IN Chittagong lives a very desperate community -- the Rohingya -- a religious and linguistic ethnic minority from Myanmar's northern Rakhine State, who have been fleeing state-sponsored persecution in their homeland since the late seventies. In 1991, when the population experienced widespread repression and abuse from security forces posted in Rakhine, a quarter of a million crossed the border to Bangladesh seeking asylum. Many of them still live here today.
Some 28,000 have been officially recognised as refugees and are living in a UN-run camp, waiting to be relocated to a third nation. Hundreds of thousands of others live outside these grounds, in the district of Chittagong or in unofficial camps such as Kutu Palong or Leda. Stateless and hopeless, these people carry on in dire conditions, often without food, sanitation and basic health care.
A European Parliament resolution passed only last month called on the Bangladesh government to "recognise that the unregistered Rohingyas are stateless asylum seekers who have fled persecution in Myanmar and are in need of international protection." However, in spite of such calls, the government still continues with its forced repatriation drive. In recent months, border authorities have launched an unprecedented crackdown in Bangladesh, pushing over 2,000 Rohingyas back across the border into Myanmar where they are likely to face arrest for leaving their villages without a travel permit.
Many here in Bangladesh though are beginning to wonder if forced repatriation really works. Bangladesh already witnessed two mass exoduses in 1978 and again in 1991, which were also followed by forced repatriation, but since then the refugees trickling in from Myanmar have never stopped and the numbers today living in the Chittagong Division are still in the hundreds of thousands.
A report commissioned by the Dutch Embassy in 2008 shows that 55 percent of those living the in Kutu Palong makeshift camp were previously registered as refugees and have returned, despite being pushed back. It also shows the number crossing the border into Bangladesh is not decreasing. Pushing back the Rohingya against their will is clearly not working. This heavy handed, ill-thought-out action only blackens Bangladesh's image in the public eye (especially considering the recent attacks on non-Bengalis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts) as we ourselves rely so much on donor aid. Isn't it time to think of an alternative solution to the crisis?
Though half of the Rohingya who make their way to Bangladesh are taken in by sympathetic local families until they find their feet, it remains a fragile relationship. Many locals are competing for jobs with the Rohingya (who are often willing to work for less than Bangladeshis) and this often fuels local tensions. Others worry that armed extremist gangs are radicalising the youth of this marginalised, leaderless community, and suspicions of drug smuggling and an increase in petty crime in the camps have been recorded in the local press. With a new round of elections slated for later this year in Myanmar, locals are increasingly concerned that another exodus from its neighbour state may ensue and the situation in Bangladesh might further deteriorate.
As a result, a xenophobic campaign is being orchestrated by anti-Rohingya committees formed and allegedly funded by the local political elite, demanding that the government take action against them. Announcements have been disseminated, ordering the Rohingya to leave and also threatening locals harbouring them with arrest and prosecution. Meanwhile, violence against the Rohingya is spiralling. Médecins sin Frontières (MSF) doctors who attend to both refugees and locals in Kutu Palong say they have been treating Rohingya who have been beaten and raped. "[Border guards] broke my fingers and then they threw me into the river and told me to swim back," says Ziaur Rahman, a 23-year-old who managed to escape and walk for three days to get medical care at the MSF clinic.
If the Rohingya are willing to suffer such ill treatment here in Bangladesh, one can imagine how terrible the life they left behind must have been. An Amnesty International report from 2009 described the situation in Myanmar: "[The Rohingya] movement is severely restricted, they need permission to marry and they are subject to forced labour and coercion." Failure to comply may result in up to 7 years' imprisonment. "They taxed us 15kg per 20kg of rice and we needed a permit to travel. If we didn't listen they beat us and raped our women," 25-year-old Robiul Aktar told me. "I'd rather die of starvation [in Bangladesh] than live in Myanmar." Is this not enough to awaken our empathy? Were we too not refugees once? It took us 35 years to recognise the injustice suffered by the Biharis before we came to our senses. Must it take a similar period of time and suffering before we come to terms with the plight of the Rohingya?
Yes. Bangladesh, like India, Thailand and Pakistan, didn't sign the 1951 Refugee Convention (the global treaty that defines who is eligible for refugee status and what rights they are guaranteed) and cannot be expected to take on such a massive challenge single-handed. As one of the poorest nations in the world, it doesn't have the financial resources to cope with such a huge influx of people. However, the Thai boat crisis of 2009 should have made clear that regional solutions are needed to solve this issue. There has to be sustained regional pressure (including from India and China) on Myanmar to stop the ethnic cleansing and to recognise the Muslim Rohingya alongside the other 146 non-Muslim ethnic minorities.
The international community must also help relieve the pressure on Bangladesh by accepting some of the refugees that have already been registered. Since 2006, the UNHCR has resettled as few as 749 Rohingya from the registered camp. Five hundred were relocated in 2009 and another 190 are pending departure for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the US. It's a rate of departure that barely covers the population growth of 2.9 percent within the registered camp; right now, the system is simply paying off the human interest.
In the meantime, it's imperative that our government act immediately to stop the violence and provide these people with the protection they require. The UNHCR needs to take greater steps toward developing a clear policy to tackle the issue, and must not let the terms of its agreement with the government undermine its role as international protector of those who have lost the protection of their state, or who have no state to turn to.
Of course, recognising these stateless people comes at a high moral price. With accepting that the Rohingya are indeed asylum seekers also comes the admission that every single government up till now has been wrong. Making such a statement would ultimately stain the hands, and the conscience, of all those before who had the power to take action and didn't. As such, a law may prove harder to push through than would seem. Our politicians must accept the responsibility and ensure that human ethics is never weighed against personal pride.
Few reading this editorial will ever come into contact with a Rohingya. Even fewer will ever see the dreadful conditions they live in. I write this article partly so you don't ever have to hear the cry of rape nor stomach the pain of hunger. So you don't have to watch babies die from curable diseases nor wade through stagnant water and human faeces in the monsoon season. I write this article so you don't ever have to endure the guilt which consumes me.
These words are not meant to name names or point fingers; simply to raise awareness that nobody chooses to live like this. Nobody chooses to leave behind everything they know and understand; their loved ones, their livelihood, their language and their culture. As a nation we need to set an example to other countries in the region and take a collective stance to ensure that the Rohingya are treated with dignity. Who will join me and speak out against the appalling conditions that these wretched people live in?