Pressuring Bangladesh to do more will not help the Rohingya

What the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh need is not more aid, but a way to return home to Myanmar safely, writes Nasir Uddin .

Nasir Uddin

Exactly three years ago, on August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military embarked on a “clearance operation” against the Rohingya in the country’s northern Rakhine state. Under the pretence of “fighting insurgents”, they indiscriminately killed, raped and tortured helpless civilians, burned entire villages to the ground, and drove more than 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children to seek safety in neighbouring Bangladesh.

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, countless researchers, NGOs, international bodies and governments condemned Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya, with some deeming the coordinated attacks on the Muslim minority “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing“.

A year later in August 2018, in a scathing 444-page report based on 875 in-depth interviews with victims and witnesses, satellite imagery and authenticated documents, the United Nations investigators exposed the unilateral and deliberate nature of the violence for everyone to see and called for Myanmar military leaders to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Rohingya refugee children pose for a picture at the Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 15, 2018 [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]
Rohingya refugee children pose for a picture at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 15, 2018 [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Despite all this, today, on the third anniversary of “the Rohingya genocide”, the survivors of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign are still waiting for justice. Not only Myanmar’s military and political leaders have not been held to account for their murderous actions, but almost nothing has been done to ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in limbo in Bangladeshi refugee camps. 

Today, the conversations surrounding the fate of the Rohingya are curiously focused not on Myanmar, but Bangladesh. The international community, seemingly convinced that Myanmar cannot be forced to change its ways and accept the Rohingya, are putting pressure on Bangladesh to ameliorate the living conditions of the refugees it hosts and counter the growing intolerance against them in the country.

It is undeniable that the relations between the locals and the Rohingya refugees are rapidly deteriorating in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it is hypocritical to expect a developing nation that has been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees with little help from the international community for many decades to continue to do so with enthusiasm for the foreseeable future.

The first group of Rohingya refugees arrived in Bangladesh back in 1978, after the government of Myanmar branded them “illegal immigrants” and launched “Operation Dragon King” to push them out. As more than 200,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh with little more than the clothes on their backs, Bangladeshi communities living near the border welcomed them with open arms.

In 1991-92, the Myanmar military launched another operation, named “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation”, to expel so-called “foreigners”. This second episode of state-sponsored violence pushed a further 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. This time they were not received as warmly, as the increasing number of refugees exacerbated the economic struggles of the local population. Nevertheless, Bangladeshis still saw it as their duty to help their neighbours, and the refugees settled in the country without much pushback from the host community.

When a further 700,000 Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh in 2017, however, the hospitality of Bangladeshis seemingly reached its limits. As 34 temporary refugee camps were built to house the newly arrived refugees, the local population started to complain about the unprecedented strain this massive influx has put on the local economy and infrastructure. Claiming that the refugee influx has led to labour insecurity, food inflation, water shortage, environmental damage and also more crimes, they started demanding the Rohingya to swiftly return to their own country.

Since the influx in 2017, several attempts have been made to repatriate the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an “arrangement” on “Return of displaced Myanmar persons sheltered in Bangladesh”. There have been two consequent attempts to repatriate the refugees (in November 2018 and August 2019), but both attempts proved unsuccessful as the Rohingya refugees refused to move, citing security concerns.

Indeed, since the episode of violence in 2017, Myanmar authorities did nothing to ensure the safe return of the refugees. The state not only failed to accept responsibility for the atrocities and punish the perpetrators, but also refused to give citizenship rights to the returning Rohingya. Moreover, the conditions that led the Rohingya to flee their homeland did not change in the last three years.

The Myanmar military not only continued to commit atrocities against the few remaining Rohingya, but also launched a new operation in Rakhine state against the Rakhine Buddsts, flaming further instability in the region. The Buddhist citizens of Myanmar, meanwhile, repeatedly made it clear that they do not want the Rohingya, who they view as “terrorists”, to return.

All this has left the Rohingya refugees stuck in a foreign country they are no longer welcome. The Bangladeshi authorities, meanwhile, are caught between a rock and a hard place, as they cannot force the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar to face more violence, but also cannot afford to create the necessary conditions for them to live in harmony with the local population.

In the last three years, just a handful of nations and international organisations took steps to help resolve the Rohingya crisis beyond issuing empty statements of concern or sending aid to the refugees in Bangladesh. The Gambia, for example, filed a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice to bring the perpetrators of the 2017 violence to justice. The ongoing case helped carry the issue to global headlines once again, however, it made little difference on the ground.

Today, as we commemorate the third “Rohingya Genocide Memorial Day”, we need to understand that the Rohingya problem cannot be resolved merely by sending aid to Bangladesh and pressuring it to do more to help the refugees it hosts. Aid can give the refugees temporary relief, but it cannot help them build their lives back. It cannot fulfil their yearning for their homeland either.

The international community needs to stop focusing on temporary fixes and start looking for a way to help the Rohingya refugees return home to Myanmar safely. If it fails to do so, there will be no end to the suffering of the Rohingya. 

Courtesy: Al Jazeera. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.