In the last two weeks, Bangladesh has received around 300,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar from the latest round of violence. Dhaka Tribune’s Abu Siddique speaks to Vivian Tan, spokesperson of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about the immediate and the long term aspects of this crisis.
With India and China - two usual allies of Bangladesh - siding with Myanmar, how should Bangladesh handle the Rohingya issue?
Bangladesh is handling it the best way possible. It’s being humanitarian. It’s looking at human rights and people’s needs first, before politics and anything else. We are so grateful for that. Everybody knows that the country has been hosting Rohingya refugees since the 1970s. Like the government, the locals have also been positive about the refugees.
But if you ask me about diplomatic ties and relations, I cannot answer, because it is beyond my mandate.
But the thing is - the world is watching what is going on in this part of the world. So many countries have expressed their concern and are coming forward to support Bangladesh.
Yes, So many. But that's numbers only. It does not necessarily translate to effectiveness.
It will definitely add up. I think showing solidarity is a big deal. Many countries are supporting the approach to humanitarian assistance and the support will definitely become stronger. We have to be optimistic.
Do you see the possibility of setting up a safe zone for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh?
We are talking about the issue every day with the government. Right now, different UN agencies and NGOs are working here to provide food, shelter, healthcare and so on. That’s the current approach. The Rohingya people who are coming here are living in a scattered way, which is not sustainable. It needs to be more coordinated and organised. The UN has been asking the government for more land so that we can set up camps for them. It’s an ongoing discussion. When we get the lands, we will set up their designated camps, like the existing registered camps, which will include services they need.
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In the long run, what sort of economic and social burden will the Rohingya refugees create and what can Bangladesh do to handle it?
We are in this together. The international community needs to scale up its support to Bangladesh as the country has already taken up the burden by being the host. As Bangladesh is a sovereign country, we cannot instruct it on what to do. What we will do is enhance our support to Bangladesh the way it wants.
This is definitely a social burden for the host people as they are sharing their land and everything with the refugees. That is why one of the approaches we usually take in case of mass refugee influx is that we don’t only help the refugees, we also try to help the host communities. This means that after the initial life-saving stage, the assistance will be broader. We have to help the local people cope with the burden.
In other places, what we do is bring development actors for the community to build infrastructure and promote investment so that the all people can get the benefits in the long run, to minimise their burden. For instance, we might set up new and modernised health camps or build roads so that everybody can get good services.
How can Bangladesh increase the pressure on Myanmar using diplomatic channels?
In the past, there have been several returns. Many of the Rohingyas who came here in the 1970s and 1990s returned later when the situation calmed down. So it's been done before. So it is possible to send them back again. But what is really important is that the conflict and the condition has to improve. I think I have mentioned the recommendations of Rakhine Advsory Commission, which expressed the need to stabilise and develop the Rakhine state. We believe that once the conflicts ease and stop, those steps can be taken by the Myanmar government.
Do you think the conflicts will stop? How?
It has to, but I don’t know how. We have a small presence in Maungdaw and other places in the Rakhine state. But we don’t have any humanitarian access there. Basically, we can’t say what’s happening there right now. We have been asking the Myanmar government frequently for access there.
What strategy can Bangladesh take to repatriate the Rohingya population back to Myanmar at the earliest possible time?
UNHCR thinks that any return has to be voluntary and safe. As long as the violence and conflicts continue there, we will not advise sending anybody back. The situation has to calm down and stabilise. Even though now we are focusing on life saving activities, we also discussing with the government ways on how the new arrivals can be registered and documented. When we repatriate them, we need to inform their government about their names and identities. There are a lot of other things we have to do, but for now we are doing emergency assistance.
What can the international community do to compel Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as legitimate citizens?
UNHCR has a mandate for stateless people. Many Rohingya are stateless. We have been working with the Myanmar government for several years to sensitise the issue and address the problem of statelessness. Not only the Rohingya, other small groups inside there are also facing this problem. In response to our offers, the Myanmar government addressed the issue through things like the Nationality Verification work, a few years ago. However, the process is not always smooth. There is still a lot of mistrust.
Do you think making the Myanmar government aware or sensitised about the importance of diversity is enough to repatriate the Rohingya refugees?
I think we need to try different approaches. Another thing is the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission for introduction of development work. The Rakhine state is the second poorest area in Myanmar. Poverty triggers tension among the communities. The recommendations are to bring development actors to the region so that the quality of life of the people improves. If living standards are improved, everybody will get the benefits, and ultimately the tension will come down.