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When is a refugee not a refugee?

  • Published at 11:54 pm January 25th, 2019
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Not for all it seems BIGSTOCK

Humanitarian organizations can not cherry-pick who to serve

Recently, we watched the world applaud as the Thai government and international humanitarian organizations responded to the plight of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the teenage Saudi girl who barricaded herself in an airport hotel and took to Twitter to press for asylum.

UNHCR (Thailand) secured the agreement of the Thai authorities and promptly dispatched their representative to Bangkok airport. Rahaf was provided with UNHCR protection. That allowed her to leave the airport and thwart the counter moves of the Saudi authorities and her own relatives.

The world saw UNHCR at its best: It pro-actively sought and gained access to Rahaf, and helped prevent her deportation. Non-refoulement is a principle championed by this agency and it insists that those in need of protection cannot be returned to somewhere where their life or freedom will be compromised. 

The actions of UNHCR were key in Rahaf’s case, given that Thailand is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol defining the status of refugees. Additionally, refugee status is normally granted by governments, but UNHCR can grant it where states are “unable or unwilling to do so.” 

In the end, Canada stepped up to give Rahaf asylum, and she made her way there in the glare of the world’s media.

There was no such media glare nor indeed any initiative by the refugee agency when it came to 31 UNHCR registered Rohingya refugees who were stranded in No Man’s Land between India and Bangladesh. Their predicament, which began less than two weeks after Rahaf’s arrival in Thailand, throws a different light on the character of UNHCR’s humanitarianism.

The refugee agency did not intervene or secure access to them, nor counsel them or provide them with any kind of aid. In the case of the Saudi teenager, Cecile Pouilly, senior communications officer for UNHCR, quite rightly expressed concern for Rahaf’s “emotional distress” and understood the need for some “breathing space” for her. 

No such expression of concern has been made for the Rohingya men, women, and children -- some as young as eight months old, who spent four nights under the open skies in wintry conditions. Even after their arrest by the Indian Border force and subsequent jailing on January 22, 2019, and despite repeated requests, the UN refugee agency was still unable to provide this writer with a comment 72 hours later.

We should understand that the UNHCR’s primary task as the UN’s refugee agency is to protect a person who has crossed an international border due to fear for life or liberty. The 31 Rohingya fulfilled UNHCR’s criteria for refugee status when they were in India. 

They were outside their country of origin and did not have the protection of the state. That is why they were given UNHCR cards. Their case should have been a cut and dry one given that the paperwork existed. Yet, no assistance was rendered.

The Rohingya in India see no evidence of any kind of UNHCR protection. Nor do they see any durable solution to the current Indian dispensation and its eagerness to round up and repatriate Rohingya. In recent days, over a thousand Rohingya have crossed to Bangladesh from India. They have been perturbed by news of Rohingya being forcibly repatriated to Myanmar from India. 

A group of seven people were repatriated in October 2018 and then a family of five were sent back in January 2019. Both cases received considerable media attention. However, the family of five have not been heard of since and their case, in particular, has caused anxiety amongst the 40,000 or so Rohingya living in India.

Taken together, this information points to an unbalanced and dark side of this agency when it comes to Rohingya refugees. And there is evidence stretching down the decades to support that contention. Just last year, UNHCR agreed a memorandum with UNDP and the government of Myanmar concerning Rohingya repatriation. 

However, it kept its contents entirely under wraps and UNHCR did not discuss or consult the affected community -- the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as required by its own code on voluntary repatriation processes. This came as no surprise to students of UNHCR repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh. UNHCR’s well documented and shameful history in this regard stretches back to 1978.

Fieldview Solutions in their startling report “Time to Break Old Habits” from June 2018 -- concerning the role and behaviour of international agencies in Rakhine state -- wrote the following about UNHCR and its response to the crackdown on Rohingya of October 2016:

“After the first round of massive violence after October 9, 2016, one might have expected the international community and the UNCT (UN country team) to try to ramp up its presence and protective capacity in the north. Shockingly, though, the UN response was the opposite. UNHCR initially proposed during this time period to completely remove northern Rakhine state from the Humanitarian Response Plan and to scale back its own operations.”

Echoing this, the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar explicitly criticized UN entities operating in Myanmar and bemoaned their lack of cooperation with the Fact-Finding Mission and their defensiveness. It urged a review of how UN organizations have performed over the years in the context of the catastrophe that unfolded in Rakhine state. 

Internal reviews exist, and in leaks which have emerged, it seems that the Myanmar regime can count on UN self-censorship on the issue of the Rohingya and Rakhine state. 

It can further count on a narrative that emphasizes inter-communal conflicts and development issues rather than the centrally-directed policies of apartheid and disenfranchisement. 

Of the 31 Rohingya refugees, 15 are connected to the ill-fated village of Tula Toli, which experienced a massacre on August 30, 2017. Hundreds of men, women, and children were brutally killed. Many women were gang-raped and burned. I spoke to three survivors who are now residing in the camps of Bangladesh and whose relatives are amongst the group in India. Rofique, whose baby was thrown in the fire by Myanmar military, has a brother within the group. He told me:

“I thought they were safe. They went to India via Bangladesh after 2012. I thought their luck was good that they never saw what happened to us. But now if India sends them back, their fate will be the same as ours. They are finished.”

If India is able to repatriate UNHCR registered Rohingya to Myanmar with total impunity, when every single humanitarian organization has declared it unsafe, then the scope of humanitarianism has not expanded but shrunk for UNHCR and other UN entities. And if the meaning and practice of refugee protection have been transformed to the extent it seems to have been in countries where the Rohingya flee to, then Rofique’s dire prediction is about to come true. 

Shafiur Rahman is a Documentary Filmmaker.