Resentments Fester as Bangladesh Bears the Brunt of Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis
49 comments | by Laignee Barron
When the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis barreled into a sleepy coastal town in southern Bangladesh last August, the prime minister in Dhaka pledged that her impoverished country would go without food if that was what it took to help the Rohingya fleeing violence from the army in Myanmar. Almost nine months later, that welcome is starting to wear thin as the exodus far exceeds past influxes of Rohingya refugees and settles into a prolonged, seemingly intractable situation, taxing one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries. Bangladesh, no stranger to the Myanmar military’s paroxysms of ethno-nationalist violence, has historically provided shelter to the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority from next door. Desperate masses arrived in 1978, followed by more in 1991 when a quarter of a million Rohingya fled violence in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. Sectarian clashes in 2012 prompted another wave. But unlike in those instances, Bangladesh is now harboring more than two-thirds of the stateless community of Rohingya, and Myanmar appears to have little appetite to allow them back.Previously, it was understood that the Rohingya “belonged to Myanmar and to Rakhine State,” and that eventually they would be returning there, Farooq Sobhan, a retired foreign secretary in Bangladesh, recently told an international conference in Dhaka. “Myanmar did not insist,” he added, “on referring to them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh,” as it does now.
Since August, nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees have stumbled across the riverine border, fleeing a military-led assault that United Nations human rights monitors say bears the “hallmarks of genocide.” Cramped into tent cities sprawling across denuded hills in the fishing port of Cox’s Bazar, survivors testify to a campaign of torture, mass rape, extrajudicial killings and arson. Myanmar’s military has termed this the solution to its “final problem.” But for Bangladesh, the staggering moral, economic, political and security ramifications of the crisis are still just beginning to unfold. Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees, including holdovers from previous expulsions, are currently relying on Bangladesh’s hospitality and scant resources. This burden roughly equates with the influx of refugees at the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015. Only, in that case, the burden was distributed across Europe, and shared among some of the world’s wealthiest nations, including Germany, which boasts a GDP above $3.4 trillion. By comparison, Bangladesh has a GDP of just $221 billion and an average annual income of $1,300.
“The cost that Bangladesh is having to incur because of Myanmar’s actions is extremely unfair and continues to rise,” read a recent editorial in Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper. “The local community, too, is facing problems because of the scale of the crisis, which is also taking its toll on the environment.” Before the most recent surge in Rohingya arrivals, Bangladesh had restricted aid delivery to just 33,000 registered refugees in two camps. When tens of thousands of Rohingya began streaming into Bangladesh after insurgent attacks in western Myanmar last year unleashed brutal military reprisals, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina allowed for a change of tactics. She called for “humane” treatment at the border and allowed for emergency food and medical assistance on humanitarian grounds. But, she also insisted, “Myanmar will have to take back all Rohingya refugees who entered Bangladesh.”
The Rohingya have been relegated to living in limbo, with little relief expected for Bangladesh.
That hasn’t happened. A controversial repatriation deal struck in November has stalled, producing not even a single voluntary return. Instead, more Rohingya are arriving on the Bangladesh side of the border as the Myanmar military’s campaign continues—a crackdown condemned internationally, including by the United States, as ethnic cleansing. “The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied blood-letting and mass rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation that seems to be designed to drive the remaining Rohingya from their homes and into Bangladesh,” Andrew Gilmour, the U.N.’s assistant secretary-general for human rights, said in a statement last month. Myanmar forces have taken pains to seal the border behind them, fortifying the country’s 180-mile fence with barbed wire and concrete buttresses.
Where once Bangladeshis opened their doors—handing out food, clothes and even helping to bury the dead—new resentments have festered. “We don’t want Rohingya!” protesters reportedly shouted during February demonstrations in the border town of Ukhia against their government’s refugee policy. While Bangladeshis strive to get by on less than $2 a day, the aid-dependent refugees await trucks full of food and medical supplies. Validly or not, the local population has started attributing job shortages and inflation to the refugee influx. It also doesn’t help that the volatile situation poses an additional security threat where, as one correspondent put it, “despair could find meaning in extremism, or … extremism might prey on despair.”
Such concerns may hold sway in an election year in Bangladesh, with a vote for a new parliament expected in December. Faced with such public pressures, Bangladeshi leaders have refused to soften measures that prevent the Rohingya from assimilating. They cannot marry; schools in refugee camps are prohibited from teaching children the local Bangla language; and refugees are officially barred from working, forcing many into the black market. Amid stymied repatriation negotiations and little international pressure on Myanmar, the Rohingya have been relegated to living in limbo, with little relief expected for Bangladesh. With few alternatives on the horizon, the infrastructure of refugee camps—schools, roads, mosques and latrines—has expanded, making everything appear that much more permanent. Or as permanent as a ramshackle collection of tarpaulin and bamboo dwellings can be. The U.N. has called for nearly $1 billion to support the existing refugee population in Bangladesh this year, while also budgeting for up to 80,000 additional arrivals. Aid agencies have said they are focused on a two-year timeframe. The immediate future holds only the certainty of impending calamity as first cyclone and then monsoon seasons soon bear down on the steep hillside encampments, threatening lives, shelters and water supplies. At least 150,000 people need to be relocated.
In response, Bangladesh has doubled down on a heavily criticized plan to move some 100,000 refugees onto a desolate, muddy island in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh has poured $280 million into making the flood-prone spit of land inhabitable, and intends to start transferring Rohingya there in June, according to AFP. Sobhan, Bangladesh’s former foreign secretary, summed up the predicament bleakly in Dhaka last month. “What likelihood is there of persuading those Rohingyas who are in Bangladesh to go back voluntarily to their homes—homes that no longer exist because as we know the villages have been razed to the ground?” Other ethnic communities have reportedly moved into the destroyed villages, “to occupy the lands that belong to the Rohingyas,” he added. “This strikes me certainly as an attempt on the part of Myanmar to engage in what can only be referred to as permanent solution of the Rohingya problem. And that in turn certainly creates a huge challenge for Bangladesh.”
Laignee Barron is a journalist covering politics and refugee issues in Southeast Asia. She has written for The Guardian, TIME, PRI’s The World, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets.