Shoaib Hossain, a 26-year-old madrasa teacher, was well-thought-of by his neighbours for his honest and polite character. He was also venerated as a young hafiz (a person who has memorised the entire holy Quran) by the inhabitants of Charigram village under Singair upazila of Manikganj district. The son of a solvent farmer, Shoaib's life was prosperous and peaceful. However, everything changed when Shoaib met Rafiza, an 18-year-old Rohingya woman who, with eight of her family members, took refuge in Singair to escape starvation and disease at Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. Shoaib met Rafiza at his teacher Maolana Tajul Islam's home, where Rafiza and her family members took shelter and were treated warmly as muhajirs (Muslim immigrants).
“Shoaib fell in love with Rafiza at first sight. When he learned about her family's sufferings, he became very sympathetic. He informed me of his decision to marry Rafiza the day after he met her. I didn't forbid him because I didn't know about the ban and I thought Rafiza would find a permanent shelter and safety with Shoaib,” says Maolana Tajul. However, on September 14, Shoaib's dream of marrying Rafiza was shattered on the very day he started preparations for the wedding. The Singair police station had already been informed about the Rohingya family and the district administration deported Rafiza's family to Kutupalong refugee camp at Cox's Bazar the same day. The local police also informed Shoaib that the government had banned marriage between Bangladeshi nationals and Rohingya refugees and it would be impossible for Shoaib to marry Rafiza. “Shoaib was so heartbroken that he did not come to the madrasa for three days. I met him at his home and he looked devastated. Then suddenly one day, I heard that Shoaib had disappeared from the village,” says Maolana Tajul.
Travelling 264 miles to Kutupalong refugee camp at Cox's Bazar, Shoaib tracked down Rafiza amidst 500,000 Rohingya refugees living in the overcrowded makeshift shelters. Defying the government ban, Shoaib married Rafiza at a mosque located inside the camp. The marriage was conducted by the imam of the mosque following only religious procedures and without any marriage registration. Shoaib even returned to his village with his newlywed wife, covering her under a burka to conceal her identity. However, the news of Shoaib's secret marriage soon reached Singair police station. Law enforcers raided Shoaib's place, but the couple escaped. Since September 24, 2017 this couple has been on the run and law enforcers have been searching for them all over the country.
Marriage between Bangladeshi nationals and Rohingya refugees is not something new. Since the first major Rohingya influx in 1978, thousands of refugees have married Bangladeshi nationals and settled in Bangladesh. However, in 2014, Bangladesh's Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs issued a ban on marriage between nationals and Rohingya refugees, stating that “strict punitive actions shall be taken against the marriage registrars who will register the marriage of any Rohingya in Bangladesh.” During the recent and renewed influx of Rohingya refugees, the ministry once more reiterated the ban and warned all marriage registrars across the country.
This ban was first proposed by Cox's Bazar district administration in 2013. Ali Hossain, District Commissioner of Cox's Bazar district, says, “Rohingya refugees come to Bangladesh without any passport or identity cards. So when they marry a Bangladeshi, they get Bangladeshi voter ID cards and become permanent citizens of the country. The ban has been issued to stop this practice.” He also admits that it is very difficult to stop these weddings as most of them are done in secret through mutual understanding of the couple. “To prevent such weddings, we have informed local politicians of the ban. They have been asked to inform the local police station if they get any information about such marriages.”
The ban was imposed without taking any decision about the fates of the thousands of existing Rohingya-Bangladeshi cross-national marriages. “If we get evidence that a Rohingya is married to a Bangladeshi citizen, we shall take legal steps. For instance, after arresting Rafiza and Shoaib, we might prosecute them under the Foreigner's Act of 1946,” argues Hossain.
Experts have criticised this ban, claiming that it violates Bangladesh's own laws and is contrary to all international human rights accords to which Bangladesh is a party. Former Law Minister Barrister Shafique Ahmed says, “This is not only a very harsh restriction, but also a very difficult one to enforce. According to Muslim family law, an adult Muslim pair can marry each other under any circumstances regardless of their races and nationalities. If they want to marry each other, the state cannot stop their marriage.” He also adds that if any Bangladeshi citizen feels that his/her rights have been violated by this administrative order, he/she can file a petition before the court with an appeal for judicial intervention.
Again, according to the existing laws of Bangladesh, the country allows foreign nationals to acquire citizenship through their spouses. Besides, Bangladesh is party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which recognise the rights of men and women of marriageable age to marry without any restriction regarding their race, nationality, or religion. So by issuing this order, Bangladesh has actually breached its own legal framework and curbed the rights of its citizens. Dr Asif Nazrul, Professor of the Department of Law at the University of Dhaka, says, “Bangladesh's marriage laws do not prohibit its citizens to marry individuals of any particular nationality. According to the existing legal framework, Bangladeshi citizens or Rohingya refugees have every right to marry each other and establish families in Bangladesh. The government can restrict the movement of any individual, the government can refuse to grant citizenship, the government can take any individual into custody, but the government cannot declare any marriage illegal.”
Whether the Bangladeshi government can refuse Rohingyas who are married to Bangladeshis of citizenship is still not clear. In 1982, Bangladesh amended its citizenship act and declared Rohingyas “non-national” to counter Myanmar's claim that Rohingyas are Bangladeshis. Since then, Bangladesh has been claiming that Rohingyas are citizens of Myanmar. However, even in 1982, Bangladesh did not take any steps to ban marriage between Bangladeshi citizens and Rohingyas. This is because citizens of Myanmar and any other country (except those where Bangladeshis are not allowed to be naturalised citizens such as Saudi Arabia) are entitled to get naturalised citizenship through their Bangladeshi spouses according to the current citizenship law of Bangladesh. Therefore, the Bangladeshi government could not answer the question that if a citizen of Myanmar can get naturalised citizenship in Bangladesh through his/her spouse, what legal exception prevents Rohingyas from getting the same?
However, experts think that the fact that Rohingya refugees are getting Bangladeshi citizenship by marriage cannot be the reason behind withholding the universal human right to marry an individual of marriageable age. C R Abrar, Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka argues in this regard: “Under existing provisions of national law, if such a marriage gives the right to the concerned individuals to acquire citizenship and passports then those should be duly respected. If not, those involved in abusing the system, including the issuing authority, should be made accountable for their transgressions. Misdemeanours of a few individuals should not be the ground for denying registration of marriage to Rohingyas.”
Respecting its own legal framework and its commitment to international human rights treaties, the Bangladeshi government should immediately withdraw the administrative order banning cross-national marriage between Rohingyas and Bangladeshis. The decision of arresting these married couples and separating them forcefully will surely taint the positive image Bangladesh has earned by sheltering these refugees on humanitarian grounds.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org