Eric P Schwartz, head of global advocacy organisation Refugees International, speaks to the Dhaka Tribune about the Rohingya crisis, recommending several steps to end the violence in Rakhine
With India and China – two diplomatic friends of Bangladesh – siding with Myanmar, how should Bangladesh handle the Rohingya issue?
I do not take it as a given that the positions of India and China are set in stone. From the US Congress, to Malala and the Dalai Lama, global public opinion is shifting in light of the horrors unfolding in Myanmar. Bangladesh is doing the right thing in accepting and working to assist the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and in urging an end to the attacks. It is on the right side of history and should continue to urge others, including India and China, to be so as well.
How do you see the plan of setting up a ‘safe zone’ for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh?
I’m not sure what you mean by the term, but I can say it is essential that the Rohingya are provided with a place of refuge as long as the current abuses continue. This is a basic part of international customary law and an even more basic aspect of common humanity. As in refugee crises of the past, providing safety and security to those in need will be accomplished through close cooperation between the host government and the international agencies, including IOM and UNHCR, supported by international donors.
In the long run, what sort of economic and social burden will the Rohingya refugees create and what can Bangladesh do to handle it?
First, we should all be viewing the current crisis for what it is: a humanitarian tragedy of historic proportions. The first question should be how we can end the ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity taking place in Myanmar, and ensure those fleeing atrocities are cared for. Yes, an influx of this magnitude brings challenges, but if handled correctly, the response can bring credit to the government of Bangladesh and to its supporters around the world.
How can Bangladesh mount pressure on Myanmar using diplomatic channels?
Bangladesh can continue to speak out about what it is seeing and urge its neighbours in the region and around the world to make strong statements and follow those up with action in the form of multilateral sanctions against the military in Myanmar. If properly unified, the UN Security Council and influential nations across the globe can put significant pressure on Myanmar to cease attacks and respect the rights of the Rohingya.
What strategy can Bangladesh take to repatriate the Rohingya population back to Myanmar at the earliest possible time?
The most immediate need is to address the root cause of the flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh, namely to put an end to the atrocities and ethnic cleansing taking place right now. In the long run, every effort should be made to address the root causes of flight in Myanmar and to allow for safe and voluntary return of those who have fled their homeland. But in the immediate term, the international community needs to come together to ensure that untold thousands do not suffer and die.
What role should Bangladesh play in Myanmar’s problems with its insurgent groups?
This is an issue outside the scope of our organisation’s mandate. But, however the issue of insurgents is addressed, it cannot be used as an excuse to perpetrate massive abuses against the Rohingya people, as is currently occurring.
What can the international community do to compel Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as legitimate citizens?
The international community can support the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in a report that was accepted by the government of Myanmar. Among the report’s findings is a recognition that Myanmar’s citizenship law is not in compliance with international standards and has not done justice to the credible claims of communities who have been living in the country for generations. It must be made clear to the Myanmar government that its treatment of the Rohingya is abhorrent and unacceptable and that a path to citizenship must be a part of the solution.