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Rohingya Arrested in Myanmar Just for Traveling

Oppressed Ethnic Group Denied Right to Freedom of Movement

Police officers wearing facemasks stand on a street in Yangon, Myanmar, November 3, 2020.  © 2020 Kaung Zaw Hein/Sipa via AP Images

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, government restrictions on movement in Myanmar have been widespread, but certain people have been more affected than others. On January 6, Myanmar police detained 99 ethnic Rohingya in Yangon for traveling without documentation in the country where they were born and lived all their lives.  

The Rohingya – mostly women as well as children reportedly as young as 5 years old – were apparently bound for Malaysia. They sought to escape Myanmar’s longstanding oppression of the group. Rohingya are effectively denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law so the government considers them “illegal” aliens, refusing to issue legal documentation that would allow them to travel within the country.

All 99 Rohingya are now being held in government quarantine on the outskirts of Yangon, after which they will likely be transferred to immigration detention to await criminal charges.

In Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, an estimated 600,000 Rohingya are confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods. In 2017, a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya involved crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.

Rohingya frequently face arrest and prosecution for attempting to travel between townships or outside of Rakhine State. On December 24, authorities arrested 13 Rohingya in the Bago Region after they left Maungdaw township. That group is being detained in a government quarantine facility in Pyay town, and after they are released it is expected they too will be transferred to an immigration police cell to await charges.

International human rights law guarantees the right to freedom of movement for everyone to travel within the country and to leave the country. The right to freedom of movement does not depend on nationality, and statelessness cannot be invoked as a justification for the denial of free movement.

Both groups of Rohingya should be released, allowed to self-isolate until their quarantine is over and they test negative, and permitted to travel freely, subject to Covid-19 restrictions applicable to everyone in Myanmar. Criminal charges should not be brought against them for simply being Rohingya and trying to move from one place to another. The government should lift all travel restrictions on Rohingya and repeal discriminatory regulations that limit their right to freedom of movement. The government should amend the 1982 Citizenship Law in line with international standards.

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