Rohingyas: Millstone around Bangladesh's neck?

Shihab Sarkar | Published: August 30, 2018 21:50:25 | Updated: August 31, 2018 20:58:04

Against the backdrop of the hopelessness pervading the Rohingya refugees, a grim picture is emerging with every passing day. The scenario contains a multi-layer spectrum of realities. Those give a clear message to Bangladesh, the country which has been sheltering around 700,000 refugees from Myanmar since August 25, 2017. With the mass exodus of the Rohingya Muslims completing one full year, Bangladesh has yet to see any semblance of a way out of the crisis. The battered Rohingyas are also awaiting a light at the end of the tunnel. But all their dreams prove wishful thinking. Like the Bangladesh government, most of them are disillusioned with the diplomatic antics resorted to by the Myanmar government since the unfolding of the refugee deadlock.

Meanwhile, the total number of Rohingya refugees in the country's greater Cox's Bazar district now comes to 1.0 million. Many of them have crossed over to the country since the mid-1990s. Like in the case in 2017, those Myanmar nationals, too, fled to Bangladesh to escape oppression in the military-ruled country. The intensity of the oppression increased manifold in 2017, when the Myanmar army, militia and local thugs unleashed a savage form of ethnic cleansing, a veritable genocide to be precise, on the Rohingyas.  Although a considerable number of them were repatriated in a few years following their influx to Bangladesh, scores of others stayed back. The UNHCR-arranged makeshift accommodations apart, a lot of them fanned out into the surrounding villages. Through marriage with local Bangladeshis, many Rohingya men and women managed to find ways to mix with the mainstream population. The new arrivals since last year have long started becoming a daunting challenge for Bangladesh. Many notice the harbinger of dread and ordeals for the country in the Rohingya refugees in the coming days. There are little signs that the refugees will be able to return to their country anytime soon.

In the meantime, misgivings and ominous prospects continue to brew up. Notwithstanding its being confined to the country's southeastern region in the beginning, the crisis has lately started spreading to the outlying areas. It is even feared to spill over to some other territories in the region. There are potent reasons for these developments. Already, a significant number of the new Rohingya refugees have been found to be involved in various questionable activities. They range from crimes like violent engagements with the locals, smuggling-in of narcotics like Yaba, to collecting Bangladeshi passports to go abroad. Officially, the Rohingyas have been sheltered in 30 refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar district. But many remain outside, encroaching on vacant lots, felling trees and levelling hills. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government has taken initiatives to set up several large shelters on an offshore islet in the Bay of Bengal. The general people in the Ukhia area in Cox's Bazar district have not taken the Rohingyas in their good graces. In many areas, the earlier gesture of welcome has disappeared giving way to a feeling of apathy -- in cases open hostility. The refugees have in places outnumbered the locals, with small businesses and the labour market losing out to the outsiders. Sporadic outbursts of popular resentment have become common. The fast spread of criminal and anti-social activities among the unregistered refugees has for some time become a great headache for the local administration. If the menace is not reined in stringently, it threatens to spread to the nearby localities -- especially the beach town, Cox's Bazar, and the Chattogram city.

To make the situation worse, the earlier spirit and enthusiasm seen overseas is visibly on the ebb. Except the UN organisations, the EU and the US and some human rights agencies, international chorus in voicing concerns has largely died down. Many governments have not yet fully delivered on their promises to continue supplying relief materials for the Rohingyas. Due to the lukewarm stance of some member-countries, the UN Security Council could not take any strong resolution on the brutal military crackdown on the Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine state. It, however, condemned the violence let loose on the ethnic community that prompted their exodus into Bangladesh. Ironically, the Myanmar government did not appear to be serious at all to follow the recommendations made by the Annan Commission on the Rohingya plight in the country's Rakhine state. The commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was formed by the Myanmar government in August last year. In spite of the scandalous activities of a couple of high UN officials, posted in that country, in favour of the Myanmar's military-backed government, the world agency has not apparently backed out. It continued to exert pressure on the country.  The recent UN fact finding mission's call for prosecution of Myanmar's top generals for crimes against humanity including murder, torture, rape and extermination in Rakhine and other states of the country is a case in point. The UN Human Rights Council-sponsored mission came down hard on Myanmar military leadership for unleashing genocidal attacks on the country's Rohingya minority. The report has been termed one of the most unsparing of the accounts of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. But with ruses being employed by the country one after another -- in effect complicating the repatriation of the Rohingyas, these reprimands finally appear to fall on deaf ears.

One year into the crisis, few signs are there that can offer fresh hopes for a lasting solution to it. With the European refugee crisis threatening to return and a fresh one brewing in Venezuela, the international focus is set to shift to other spots.

Although the country is still hopeful about dealing with the Rohingya problem successfully, the ground reality tells a different tale. With overseas backing receding, the Rohingyas might finally turn out to be an unavoidable economic burden.   

Across the border, the Myanmar government appears to have taken their hands off the crisis which it has created. Aung San Suu Kyi still hides herself behind a veil of silence. On the other hand, in her references to the Rohingyas she appears to be echoing the views of the Myanmar army and the country's Buddhist leaders.  They call the Rohingyas 'Bengalees'. The recent 'request' of Myanmar on changing the definition of the Rohingya refugees on identity cards being issued to them carries ominous signs. The Myanmar government wants the words "The Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals" with the words "Displaced People from Myanmar".  The Bangladesh government stuck to its position, not entertaining the request. According to analysts, if the Rohingyas are ever repatriated, bearing the Mynamar-proposed ID definition, they are set to be doomed for generations. Like in the past, they have to live in their own land as 'stateless people'. At the same time, the country's security forces and the xenophobic elements will, in course of time, be absolved of the crime of ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims.  The techniques of dilly-dallying and hollow promises over Rohingyas' return resorted to by Myanmar make a stark fact evident: the Southeast Asian country is not at all willing to take its nationals back, let alone give them citizenship.  Amid disagreements between the global players on many international and regional issues, the Rohingya crisis may not merit a serious attention. The West will be more interested in rehabilitating refugees fleeing the other flashpoints in the world. For Bangladesh, all these mean portents of catastrophe.


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