The rains that drench southern Bangladesh will be starting soon in Cox’s Bazar, home to the world largest refugee camp. Some 570,000 Rohingya refugees are living in shacks made of bamboo and plastic planted on the treeless hillsides outside Kutapalang village. Floods, landslides, and ubiquitous mud will amplify the already depthless misery of living there. Part of that comes from the uncertainty about possible repatriation to their devastated villages and part from the lack of any education or economic opportunities. Beyond purely providing for survival, it is time to start thinking about a new compact for the Rohingya that provides a range of options from safe repatriation to resettlement and job opportunities.
Across the border in Rakhine Province, the Myanmar military is busy bulldozing the former villages of the 670,000 refugees who fled last year, smoothing the foundations of burned out homes so that new construction can begin. Barracks for the security forces and homes for Buddhist Rakhines – the ethnic group that dominates the province – will rise in place of Muslim Rohingya villages. While Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed an agreement on the repatriation of the refugees, many doubt their return. Myanmar insists that returnees have identity documents, although it confiscated these from many Rohingyas. Most refugees will be unwilling to return to Myanmar without the assurance of security and the restoration of full citizenship that has been aggressively stripped away since the 1980s.
Bangladesh is spending $1 million each day on the refugees while a combination of other donors contributes $2 million in addition. Worryingly, there are destabilizing effects of a refugee population that now outnumbers Bangladeshis in the southern province. With a general election due at the end of this year, political tensions are already rising. Like the predictable floods of monsoon season, communal violence has often flared up ahead of elections as politicians outbid each other for voters from the religious right. Refugees tend to become involved as rent-a-mobs, targets, or innocent by-standers. Violence in the volatile camps could derail Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to stay in power: she wants them to return home as soon as possible. In pursuit of this, her government has set limits on the permanence of housing and other support for Rohingya in the country.
Myanmar has shown a high-handed disdain for Bangladesh and its pleas on behalf of the refugees. Diplomatic efforts have been ignored and border tensions remain high. Dhaka has not been able to count on its traditional friends in Delhi and Beijing, as both have sided with Naypyitaw, eager to protect their commercial and diplomatic ties to Myanmar.
Historically, refugees in South Asia tend to get caught in cycles of diplomatic paralysis that leave them enduring partial and unsettled lives. Many of the 120,000 Bhutanese expelled to Nepal lived in dismal refugee camps for decades. The so-called Biharis, or “Stranded Pakistanis” – non-Bengali Muslims trapped in Bangladesh after 1971 and rejected by Pakistan – have been stuck in Dhaka for nearly 50 years. A huge population of Tibetans forced from their homeland by China also remain in India. In most cases these refugees have had some protection – India has certainly been generous – but they lack any certainty. Some 40,000 Rohingya who escaped to India are now being threatened with return to Myanmar, because the government in New Delhi has deemed them a security risk.
There is no obvious solution. Almost everyone in Myanmar sees the expulsion of the Rohingya as an unalloyed good, with no constituency supporting their return. Violence directed against the minority group has boosted the Myanmar military’s popularity considerably. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has set the tone for the whole country: she has never shown much sympathy for the ethnic nationalities that make up a third of the population. Her understanding of democracy has never gone much deeper than her desire to win power through elections; issues such as rights for minorities, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly are low on her list of priorities. Aung San Suu Kyi’s understanding of democracy can be seen in the way she runs her party, the National League for Democracy, as she holds unfettered power. Muslim candidates were not selected to stand for parliament in 2015, dissidents are routinely expelled from the party, and racist policies, such as the refusal to call Rohingya by their name, are supported. It is not just that taking back the Rohingya would cost her political support. She sees them, as do most in Myanmar, as illegal immigrants who should not have been there in the first place. Resolving the crisis will mean ending the nationalist rhetoric that rewards those who are protecting Myanmar from “terrorism” by expelling the Rohingya.
No countries are willing to take in Rohingya, so there is unlikely to be a third country resettlement plan. The largest communities of Rohingya around the world are in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Malaysia. None of these countries are in need of more workers, particularly as the refugees from Myanmar have been deprived of education for decades. The United Nations and the United States have been slow to act, not least because of a determination to view Myanmar as a success story of democratization.
While the United Nations and other aid providers have been remarkably successful in saving lives in Kutapalang and other camps, the refugees remain at high risk of disease and natural disasters. On top of those dangers, Cox’s Bazar is notorious for its exploitative economy of human and drug trafficking. Sexual exploitation is common in the camps; women are picked by Bangladeshi middle men and taken to brothels in nearby tourist areas. Crystal meth has long flowed through this area from Myanmar to markets in Bangladesh’s cities. Tensions are mounting as the refugee influx denudes the area of forests and cheap labor undercuts the already poor and vulnerable host population.
With the refugees unlikely to go home and the locals becoming increasingly restive, what is needed is a much larger humanitarian effort in the region covering both communities. Governments mostly hate the idea, but allowing refugees to take part openly in the local economy can boost growth and reduce tensions. Urgent efforts are needed to improve living conditions for the refugees, expand education at all levels, and ease the sense of despair and dislocation that can only lead to problems in the future. Most Rohingya are devout and conservative Muslims, and their faith has sustained them during years of unimaginable hardships. They are not, however, obvious candidates for recruitment by extremist groups; theirs is a village faith, grounded in community, not in the globalized, modernist utopianism of ISIS and others. But despair raises problems in all communities. More important than returning the Rohingya to Myanmar to face continued persecution is the urgent need to fund services for them and provide greater security – physical, social, and economic – than they currently have. Bangladesh and the countries that provide for Rohingya refugees must urgently work out a compact to ensure their health, security and long-term well-being. That could include increased market access for Bangladesh in western countries as well as expanded financial assistance for Bangladeshis and Rohingya alike. A new compact for Rohingya that includes a variety of options for them: safe repatriation; resettlement and access to jobs is going to be essential if they are to recover any hope.
Robert Templer is the director of the Barcelona-based Higher Education Alliance for Refugees. He was researching refugee issues in Cox’s Bazar in late 2017.