Bangladesh needs a better plan for dealing with the refugee crisis
Bangladesh’s hosting of Rohingya refugees is unequaled in the current context of global anti-immigration sentiment.
It’s hard to comprehend how 165 million people are living in a land area equal to the state of Arkansas (where the population is only 3 million). Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on planet Earth, with under $2,000 per capita, and still has given shelter to over a million refugees from Myanmar since 2017. The refugees have been crossing the Bangladeshi border since the early 90s, but this has escalated in recent years due to the premeditated massacres carried out against them.
After fleeing from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, 37,300 square kilometres of beautiful land by the Bay of Bengal, these million plus people are now living in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh -- roughly half a square metre per person. Perhaps dealing with poverty and disasters regularly has helped the Bangladeshi people not to feel threatened by these Rohingya who entered their country.
While we expect that the UN may be able to explain the reasoning behind this prolonged ineffectiveness to resolve the crisis, the clocks of these Rohingya people are not stopping. Hundreds of humanitarian organizations are already working on rehabilitation, education, and skills development for the refugees’ futures.
Organizations like BRAC are working to improve childhood education and are engaging with technologies to address subjects like mental health for healthy brain development. Even though the Bangladesh government had no other choice but to keep these refugees in a restricted small area, the Rohingya people cannot continue to live their lives this way.
They need to be outside the camps and explore opportunities on their own to live human experiences. Bangladeshi people have sacrificed tremendously to own their rights and speak their mother tongue and, because of this, they can help to preserve the Rohingya language, an essential step for the refugees’ psychosocial well-being.
As a clock never stops, it has already been two years for most of the refugees living in the camps with traumatic memories, and even with injuries. The hope for any immediate international measures to safely repatriating them is gone.
It is now critical to create an environment for the refugees to encourage the growth of social bonds within Bangladesh beyond the restricted activities. It’s time to allow a refugee child to dream of playing for a Bangladeshi sports team or finding a part in a movie. It’s time for a refugee innovator to innovate, or an entrepreneur to start something new.
If these people are given an opportunity to improve their skill sets, when they return home to their beautiful Rakhine state, they will be successful and equipped to reintegrate into society and make a contribution to their communities. These Rohingya people then may become the bridge between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The people of Myanmar should not be hated for its government’s misdeeds. Bangladeshi people may become a source of Myanmar’s tourism business once the Rohingya are back to Rakhine and settled. Bangladesh should tread with caution when selecting Rohingya related governing positions, as a rogue leader can turn the Bangladeshi people and Rohingya refugees against each other.
Mandating to have key leadership roles by both Bangladeshi and Rohingya natives in each and every international organization working over the Rohingya crisis on the ground would help improve understanding of their process, and build a team that can help these people for the long term.
Economically developing countries have an obsession over their GDP target, since it’s a matrix used to show the productivity of the country. Despite its limitations in addressing various important social and environmental factors, it is a key factor for attracting foreign direct investment.
By accepting a million-plus refugees and keeping them restricted from contributing to the GDP, Bangladesh may expect some slower growth, which in the long term, would deter investors. Bangladesh’s productivity has been held back due to underpayment of its export items such as garments and fisheries.
If the focus is given to improving pricing, Bangladesh can expect to hold up with the growth targets. In this rapid tech evolution, spending billions of dollars on industrial infrastructure may not be sustainable, and rather, contribute further to air pollution.
Bangladesh has accomplished tremendous growth in recent years. However, tens of millions of people are living without electricity, which presents us with a significant growth opportunity for renewable energy. Supporting Rohingya needs may revolutionize these environmentally sustainable development opportunities.
If coordinated well with international organizations which are helping with the Rohingya crisis, all of these development programs can be prototyped, and can develop Bangladesh’s underutilized human capital and infrastructure.
The Bangladesh government has been tirelessly reaching out to international leaders, particularly In Moscow and Beijing, and so far no practical resolution has come out of it. It’s time to speak to the other permanent members of the UN Security Council for an immediate referral to place a resolution.
It is understandable that Bangladesh wants to rely on its former proven friends. However, India is coordinating critical military operations with the help of Myanmar military against its own various separatist groups in the Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland states bordering Myanmar. India won’t risk its relationship with Myanmar, as the stakes are much higher.
China has extended significant military and trade initiatives, including controlling of Myanmar’s seaport and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Repatriation of displaced Rohingya may not be relevant to a massive construction project that is potentially impacting the eco-system of one of the largest forests in South Asia.
Russia, China, and India are the three major weapons suppliers to Myanmar. Accepting these facts, Bangladesh may move towards creating a military alliance with countries willing to stop the misery of the Rohingya people.
The list may include interested EU members, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and all of the members of the Five Eyes countries (Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, and Canada). Such an alliance may become vital for the safe repatriation of the Rohingya, as well as future human and environmental security of South Asia.
Mazher Mir is Adviser to the ASEAN Council.