Hapless refugees -- the harsh realities

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: June 28, 2018 21:46:30 | Updated: June 29, 2018 21:37:58

A lot of people may have already been on the verge of becoming oblivious to Europe's migrant crisis of 2013-15. But although the intensity of the mass influxes into the continent has weakened considerably, it has not disappeared. The news of overturning of makeshift boats loaded with Europe-bound refugees and their rescues last week has reenacted a dreadful ghost. The June 23 boat-sinking off the Libyan coast took a heavy toll on the fresh wave of migrants. It left 11 dead. Nearly 1,000 people from the 'boat in distress' were rescued by Libyan coastguard patrol vessels.

 A troubling development seen in the recent desperate bids made by migrants to reach Europe is they include Bangladeshis. Along with the migrants from northern Africa, Syria and western Asia, Afghanistan in particular, significant numbers of Bangladeshis are making the perilous Europe-bound journeys across the Mediterranean. According to foreign media reports, on average 30-40 Bangladeshis illegally enter Libya daily to reach Italy across the Mediterranean. Bangladesh is now considered the single biggest country of origin of refugees on Italy-bound unseaworthy boats using a newly discovered route. Migrant observers now put Bangladesh alongside Nigeria.

As has been seen with many countries at the height of refugee influxes to Europe, Italy has declared its doors shut on the new migrant arrivals. In 2013-15, a couple of European countries had adopted a rigid stance on allowing the migrants in since the beginning. The position emerged as being in sharp contrast to Angela Merkel's Germany. It stretched out its arms to the people fleeing the alarming scale of violence and bloodshed in their countries. They came mostly from Syria, torn by civil wars, and the countries in northern Africa. A mixed style of greetings has been seen in the recent cases of rescuing refugees from overturned boats, and the hunt for new shelters for them. All these remind the Europeans and the agencies dealing with refugees that the migrant crisis still hovers above Europe. It has yet to be over completely. 

To make an appraisal, the scourge of forced displacement, commonly known as refugee crisis, remains integrally associated with the 21st century world -- like it did in the 20th century. It normally follows wars, conflicts, civil wars, and ethnic violence. In the post-World War-I period, other types of refugees entered the scenario. Those included mostly economic migrants, who fled to alien territories with their lands being overrun by invading forces. It assumed an alarming level in the post-World War-II times. Apart from the Jewish Diaspora from Hitler's Germany, prompted by a combination of xenophobic and economic reasons, dozens of such migrations continued to surface in the later decades -- most of which centring on a search for better life in the industrialised Europe and North America. To the foreboding of many, the economic migrants staged a vengeful comeback following the sparking off of civil wars and ethnic feuds first in sub-Saharan Africa and then in the countries spreading from Iraq, Syria to Afghanistan. Bangladesh was sucked into the vicious whirlpool owing to its pervasive poverty at the grassroots level. In the recent decades, climate refugees occupy a major place in the chart of global migrants.

When it comes to Bangladesh, the country has experienced a massive refugee influx in 2017. The entry of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in a bid to escape ethnic persecution in Myanmar has taken a critical turn since that year. The refugees began entering Bangladesh illegally in the early 1990s. In 2017, their number stood at 6,55,000 as per an estimate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). However, their total number in the country, including those from the batches of earlier entrants, is estimated to be nearly 1.0 million. The Rohingyas sheltered in Cox's Bazar in the country's southeastern part are considered one of the major migrant communities in recent history. Like many other refugee groups in the world, they have been compelled to leave their country in the face of barbaric violence perpetrated by the mainstream ethnic groups. A similar episode in 1994 witnessed the exodus of Tutsis, a minority ethnic group, in Africa's Rwanda after a brutal genocide let loose on them by the majority Hutus. As a distinct ethno-religious group, the Rohingya Muslims have been a victim of discrimination and racial hostility in Myanmar for five decades. The hate campaign, chiefly launched and orchestrated by the Buddhist-majority groups with patronage from the military junta reached a violent form -- naked and atrocious, in 2017. With their hearth and home burnt down amid a ruthless orgy of killings and rapes in the Rakhine state, the Rohingyas began entering Bangladesh one more time, from August 25 last year. As the number of the refugees swelled, majority in the global community did not fail to condemn the Myanmar government. The UN swung into deterrent actions and firmly stood by the Rohingyas. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the persecution of the minority group an 'ethnic cleansing'. The UNHCR could not be more apt as it called the Rohingyas the third largest refugee group in the world in 2017. According to the UN agency, the number of Rohingyas followed the over 10,00,000 refugees from South Sudan and 745,000 from Syria. 

As the UNHCR observed on World Refugee Day on June 20, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world stood at 68.5 million in 2017. They included refugees, the internally displaced, and asylum seekers. In that year, the highest number of refugees came from the strife-torn South Sudan. The Rohingyas streaming into Bangladesh to flee persecution in Myanmar constituted the third-largest segment of the refugees. These three groups of migrants, including those from Syria, are part of the 2.7 million people who were victims of direct violence in their respective countries. As has been seen in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is the stateless refugees who comprise the most unfortunate segments of the refugees. Many leave their centuries-old homelands never to return there. What awaits them is wandering from one country to another before finally settling down in some territories and living at the mercy of the locals. Few existential ordeals and humiliations could be more acute and severe. In the modern times, this nightmare of moving places without a land of their own defines the very existence of the stateless Palestinians. Earlier, a century ago, this bitter experience visited the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Forty-six years before the Rohingya influx, Bangladesh underwent a reverse refugee movement as more than 10 million of its people fled the country in 1971. It occurred during the nine-month Liberation War in 1971, when the Pakistani occupation army let loose a brutal genocide on the unarmed Bengalees of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. The spate of killings and pervasive horror prompted a mass exodus of the panicked Bengalees to the neighbouring India. Like many refugees elsewhere in the world, those of Bangladesh returned to their native country after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state. But many are not fortunate enough to return to their home countries, or set foot on a place -- firm and steady, prompting them to opt for a life without roots. International and Dhaka-Naypyidaw bilateral efforts at ensuring a secure and dignified return of Rohingyas to their homeland continue. But with Myanmar still virtually non-committal about taking back the Rohingya refugees, and far from showing willingness to grant them their citizenship status, the refugees remain in a limbo. A lot of people conversant with Mynamar's shabby treatment of the Rohingyas are doubtful about the end of the ethnic minority's statelessness anytime soon.                

In general hapless peoples fleeing wars, violence and persecution dominate the refugee landscape. Few regions in the continents of Asia and Africa at present are free of the maladies of war, conflict and racial feud. As has been observed by UNHCR, 16.2m people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict or generalised violence in 2017. According to it, the figure means 44,400 people every day, which is the highest number recorded by it. Regional and country-based hostile situations continue to create refugees. A majority of them take shelter in the neighbouring countries. The venturesome and the desperate types fan out throughout the world, with many destined for developed nations in their quest for a safe and secure life. The warmth at the government and public level over the distraught migrants seen a couple of years ago is all but gone. Thanks to the hostile situations created by a section of migrants in a few European countries, the earlier gestures of welcome have veritably petered off. The recent hardened stance of Italy on the refugees from northern Africa and Middle East is just a part of it. Regional observers apprehend, given the unwarranted delays in effective repatriation of Rohingyas, apathy towards these refugees may also grow in Bangladesh, at both government and public levels. Already signs of hostility have been detected among the locals. How far the government is prepared to bear with the fast increasing refugee burden is anybody's guess. 



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