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DVB Debate: How will non-citizens survive without white cards?

The world’s eyes are on Burma, as the depth of human misery plumbed by Southeast Asia’s human traffickers has been exposed in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the United States and Malaysia both announced search and rescue operations to retrieve as many as three thousand Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants stranded in the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca. Over three thousand migrants have so far made it ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia, having set out from western Burma and Bangladesh. As many as one thousand are thought to have died at sea at the hands of human traffickers this year alone.

The Rohingya Muslim minority, a 1.4 million strong ethnic group for the most part residing in Burma’s western Arakan State, are denied citizenship in Burma. That’s despite the majority being born in the country, some tracing their Myanmar roots back for generations.

The US, European Union and international rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights and Amnesty International have all pointed to the issue of Rohingya statelessness as the root ‘push factor’ that has forced so many migrants to take their chances on traffickers’ boats.

Yet for over twenty years, the Rohingya have had a quasi-official status in Burma— as ‘white card’ holders. The cards bestowed a status of temporary residency on holders, enabled them to travel with fewer restrictions, and allowed them voting rights.

Now, that status too has been stripped from the Rohingya, leaving thousands with no official recognition whatsoever. The cards expired in March, and must be turned into authorities by the end of May.  In this week’s episode of DVB Debate, the panel questions the government’s motives for annulling white cards, and ponders what is next for the persecuted minority.

“If the white cards are returned, then we have no identity cards. We are worried,” said Kyaw Min, of the Human Rights and Democracy Party.

“We don’t want to return the cards,” he confirmed.

A lawyer on the panel, Han Nyunt, attempted to alleviate Kyaw Min’s concerns.

“Don’t be afraid to give back the cards,” he said. “We will act according to the law.”

Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut on Monday said that Burma would repatriate any smuggled migrant able to show evidence of Burmese citizenship.

However state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday reported that: “More than 400,000 of the roughly 700,000 white cards have been collected by authorities across the country”, reinforcing the assumption that it is a near impossible task for Rohingya to prove their Burmese residency or citizenship.

The move to revoke the white cards have been backed by many ethnic Arakanese, with many believing the state’s Rohingya population to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, with no rightful place in Burma.

Saw Mya Yarzar Lin of the Arakan Women’s Network believes that a citizenship verification process for Rohingya is the right way forward.

“We understand that the returning of white cards on 31 March is not the solution,” said Saw Mya Yarzar Lin.

“What we Arakanese are asking is to go through a clear citizenship process for these people.”

Over the past months, perfunctory ‘citizenship verification’ programmes have been carried out in Rohingya Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps within Arakan State.

Last year, a small number of Rohingya living in the Myebon IDP camp were granted citizenship through the government’s pilot citizenship verification programme.

However upon visiting the Myebon camp in January, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, noted what she saw as an unsubstantial effect of the programmes. She said that the living standards among Rohingya residing in camps have not improved as they remain subject to onerous mobility restrictions.

“They remain inside the camp with minimum food rations, limited access to health care and to other essential services,” Yanghee Lee said in January. “The despair that I saw in the eyes of the people in the Myebon IDP camp was heartbreaking.”