In 2017, as the world watched with horror the unfolding of the Rohingya genocide, Bangladesh became host to almost a million refugees fleeing for their lives. Now, 6 years later, with a growing Rohingya population in the refugee camps, Bangladesh feels increasingly abandoned by the international community, having to bear the financial and political burden of providing home to them. Shahadat Hossain looks at the various issues leading up to the current situation, and how a sustainable solution may be possible.
The Rohingya crisis is one of the major refugee crises in the world. The horrific Rohingya genocide — labelled as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the United Nations — started on 25 August 2017, perpetrated by the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. When violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) State, over 742,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh. After six years, there is no visible solution to the crisis. Instead, day by day, it is becoming more critical due to a reduced aid budget, and internal and external security challenges.
As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Bangladesh is understandably facing challenges in hosting such a large number of refugees in overcrowded camps, with limited resources. During the pandemic, it was challenging for international humanitarian organisations to protect the refugees from the spread of Covid–19 in these densely populated camps. The concept of social or physical distancing was practically non-existent within the Rohingya camps. Even after the pandemic, the Rohingya people continue to face another ‘pandemic’; recently, the UN has reduced its food budget for the Rohingya, apparently twice in a short period of time.
The UN has declared a reduction in the budget for Rohingya’s food assistance from US$12 per person to US$10 per person (from March 2023), blaming cuts in their own budget. Although humanitarian bodies, including community leaders, express frustration over this decision, the UN implemented a second cut in food assistance for Rohingya from US$10 to US$8 in June. Thus, within four months, the UN food budget for the Rohingya refugees has been reduced by approximately 33.33 per cent.
A major challenge within the camps is the widespread arms conflict among different groups of Rohingyas. In the first half of this year alone, at least 48 Rohingya individuals, including camp leaders and members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), have died in clashes and gunfights. The Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar are strategically located in a region that comprises the centre of the drug trafficking zone known as the ‘Golden Triangle’; this illegal trade also takes advantage of the ongoing intra-faction conflicts in the camp. Nowadays, Rohingyas in the camp live in fear and apprehension. It has become commonplace in the camps for armed conflicts or kidnappings to occur after sunset. In this situation, a large number of Rohingya adolescents — who are the future generation of Rohingya — are growing up in an unfriendly and intimidating environment filled with fear.
There has also been an increasing tension between the host country and the refugees. Xenophobia against the Rohingyas is spreading rapidly; hate speech is being manufactured against them on social media, and even mainstream media is propagating negative narratives about them. I sent a questionnaire to 200 graduate and post-graduate students from universities across Bangladesh. Among the respondents, 91 per cent believed that xenophobia against the Rohingya community has increased; additionally, 85 per cent of the respondents believed that the term ‘Rohingya’ was being used as a means of bullying in Bangladesh.
The New York Declaration on the Rohingya Crisis
The New York Declaration entails major commitments for refugees including protecting the human rights of all refugees and migrants, and sharing the responsibility for refugees with the international community. But the unfortunate reality is that aid from the international community is decreasing. Bangladesh has relocated approximately 100,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, and island in the Bay of Bengal, but the move poses environmental and climate risks, raising concerns about the safety and well-being of the relocated refugees. Consequently, it appears that the commitments made in the New York Declaration are not being upheld in the Rohingya crisis.
The ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response and Framework’ aims to expand ‘third state’ solutions and support the safe and dignified return of refugees to their home countries. But a ‘third state’ solution for more than 1.1 million refugees is an almost impossible task.
Geo-Politics Hindering a Resolution of the Rohingya Crisis
The geo-politics of the region is exacerbating the Rohingya crisis, with neighbouring China and India being key players. China’s actions stand out as it has continuously shielded Myanmar from UN resolutions aimed at addressing the Rohingya issue; in December 2018, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) formulated a plan of action for the Rohingya crisis which was boycotted by both China and Russia.
In 2020, when the UN tried to issue orders to Myanmar based on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) statement concerning the Rohingya issue, China exercised its veto power to block the efforts. China’s stance on the Rohingya crisis appears to prioritise safeguarding its own interests in Myanmar, which include the construction of a deep-sea port, and gas and oil pipelines in Rakhine province. China therefore prioritises her own interests over addressing the humanitarian aspects of the Rohingya crisis.
India, as a neighbouring country to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, has responded to the Rohingya crisis with a critical stance. During the Rohingya genocide in 2017, a World Parliamentary Forum convened and adopted the ‘Bali Declaration’ as a demonstration of solidarity with the Rohingya people; India chose not to join this declaration, showing its cautious approach to the crisis. India is implementing its strategic project (the ‘Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project’) in Rakhine state, and is also planning the India–Myanmar–Thailand highway. These interests contribute to India’s constructive position in the Rohingya crisis.
Sustainable Solution of Rohingya Crisis
The sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis is the repatriation of Rohingya people to their homes, ensuring their rights and dignity. In 1978, there was a repatriation of Rohingya, which serves as evidence of the potential resolution of this crisis.
Bangladesh has been making efforts for Rohingya repatriation, hosting bilateral and multilateral talks. Prime Minister Hasina of Bangladesh has raised the issue in the United Nations General Assembly several times. Bangladesh is also seeking assistance from China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to mediate and find a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis. During the 12th Foreign Office Consultation (FOC) between Dhaka and Beijing in May 2023, China reiterated its commitment to early repatriation of Rohingyas to the Rakhine state; with Chinese support, Bangladesh signed a bilateral deal with Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation.
Despite two attempts, no Rohingya agreed to return voluntarily to Myanmar, arguing that there is a lack of security in Rakhine state, and no guarantee of citizenship; the trilateral mechanism initiative for Rohingya repatriation seems less practical when the UNHCR is not involved in the discussions. The involvement of the UN refugee agency and the international community in repatriation discussions and ensuring citizenship for the Rohingya can lead to a practical and sustainable solution.
Intra-factional arms conflicts and a reduced food budget have made Rohingyas vulnerable in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, especially in Cox’s Bazar. Xenophobia against the Rohingya within the host community is also undermining the principles of the New York Declaration; so, the promises outlined in the New York Declaration have not been adequately fulfilled. Further, the Rohingyas lack strong civil society leadership within their community to voice concerns regarding their rights in global conventions; to uphold the New York Declaration the international community must step up its responsibility to protect the Rohingya, and ensure their basic human rights.
Finally, China and India, as influential regional powers with extensive interests and investments in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, should realise that delaying a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis can lead to humanitarian crises and security threats for the entire region in the longer term. A coordinated global and regional commitment is likely to be more impactful in finding a sustainable resolution to this humanitarian crisis.
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Banner image © SH Saw Myint, ‘Kutupalong Refugee Camp’, Cox’s Bazar, 2022, Unsplash.