JUNE 20 marked the World Refugee Day. The day beckoned the fortunate ones who have a place to call home to reflect and ponder on those who cannot go back to their homes for fear of persecution. This day, therefore, provides an opportunity to engage in soul searching about how as a nation we should treat those who come to our land fleeing persecution.
Bangladeshis can take pride in the way we have dealt with the refugees. Despite resource constraints the people and the governments have tried their best to host these unfortunate people. The international community has also responded favourably to the country's call for assistance when need arose. However, over the past several years, there appears to have been a departure from this humanitarian approach as national security considerations began to take priority in policy-making.
The shift in policy was manifested in the speeches and statements of senior functionaries of the State; in beefing up border security; in denying admission to incoming Rohingyas and pushing them back to extreme insecurity (albeit in some cases after providing potable water, dried rice and fuel for motor engine); in augmenting surveillance in Bandarban, Khagrachari and Cox's Bazar districts; and in discouraging, if not barring, humanitarian agencies from rendering services to the unregistered refugees.
This national security driven approach contributed to the shaping of public perception and the agenda of the mainstream media, which became more intolerant and hostile to the Rohingyas. In 2012 and 2013, when the Rohingya community was subjected to ever increasing oppression and persecution of the Myanmarese government forces, chauvinist Rakhines and the militant Buddhist monks and needed shelter the most, Bangladesh decided to close its border. Those at the helm of the State did not find it necessary to explain this policy shift to the lay people as the act was justified on the sacrosanct ground of national security.
Despite the presence of the Rohingyas for decades in Bangladesh there has not been any official policy document. It is refreshing to note that the government has framed a 'Strategy Paper on Addressing the Issue of Mynamar Refugees and Undocumented Myanmar Nationals in Bangladesh.' The cabinet has already approved the document and the concerned ministries and agencies have been instructed to ensure its implementation. To the best of knowledge of this writer no consultation with civil society or stakeholders other than various ministries and departments of the government had been held in framing this document of public importance.
Very few would contest that a democratic polity accords space to civil society to contribute in public policy framing. In a sharp departure from the good practice of holding of public consultations that was followed by the government of the day in framing the overseas employment policy, the anti-trafficking act and the overseas employment and emigrants' act, this time it decided to go alone in developing the Rohingya Strategy Paper. Be that as it may, let us now see what the Strategy Paper contains.
The document clarifies the government's position on some important issues pertaining to the Rohingyas. It unequivocally identifies them as “Myanmar nationals.” This statement on the citizenship claims of the Rohingyas is very important vis a vis the dubious policy of the Myanmarese state in denying them citizenship. The second is the acknowledgement of the presence of 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingyas with irregular status in Bangladesh. One did not see much evidence of the government taking the presence of unregistered Rohingyas into account in the past. Third is highlighting the need for “cooperation of affected countries,” underscoring the fact it is a regional problem that needs regional solution. Fourth, the government is not opposed to the idea of third country resettlement of existing refugees. This is a departure from its earlier stand of not allowing third country resettlement for fear of attracting more Rohingyas to this land. Finally, the most important aspect of the document is the assertion that “the root causes for the systematic persecution and deprivation of the Muslim minorities in Myanmar, especially the Muslims in Rakhine State, need to be highlighted” and “to prevail upon the international community to remain engaged with the Myanmar authorities in order to facilitate the repatriation and reintegration of their nationals now living in Bangladesh.”
Despite this recognition that root causes of the flight of the Rohingyas are “systematic persecution and deprivation,” the overall strategy framed stems from a national security perspective with disproportionate emphasis on “enhanced capacity building of the border security agencies with a view to arresting the continued inflow of Myanmar nationals through irregular channels.” In order to materialise the objective of sealing the border “with barbed wire fencing” and erection of “sufficient numbers of border outposts and observation towers” has been mooted. In addition, strengthening of intelligence and surveillance efforts “to monitor the involvement of undocumented Myanmar nationals with subversive and criminal activities” has been proposed. Thus, while on one hand the Strategy Paper has affirmed the government's commitment to convey to the international community that the Rohingyas are fleeing “systematic persecution and deprivation,” on other hand, its own response is shaped by the concern that the Rohingyas are unwanted economic migrants who should be stopped at the border.
Survey or listing of unregistered Rohingyas has been a key element in the Strategy Paper with purported aim to “determine their actual number and location.” A database with their bio-metric information has been planned with the aim of housing them “in temporary shelters in suitable locations pending their repatriation to Myanmar through diplomatic/consular channels.” Such an ambitious plan of registration of this group of people can only succeed if there are sufficient guarantees of some form of protection and basic services. Without those in place, this vulnerable community would deem any registration or survey with skepticism and fear (of deportation).
The Strategy Paper proposes that “following the listing/identification,” the “undocumented Myanmar nationals are to be provided with basic medical care, potable water, sanitation facilities and other essential humanitarian services.” The Strategy Paper admits that all the above are “essential humanitarian services,” and if they are so, why is the government insisting that those should be extended “following the listing/identification”? There has to be due recognition that they are human beings in dire conditions and they need immediate protection and basic assistance, and those should not be subjected to any administrative stipulation.
One wonders why the Strategy Paper has decided to exclude humanitarian organisations of global repute such as the Nobel Prize winning Medecins Sans Frontieres-MSF (Doctors without Frontiers), who have specialised skills in providing health care services in emergency situations, and insisting only on Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and local NGOs. Has any assessment been done whether the latter have the capacity to render such expert services to this huge and dispersed population? It is also interesting to note that the only mandated agency of the UN to deal with forced migrants, the UNHCR, has not found a place in the Strategy Paper's list of development-oriented international organisations “to maintain international standards and mobilise necessary financial and technical assistance.” Included in the list are UNDP, WFP, UNICEF and IOM.
The Strategy Paper mentions a 'security dialogue' with Myanmar and the regional level cooperation of other countries. It is time to take stock of the humanitarian dimension in addressing the Rohingya issue in its totality. Instead of trying to attend to this within the purview of the Bali Process (that the Strategy Paper indicates), which essentially looks at human mobility through the lens of trafficking and irregular movement, this category of forced migrants should be dealt under a comprehensive regional framework that duly recognises root causes of their flight and addresses them from a humanitarian perspective. While all forms of pressure should be exerted on Myanmar to create enabling conditions for the Rohingyas to return in dignity; other parties, including Bangladesh, should also treat these unfortunate refugees with respect.
The writer teaches International Relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at the University of Dhaka. He is the President of Odhikar.