Over 400,000 persecuted Rohingya have already sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past month. The global communities, including civil society groups, politicians, and human right activists have expressed their deep concerns about Myanmar’s military crackdown and its atrocities on the Rohingya.
This time, the scale of violence has overtaken all past records. The military and the Myanmar government have defied and continue to flout all human rights -- setting Rohingya houses on fire, burning down villages, raping women, and killing innocent children.
On the other hand, in brief, the huge influx of Rohingya in Bangladesh has intensified our current crises related to devastating floods, food shortages, and suffering.
Without a state
The Rohingya are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously related to the people of Chittagong of southern Bangladesh.
History proves that they lived in the Arakan region as an ethnic minority group, today called Rakhine.
Some historians argue that if the Rohingya are mountain or hill-dwelling people, it is more likely that they moved from the hills of Chittagong to Myanmar because they spoke a language that did not fit the language framework of that state.
History has evidence that states that from ninth to 17th century, Muslims and Buddhists in both Arakan and Chittagong mixed.
They lived in Arakan for centuries until the Myanmar conquest of Arakan in 1785, when there was a mass migration of Rohingya to Chittagong.
After the occupation of Myanmar by the British, there was again a massive return of Rohingya to Arakan during the period of 1824-1885.
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, there had been some initiatives such as the “Resident of Burma Registration Act 1949” -- under which Rohingya were issued cards and declared as citizens during the rule of President U Nu (from 1954-1960).
But following the coup of General Ne Wing in 1962, the persecution of Rohingya became severe and the government started denying the Rohingya’s right to vote.
The country again passed the citizenship act in 1982, which deprived Rohingya of citizenship and finally in 2006, the Arakan National Council declared the Rohingya as Bangladeshis. Right now, Rohingya are not listed in the 135 national races, and their present legal status, in international law, is a “de facto statelessness.”
The overall pattern is one of failure of the richer countries to honour the principle of sharing the burden
Life in shambles
In the last few years, many Rohingya have been smuggled to countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc through various informal but organised trafficking channels.
Denial of citizenship by the Myanmar government and initial denial of entry of Rohingya into Bangladesh have pushed many back to the sea with little choice, and forced them to move on to new destinations through uncharted routes or led them to opportunists demanding exorbitant amounts of money in the name of rescue by boats or giving shelter.
What should the world do?
The UNHCR and other international humanitarian organisations should provide protection and assistance in the refugee camps in Bangladesh until further notice and should take every step to eliminate the root causes of the exodus to Bangladesh.
It should also create an environment conducive to the return of the Rohingya refugees to their homeland in safety and with dignity. The UNHCR must put pressure on the Myanmar government to amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Act, with the effect of granting full citizenship and accompanying rights, in particular the right to freedom of movement to the Muslims of Rakhine state.
The international community and donor governments should continue to give increased financial support to the UNHCR and other agencies to allow them to address adequately and effectively the protection and humanitarian needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The international community should coordinate their efforts to press the Myanmar government to implement fully the April 2000 resolution of the UN Commission for Human Rights which calls on the Myanmar government to address the causes of displacement.
Ultimately, the world needs to work together and put pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingya back to their country, give them citizenship rights, and secure their stay with dignity.
A welcoming neighbour
The government of Bangladesh has already taken steps to address the Rohingya issue. For humanitarian reasons, Bangladesh is giving them shelter in its territory. But giving shelter temporarily can’t be a solution.
For a permanent solution, Bangladesh needs to convene a number of bilateral (Bangladesh and Myanmar), multi-lateral (Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and others), regional, and international (US, EU, UK, Australia, Canada, India, China, and others) discussions.
The only sustainable solution to the problem is changing the conditions that put the Rohingya lives at risk in the first place. Bangladesh should continue to put pressure on Myanmar and intensify its bold, rigorous, and proactive diplomatic steps (already taken) in resolving the problems in collaboration with regional and international agencies and big powers, particularly engaging both China and India.
Where does the solution lie?
Looking at the suggestions of famous anthropologist Ted C Lewellen given in his book entitled The Anthropology of Globalisation: Cultural Anthropology Enters the 21st Century, Rohingya problem can be resolved in the following ways:
Voluntary repatriation: Refugees return to their former country of nationality when conditions prevail and allow returnees to live with safety and dignity. Between 1992 and 2005, 236,599 persons (47,300 families) were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Since then there has been no further repatriation operation. The UNHCR primarily looks for repatriation, if a safe condition prevails for the returnees. It is important to mention that Lewellen has given most emphasis on this option as refugees always prefer to go back to their country of origin.
Local integration: Local settlement and integration of refugees in their country of first asylum upon receiving agreement from the host country is the second option for resolving the situation.
This grants refugees a permanent right to stay in the host country. However, governments in both the developed and developing world are generally reluctant to give consent to this.
But in the last few years, many of the Rohingya have managed to settle in Bangladesh, though in the beginning Bangladesh firmly opposed Rohingya’s entry to our country on the logical grounds of already having population problems, security issues, and other problems in the region.
Resettlement in another country of asylum (third party): The UNHCR continues to resettle many refugees globally under a quota scheme, in which participating countries agree to take a certain number of refugees each year.
The overall pattern is one of failure of the richer countries to honour the principle of sharing the burden of the global refugee population with developing countries. And in the case of more than 700,000 Rohingya -- resettlement to several third countries should be one of the tried tactics of UNHCR to lighten the burden on Bangladesh.
Saifur Rashid is Professor of Anthropology, University of Dhaka.