Jamila says she fled Myanmar in August of last year when marauding men in army uniforms swarmed her village in Rakhine State and slaughtered her husband and son. “It took me 15 days to get here,” she told our visiting group of foreign journalists, cradling her young infant in the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar in the part of Bangladesh closest to Myanmar. “I will only go back when there is stability.”
Hafiz, a father of three, also a resident of the refugee camp, says he’ll only go back if the Myanmar authorities extend full citizenship to him.
Their stories are typical among the 700,000 or so Rohingya who fled what they describe as unspeakable violence in their former homes in Rakhine State since the end of August 2017. But aside from having a shared violent and abrupt end to their lives in Myanmar, what is clear is that few, if any, want to go back — and this is exactly what concerns their Bangladesh hosts.
Unwanted in Myanmar and unwelcome in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been on the move for generations. Now with a tiny minority left in Rakhine, it’s high time the countries of the region developed a durable solution. And Bangladesh, with the largest population of Rohingya anywhere, is best placed to lead the way.
The welcome mat was initially extended by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is portrayed by supporters and on billboards as the “mother of humanity.” Observers, however, say the 71-year-old leader offered the humanitarian gesture in part to counteract her questionable human rights record and better position herself for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Her government did so probably with little expectation that, a year later, the refugees would still be expressing no desire to return home and face life under a military regime accused by the United Nations of ethnic cleansing.
But with elections scheduled for late December — and polls indicating that Hasina is handily expected to win — a more hardline approach could be applied to the relocation of Rohingya in the new year.
According to Reuters, some Bangladeshi officials have said that a first step would be to relocate — probably by force — 100,000 refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, which aid workers fear is prone to flooding and vulnerable to fierce cyclones.
“It’s pretty much a concentration camp because no one can leave,” Alastair Lawson-Tancred, a spokesperson for UNICEF Bangladesh, told me.
Another UNICEF official, Jean-Jacques Simon, explained that it is still not clear what the role of humanitarian agencies would be in the island camp and that it would be more complicated to support refugees on a remote island.
Back at Cox’s Bazar, resentment toward the Rohingya among the local population is also growing, government officials told me during a press visit to the camp in early October, especially since many in this underdeveloped region of the country feel the refugees are living better than they are. Government officials added that locals are seething over the fact that what was once a pristine patch of reserve forest, complete with roaming elephants, has now been denuded and transformed into the world’s largest refugee camp.
With little support among voters for keeping Kutupalong as a safe haven for the Rohingya, the Hasina government may be tempted to turn to forced repatriation of the remaining refugees back to Myanmar.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Pororashtrya Montri, told me, so far, up to 6,000 refugees have agreed to voluntarily go home in the coming weeks, but that contradicts what aid workers in the camps have been hearing.
“We’ve taken several straw polls in the camps and not one person said they wished to return home under the current conditions,” said Lawson-Tancred.
Diplomats and journalists who have visited Rakhine State reiterate this idea. They’ve said that many of the villages the Rohingya once called home have been razed.
The Myanmar government has opened up a reception center on the border to receive repatriates, but there is little evidence it can provide two things demanded by those who fled: security and full citizenship rights.
So, what’s the international community to do?
First is the orderly relocation to safe alternative countries such as Canada, which already has a small community of Rohingya, starting with those who are most vulnerable such as the sick and unaccompanied children. That option, however, is off the negotiating table for the time being, Canadian officials say, because the Bangladesh authorities refuse to issue them exit permits for fear it would encourage the remaining population of Rohingya in Rakhine State, said to bearound 240,000, to bolt for Cox’s Bazar in the hopes of being selected for relocation abroad. In the minds of the Bangladesh authorities, the Rohingya are not refugees and therefore are not entitled to resettlement abroad.
But diplomatic pressure by alternative countries willing to take the Rohingya could influence a policy change for Bangladesh to reconsider its tough stance and allow refugees to be considered for resettlement abroad.
The second option, even though it is probably unpalatable to the Bangladesh government at the moment, is to create opportunities for the Rohingya refugees to contribute to the growth of the regional economy in Cox’s Bazar. A potentially win-win solution, it could take the form of a special economic zone where the Rohingya, known for their entrepreneurial streak, would receive skills training to work in foreign-owned factories — or on one of the many infrastructure projects that are on the books for the Cox’s Bazar region.
With an enviable economic growth rate of 7% and with Bangladesh poised to become the world’s 26th largest economy by 2030, the country will need skilled labor to help further power its economic expansion.
The Rohingya have suffered for decades as a result of brutal policies in a land they can neither call home or feel safe in. It is high time for the international community to come together in a grand gesture that will see one of the world’s most persecuted populations of stateless people become productive and return a sense of dignity to their lives.
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