Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
Bangladesh provided Rohingyas with shelter purely on a humanitarian ground. But it in no way means that the country will bear this burden for an indefinite period. Presence of such a huge number of foreign nationals is already an economic burden for the country in addition to creating social problems for the hosts. A new dimension is likely to be added to the existing crisis: Out of frustration for having no future and no land of theirs, Rohingyas may fall prey to militancy. And in that case, it would be another headache not only for Bangladesh but also for the rest of the world. So, the global community should redouble its efforts to ensure the return Myanmar citizens to their home without further delay. First of all, the Myanmar government denied the citizenship right of the Rohingya Muslims and forced them out of the country, creating one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern history. However, due to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s diplomacy and international pressure, Myanmar had to agree that Rohingyas are its own people and promise to take them back. But in pursuance of their deceitful policies and breach of commitments made in respect to Rohingya repatriation, Myanmar always created some sort of unrest in their country as an excuse to delay repatriation. Eighteen months on from the mass expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, no sustainable solution for the refugees is in sight.
Repatriation to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal not only to relieve the huge burden on Bangladesh but also because that is the strong preference of the refugees themselves. But the unfortunate reality is that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be unable to return home to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Systems are now largely in place to provide for their essential humanitarian needs in the sprawling refugee camps. It is now time to move beyond the emergency phase of managing this crisis. Shifting focus in this way requires Bangladesh to ease its restrictions on longer-term assistance. The Bangladesh government should lift its ban on the provision of formal education in the camps; local and international organisations are ready to provide such education. It should also improve law and order in the camps, where militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity and are consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political voices and leaders. This requires instituting a regular and effective Bangladeshi police presence in the camps and investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. For their part, donors should help Bangladesh not only to meet the refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs but also to cover the costs of measures that improve their lives and prospects for the future. Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon.
The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps. With no near-term prospect of returning to Myanmar, almost a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh face an uncertain future. An impressive aid operation has stabilised the humanitarian situation; attention must now turn to refugees lives and future prospects, in particular improved law and order and education for children. A lack of security and hope creates major risks. Militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity in the camps, consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political leaders. Without education opportunities, children will be left ill equipped to thrive wherever they live in the future. Bangladesh should institute an effective police presence in the camps and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. It should also lift its ban on formal education in the camps. If it does, donors should help meet the costs of these and other measures to improve refugees’ lives. The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects. A key priority is education. The Bangladesh government currently prohibits the provision of formal education to the refugees. This restriction robs families of their hope for a more economically secure future and ensures that a generation of children will be deprived of the skills they will need to flourish, wherever they ultimately live.
International pressure on Myanmar through the UN and by countries having influence in Naypyitaw should continue to focus on improving the situation of Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, a prerequisite for any sustainable return. This pressure should include insistence on implementing the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations of August 2017, in particular its detailed suggestions on addressing discrimination and ensuring freedom of movement and a credible pathway to restoring Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. It is only by demonstrably improving conditions in Rakhine that any refugees would consider returning home. At the same time, Bangladesh should recognise even if it does not want to state this publicly that no major repatriation is on the horizon. In this context, policies that restrict the Rohingya refugees’ ability to prepare for an uncertain future should be eased. Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority, and there exist local and international groups with the ability and willingness to do so. Measures to improve law and order would include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues now will do significant long-term harm to the refugees, and potentially fuel insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh. The Myanmar security forces’ mass expulsion of Rohingya starting in August 2017 created a major humanitarian emergency in neighbouring Bangladesh and the largest refugee settlement in the world.
Around one million Rohingya, from this and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some eighteen months on from the main exodus, a major humanitarian operation by local and international aid groups has successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services are now in place. As the monsoon season looms, the camps are much better prepared this year than before: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced. But there are limits to what can be done to mitigate risk in such densely packed camps carved out of former forest and where there are almost no flat areas. There is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon. The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of Rohingyas being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights. Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims) has escalated sharply since January. The fighting has affected remaining Rohingya communities, both because they are caught between the warring parties and sometimes find themselves in the crossfire, and because of the uncertainty and fear that fighting brings.
This creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and national elections in 2020. Myanmar authorities are yet to create necessary conditions for the safe and sustainable rehabilitation of the Rohingyas in their homeland. And obviously with the ill-intention of diverting global attention from the Rohingya issue, Myanmar authorities displayed the audacity to show a part of Bangladesh within their country map. By now, it has become crystal clear to the global community that it is due to Myanmar’s policy of procrastination, none of the citizens of that country could go back to their place of origin. The Rohingya issue gradually snowballed into a crisis and proved to be more tenacious than imagined initially. Almost two years have passed since more than a million Rohingyas fled Myanmar to escape persecution by the authorities of their country but none of these Myanmar citizens could be sent back to their homeland due mainly to the dilly-dallying policy pursued by the government of that country. And there is no perceptible symptom that the Myanmar government is really going to take back its citizens without delay.
Writer and Columnist