The Rohingyas and Bangladesh: urgent steps need to be taken

The bouts of ethnic violence in the Rakhine region of Myanmar since the middle of this year have once again triggered the attempted exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh. The purpose of this commentary is to explore key dimensions of the Rohingya tragedy and potential courses of action from the Bangladesh perspective.

First, the conflicting and growing strategic interests of the global power players in the land and sea area surrounding Myanmar (and Bangladesh) continue to prevent any strong independent action on the part of these players to bring about and enforce a mutually fair redress for the Rohingya. Such a redress would perhaps involve creating an autonomous Rohingya-majority territory in Myanmar carved out of northwestern Rakhine, with its political and governance structure similar to the territories of Canada and USA, for instance.

Second, the Myanmar government continues to deny citizenship to the Rohingyas, claiming that their ancestors, originating from areas now part of Bangladesh, unlawfully trespassed into and settled in the Rakhine region. The government of Bangladesh, on its part, argues that it is an internal problem of Myanmar, and a more accommodative Bangladeshi policy regarding the Rohingyas would simply encourage continued governance failure in Myanmar.

Meantime, the tragedy continues to deepen, with all of its implications for Bangladesh, such as economic rehabilitation, cultural assimilation, risk of anti-secular extremism, risk of counter violence against Buddhists in Bangladesh, risk of infiltration of illegal arms and weapons, risk of border tension in case of a Rakhine insurgency (of ethnic alliances of separatists) operating from within Bangladesh, risk of strengthening of separatist forces in the southeastern areas of Bangladesh, etc. The blame game (as much as the blame may be true) and the associated lack of commitment to the humanity of the Rohingyas do not seem like productive courses of action for Bangladesh.

Third, there is no legislation in Bangladesh specifically targeted at handling refugees or asylum-seekers. Instead, Bangladesh relies on the 1946 Foreigners Act that grants sweeping power. Further, Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. This legal void has provided utmost discretion to the government in dealing with Rohingya refugees. For example, Bangladesh is yet to document/register the vast majority (221,000 out of the reported 250,000) of the Rohingyas already in Bangladesh, most of them since 1991-92.

Without any legal status, these Rohingyas do not qualify for any official humanitarian assistance and have been living in sub-human conditions. While respecting the international law of non-refoulement, Bangladesh did not expel the undocumented Rohingyas, but the 2012 actions of repelling the asylum-seekers indicate a reluctance to respect this law. Further, in November 2010, Bangladesh suspended the UNHCR programme for resettlement of Rohingyas abroad, and has since rebuffed strong appeals from the UNHCR to revoke the suspension.

Granted that the internal security concerns of Bangladesh may be well-taken, the question is why 20 years (since 1992) is not a long enough period of sub-human living for the undocumented Rohingyas, without access to lawful employment, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, justice and international assistance.

Fourth, the 250,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh represent a tiny 0.17 per cent of the country’s population of 150 million. Further, if the documented Rohingyas are rehabilitated in low-density areas, additional amenities and infrastructure needs will be minimal. With legal status, it is also expected that the economic productivity and consumption of the Rohingyas and the inflow of international assistance for them will rise. Thus, their registration is not likely to result in either a population burden or economic baggage. Without documentation, however, not only are the economic benefits foregone, the Rohingyas may in fact become increasingly desperate and vulnerable to recruitment by criminals, extremists and political opportunists.

Fifth, there is a risk of ethnic clashes and separatist turmoil if the Rohingyas are all rehabilitated in southeastern Bangladesh. For example, if all 250,000 Rohingyas are relocated to the Bandarban district, they will become a dominant ethnic majority there. Therefore security concerns warrant a spatially diversified rehabilitation, possibly dispersing a significant number of Rohingyas to the northern and western districts and perhaps the offshore islands of Bangladesh.

Lastly, it is in the long-term interests of Bangladesh to be seen as a nation that genuinely cares about the suffering of fellow human beings. Unbalanced concerns about internal security and geopolitics should not cloud the recollection of traumatic ethnic and political persecution of Bangladeshis themselves in the not-so-distant past, nor should it be lost that a sufficiently large segment of the world was always there for Bangladesh whenever it needed economic and humanitarian assistance, especially in times of severe natural calamity. The care and assistance needed by the Rohingyas surely pales in contrast.

While mindless compassion can be reckless, so can be heartless pragmatism. Hence, it is a reasonable balance between the two that Bangladesh needs regarding the Rohingyas. Clearly the transition from defending minorities within borders to accommodating minorities across borders is fraught with unpleasant challenges, but continued deferral of taking up the challenges is not a sustainable choice either.

Such a recognition could perhaps start with: a) unequivocal condemnation of the acts of violence in Rakhine as unacceptable by Bangladesh, civil society and other collective forums; b) registration of the undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh; c) cooperation with relief organisations to channel humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh; d) articulation and enactment of a comprehensive refugee policy; and e) leadership by Bangladesh in orchestrating a multilateral alliance to address the Rohingya tragedy. In other words, a combination of unequivocal moral support, refuge and relief efforts within an internationally accepted legal framework, and mobilisation of interested powerful partners are called for.

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