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Myanmar: US Must Admit More Rohingya Refugees

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Jhora Khatul crouches on the bamboo floor, while curious neighbors, friends and family swarm into the darkened room to hear her story. The room is soon packed and full of smoke from the make-shift kitchen, making it hard to breathe.

As Jhora begins her story, there are nods of recognition; her fellow refugees share the same experiences. Jhora has been living for more than one month with 12 family members in this small hut in Leda camp, Bangladesh.

Jhora is an unregistered Rohingya refugee. She fled to Bangladesh after her family's farm in Burma was ransacked, their livestock confiscated and her husband tortured. Since then, she says, life in Bangladesh has been "day-to-day...there is no future to plan."

Her husband works as a day laborer, but she says the little money he earns is never enough to feed the family, which often goes to bed at night fighting hunger pains.

For many Rohingya refugees like Jhora, the decision to flee to Bangladesh was a difficult one. Since 1982, the Rohingya have been deprived of citizenship in Burma, meaning they are not protected by national laws and their basic human rights are severely restricted.

Burma's Rohingya need permission to marry or travel. They have been prohibited from practicing their Muslim faith, and they are denied access to public education and health facilities.

Because of these dismal conditions the Rohingya are fleeing to countries such as Bangladesh or taking risky, often life-threatening journeys by boat to Malaysia and Thailand seeking refuge from persecution. Once in these countries of asylum, their options are still restricted because of their status as refugees.

One refugee said: "We have nothing here in Bangladesh. Our needs are not met here. We can't really work or live in Bangladesh, but we also can't return to Myanmar [Burma]."

As a nation that nominally respects global human rights, Bangladesh has a duty to protect and provide basic services for the Rohingya refugees, and for decades Dakha has been doing so.

Opportunities for integration are restricted, however.

Denied the right to work and facing extreme restrictions on engaging in wage-earning activities, the Rohingya are completely dependent on aid. Such assistance, however, is insufficient to meet their basic needs for security, health care, sanitation and primary education.

Because the situation is likely to persist, there must be a more long-term solution. The Rohingya will continue to be dependent on aid, incurring increasing costs for Bangladesh and international donors unless there is progress towards integration that allows the Rohingya to engage in legal wage-earning employment or income-generating activities.

A durable solution to the displacement of the Rohingya cannot come from Bangladesh alone, however. The US, in particular, should further integrate the Rohingya into its refugee resettlement program.

Far fewer Rohingya are resettled than other Burmese refugees. In 2008, the US resettled 17,000 Burmese refugees, but it wasn't until 2009 that Rohingya were admitted to the program-and even then only a few families found new homes in the US.

Although resettlement cannot be the only solution for the Rohingya, it is a critical factor in seeking a long-term solution to their displacement through the offer of citizenship. Further resettlement of the Rohingya in the US would demonstrate Washington's commitment to seek durable solutions for refugees and provide opportunities for Dakha to support integration and programs that promote self-reliance.

The choice between living in a Bangladesh refugee camp or in Burma under a hostile regime is, as one refugee said, like having to decide whether to "jump into the river or the sea".

The Rohingya have been subject to this dilemma for decades; the choice between languishing inside the confines of a refugee camp, living without documentation or legal protection in a foreign country, or existing under a regime that not only refuses to recognize them as citizens but systematically persecutes them.

It is a difficult decision for the Rohingya to seek refuge by crossing borders, but Bangladesh and the US, as nations that respect human rights, have a duty to protect the persecuted.