AROUND the world, conflicts force large numbers of people to flee within or across national borders. In 1971, the Bangladeshi Liberation War created the largest refugee flow in the world and at the time no one knew how long the situation would last. Fortunately, the Bangladeshis could return home in less than a year, but many other refugees remain displaced for decades.
Today, for the first time in the post-World War II era, more than 50 million people remain forcefully displaced. Nine out of ten refugees are residing in developing countries and internal displacement (33.3 million people) has never been higher.
In the Rakhine State of Myanmar, about 140,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in the aftermath of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The majority of them are the Rohingya, with smaller numbers of Rakhine, Kaman and other ethnicities. Most of the Rohingya are living in temporary camps and shelters with restriction on their freedom of movement and a lack of basic healthcare. Reports suggest that they are subjected to different forms of extortion, forced labour and arbitrary taxation including financial restrictions on marriage.
Under the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982, Myanmar has granted citizenship to 135 different ethnic groups, but not the Rohingya. Instead the Rohingya population remains stateless and the Myanmar government constantly reaffirms that this group is not welcome in Myanmar. Therefore, the plight of the Rohingya is twofold -- they are subjected to serious human rights violations and they are also stateless.
Given this situation, thousands of Rohingya have continued to flee Myanmar and sought safety elsewhere. Abuse and exploitation are common along the way and many lose their lives at sea. A statement published by UNHCR last week shows that an estimated 86,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have sailed on boats since June 2012. More than 1,300 have died on the journey and hundreds have been ill-treated in overcrowded camps run by traffickers and people smugglers.
The strain and burden placed on neighbouring countries as a result of this refugee crisis is huge. There are more than 30,000 refugees from Myanmar registered in two official camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. These refugees receive assistance and protection from the Bangladesh government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Sadly, the prolonged displacement is having a severe impact on their mental health as they have sat idle for more than 22 years waiting to go home and to start their lives again. Approximately 60% of the camp population has been born in Bangladesh. Unlike the Bangladeshi refugees, the Rohingya have had to endure the sad fate of watching their children be born and raised in a refugee camp.
To alleviate their stress and daily sufferings, the Bangladeshi government has recently agreed to improve the shelter and living conditions in the refugee camps. Education has been extended to the secondary level and female police have been deployed inside the camps to help address the wide spread gender-based violence. Vocational trainings and Burmese language classes are run regularly to build self-reliance and prepare the refugees for their voluntary return to Myanmar, when the situation in Rakhine state improves.
Concern still remains for an additional 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who live outside the two official refugee camps and are not registered as refugees. They do not have any legal status and thus have no access to basic services or the Bangladeshi justice system. Since these unregistered Rohingya are in Bangladesh “illegally,” they remain vulnerable to exploitation and can easily be taken advantage of by criminal entities.
Late last year, government of Bangladesh adopted a national strategy with regards to Myanmar refugees and undocumented Myanmar nationals. This strategy entails a plan to “list” the unregistered population which, if carried out in accordance with international standards, would be a positive step towards recognising the existence of this population. An identification exercise would also guide the planning of humanitarian response and lay the groundwork for a future voluntary repatriation when the conditions in Myanmar have sufficiently improved. Given UNHCR's global experience in registering and documenting different populations for over six decades, we have offered our assistance and are hopeful that the government will take up the offer.
Bangladesh has generously hosted the Rohingya population for over two decades, but it is not alone. The conflict in Rakhine State in Myanmar has given rise to a regional problem that now spans across Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India. UNHCR is advocating for these host countries to grant the Rohingya temporary stay arrangements until the situation stabilises sufficiently in Rakhine State for them to return.
Although UNHCR can alleviate the suffering of displaced populations, it takes political decisions to resolve the root causes of conflicts and achieve peaceful co-existence of communities. On this World Refugee Day, let us all urge the international community to pave the way for a peaceful solution which will allow the Rohingya to finally return to the society that they were once part of.
The writer is UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh.