Bangladesh needs to rethink its Rohingya refugee policy

Dhaka will benefit from integrating the ethnic group into its society, with help from the international community

Rohingya refugees offer Eid prayer at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on September 2, 2017.
Rohingya refugees marked Eid on September 2 with feasts and prayers in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar after deadly communal violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
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A pilot plan to repatriate 1,000 volunteers from among the roughly 1.4 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps back to Myanmar appears set to begin, despite deep concerns expressed by human rights organisations and refugees themselves. The depth of these concerns is unsurprising given continued military action against Rohingya targets in Myanmar, and the continued lack of citizenship and fundamental legal rights accorded to the ethnic group in that country.

The prime driver of this showcase effort is not the military junta ruling Myanmar, or the international community, but rather the Bangladesh government. This is also true on a much larger scale; it is not possible to make sense of the stateless Rohingyas’ collective plight without taking into account the nature of the longstanding non-relationship with Bangladesh.

It’s worth noting that Myanmar’s authorities (including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed civilian government) have always rejected the “Rohingya” label, lest it legitimise their indigenous origins. Instead, the state has insisted on describing them as “Bengalis”, implying external origins. If that were actually the case, the Rohingya would have found much deeper levels of support from the Bengali-speaking majority of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the Rohingya language, although related, is not close enough to be intelligible to Bengali speakers, stifling any sense of ethnic kinship.

The first waves of the violent conflict between the Rohingya and neighbouring communities in Myanmar began under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. This was when the Muslim League party’s campaign for a homeland for India’s Muslims was also taking off. Repeated Rohingya attempts to join the movement, which led to the creation of East and West Pakistan, were brushed off – most notably in 1946 by its soon-to-be first head of state, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Mr Jinnah was at the time the Muslim League’s supreme leader and the self-styled “sole spokesman” for the region’s Muslims.

Bangladesh can view the Rohingya issue as an opportunity rather than as a burden

But this disinterest extended beyond the largely Urdu-speaking party. The movement for Bengali cultural and political autonomy from West Pakistan, which began in East Pakistan in 1948 and led to Bangladesh’s emergence in 1971, showed little-to-no interest in the Rohingya, despite the periodic waves of refugees from across the south-eastern border to cities such as Chittagong.

Findings from a Sinophone Borderlands public opinion survey in Bangladesh last year suggest that Bangladeshis today are well aware of the discrimination and violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the role played by religious prejudice. Unfortunately, the data also suggests that while there is significant empathy for the group as a persecuted Muslim minority, it is offset by perceptions that refugees are an economic burden and a threat to law and order.

The latter perceptions appear to have been encouraged by government officials from very early on in the refugee crisis, in 2017, with the help of a compliant local media. It is likely that this unfriendly media environment will continue to strengthen local narratives of resentment and grievance over that of solidarity, given the deterioration in Bangladesh’s economic stability triggered by the Ukraine war that I discussed in a previous column.

However, the government’s policy towards the Rohingya appears to have been set in 2017, long before the current crisis, at a time of record economic growth with rising levels of prosperity at every level of Bangladeshi society. The decision was made to confine the Rohingya to refugee camps, to deny them access to jobs and education outside, and even to ban private schooling inside the camps. Access to Bengali language training, too, was discouraged. The result of this policy of enforced containment is Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp since 2018.

Collectively, all of these decisions appear to have been designed with one goal in mind: to prevent Rohingya refugees from developing any long-term ties to Bangladesh. In short, the focus from the beginning was repatriation, rather than any realistic assessment of the ground truths in Myanmar, or the needs of the refugees under international humanitarian conventions.

In some ways, Bangladesh has been following a global trend of increased rejection by host countries towards long-term settlement of migrants and refugees. The UK continues to pursue its “hostile environment” policy. Former US president Donald Trump had signed the infamous “Muslim ban” in 2017, and his administration had separated children from their families in detention camps. Meanwhile, Australia had resumed its “offshore” housing of asylum applicants in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

In fact, Bangladesh’s government signed a repatriation agreement with Myanmar in November 2017, at a time when refugees were still fleeing violence. It was clear that this was largely a public relations exercise for Myanmar, with no intended follow-through; as a result, Bangladesh has struggled to see the results that it has sought. Meanwhile, the Rohingya have languished ever since, confined to the camps and denied any semblance of an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Bangladesh has persisted, however, and eventually succeeded in drawing in China to mediate between the two countries. Beijing’s support has been particularly valued by Myanmar’s authorities after the 2021 military coup, which has led to the regime’s increased diplomatic isolation. As a result, Myanmar has been forced to go farther than it has in the past to demonstrate goodwill and preserve its vital relationship with China.

But there is little to suggest that the regime has actually undergone any real change of heart with respect to the Rohingya. This means that, even if the largely symbolic pilot scheme is allowed to succeed, it is unlikely that external actors would exert the amount of pressure required to allow for the return of more than a million people.

Over the years, Myanmar has found several means to create conditions unsafe enough for refugees to return. Tensions have often been raised on the border, with the military employing artillery, mortar and machine gun fire against targets on the Bangladeshi side, and then claiming that it was only aiming at fleeing Rohingya insurgents. Bangladesh’s intense desire to preserve the repatriation agreement has meant that it has avoided responding in kind. At the same time, Dhaka has pursued a major military modernisation and build-up of air, sea and land forces in the region to limit such incursions.

Bangladesh has requested the support of the international community to make a success out of the pilot repatriation. But if, as is more than likely, Myanmar’s junta finds a way to stall or sabotage the larger process, the international community must make it clear to Bangladesh that its current Rohingya refugee policy requires a fundamental rethink – especially if it expects the world to continue to support both Bangladesh’s and the Rohingya refugees needs.

Research has shown that given the chance to work and study, refugees are likely to make a net positive addition to a country's economy, as well as less easily quantifiable contributions to resilience, plurality and tolerance. Given its many challenges, Bangladesh can view the Rohingya issue as an opportunity rather than as a burden, and the international donor community must assist Dhaka with the costs of this integration – particularly if they are unwilling to resettle these refugees in their own countries. Wishful thinking simply cannot be allowed to deny already deeply traumatised Rohingya refugees a chance to live normal lives, or hope for a normal future any longer.

Published: June 02, 2023, 5:00 AM