One year ago we feared what the Monsoon rains would do to the still unsettled 700,000-odd new Rohingya refugees. With the help of our friends abroad, but mostly the relentless efforts of those on the ground in Cox's Bazar, from selfless humanitarian workers to security personnel, Bangladesh housed those refugees far more orderly than any refugees across the world recently. It did so while still posting increasing economic growth-rate, indicating our high absorbent capacity. Kudos go to many who stood up in the darkest hour of a hapless people.
Still, success invites complacency. As another Monsoon season approaches, complacency might become inordinately costly. "Raindrops keep falling on my head", a popular B.J. Thomas song, comes to mind upon reflection. It carries a lesson or two against our present Rohingya plight. Two verses give two different responses to that plight. In one, "like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed", ends with a condition in which "nothing seems to fit". This is the complacency consequence: piqued by our economic performances last year, we do nothing, believing the worst has been overcome.
Another verse projects a more positive can-do circumstance. My head may be wet from the Rohingya rain, "but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning red." The approach here is: "crying is not for me." To wit, we have the refugees secured enough to withstand another Monsoon, but let's face it: the ecology is being drained, local communities now ventilate their frustrations, expected finances increasingly fall short of operational costs, and with no return plan in sight, each "future" morning casts a gloomier forecast. If housing Rohingya refugees after accepting them in the country was Plan B, what a Plan C might try to do is to broaden the immediate future shadow.
Beyond the logical reasons are the financial and fatigue prompters. Donations are tapering, as expected, with a steeper Bangladesh burden each year. The growth of vested interests and financial infections complicate this. Earlier in March, the Liberation War Affairs Minister, A.K.M. Mozammel Haque released some startling but discomfiting news: only one-quarter of the aid received had actually been spent on the refugees; a whopping TK 1.70 billion has been spent on hotel expenses of the foreign relief workers (for only six months); and that some of the 3,000-odd foreign workers carried an "ill-motive."
To these might be added the ecological and community strains. In an already congested country, creating space for refugee camps meant clearing trees, mostly on hillsides, thus exposing the vulnerable and denuded surface to the relentless Monsoon rains. Natural land is being made unnatural. When one adds to that the giant tasks of sanitation, disease-prevention, and resumption of routine life activities as quickly as possible, like educating children and catering to child-births, the social or community limit exacerbates. With no neighbouring country bearing even a fraction of the burden Bangladesh carries with Rohingya influxes, the emergent global mindset portrays a "Bangladeshi problem. Our sense of cause-effect loosens, and with Bangladesh's name increasingly more associated with Rohingya refugees, Myanmar's burden eases just as ours begin to spiral.
Some consolation comes from the United Nations dubbing this particular expulsion as genocidal. Though working out all the arrangements for a criminal trial is too painstaking for an expeditious determination, what aggrieves us more is how the United Nations, especially when the proposal was first made, opposes the shift of under-50,000 refugees to Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. If that land is too fragile to host the refugees, then perhaps they should be redistributed across the world since we just do not have enough land for even our own 170 million citizens to live honourably.
Putting the Rohingya refugees to productive work is urgently needed, a proposal to everyone behind a policy-making lever, and knowledge for particularly the U.N. and NGO (non-governmental organisation) networks. Bhasan Char is the type of uninhabited land sprouting from the sea that can only be secured by inhabitation: once people move in, they can build their defences, using trees and plants to consolidate their land occupation and shelter against storms. Crop plantation would open up activities not many refugees get the luxury to engage in, while children-schooling would find a more relaxed atmosphere than in a camp.
Activities as these open up post-refugee windows, a fact of life we have to slowly ingest: no repatriation effort has so far worked, and not even the United Nations supports that outcome, at least for now. No bilateral negotiations with China have produced any tangible and visible refugee solution. And the last outcome Bangladesh wants is to make the Rohingya relief a permanent engagement, institutionalising hotel-based luxuriously-administered full-time relief in the process.
Only one pragmatic outlet remains: put the Rohingya refugees to work, not just to pay for the expenses being incurred on their behalf, apparently and increasingly from Bangladeshi coffers, but also for their future, for example, education and health costs, among others. Such work would have to blend with what is available and needed in Bangladesh. RMG outlets automatically come to mind. Women, even children, who dominate these influxes, supply those intricate skills best; and they are not unfamiliar to those skills either, since they have also sprung up across Myanmar. Establishing RMG plants would compensate for lost costs, make Bhasan Char look more like mainland, and beef protection against weather/climate ravages.
Who would initiate, administer, and be responsible for them? With the public sector too engrossed in many other tasks (particularly with megaprojects being built), the private sector slides in automatically. Prospective plant owners can be groomed to model the Accord-consistent and Alliance-friendly factories to exemplify the country's private-sector maturation. Yet, since the security hangover will still remain (if only to prevent the refugees from drifting into jihadi or extremist directions), public sector involvement becomes crucial. In fact, this private-public-partnership opportunity would illustrate Bangladesh's different and innovative approach to tackling refugee problem, setting up models other countries could emulate, rather than resolve them per se. Above all, it would help put a more positive spin to this uninvited crisis, which is only fattening with gossips and accusations, and release our prime touring locations along the Cox's Bazar beaches and Chittagong Hill Tracts back to tourism, ecologists, and fishermen.
Unless we take steps of a magnitude like this, or think outside the traditional box, we will be condemned to corruption, foreign penetration, and dole-recipient trademarks. Raindrops will keep falling, not just on our head, but also upon our reputation. "The blues they send to greet me," Thomas's song continues, "won't defeat me." Then the punch-line: "It won't be long 'till happiness steps up to greet me."
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.