According to the United Nations estimate, more than 400,000 persecuted Rohingya people have already sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past three weeks. The global communities including the civil society groups, politicians, human rights activists and Nobel laureates have expressed their deep concerns about the military crackdown, atrocities and the brutalities unleashed on the Rohingyas. The violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar has crossed all the previous records. The Myanmar government and the military are violating the human rights. They are setting fire to the Rohingya houses, burning down their villages, raping their women and killing their community members. The influx of Rohingya people in Bangladesh has been a big burden on Bangladesh at this moment, as one-third of the country is affected by devastating floods.
The Rohingyas who have been living in Myanmar for centuries in its Rakhine state are an ethnic minority group. They are a Muslim minority group numbering about 1.0 million and living mostly in northern Rakhine state adjacent to the border with Bangladesh. They are ethnically, linguistically and religiously related to the Chittagong people of southern Bangladesh. History suggests they have been living in the Arakan region of Burma, now called Rakhine. Some historians argue that if the Rohingya people are mountain or hill-dwelling people, it is more likely that they moved from the hills of Chittagong to Burma, because they spoke a language that did not fit into the language-based nationalism of that state. It is found in the history that from 9th to 17th century there were free mixing of Muslims and Buddhists in both Arakan and Chittagong. They lived in Arakan for centuries until the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, when there was a mass migration of Rohingya to Chittagong. After the occupation of Burma by the British, there was again a massive return of Rohingyas to Arakan during the period of 1824-1885. Since Burma's Independence in 1948, there had been some initiatives. Under the 'Resident of Burma Registration Act 1949', Rohingyas were issued cards and declared citizens during the rule of President U Nu (from 1954-1960). But following the coup of General Ne Wing in 1962, the persecution of Rohingyas went up and the government started denying the Rohingyas right to vote. Following that the country again passed the citizenship act in 1982, which deprived Rohingyas of citizenship and finally in 2006 the Arakan National Council declared the Rohingyas as Bangladeshis. Right now, Rohingyas are not listed anywhere, though there are '135 national races', and their present legal status is a 'de facto statelessness'.
Over the last few years, thousands of Rohingyas have been trafficked into other countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc. through various informal but organised trafficking channels. Denial of citizenship by the Myanmar government and the denial of entry into Bangladesh have forced many Rohingyas to take sea routes to new destinations or leave them in the hands of people who are demanding exorbitant amounts of money in the name of rescue by boat or giving them shelters.
The UNHCR and other international humanitarian organisations should continue giving them protection and assistance at the refugee camps until a durable solution is available. They should take every step to eliminate the root causes of the exodus and create an environment conducive for return of the Rohingya refugees safely and with dignity. The UNHCR should put pressure on the Burmese government to amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Act to the effect of granting full citizenship and basic rights, in particular the right to freedom of movement, to the Muslims of Arakan State.
For finding a permanent solution to the Rohingya problem, Bangladesh needs to convene a number of bilateral (Bangladesh and Myanmar), multilateral (Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and others), regional and international (USA, EU, UK, Australia, Canada, India, China and others) discussions. International organisations like United Nations, UNHCR, IOM, OIC and others should work together and put pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back to their country, give them citizenship and secure their rights. The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that have put their lives at risk in the first place i.e. Myanmar. The government of Bangladesh should continue its pressure on Myanmar and intensify its bold, rigorous and proactive diplomatic efforts in resolving the problems in collaboration with regional and international agencies and big powers, especially China and India.
Famous anthropologist Ted. C. Lewellen made suggestions in his book titled The Anthropology of Globalisation: Cultural Anthropology Enters the 21st Century. In view of the suggestions, the Rohingya problem can be solved in the following ways:
- Voluntary Repatriation: Refugees will return to their former country of nationality, when peaceful conditions will prevail. The returnees will be allowed to live safely with dignity. Between 1992 and 2005, 236,599 persons (47,300 families) were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar's Rakhine State. Since then there has been no further repatriation. The UNHCR primarily looks for repatriation, if a safe condition (no further fear of persecution) prevails for the returnees. It is important that Lewellen has laid most emphasis on this option as refugees always prefer to go back to their country of origin.
- Local integration: Local settlement and integration of refugees in their country of first asylum on consent from the host country is the second option for resolving the situation. This grants refugees a permanent right to stay in the host country. Governments in both the developed and developing countries are generally reluctant to give consent to it. But in last few years, many of the Rohingyas have managed to settle in Bangladesh, though from very beginning Bangladesh was firmly opposing Rohingyas' entry. They have cited the reasons that the country has many other problems and there are also some security issues in the region. As a democratic country and, above all, on the humanitarian ground, Bangladesh has been giving positive response to the Rohingya influx not turning them back at the border where they can be at risk.
- Resettlement in another country of asylum (third countries): The UNHCR continues to resettle many refugees globally under a quota scheme, in which participating countries agree to take a certain number of refugees each year. In the event of more than 700,000 Rohingyas, their resettlement to several third countries should be one of the options for UNHCR to shift the burden from Bangladesh.
Dr. Saifur Rashid is a professor of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka.