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Dhaka Tribune

Dhaka, Riyadh in dispute over issuing passports for Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh puts pressure to issue passports to 54,000 Rohingyas living in that country, threatens to send back Bangladeshis if Dhaka does not yield

Update : 23 Sep 2020, 09:26 PM

Bangladesh is under renewed pressure from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to issue Bangladeshi passports to 54,000 Rohingyas living in that country for decades.

Riyadh has threatened Dhaka that failure to do so will result in sending back Bangladeshis from Saudi Arabia, the single largest source of remittance for Bangladesh.

However, Dhaka says Bangladesh will not bring those people, who have been living in Saudi Arabia for three or four decades, after issuing passports or travel documents as they are not citizens of the country.

Bangladeshi diplomats both in Dhaka and Saudi Arabia agree that it is a troubling and sensitive matter as Saudi Arabia, host to the largest number of expatriate Bangladeshis, is involved.

Therefore, they said that the government is handling this issue carefully and a committee, headed by the foreign secretary, is looking into the issue.

In 1980s and 1990s, the then Saudi king took many Rohingyas in after being sympathetic, witnessing the distress of the persecuted community, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen told reporters on Wednesday.

Many of them went directly, while some may have gone through Bangladesh, he said.

“We do not know this fully,” he added.

“Now, they [the Saudis] are saying that there are 54,000 Rohingyas there who have no passports and documents. They are also saying to us to issue passports for them. We have said we will issue new passports if they held passports earlier, and if they have the papers related to passports. If they are not our people, we will not take them,” said the foreign minister.

When asked how Saudi Arabia can ask Bangladesh to issue passports for those who are not its citizens, he said: “This is a problem.”

As his attention was drawn to Saudi threat that Bangladeshis in that country will be sent back if passports are not issued to Rohingyas, Dr Momen said: “Some people at junior level are saying that ‘if you do not take them [the Rohingyas], back we will stop recruiting from your country and we will take a negative approach towards your 2.2 million people living here.’

“This has been conveyed to us from junior level. But I think it will not sustain,” he added.  

The minister also said: “Saudi Arabia is in a hurry. They are saying that they will not host any people without citizenship. They are telling us to address the issue quickly. They raise this issue frequently. We are continuing our talks.”

Saudi govt not looking to send back all 54,000 Rohingyas

Later in the day, the foreign minister told Dhaka Tribune that Saudi Arabia does not want to send back all the 54,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh.

Rather, he said that the kingdom just wants to ensure that these people have citizenship as, under the Saudi laws, the Rohingyas cannot be citizens of that country.

“We have asked them to provide the details. If we can be sure that those people went there using Bangladeshi passports, we will look into it,” said the minister.

“What they are talking about now is sending back 462 Rohingyas who are in jail. They provided us with the details and we have found that only a small number of people used Bangladeshi passports,” he added.

When asked if Saudi Arabia asked Bangladesh to take back all the Rohingyas living in that country, Dr Momen replied in the negative.

This particular problem not a new one

This particular problem is not a new one, according to the diplomats.

Saudi Arabia drew the attention of Bangladesh to this matter informally between 2007 and 2009.

In 2016, the Saudi foreign minister raised the matter with the then foreign minister of Bangladesh.

Earlier in the year, the Saudi government asked Bangladesh to take back 42,000 Rohingyas, as Riyadh believed that those persecuted people travelled to the kingdom with Bangladeshi passports.

Most of the Rohingyas live near Mecca, the holiest site for the Muslims.

Saudi Arabia wrote to Bangladesh quite a few times to address the issue, to which Dhaka asked Riyadh to provide the details with respect to the matter.

Test for Bangladesh-Saudi Arabia relationship

The issue regarding the Rohingyas has all but posed a challenge for the Dhaka-Riyadh relationship that is considered to be a very important one, say the diplomats.

In recent years, the ties between the two Muslim majority countries got closer in many fields, including all-important manpower and defence.

After a closure for seven years, the kingdom reopened its labour market for Bangladeshi workers in 2015.

Both the countries signed defence agreement and Bangladesh, the third largest Muslim populated country in the world, lent its support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen war. Bangladesh also joined the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance against terror organization Islamic State.

In January, the then Bangladesh ambassador in Riyadh, Golam Moshi, conveyed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the issue in relation to Saudi desire to send back the Rohingyas is a big challenge for the relationship.

He also laid emphasis on formulation of a policy in this regard.

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