The Refugee Problem in Bangladesh

The Rohingya crisis has been a long time coming. Since the 1970s, Myanmar’s government has enacted discriminatory practices towards the Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya. These include discrimination regarding employment, marriage, and most importantly revoking of citizenship status. While many Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries, successive governments in Myanmar have asserted that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many of the Rohingya lived in Rakhine State, the least developed by far in Myanmar. The poverty rate, 78%, is more than double the national average of 37.5%. In addition, religious tensions between the majority Buddhist population and the Muslim Rohingya have sparked into violence in the past.

In 2017, a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and military posts. The government declared them a terrorist organization and embarked on a brutal campaign in the Rakhine state to eradicate the group. However, their heavy handed approach includes a wide variety of alleged crimes, including firing on civilians and the widespread torching of Rohingya villages. Many have condemned the acts as no less than ethnic cleansing or genocide.

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh, putting extreme strain on the South Asian nation. Initially, Bangladesh was reluctant to open its borders, but intense international pressure caused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to relent. Nearly a million Rohingya live in refugee camps on the Bangladesh border. These refugee camps have created massive problems for Bangladesh, and repatriation needs to happen as soon as safely possible.

 Rohingya Refugee Camp  Photo Credit: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Rohingya Refugee Camp

Photo Credit: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

The refugee camps in Bangladesh present a wide range of issues. ARSA has pledged to continue its insurgent campaign, and many are afraid that the camps, on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, will become staging grounds for attacks into Myanmar. They also present an opportunity for the insurgents to recruit more for their cause. Economic issues are important as well. While Bangladesh’s economy grew by 7.1% last year, they are by no means a wealthy country. International humanitarian relief has come in, but it fails to adequately cover the extensive costs of the massive camps. While many Bangladeshis have found jobs catering to the on-the-ground relief efforts, some have complained about the influx of cheap labor and price hikes for basic goods. While no refugee camp should ever be a permanent fixture, the current situation in Bangladesh is unstable and needs to be resolved quickly.

Unfortunately, many believe that a solution is nowhere close to being found. The majority of the Rohingya refugees categorically refuse to return to Myanmar, believing they will be subjected to the same violence that caused them to flee their homes in the first place. The United Nations refugee agency says that any repatriation will be voluntary, which presents significant problems for Bangladesh. The longer the refugees stay, the less likely it is that they will leave.

For this refugee crisis to end, the situation in Myanmar to be resolved, so that the Rohingya can feel secure enough to move back to their homes, although many have been razed to the ground. International pressure on Myanmar has been slow-coming. While the Myanmar authorities signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this past June, which included pledges to invest in reconstruction, reconciliation, and respect for human rights, they have taken little to no action towards that goal. Various UN officials, including Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission into potential acts of genocide in Myanmar, called the situation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also taken the step of calling for prosecutions of those responsible for the crisis, breaking with the tradition of non-interference in each other’s affairs. While this is a good first step, ASEAN needs to do more than just join in the international outrage. Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh says that while ASEAN condemning Myanmar’s actions was a positive step, “it’s a little bit too little too late”. The crisis has been occurring for over a year and ASEAN has yet to discuss the situation formally, much less take decisive action.

Clearly, more needs to be done to address this situation. While international humanitarian relief to assist Bangladesh is welcome, it does not solve the underlying issue. A potential next step could be increased pressure on Myanmar from the two major powers in the region. However, this seems very unlikely to occur. China is hesitant to criticize other countries for human rights abuses while they engage in widespread abusive practices towards their Uighur population. India takes quite a negative view towards the Rohingya as well. Just recently, Indian police deported seven Rohingya illegal immigrants who had been imprisoned since 2012. Prime Minister Modi’s government has declared these immigrants to be a national security threat and has asked state governments to identify and deport them. India’s government does not wish for Rohingyas to enter India, which could lead to India increasing the pressure on Myanmar to reach a solution, allowing the nearly a million Rohingya refugees in the region to return home. It is unknown how long Bangladesh can provide for the current levels of refugees in the camps, and should the situation continue to deteriorate, it is a possibility that Rohingya refugees may attempt to enter India, something Modi’s party would not want to happen.