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Bangladesh should recalibrate its Rohingya policy

A Rohingya refugee girl wipes her eyes as she cries at Leda Unregistered Refugee Camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, February 15, 2017.

By Arafat Kabir, University of Utah, East Asia Forum

Bangladesh is said to be planning to relocate its Rohingya refugees to a remote island. If implemented, tens of thousands of Rohingyas currently living in the camps around Cox’s Bazar — Bangladesh’s top tourist destination — would move to Thengar Char Island. The island, which surfaced only eight years ago, frequently submerges during high tides and the monsoon season. The island also lacks critical infrastructure, making it inhospitable for human habitation.

The proposal — first mooted in 2015 — has raised concerns among humanitarian groups and members of the Rohingya community in Bangladesh. Reports suggest that the latest plan for relocating the Rohingyas was briefly published on the cabinet division’s website before it was removed, indicating Bangladesh’s vacillation over strategies to tackle the crisis.

Bangladesh officially hosts over 30,000 registered Rohingya refugees, but estimates of unregistered Rohingya people suggest there are as many as half a million. Despite hosting a sizeable Rohingya population, Dhaka occasionally comes under criticism for ‘not doing enough’. When it sealed its border to curb the influx of Rohingya people in November 2016, Bangladesh faced an international outcry. Authorities said that although the distress of the Rohingya people caused ‘discomfort’ for the country, they would not allow any border intrusion. Yet more than 65,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh in the past few months.

For some, this situation is reminiscent of when millions of Bangladeshis took temporary shelter in neighbouring India during the country’s war of liberation with Pakistan in 1971. Many argue that Bangladesh, as a top contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, should be more willing to protect the Rohingyas who the UN has labelled as the world’s ‘most persecuted minority group’.

But others in Bangladesh disagree with these criticisms. They argue that unlike the Bangladeshis in 1971, it is uncertain if the Rohingyas will ever be able to return home. Giving them a safe haven in Bangladesh might send the wrong signal to Myanmar that Bangladesh is willing to take in the group that has historically lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine region.

The Bangladeshi government maintains that hosting a large number of Rohingya people is causing the deterioration of its social fabric and law and order in Bangladesh’s southeast. In addition to hurting the tourism-based economy of Cox’s Bazar, the government claims Rohingya people are using Bangladesh as a launch pad to gain entry into those countries that traditionally furnish jobs for Bangladesh’s massive semi-skilled labour force, and thus depriving the country of potential foreign remittance, which constitutes the second-largest source of revenue for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s repeated calls to resolve this issue have fallen on deaf ears in Naypyidaw. Dhaka wants to repatriate Rohingya people staying in Bangladesh, but Myanmar’s intransigence to even consider them as citizens is bound to doom any negotiations. In January 2017, Myanmar sent a special envoy to Bangladesh to discuss the Rohingya crisis, but little progress has been made since then.

Given this dilemma, Bangladesh should explore new strategies to deal with the perennial Rohingya crisis. The most obvious is to continue collaborating with the international community to maintain pressure on Myanmar. In particular, Bangladesh can engage countries that wield influence over Myanmar, such as India and China. Dhaka can use the bilateral relationship with India, which is stronger than at any other time in recent history, to present to Delhi both the nature and magnitude of problems arising from the ever-deteriorating Rohingya crisis. In addition, Bangladesh should liaise with concerned parties in Washington to explore any leverage over Myanmar.

As an important member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Bangladesh can spearhead a campaign to raise funds for Rohingya people living in its territory. OIC members that have expressed genuine concerns about the Rohingyas could be included in a fund appropriation committee that also oversees how the money is expended. Aside from diplomacy, Bangladesh should fully cooperate with international humanitarian agencies to help provide humanitarian assistance to Rohingya people.

Dhaka must keep in mind that these people would not have fled their homeland in the first place if they hadn’t needed to. Rounding up these helpless people seeking to escape state-sponsored terror and sending them to an isolated island does not do any favours for Bangladesh’s own interests — if any natural or man-made disaster struck the island, how would Bangladesh wash its hands of that human tragedy? Bangladesh must make clear distinctions between its rhetoric and actions and those of the Myanmar government. No matter how irrational Myanmar appears, Bangladesh must not lose its focus and veer off course.

When one takes in refugees, the host assumes moral superiority because their actions can irreversibly change the life of the refugees. Despite being a reluctant host nation, Bangladesh cannot ‘pass the buck’ to another country. On the contrary, Bangladesh had better live up to this inescapable reality and take a leadership role in the global campaign against the brutal persecution of the Rohingya people. The sooner Bangladesh realises this, the better off the country will be.


Arafat Kabir is a PhD researcher in political science at the University of Utah. You can follow Arafat on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol.