The Stateless People
Myanmar leader Suu Kyi bears responsibility for what is happening in Rakhine because her party rules, not the junta. For decades, Myanmar persecuted the Rohingya people while the world ignored their plight. By all accounts, the situation has not changed.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh today, including more than 90,000 unregistered refugees living in two unofficial camps of Leda, Teknaf, Cox's Bazar and Kutupalong Makeshift, Ukhiya and Cox's Bazar. Under the 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law, Rohingya, an ethnic group very much linked through language, culture, and religion to the overwhelming Bengali population of Bangladesh, were not only denied the Myanmar citizenship but were also subject to atrocities as they were considered illegal migrants settled in the country during the British rule. Therefore, Rohingya living in Rakhine State, on Myanmar’s western coast had to leave their birthplace in search of a place where they could live in peace and the natural option was of course the next-door neighbour Bangladesh.
The mass exodus started when the hope that Aung San Suu Kyi would do something for the Rohingya, turned into despair. Finding no light at the end of the tunnel, the Rohingya population started leaving the country in search of a safe haven. The unexpected attitude of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement and champion of human rights, for a community living in subhuman conditions and facing the atrocities of the Burmese soldiers and civilians alike came as an unbearable shock for them. Political observer believe that she kept quiet on the burning issue because she knew that speaking out in favour of the Rohingya population would damage her popularity with the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar and also adversely affect her efforts to rule the country with ease and aplomb.
Despite close cultural and religious affinity, the Bangladesh government was reluctant to take the responsibility of accommodating a fairly large number of Rohingya refugees. So they stopped their regular influx from Myanmar on the pretext that the refugees were involved in drug-related and violent crimes in Cox’s Bazaar. Consequently, the Bangladesh government imposed a ban on their movement and access to basic services in 2012. The movements of the Rohingyas were further restricted following attacks on Buddhist communities in southeastern Bangladesh. On the other hand, due to the economic conditions and financial constraints, Bangladesh did not come up with a comprehensive refugee policy despite assurances of help from various NGOs.
Later, Bangladesh declared that it was
working on a national refugee policy and until it was announced, no new refugees would be registered at the country’s two official refugee camps. NGOs and the UNHCR were also asked to refrain from offering any additional services to the unregistered refugees. However, in 2014 the government announced its national strategy for Myanmar refugees and undocumented nationals which 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 believed in offering basic humanitarian relief, there was an acute shortage of funds for building a system that allowed refugees any opportunities for self-reliance.
Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated countries, has long complained that its congested urban areas and villages cannot cope with the burden of Rohingya refugees pouring into the country. About 10 years ago, Bangladesh silently adopted a policy to throw the refugees back to Myanmar, yet the Rohingyas somehow managed to return, slipping through the porous border, usually through river crossings. Authorities in Yangon (previously Rangoon) nevertheless, argue that most of the poor Rohingya now crossing the border are not citizens of Myanmar but, in fact, they are descendents of illegal immigrants who arrived years ago. The Rohingya, however, claim their community has lived where Myanmar is located for centuries.
On the other hand, the concentration of the Rohingya refugees in Chittagong, especially in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazar, one of the world's longest (120 km) unbroken sandy sea beaches, adversely affected the tourism industry of Bangladesh. So recently, the government had to come up with a somewhat uncaring plan to deal with the refugee influx. In May 2016, for example, The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had announced plans to relocate the refugee camps from their current location near Cox’s Bazar to an island in the Bay of Bengal. The move appears to be motivated by plans to boost the number of tourists visiting the famous beaches of Cox’s Bazar.
Besides a number of internal problems, Bangladesh’s highly strained relationship with Myanmar is also a reason for its reluctance to accept the refugees. Ongoing differences over border security and uprisings restrict Bangladesh from accommodating the Rohingya despite assurances of cooperation and support from UNHCR and other NGOs. Notwithstanding the ongoing negotiations, various insurgent groups are still fighting. Insurgent groups have also taken advantage of the confusion surrounding the border area. In late August 2016, the Bangladesh military organised a number of operations into the border areas to repulse soldiers of the Abakan Army, one of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations, which had been operating in the region illegally without the knowledge of Myanmar government forces.
On the other hand the Rohingya insurgents are also taking refuge in Bangladesh which has created quite a problem for the Bangladesh government. In fact, the movement of stateless Rohingya has complicated an already insecure border, plagued by drug trafficking and insurgency groups. The border between these two countries is a major transit zone for methamphetamines --- an extremely addictive stimulant drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine --- from Myanmar. Therefore, the unrestricted movement of Rohingya refugees adds to the Bangladesh government’s legitimate concerns about the area. The border is difficult for the state to control because of its distance from any major cities, resulting in rampant illegal trade and border crossings.
According to a report resolving the matter of the porous border and ending the sanctuaries of various insurgent groups would require the two states to enter into long-term diplomatic negotiations. It would also depend on the expansion of Myanmar’s state capacity, which remains limited, especially in remote border areas. For these reasons, it is difficult to prescribe easy policy options for dealing with this issue. However, there are very tangible and viable steps that Bangladesh can pursue to alleviate the dire plight of the Rohingyas.
Although the UNHCR expressed its willingness to help the Bangladesh government in covering the costs of additional services and registering refugees, Bangladesh refuses to act. The UNHCR and other international NGOs have offered a number of proposals to improve the situation. According to a report, following proposals have been made:
The UNHCR and international NGOs working with refugees need to pressure Dhaka to produce a comprehensive refugee strategy that can realistically address the Rohingya issue. Dhaka needs to come to grips with the sad but ineluctable fact that Myanmar will not take steps to improve the lot of Rohingya and the Rohingya refugee crisis is unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Bangladesh Border Guards should be instructed to allow Rohingya refugees into the country for immediate registration, unless there is sufficient evidence that the asylum seekers are either drug traffickers or insurgents. Denying Rohingya legal entry only incentivizes illegal entry and cooperation with insurgency groups and drug traffickers. Indeed, accepting more official refugees should be integrated into Dhaka’s border security, antinarcotics, and anti-terrorist legislation. By accepting refugees, the Bangladesh government will be in a better position to keep them out of criminal and extremist networks.
Bangladesh has a moral imperative to contribute to global humanitarian activities. Arguably, Bangladesh has benefited most from international aid, poverty reduction programmes, and humanitarian assistance. Since the country’s independence, it has been the darling of international development and could count on substantial aid in times of difficulty. Taking on more Rohingya refugees is not just a practical policy issue; it is an intrinsically moral issue for Bangladesh.
Nurul Islam, a Britain-based Rohingya rights activist and community leader, in an interview with the VOA, has recently said, "If Bangladesh really does not want to host these refugees anymore and some other countries are willing to help, we will be thankful if the other Muslim countries offer temporary refuge to this hapless community."
On a daily basis, state-run newspapers in Myanmar print articles that denounce the international media for stories that highlight the plight of the Rohingya. Meanwhile, a governmentappointed investigation is due to publish its final report on whether atrocities have been committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. With journalists banned from northern Rakhine state, the Burmese government has been trying to counter allegations that its soldiers have been raping and killing civilians.
Having barely escaped with their lives and leaving all their belongings behind, hoards of Rohingyas are seen begging in different parts of Bangladesh. Keeping in view the plight of Rohingya and the state of affairs in Bangladesh, it is in fact, the joint responsibility of the Muslim states to do something for this community on a war footing.