It’ll be nearing low season soon, but the high-end hotels of Cox’s Bazaar remain bustling with thousands of international aid workers who have descended upon the region to tend to the Rohingya.
Just as swiftly as they arrived, they will likely trickle out as the Rohingya plight fades out of the headlines. The same, however, cannot be said about the Rohingya population: The history of global refugee patterns tells us that a vast majority of them are likely to remain in Bangladesh.
Last week, Bangladesh planned to initiate the repatriation of over 770,000 Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, where just a few months prior they were subject to ethnic cleansing. The bilateral deadline was, unsurprisingly, missed.
As an eerie foreshadowing, smoke and gunfire was observed by Bangladeshi security officials inside Myanmar, the night before repatriation was set to begin. It was a clear indication of what human rights groups have cautioned against: It’s too soon for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of the Rohingya.
While the pursuit of an orderly repatriation is an honorable endeavour, Myanmar is not likely to commit to terms that will make this realistically possible in the near-term.
The details of the repatriation deal remain hazy, and the essential ingredients don’t appear to be present: Those of safety, citizenship, and sustainable housing.
The UN Human Rights Commission has stated that the safeguards for returnees are currently absent; while the Human Rights Watch gone as far as to describe the repatriation process a “public relations ploy” on behalf of Myanmar.
It’s time for Bangladeshi policy-makers to acknowledge the reality that the average length of global refugee displacement is 10-21 years. Fortunately, there are lessons from international refugee experiences that can help Bangladesh envision a successful long-term strategy to address the Rohingya population it has inherited.
First: Bangladesh should make it imminently clear to the Rohingya refugees that any repatriation will be conducted on voluntary terms, and only if their safety and civil rights are guaranteed. Many of the Rohingya have fled Myanmar on multiple occasions, lured back by false promises of safety in the past.
They are, justifiably, distressed by the prospect of a premature return. There have been several protests within the camps on this issue, and clarification of this position will engender greater trust and cooperation between Bangladeshi authorities and the Rohingya.
Second: The Rohingya refugees remain limited in their freedom, movement, and civil rights due to lack of identity. They are dangerously on track to becoming the Rohingya of Bangladesh, having swapped out one border out for another, unless the question of identity and status is addressed.
For those who will remain in Bangladesh (by choice or as a result of delayed repatriation), this move upholds their most basic human rights and makes it easier for the Rohingya to eventually participate in the local economy, build access to credit, and invest in their families and future.
It’s an essential step that can help break them out of the debilitating and destabilizing cycle of poverty and exploitation that too often seal the fate of refugees.
Third: If a large segment of the Rohingya population is to remain in Bangladesh, then the next question becomes, how will they earn a living and contribute to society?
There is concern whether Bangladesh, encumbered with its own poverty challenges, has the capacity to absorb the Rohingya refugees
Previous refugee crises have demonstrated that it is possible, through skills training and social integration programs for refugees to become not burdens, but value adds to the economy.
For example, 78% of Uganda’s refugee population (numbering 1 million) need no government aid due to training and job creation initiatives. Germany’s incentivized vocational and language training, alongside social integration initiatives also aim for a smooth absorption of its 1 million refugees and migrants into broader society.
It will require creative and contextualized planning for it to work for Bangladesh, but previous examples demonstrate that it is possible.
Fourth: Education of the Rohingya children is integral to successful integration efforts. Children account for almost 60% of the total refugee population. They have experienced the horrors of ethnic cleansing, which takes an extraordinary toll on their mental health and cognitive development.
Unstable children become unstable adults, and an effective antidote is to create safe, stable, and predictable learning environments for them (and it ought to include the currently prohibited Bengali language learning).
This has shown to reverse the impact of traumatic stress, and at the same time develop the necessary skills for smoother social and economic integration.
There is concern whether Bangladesh, encumbered with its own poverty challenges, has the capacity to absorb the Rohingya refugees.
To put this in perspective, the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is roughly equivalent to the number of job-entrants into Bangladesh’s labour force every year (approx. 1.2 million).
In this context, the absorption of the Rohingya into the economy, while no cakewalk, is certainly manageable if the will is there.
Fifth: For its swift and effective response to the refugee crisis, Bangladesh has provided a tremendous global public good. As such, it should press the international community to contribute a fair share so that it does not have to bear the burden on its own.
At a time when there is little to no global leadership to tackle the challenge of over 65 million refugees worldwide, Bangladesh has the opportunity to become a standard-bearer of the kind of resolve, vision, and commitment that is necessary to address this pressing international issue. In an election year, this kind of leadership undertaken by the current government will not go unnoticed.
Former UK Foreign Secretary and current president of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, highlights what is at stake when he writes: “Refugees and displaced people have lost everything. But [it] is not just about “them”; it is also about “us” ... it is a test of our character, not just our policies. Pass the test and we rescue ourselves and our values as well as refugees ... fail the refugees, and we fail ourselves.”
A successful vision of social and economic integration of the Rohingya forms a safeguard against intolerance, poverty, and the destabilizing allure of radicalism.
It is, most importantly, an investment towards a more stable and prosperous Bangladesh.
Samier Mansur is a global policy strategist who was recently on a humanitarian mission in the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh.