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Bangladesh policy on Rohingya refugees

By Aman Ullah

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali stressed the need for a peaceful resolution of the longstanding issue of Rohingya influx from Myanmar to Bangladesh while he made a call at a meeting with the visiting UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee on 20th February, according to a foreign ministry press release.

The minister pointed out that the presence of a huge number of Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh is having adverse effects on the overall socio-economic, political, demographic, environmental, humanitarian and security situation of Cox’s Bazar and adjacent districts.

The minister talked about Bangladesh’s initiatives to engage with Myanmar bilaterally through establishment of border liaison offices, and dialogue on security cooperation.

Mahmood also highlighted the endeavours to foster regional connectivity involving Myanmar through BCIM and BIMSTEC, and thus ensure sustainable development of the region. BCIM is a forum for regional cooperation among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, while BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative of Multi-Pectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is another platform of this kind.

More than 69,000 Myanmar nationals fled to Bangladesh since the persecution began in Rakhine State on October 9 last year. In addition, more than 400,000 Rohingyas have been living in Bangladesh for years.

This is not the first time that Rohingya had to flee into Bangladesh but it was occurred at several occasions since the late eighteenth century. Thousands of Rohingya fled to what is now Bangladesh in four main periods: the late 1700s and early 1800s and the 1940s. The most recently exodus were in 1978 and 1991- 1992 that were after emergence of Bangladesh.

Each and every Rohingya falls under the universal concept of ‘refugee’. Each Rohingya is being persecuted due to state’s repression and is also unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. Myanmar’s two most brutal campaigns against Rohingyas namely ‘Operation Dragon King (1978)’ and ‘Operation Pyi Thaya (1991-1992) created risk of persecution in their state of origin through mass killing and expulsion of Rohingyas from their land which led thousands of Rohingyas to flee as well as seek refuge in another place. Later, in the mid 2012, another case of violence against Rohingyas once again led them to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The United Nations, therefore, defines Rohingyas as the most persecuted community in the world. However, Bangladesh has not come up with a comprehensive refugee policy.

Bangladesh has been the largest destination for Rohingya refugees. The country has received a large number of Rohingyas in three phases. In dealing with the Rohingya refugees Bangladesh has moved from refugee-welcoming policy to refugee-hostile policy. Such transformation in the official policy of Bangladesh took place in the past four decades.

When the first batch of more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar in 1978, Bangladesh saw it as a humanitarian crisis, and arranged temporary shelters and other supports for the refugees. In the second phase, during 1991-1992 when 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after the serious state repression in the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, the Government of Bangladesh granted temporary asylum as well as provided food and medical services to Rohingya refugees. The government also called on humanitarian aid from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for those refugees. Around 20 refugee camps were built up in Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts in September 1991 in order to accommodate the Rohingya refugees. As a result, some 250,877 Rohingyas got shelter as registered refugees in those camps in the Cox’s Bazar district from November 1991 to June 1992. During this time, some diplomatic initiatives were taken for make peaceful resolution of the crisis and an orderly repatriation of the refugees. For example, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on April 28 1992 between the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh and Myanmar in Dhaka to resolve the issue. Bangladesh also worked with international organizations such as the UNHCR and the Red Cross to deal with the crisis.

Though Bangladesh initially adopted liberal policies towards the Rohingya refugees such soft stance changed over the years. For instance, after 1992, Rohingyas were no longer given refugee recognition in Bangladesh; instead they were identified as ‘illegal immigrants.’ Bangladesh took repatriation policy under the auspices of the UNHCR between 1993 and 1997. In order to stop the influx of Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh appealed to the UNHCR in February 1992 to assess the Rohingya crisis. The country strongly proposed her unwillingness to continue receiving more refugees from Myanmar in a parliamentary debate on the Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary General on May 1992. The country forcibly repatriated some 5,000 refugees under the MOU signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar in April 1992. Nearly 50,000 refugees were also involuntarily repatriated from Bangladesh despite the MOU signed between the UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh in May 1993.

The Bangladesh authorities further reiterated their policy of non-acceptance of those refugees who came back after August 15, 1997. In pursuance of that policy, the country sent back as many refugees as possible and forcibly expelled over 300 Rohingyas across the Naaf River and some 400 refugees across Myanmar’s northern Arakan state in July 1997. All of these hard-line steps reflected a state-centric foreign policy posture in which national interests of Bangladesh prevailed over humanitarian concerns of the Rohingyas. In 2008 and 2009, Bangladesh continued to adopt a policy of informal deportation of Rohingya refugees. The country’s law enforcement agencies arrested large number of Rohingyas across the border to Myanmar from 2007.

Since July 2009, along with new arrivals, state authorities deported those people who had settled in Bangladesh for several years. Along with the crackdown of Rohingyas in Bandarban District in mid-2009, Bangladeshi officials also pushed back refugees across the Naaf River. The deportation process was done informally because the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) did not hand over the deportees to Myanmar’s border force NaSaKa.

In 2010, Bangladesh announced that it was working on a national refugee policy, and until it was agreed upon, no new refugees could be registered at the country’s two official refugee camps. Nor, for that matter, could NGOs or the UNHCR offer any additional services. However, it took until 2014 for the government to announce its national strategy¬¬ for Myanmar refugees and undocumented nationals. The policy included five key elements: listing unregistered refugees, providing temporary basic humanitarian relief, strengthening border management, diplomatic engagement with the government of Myanmar, and increasing national level coordination. Although the statement acknowledged the need for basic humanitarian relief, it fell far short of demands for building a system that allowed refugees any opportunities for self-reliance.

The Rohingya crisis once again became a burning issue after the clashes between the Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state of Myanmar in 2012. More than 100,000 people were displaced due to the violence since June 2012. This had led to a new wave of Rohingya refugees in the neighboring countries. Bangladesh continued to adopt a policy of ‘push back’. The law enforcement agencies were ordered to strengthen close observation along the border areas. The Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), Coast Guard, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) were deployed to resist the intrusion of Rohingyas into the country.

Bangladesh’s government also did not allow humanitarian agencies to operate at refugee camps. Soon after the violence, the state authorities ordered three international aid agencies, including the Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger (ACF), and Britain’s Muslim Aid to stop assisting unregistered Rohingya refugees. As per its policy, Bangladesh’s cabinet approved the ‘Strategy Paper on Addressing the Issue of Myanmar Refugees and Undocumented Myanmar Nationals in Bangladesh’ on September 9, 2013 to reinforce vigilance along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in order to stop the intrusion of Rohingya refugees; take the undocumented Rohingya refugees under observation; forbid non-governmental organizations’ assistance in refugee camps as well as to create pressure internationally in Myanmar to take Rohingyas back.

The strategy paper is mainly framed from national security approach emphasizing enhanced capacity building of the border security agencies. The policy is also shaped by the government’s concern of rising unwanted economic migrants from Myanmar.
Despite taking a tough policy on the Rohingyas, the cabinet proposed to provide basic humanitarian needs such as food, water, medical care, sanitation facilities, and other essential services to Rohingyas on a temporary basis before pushing them back to Myanmar. Bangladesh’s security forces and law enforcement agencies, therefore, provided short-term emergency services such as food, water and medicine to them. The BGB and Coast Guard provided drinking water, food, medical assistance as well as fuel engines of the motorised boats before sending them back. They also provided required emergency medical assistance to pregnant women, wounded men and children.

In summary, the presence of huge number of Rohingyas in refugee camps and coastal areas of Bangladesh is creating heavy burden on Bangladesh’s economy and its scant resources. Their involvement in undesirable activities in both local and border areas is not only posing security threats to local people but also is creating bad image in abroad as well. Most importantly, the serious misunderstanding between Bangladesh and Myanmar generated from unresolved Rohingya crisis as well as Myanmar’s constant denial to accept Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar are also prescribed as the crucial factors to the shift in policy making procedures.

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.

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.