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A glimpse of ancient refugees

  • Published at 12:00 am January 16th, 2019

What history tells us about refugees

The persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state has been going on for a long time -- deaths so far are in the thousands. Many Rohingyas have taken asylum in Bangladesh, fleeing the persecution in the Rakhine state. 

There is a wide perception prevailing among many Bangladeshi people that many Rohingyas who come to Bangladesh fleeing the persecution get involved in illegal activities to provide for their families and earn a living. 

In addition, the ongoing outbreak of yaba in Bangladesh adds to this perception -- a touch of rationality -- since Myanmar is reportedly known as the place where yaba is manufactured. It is observed that with the growth of the Rohingya refugees, the explosion of the yaba might acquire new dimensions in our country. 

So, a question imposed based on this perception -- whether immigrants fleeing from hostile homelands create a burden and a weary condition for the state that is hosting them. 

Many Bangladeshis have long been bothered with the thought that Rohingya refugees may pose a threat to the precarious demographic balance of this country. Some perceive them as an economic burden and security risk.

The cases of migration of victimized people from their own land to another foreign land due to ethnic conflicts are not unfamiliar to the world from ancient times. Let’s reach inside the receptacle of history and see what those immigrants brought to the fate of the land they migrated into and we will see interesting results.

Through Alhambra Decree, in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled all Jews from their nation -- this marked the starting of the Inquisition. 

But in the same period, a proclamation was issued by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II that welcomed Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain. The Ottoman territories hosted almost 250,000 Jews. Interestingly, these Jews brought benefit to the Sultan’s kingdom. 

Rather than imposing a burden in terms of security and economy, these Sephardic Jews used their new homeland to create a second Golden Age, echoing the one they once had in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Ottomans were exposed to the printing press, for the first time, by these refugees and the sultan was also financed in many operations by the wealthy newcomers. 

As a token of affection, these Jews were offered the city of Tiberius -- where many decimated settlements were seen imbued with new life and vitality by their efforts. The refugees made many heavily eroded lands into gardens by restoring houses and clearing rubbles.

At variance with the welfare brought forth by the Jews in a Muslim land, there is another history that dates back to almost a thousand years prior to the sultans embracing Jews from their expulsion caused by the Spanish kingdom of the medieval era. During the 4th century, the mighty Rome faced a refugee crisis -- witnessing 200,000 Goths pleading for asylum beside Rome’s northern border. Though they were allowed safe haven inside the walls of Rome by Emperor Valen, but in the end it backfired. 

Corrupt officials of the Roman Empire resorted to stealing food that was meant to be given to the hungry Gothic hordes who fled from the persecution of the Huns, resulting in a revolt which ultimately caused the death of Emperor Valen and sacking of Rome itself by the Gothic refugees. 

This instance of ancient Roman era backfiring may have resemblance with the blaming of Rohingya refugees by some Bangladeshis for the crimes that took place in 2012 at Ramu, Cox’s Bazar, although it is not a proven fact through any substantial evidence.

But, it is true that times have changed and different eras demand different approaches to this issue. Both the Roman and Ottomans had largely stretched lands to spare for the additional persecuted foreign individuals, but in case of Bangladesh, the scenario is complex, since it’s a small third world country with a large population which is disproportional to the small land it holds. Still, remarkably, Bangladesh has been able to host over a million Rohingyas. 

International law invokes “bindings” on Bangladesh in relation to the Rohingya crisis on several standpoints -- though Bangladesh has not ratified and is not a signatory to various conventions of “non-refoulement” -- which prohibits deportation of refugees to a country where they may face threats to their lives. But the principle of non-refoulement is considered part of customary international law and is binding in all states, whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not. 

So from this standpoint and owing to history -- with the atrocities carried out by the then Pakistan regime during 1971, India had granted asylum the people of East Pakistan -- Bangladesh too should take steps that are humane and ensure the safety of these refugees.

Bangladesh has been lenient towards Rohingyas and has valued international law to a considerable extent despite drawbacks relating to overpopulation, poor infrastructure, and economy. But Bangladesh has to come up with a long term solution to tackle the refugee issue, and now is the time to force Myanmar to end the conflicts of Rakhine state diplomatically, siding with countries that are condemning the atrocities. 

Aqib Tahmid is a student of law at the Chittagong University.