They have been raped, tortured and killed. They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don’t want them. They have been forced into labor and have no rights to their land.
Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people in the world, and once again, they find themselves running for their lives.
In the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, fierce clashes between security forces and Rohingya militants left hundreds dead and entire villages torched to the ground.
Since August 25, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled over the border into Bangladesh, the UN says, as the military intensifies its clampdown on the minority group. UN human-rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described the actions as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
How did it come to this? Here’s what you need to know:
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic-minority group that has lived as a people in Myanmar for centuries.
Today, more than a million of them live in the country, most in the western coastal state of Rakhine, where they make up around a third of the population. They speak their own language, which isn’t recognized by the state.
There are regular clashes between the Rohingya and the country’s security forces, as well as other ethnic groups in Rakhine, which are predominantly Buddhist. Rohingya militant groups are often involved in the clashes.
Even Buddhist monks have been accused of inciting violence against the Rohingya there and led a boycott movement against them during deadly clashes in 2012.
A community of Rohingya refugees also lives in Bangladesh and some migrate to Malaysia, where they typically work illegally.
Why aren’t they recognized as Burmese?
The government in Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, claiming that they are Bangladeshi or Bengali. The UN and rights groups have long accused the government of ethnic cleansing through its repressive policies.
Having had such a long history in Myanmar, the ethnicity of the Rohingya is more complex than the government makes out.
The government has argued that the Rohingya descend from farmers from what is now called Bangladesh. Many arrived in large numbers during British rule, from 1824 to 1948, when Myanmar was considered a province of British-administered India. The Rohingya were sent there as laborers, in what Britain considered an internal migration.
Many Rohingya, however, say they are descendants of Muslim traders who can be traced back to the ninth century. In reality, there is likely to be a mix of ethnicities among them.
When Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the Rohingya were able to apply for identity cards, which offered some rights, and some even served in Parliament.
But after a military coup in 1962, the Rohingya lost this status and were considered foreigners. They were granted foreign identity cards.
In 1982, a citizenship law allowed the Rohingya to apply for citizenship only if they could speak an officially recognized language and had proof their family had lived in the country before independence. But most Rohingya were never granted the paperwork to prove their roots, so they were effectively rendered stateless.