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Dhaka Tribune

Six years of the Rohingya crisis: The metamorphosis of narratives

Reflecting on the shifting global narratives and the uncertain life as a refugee

Update : 25 Aug 2023, 10:42 AM

In 2017, an 18-year-old named Sawyeddollah fled to Bangladesh due to persecution by the Myanmar Army. According to his own words, “When I started my journey to Bangladesh I found many other Rohingya people were also fleeing Myanmar for the same reason -- they could no longer live at home. I just took some dry rations in the hope it would be enough to last me 10 days.” Many other individuals have also sought refuge in Bangladesh for similar reasons. 


The Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh has undergone a significant transformation in narratives and dynamics over the past six years. What initially began as a humanitarian endeavor grounded in compassion and empathy evolved into a multifaceted and complex situation with political, social, and security implications.


With 6 years passed since the exodus, it is worth delving into the evolving narratives of the Rohingya crisis, from its inception to the current state, highlighting key turning points and the resulting challenges.


Initial exodus


The crisis began with a massive exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar, seeking refuge in Bangladesh due to violence and persecution in their homeland. Bangladesh opened its borders as an act of compassion and sheltered the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds. 


In September 2017, UK's “Channel 4 News” praised Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina as the "Mother of Humanity" for her humane decision to open borders for the refugees. The nation was quickly assumed as the role of the primary guardian of the Rohingya community on the international stage. This established Bangladesh's role as a safe haven for the Rohingya and marked the beginning of the Rohingya crisis.


Aid, tensions, and repatriation challenges


In the first two years, international funds poured in to support the Rohingya refugees, but tensions began to rise within the overcrowded camps. The allocation of financial resources aimed at facilitating humanitarian assistance, ranging from 72% to 75% of the aggregate requisition since 2017, exhibited a big reduction to 65% during the calendar year 2020. 


In July 2021, a sum totaling $366 million had been apportioned, constituting merely 34% of the stipulated quantum designated for 2021.


Meanwhile frustration among the Rohingya population grew as their hopes for a better life seemed even more distant. In the sprawling refugee camp, Rohingya adolescents lack access to higher education due to limited facilities and recent displacements. As the days passed, crimes in the camps and involvement in transnational crimes such as drug and arms peddling, extremism, and gang culture increased due to their poverty and vulnerability. 


These adverse developments created a sentiment within the host community where repatriation seemed to be the only viable solution.


However, negotiations persisted, even as the United Nations proposed alternative options. An unprecedented United Nations resolution titled “Addressing Human Rights of Rohingya Muslims and Other Minorities in Myanmar” was unanimously adopted on November 17, 2021. 


The resolution, co-sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU), urged Myanmar to tackle the fundamental causes of the Rohingya crisis. It underscored the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and ongoing human rights violations following the February 2021 military takeover. 


But, the uncertainty around the repatriation process and the lack of tangible progress left the crisis in a state of prolonged limbo. 


The coup and other uncertainties


The political landscape in Myanmar underwent a significant shift with the coup, jeopardizing the fragile conditions within the country and having direct implications for the Rohingya crisis. Since the coup, numerous Rohingya have been detained for "unauthorized travel," while fresh limitations on movement and aid disruptions are imposed on Rohingya settlements. The junta's actions against them constitute crimes like apartheid, persecution, and liberty denial.


Over three months after Cyclone Mocha in 2023, essential aid, including medical assistance for dengue and malaria outbreaks, remains blocked by the junta. As instability prevailed within Myanmar, the camps housing the refugees witnessed severe challenges like drug trafficking, affiliation with extremist groups, and dwindling funds. 


The management of these camps became increasingly complex, endangering the lives and well-being of the Rohingya population. This situation led to a protracted and uncertain crisis resolution since it sent a negative message to the Rohingya about their safe return to Myanmar.


Shifts in international focus


The aftermath of the coup saw the breakdown of ceasefires and border shelling, resulting in thousands more Rohingyas stranded in the no man's land. Furthermore, global attention shifted due to events like the Ukraine war, diverting resources and focus away from the Rohingya crisis. 


The ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict has reverberated globally, affecting humanitarian aid disbursement. A $1.7bn appeal was launched in March 2021, garnering $1.5bn, while a subsequent “Stand Up For Ukraine” campaign raised nearly $9bn.


Reduced allocations for natural disasters and an anticipated 20-30% funding drop for the Rohingya response exemplify this trend. Geopolitics and global priorities, as illustrated by the Ukraine crisis, have constrained bilateral and multilateral donors. 


Amid these developments, the United Nations suggested integration as a solution. This marked a turning point, as the notion of repatriation with the “Go Home” campaign faced skepticism, questioning whether the crisis resolution should prioritize the “easier” solution for the world or the Rohingyas' choices and dreams of returning to their ancestral home.


Trilateral talks and other initiatives


The present situation is characterized by bilateral and trilateral initiatives. In January 2023, China initiated talks with Bangladesh to establish a pilot repatriation initiative for displaced Rohingya. 


In April, Chinese envoy Deng Xijun engaged Dhaka officials in Rohingya repatriation discussions. Simultaneously, a tripartite meeting in Kunming, China, involved Myanmar, Bangladesh, and China, suggesting repatriation for 1,176 Rohingya. 


A Rohingya team assessed housing conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state, followed by a Myanmar delegation meeting with Rohingya in Cox's Bazar.


While Bangladesh is eager to explore the “pilot project” for repatriation, geopolitical dynamics play a significant role, as Western nations advocate for alternative approaches citing security concerns. One of the reasons behind their protest may be due to China's involvement. The lack of a global consensus hampers decisive action.


The evolving narratives of the Rohingya crisis depicts a trajectory from humanitarianism to complex geopolitical considerations. While the global community should ideally exhibit a more vocal stance, the actual scenario indicates a different reality. If this discrepancy persists, a protracted crisis looms ahead, endangering regional security. 


The Rohingya crisis is no longer just a humanitarian concern; it has evolved into a multidimensional issue that requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach for effective resolution. As the crisis continues to shift in complexity, it becomes imperative for international actors to forge a united front in addressing the crisis and its myriad implications.


Syed Raiyan Amir and Md Mufassir Rashid are working as Research Associates at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs.

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