Rohingya refugees: An uncertain future ahead

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: August 11, 2018 21:28:22 | Updated: August 11, 2018 22:11:13

Bangladesh now hosts almost a million Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar district bordering Rakhine state in Myanmar where these people lived for generations. The influx of Rohingyas was the result of escalating violence and atrocities perpetrated against them by the Myanmar army and Buddhist extreme nationalist forces since the mid 1970s. The level of violence was scaled up to such a level where about 700,000 persecuted persons  were forced to flee  their homes and hearth since August 2017. Not only murder, rape, abduction and looting but also starvation were used to force these hapless people to flee for their lives. While fleeing, they were  subjected to further assault at checkpoints set up by the army on their way to Bangladesh and whatever money or any valuables they were carrying were looted and the women raped. The most depressing aspect of the new refugee arrivals is that 55 per cent are children and some of them arrived without parents. Adult females significantly outnumber adult males indicating the army especially targeted adult male Rohingya population for killing.

In a recent report, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) provided the data on the death toll of Rohingyas during the first month of the army's genocidal attack. An estimated 9000 Rohingyas, including 730 children under the age of five, were killed. The extent of barbarity is clearly visible in the village of Inn Din where 10 Rohingya men were executed in cold blood - two hacked to death and the remaining eight were shot by the army. The dead bodies were dumped in pre-dug grave. The massacre in Inn Din came to light due to the investigation undertaken by two Reuters journalists who are now charged with breaching the law and if convicted, may face 14 years' imprisonment.

Even before the August, 2017 exodus, hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas had been living in exile in a number of other countries, Like Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. The Burmese army's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas has been in the making for decades. Despite most host countries' condemnation of the recent atrocities against the Rohingyas, very little has yet been done in those countries to make their lives any easier. Many consider the refugees an unwelcome burden. In India there are 40,000 Rohingya refugees and these refugees are subjected to anti-Muslim persecution instigated by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliated Hindu extremist groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar last August as the pogrom against the Rohingyas started and extended full support to the Myanmar government's barbarity describing the Rohingyas as terrorists. Modi himself orchestrated a pogrom against the Muslims in the state of Gujrat while he was the state chief minister there in 2002. The 2002 Gujrat pogrom resulted in more than 2000 Muslims murdered and tens of thousands rendered homeless and subject to countless other savageries.

The UN has described Rohingyas as the most persecuted minority in the world. The pogrom carried out by the Myanmar army and the government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) has been described as a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing'' by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN Commissioner for Human Rights at that time. But India provided strong support to the Myanmar army as its Prime Minister equated Rohingyas to terrorists. The back-up from India and also Russia and China's silence and muted criticism of the regime from the major powers of the world emboldened the army to continue with its ethnic cleansing.

While the relevant UN agencies are involved in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees, the UN itself has not been able to come anywhere near to resolve this massive humanitarian crisis except making noises about helping Bangladesh to repatriate the refugees to their homes in Myanmar. The US and the European Union (EU) have taken some token actions against a very limited number of Myanmar Generals for their role in the pogrom. The international community's failure to act decisively not only emboldens the Myanmar army and its government under ASSK to continue the pogrom but is also likely to undermine human rights in other parts of the world where people face similar situations. The army is so emboldened that it claimed it was not targeting Rohingyas but was defending rights of all the citizens of the country. In response to such preposterous claim by the Myanmar government, the outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Al Hussein told the Human Rights Commission "In my four years as High Commissioner I have heard many preposterous claims. That claim is almost in its own category of absurdity''.

The harsh conditions of life for these refugees are a damning indictment of the international community in its failure to take any meaningful action or a threat to action against Myanmar to stop genocide against the Rohingyas. While the Myanmar government signed an agreement with Bangladesh to take the refugees back, nothing has happened so far. Also the refugees themselves are not willing to return to Myanmar without full guarantee of safety and fair treatment which include full recognition of their ethnic identity with citizenship.

The Bangladesh government policy is also to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. This policy is founded on the repatriations that took place following the 1974 and 1992 refugee influxes. Those were undertaken with the help of the UN. During those repatriation processes some refugees went back and many others stayed back. However, there is a major issue that needs to be resolved if the present crisis is to be resolved through repatriation. If repatriation in itself is the solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis, then why did the 1978 and 1992 repatriations not solve the problem? In fact, many repatriated refugees are also a part of the new wave of refugees to Bangladesh since August, 2017. Until the core issues underlying the crisis are addressed, repatriation in itself will not resolve the problem. The issues are quite clearly understood by all those who are concerned with the plight of the refugees and that will require the full recognition of the Rohingya ethnicity with full citizenship right and returning to their homes they left behind, not to camps. That is the minimum requirement without the fulfilment of which the crisis can not  be resolved. 

Meanwhile, political climate in Myanmar is increasingly becoming more and more authoritarian under ASSK; she has described herself as someone "above the president''. She can change country's president whenever she wishes to do so as she has done in the recent past. She does not allow any criticism of her policies, including her policy of persecuting Rohingyas, by any quarters. She has introduced laws banning any protest and severely limited activities of the UN and its agencies and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Her party National League for Democracy (NLD) is now no more than a fan club so much so that without her the party will not survive. ASSK remains firmly in charge of running the country. So any policy towards repatriating Rohingyas will have to factor in the ASSK factor. 

These refugees are housed in very rudimentary and highly vulnerable dwellings what in the local terminology are described as Jhupris and Kutcha houses. These dwellings do not provide any real protection from the heavy monsoon downpours or mudslides. To make the matter worse there is serious lack of pure drinking water or any meaningful waste disposal system creating an environment of serious health hazard not only for the refugees but also for the local people. A representative of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society said at a press conference held in late June that conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps were among the worst he had seen in twenty years. Also a World Health Organisation (WHO) official expressed his concerns over ongoing health dangers and feared increased risks of breakout of water-borne diseases  as monsoon rains and floodings begin.

Bangladesh does not recognise Rohingya refugees as refugees rather officially recognises them as "Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals''. Bangladesh also is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Refugees which obliges receiving countries to help those fleeing persecution.  As such the refugees are kept almost in a state of deprivation and uncertainty on the basis of which they will be repatriated. But repatriation can not happen until the regime in Myanmar creates appropriate conditions where the refugees could return home in a secure and safe environment and with dignity. Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of the international community, not of Bangladesh alone, to ensure that Rohingya refugees' rights and entitlements are respected and safeguarded while they are in Bangladesh.


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