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‘We’re broken’: Rohingya detainees on hunger strike in Saudi

Scores of Rohingya detainees inside a Saudi detention centre have gone on a hunger strike for the third time in recent months, activists told Al Jazeera.

Almost 650 men, most of whom have been kept at the Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah since 2012 for not having valid documentation, started the strike on Saturday, Ro Nay San Lwin, campaign coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition, said.

By Tuesday night, at least seven had been hospitalised, he said, as the strike is ongoing in 10 rooms at the detention camp. 

Footage secretly filmed by a detainee and sent to Lwin that was shared with Al Jazeera showed the Rohingya men lying on the floor.

“The immigration police are harassing them, saying if you carry on this hunger strike, we will not even give you water,” Lwin said in a phone interview from Frankfurt, Germany.

Ambia Perveen, vice chairman of the NGO The European Rohingya Council (ERC), who has also received video via WhatsApp since Saturday, said the police have now taken away the prisoners’ blankets, pillows, shirts and other necessities.

Most of the Rohingya entered Saudi Arabia in 2012 following violence breaking out in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, searching for a better life.

Upon arrival, their fingerprints were registered under a different nationality as they carried fake passports obtained from brokers in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Lwin explained.

Myanmar stripped the Muslim-majority Rohingya of their citizenship in 1982, rendering them stateless.

Many of them entered Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage visas but overstayed to work. They were detained at various immigration checkpoints and during raids, according to activists.

“They didn’t commit any crime,” said Lwin. “Their only their crime is they didn’t have the valid resident permit, which is why they were arrested.”

‘Trapped from every corner’

Muslim-majority Rohingya have faced persecution in Myanmar for decades.

Since 2012, following deadly riots between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya, tens of thousands of people from the minority have been forced to live in squalid internment camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Nearly one million Rohingya were forced to take shelter in Bangladesh after Myanmar’s army, responding to attacks by an armed group, launched a brutal campaign against the minority in Rakhine state in 2017.

Matthew Smith, co-founder and chief executive of Fortify Rights, said the Saudi government is “layering human rights abuses on to a community that is already experiencing genocide in Myanmar”.

“Nobody should be detained for their immigration status and the Saudi authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all Rohingya that are in detention for immigration-related reasons,” Smith told Al Jazeera by phone from Washington, DC.

Since the start of this year, Saudi Arabia has forcibly deported dozens of Rohingya to Bangladesh – some of whom have been detained upon arrival at the Dhaka airport.

Lwin explained that embassy officials from four countries were brought to the Saudi detention centre, and only Bangladesh agreed to take the Rohingya detainees, even though they are not from there.

ERC’s Perveen said countries such as Saudi Arabia and India are “indirectly helping Myanmar to wipe us out”.

Rights groups have slammed India, home to almost 40,000 Rohingya refugees, for handing them over to the Myanmar government following a Supreme Court ruling in October last year.

“These people [Rohingya] have not only faced genocide, but they are also going through post-traumatic stress disorder,” Perveen told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Hamburg, Germany. 

“These countries are also part of genocide, they are helping Myanmar when they are taking such an action. They [Rohingyas] are facing the same thing they have been facing in Myanmar.”

They just want to work there, so they can support their family back in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Ro Nay San Lwin, Rohingya activist and blogger

The military government, which took power following a coup in 1962, stripped the Rohingya of citizenship in 1982.

Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya were not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, restricting their rights to study, work, travel, marry, vote, practise their religion and access health services.

“Rohingya people are trapped from every corner,” said Perveen. “We did not want to leave our country.

“We had no choice in the sense of security. We Rohingya are wounded enough – morally, physically and financially. We are broken.”

Humanitarian grounds

Saudi Arabia is home to more than 300,000 Rohingya, but according to activists and rights groups, the kingdom has stopped issuing residency permits to them in recent years.

Smith said the Rohingya are facing “other human rights challenges” in Saudi Arabia in addition to the “mass detention”. 

“We know that Rohyingya women have been trafficked to Saudi Arabia and have been working essentially as indentured servants to families in Saudi Arabia and this has been going on for some time,” he said.

On Wednesday at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, family members of those detained urged the Saudi government and King Salman to release their loved ones.

Lwin said while legally nothing can be done to help the prisoners, Saudi Arabia should release them on “humanitarian grounds”.

The main goal of the hunger strike is “to get freedom”, he said. 

“They want to get released as soon as possible. They just want to work there so they can support their family back in Myanmar and Bangladesh.”

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

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