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The forgotten humanitarian crisis: What should we do with the Rohingya refugees?

By on December 6, 2016

Assistant Professor, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, EV 2010

Rohingyas are said to be the ‘most persecuted minorities in the world’. I don’t have a journal article citation or scientific reference for this, but if you Google using these phrases, you will find their name. Who are the Rohingyas? They are a Muslim minority group residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. According to some scholars, Rohingyas are indigenous to the same place, while others attribute the Rohingya ancestry to Bengali migrants across different turns of history (e.g., Rakhine Kingdom of 15th to 18th century, British rule of Burma from 1824 to 1948, Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, or illegal immigration after independence of Bangladesh). Still other scholars claim they are the descendants of sea-faring Arab merchants from the eighth century. Whatever their true origin, the Rohingyas have been permanent residents of Rakhine state for ages, numbering at around 1.3 million–  almost 30% of the population. A large number of them, however, have migrated to many other countries, including approximately 300,000 – 500,000 in Bangladesh, 400,000 in Saudi Arabia, 200,000 in Pakistan, 100,000 in Thailand and so on. The exact number of the Rohingyas is difficult to determine, as their right to citizenship was stripped in 1974, rendering them one of the few remaining stateless population groups in the world.

A modern-day apartheid has been in place against the Rohingyas since 1974’s Emergency Immigration Act, bolstered by 1982’s Citizenship Act of Myanmar, which created three tiers of citizens, resp. Full Citizens (pink card), Associate Citizens (blue card), and Naturalized Citizens (green card). Rohingyas along with some other minority groups have been classified by the junta as ‘Resident Foreigners’. They are denied freedom of movement (cannot go outside Rakhine or outside the country for even religious pilgrimage), education (only up to primary education), jobs (no civil service, private job is equivalent to enforced labor or slavery), property (arbitrary confiscation) and even courtship (special permission required for marriage, which is also very strictly controlled). Other human rights violations include arbitrary detention and arrest, rape, mass killings, displacement, denying traditional religious education and practices, etc.

As a result of these persecutions, large numbers of Rohingyas eventually fled illegally to many countries. The infamous Naga Min operation by the junta in 1977 resulted in mass arrest, persecution, and eventually the first massive exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh after its independence in 1971. Approximately 200,000 refugees entered Bangladesh, many of whom eventually returned to Myanmar as a result of a bilateral agreement between the two governments. But 10,000 people, predominantly women and children, died of malnutrition as the food ration was cut in order to compel them to return to Myanmar. Then in mid-1991 through to early 1992, another bout of mass influx of Rohingyas took place as a result of a bloody crackdown on civilians by the junta. This operation was named the ‘State Law and Order Restoration Council’ and resulted in expulsion of 260,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. In 1994, many of them were forcibly repatriated to Myanmar by the Bangladesh government. Since then a slow and irregular influx of refugees to Bangladesh continued. Communal violence erupted in Rakhine in June 3, 2012 as a result of the rape and murder of a Rakhine (the majority ethnic group in the Rakhine state) girl by three Rohingyas. The initial riot allegedly cost the lives of 16 Rohingyas and 13 Rakhines, torching of 2,600 homes of both sides, and forced exodus of 32,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. The riot quickly scaled up causing more Rohingyas to try to take refuge in Bangladesh, but this time with strong resistance by the Border Guard, Bangladesh Coast Guard and Bangladesh Army. And finally, on  October 9th, 2016, a fresh bout of violence broke down upon the Rohingyas, as a result of an alleged attack by a few Rohingyas on three police outposts, killing nine Myanmar Border Guard Police, and seizing weapons and ammunition. Eight attackers were also killed. Thousands of Rohingyas are trying to flee the country by land and sea routes to survive atrocities committed by Burmese authority, which UN officials have termed as ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Bangladesh is a lower middle income country with a massive population density of 1,237 per square kilometers. The officially recognized 31,000 refugees in Bangladesh (unofficially estimated to be between 230,000 and 500,000 or more) are living in two official UNHCR refugee camps (and several unofficial ones) in an overcrowded setting, squalid housing, and inhumane conditions, riddled with diseases (40.4% prevalence of respiratory infections, 7.1% diarrheal diseases, 2.3% worm infestation in general and 7.6% malnutrition among 12-59 months old children) and hunger.

It is not only the Rohingya refugees who are suffering,   local Bangladeshis are also faced with dire consequences in terms of the impact on the economy, law and order, politics, international relations, culture, and public health. Local people face severe competition for jobs. Many refugees, forced to get involved in clandestine businesses, illegal trades, drug smuggling, prostitution, and even arms dealing, are taking the already volatile law and order situation out of control. Crimes committed by some Rohingya refugees in Middle Eastern countries have reportedly been mistakenly attributed to Bangladeshi workers due to their forged Bangladeshi passports, adversely affecting the remittance market of Bangladesh, a prime source of Bangladesh’s GNP. Bangladesh is also faced with extra pressure on its already over-burdened public health services. The political landscape is also shifting as a result, as many ultra right-wing Islamist groups in Bangladesh are allegedly capitalizing on Rohingyas’ misfortunes to recruit them for militancy. Above all, the  disruption to Bangladesh’s social fabric has already been revealed by the communal riot that took place in 2012 against innocent Buddhists in Bangladesh, allegedly instigated by some Rohingyas.

The question is, then, how should Bangladesh handle this, in the most  humane way? Should it open its border to the refugees, as suggested by some right-wing groups, ultra-nationalists (alluding to taking refuge by 15% of total Bangladeshi population in India during the Liberation War in 1971), and most humanitarian agencies? Or should it turn its face away from the helpless refugees including numerous women, children and elderly, as suggested by many supporters of the current ruling party, chanting racist slurs (calling the Rohyingya’s terrorists, criminals, smugglers, drug peddlers and more)? In my opinion, none of these extreme positions are the answer.

It is important to wage a concerted effort involving the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and international organizations such as UNHCR. The government of Bangladesh should handle the issue with a humane face, instead of taking aggressive action, which may further complicate the situation. Dialogue and communication among involved parties are essential for providing the Rohingyas with an acceptable future. International NGOs should consider improving the lives of the Rohingyas both in Bangladesh and more importantly,  Myanmar, at the source of persecution. Humanitarian organizations should work on the Myanmar side of Rohingya communities, and should brief the world on the real situation there. International agencies such as the United Nations, or UNHCR, should appreciate the dynamics of the crisis from the perspectives of all involved parties. It is incumbent on them to create substantial pressure on Myanmar’s government to improve the humanitarian record in Myanmar and refrain from persecuting and discriminating their own citizens. If the situation is not improved at the source of the crisis, similar incidents will continue to take place, and a sustainable solution will never be possible. Finally, since local integration of Rohingyas is not feasible due to the socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh, if repatriation attempts fail, resettlement in a third country should be considered by multilateral organizations and humanitarian agencies. And this should happen very soon.

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