizenship or political/social/economic persecution, asking to just have a place to live and breathe?
And I realized, it’s not economy of scale after all—it’s the exact opposite. What do we as nations do about people with no country? How do we hold each other accountable, do the right thing, and in the meantime feed the kids, teach the dads how to communicate with us, protect the moms from being sold into slavery?
What the big organizations have been trying to tell me and the few small agencies in East Aceh building latrines and cooking diner and keeping TB out of the camp, is that if they provide direct assistance to 198 people, they will have to think about the millions more, all over the globe, that can then no longer be comfortably forgotten.
So in my mind I sent my eye around the world . . . just to remember a little bit of what I’d heard and read over the years—me, who’s been focused on Aceh for so long . . . so much suffering—I guess we all just take as much as we can stand, and try to forget the rest. So I had to remember what I’d been forgetting. Eastern Europe. The Roma, Ashkali, Gorani . . . still in camps maybe? Still treated as non-citizens by both Serbia and Kosovo, and maybe even Romania? And what of Africa? All the tribes and nations there. Darfur. Displaced by conflict. Where are they? How many camps are they in? The Congo. My god, how do you start looking for groups there? South America. Indigenous communities shoved off land newly discovered to have key mineral deposits. Afghanistan. Who takes care of the farmers in areas where the Taliban now control the opium trade? I wanted to find people who have no country, So if, for example, I learn of the nearly 30 million people in India who last year the government admitted were unaccounted for after the earthquake, I have to take them off my list, because as awful as their situation is, they still are considered citizens. Same as some nations of Native Americans in western US—I don’t think the Oglala Sioux are living any higher off the hog than they were when the FBI raided them in 1973 and falsely convicted Leonard Peltier of murdering an agent. But they’re US citizens, so they don’t go on my list.
So many lists, when you think about it.
So much atonement.
Maybe this is why all this gets me. I’ve been a banker all my life. I believe in accountability. The karmic bottom line, where the balance sheet is hopefully zero, ideally in the black, but never, never owing.
And we owe so much. How will it ever get repaid? And who or what are we repaying?
I don’t run around trying to madly balance all injustices, if that’s what you’re thinking.
I would, however, like to see justice. I would not have to frantically always look to see where it’s hiding in places like East Aceh. Atonement is a bottomless well, and justice is a big dark pit. Martin Luther King said, "The arc of history is long . . . but it bends towards justice.” I work with that in mind, but as a human I would like to create some small measure of comfort in the lives of people like these 198 Rohingya, who let’s face it will never see justice. They may see food, and a permanent home, and a reunion with their families, maybe—but they won’t see justice. They are too few, and too many, at the same time.
There are, I found, several websites and publications dealing with stateless people, as they are called, and the solutions offered that would help them obtain a quality of life that most now lack. But what I found was so vast, and the problem is so insidious . . . Refugees International, for example, has published Nationality for All: A Progress Report and Global Survey on Statelessness that is a must-read for anyone interested in knowing the magnitude of this issue.
At the risk of quoting too much from their 68-page report, going to just share their introduction with you (the emphases are mine):
Nationality is a fundamental human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace,
and security. But statelessness, or the lack of effective nationality, affects millions of men,
women, and children worldwide. Being stateless means having no legal protection or right to
participate in political processes, inadequate access to health care and education, poor employment
prospects and poverty, little opportunity to own property, travel restrictions, social exclusion,
vulnerability to trafficking, harassment, and violence.
Stateless people are found in all regions of the world. Among the most vulnerable groups are
Rohingya in Burma and throughout Asia, Bidun in the Middle East, Roma in Europe, children
of Haitian migrants in the Caribbean, individuals from the former Soviet bloc, denationalized
Kurds, some Palestinians, and certain groups in Thailand. Their situations of legal limbo result
from many factors such as political change, expulsion of people from a territory, discrimination,
nationality based solely on descent, and laws regulating marriage and birth registration.
Because states have the sovereign right to determine the procedures and conditions for
acquisition and loss of citizenship, statelessness and disputed nationality must ultimately be
resolved by governments. But state determinations on citizenship must conform to general
principles of international law. Numerous international instruments, including the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, affirm nationality rights. Two UN conventions on statelessness
have long existed, but they are not widely ratified. To date, 63 countries have become party to
the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and 35 countries have acceded
to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Millions. That’s what it says. No wonder just 198 don’t have a chance.
When the 2004 tsunami and earthquake hit Aceh, it precipitated a 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and opposition forces in Aceh. The effects of the tsunami grew to encompass, and almost become indistinguishable from, the effects of the former conflict: people left homeless, with 80% of the family dead, livelihoods wiped out, survivors being tempted into activities such as drug smuggling illegal logging, membership in tiny roving militia groups—anything to get something to eat. The international community showered an enormous amount of money at the more obvious needs—mostly housing and infrastructure in the larger cities. But after that: show’s over. On to the next attractive disaster. Which I believe was Katrina and New Orleans. How many people are still volunteering down there? Not many, I suspect. The thrill of being in the epicenter of history is over; the banality of true altruism does not appeal to most. My agency JMD looked around Aceh and went to areas where nobody wanted to go, and found that the conflict victims (such as those in east Aceh) suffered just as much as those hardest hit by the tsunami . . . but they were in tiny villages, on impassable and thug-controlled roads, suspicious and wandering . . . economy of scale—remember? Best forget em.
Tiny bits of suffering, suffering in small groups, does not make governments feel good enough to open the books. Even when the Rohingya briefly became the It-Refugee of 2009 after Angelina Jolie’s visit to Thailand, no one stepped up to the plate with donations, not even Ms Jolie, who to her credit has made donations . . . just not to the Rohingya. How about it, Angelina? It’s only $70,000.
Get a grip, Sara.
That’s Sheila talking. She’s doubtful that Oprah or the New Yorker will be tolerant of the tone this is taking.
I’m off to Washington anyway to meet with some donors about this and maybe we will get somewhere by the end of the week. (Actually I am probably already there as of the date of this being posted.)
Go to UNHCR’s website and make a donation. And write to Angelina and tell her to do the same. I’ll keep you posted on my meetings in D.C.