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The world stands by as Rohingya Muslims are victimised

Dehumanised by their government, who should Rohingya Muslims – stateless and facing a government that often sees nothing wrong with their persecution – turn to?

One of the world's most well-known and beloved political protesters, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, addressed Britain's parliament on Thursday, after collecting the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded more than 20 years ago. But while Myanmar's international reputation is clearly changing, the violence and persecution of stateless people within its borders only seems to escalate.

The Rohingya ethnic group numbers about 800,000 people, mostly Muslims, who have been in Myanmar for centuries. When Myanmar (then known as Burma) gained independence in 1947, Rohingya were not recognised as an official ethnic group. In 1982, the military junta stripped them of citizenship, leaving them stateless.

In 2009, Myanmar's consul-general to Hong Kong, U Ye Myint Aung, described Rohingyas as "ugly as ogres", and derided their "dark brown" skin. Such racism is of the worst kind - overt and proud in its prejudice, devoid of humanity.

It's a repulsive attitude which is deeply rooted in the country.

Who can imagine what it is like to have roots in a land, but be rejected and persecuted by its people, turned away by surrounding neighbours, and sure in the knowledge of continuing violence, exploitation and poverty?

This long-standing and well-documented persecution has again come into the spotlight after violence escalated in the Rakhine region of western Myanmar. As many as 50 people have reportedly been killed over the past month. The number may be much higher, but the government has closed the region to reporters and implemented emergency law.

As the victims of arbitrary violence, rape and forced labour - there are even controls on marriage, and families are allowed only two children - the lives of Rohingya Muslims depend on the whims of the Myanmar government authorities.

It is no wonder that they flee in the tens of thousands to nearby countries. But despite international conventions obligating countries to accept refugees, many states still turn desperate Rohingya away. Where they do make it across borders to refugee camps, the conditions are often horrific.

Bangladesh's border guards are notorious for their treatment of refugees, forcing families back across the border, which sometimes results in deaths, particularly of women and children. In 2009, Thailand's then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted that Thai authorities had pushed nearly 1,000 Rohingya boat people back out to sea and abandoned them.

The question at hand is simple: who will step up to protect Rohingya Muslims?

In the 21st century, right in front of our eyes, this dehumanisation of an entire people is happening. The numbers may be smaller than in other historical atrocities, but this persecution of a minority is being watched by the world, which does nothing. Countries both near and far simply shrug their shoulders claiming it's not their problem.

Dehumanised by their government, who should Rohingya Muslims - stateless and facing a government that often sees nothing wrong with their persecution - turn to? The authorities are doing precious little to answer this question.

It is time we raise the flag on their behalf and demand their security, dignity and humanity be restored to them.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk.

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