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Bangladesh loses sight of own refugee past

Refusal to accept fleeing Rohingya betrays ignorance of history

  • The Third Eye, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • June 22, 2012
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Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, rarely makes international headlines for good reasons, so if you see something hit the wires of the international press, prepare yourself for the worst.

Whether it is an expose of the country’s dire poverty or the toxicity of the drinking water; whether the lack of infrastructure or political unrest; bad news is a safe bet from a country where half the 160 million population can’t read and earns only about 50 cents per day.

But some issues are more pressing, if not more widely reported, in the country.

One example is the issue of refugees – a longstanding issue that has again come to the fore with the outbreak of violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Allegedly sparked by the rape and murder of a young Buddhist girl and the subsequent retaliatory killing of 10 Muslims, the violence drove hundreds of Rohingya towards the Bangladesh border.

Authorities on the Bangladeshi side have continued to refuse entry to Rohingya refugees, despite incurring criticism from Human Rights Watch, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the US State Department.

Since last week, border guards have turned back boats carrying hundreds of refugees seeking a safe haven – though authorities did provide food and water before sending them on their way.

Apart from its international commitments as a member of the United Nations and the dictates of common decency, has the country forgotten the assistance it received at a time of great need?

An estimated 10 million people fled to India during the 1971 war of liberation.

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni defended the refusal of entry to the Rohingya by saying, “Bangladesh never signed any kind of international act, convention or law for allowing and giving shelter to refugees. That’s why we are not bound to provide shelter to Rohingyas.”

The statement fails to address the most critical issues, ones that have deep historical roots.

In 1978 and again in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled Rakhine state to Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence that some have equated to ethnic cleansing by the then military junta ruling Myanmar.

Many later returned, but a large number refused out of fear for their safety. Bangladesh authorities say that about half a million Rohingya refugees still remain in Bangladesh, residing in largely makeshift camps in the southeastern border districts.

The UNHCR puts the figure at between 200,000 and 300,000, with only 28,000 granted official refugee status.

Authorities are obviously trying to prevent another influx of refugees that may not want to return once order is restored.

Despite maintaining a presence in Myanmar since at least the 7th century, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship by their government, which refuses to include them in a list of 135 recognized ethnic minorities.

Today the Rohingya are numbered among the world’s most persecuted minorities, unrecognized as citizens at home and unwanted abroad.

Descendents of ethnic Rakhine, Bengali and Arab seafarers, they continue to be unwelcome in Bangladesh as well.

Relegated to ill-equipped and unhealthy camps, and subject to exploitation and abuse by border security guards as well as local residents, the Rohingya receive little in the way of official support from the government, which sees them as an additional burden on a country already groaning under the substantial weight of other social and political problems.

The Rohingya problem is not without precedent.

Bangladesh’s three million ethnic tribals continue to fight for their rights despite being recognized as citizens of the country.

And what of the 160,000 Bihari Muslim refugees who fled to the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from India after the partition? They have always considered themselves citizens of Pakistan, though they were not born there and most have never even visited that country.

They have been locked in the country since Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, proving that dividing countries on religious grounds was a historic blunder.

For more than 40 years, the Rohingya have endured international neglect and dire living conditions. Bangladesh remains adamant about its refugee policy, and efforts by the international community have to date been largely ineffective.

The international community must decide on a better course of action. The limbo in which the Rohingya have lived for so long is not sustainable. And tensions in western Myanmar, and Bangladesh’s resistance to change its position on refugees, will likely spell even more bad news for the country.

The Third Eye is the pseudonym for a Dhaka-based journalist and analyst

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