By Michael Gabaudan
It’s the “Rohingya problem.” Burma’s history of brutal persecution of the Rohingya – coupled with their lack of citizenship rights – have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Minister of Food and Disaster Management, Abdul Razzaque, recently blamed western countries for “keeping the problem alive.”
However, western countries are not to blame for keeping the “Rohingya problem” alive. The plight of the Rohingya originates with the Burmese government’s abuses of this minority. Numerous Rohingya refugees say they can barely sleep at night in Burma due to the constant fear of the NaSaKa, or border police, at their door. However, persecution of the Rohingya is made worse by Bangladesh’s failure to respond in a humane manner to this refugee crisis. Bangladesh’s intransigence in refusing to allow protection and assistance to this very vulnerable and desperate population has only exacerbated one of the world’s most neglected crises.
In an ongoing policy review, the Bangladesh government must protect the Rohingya’s basic human rights to safety, food, shelter, and – as stateless people – an identity. First and foremost, this requires a process to register Rohingya refugees. Only 28,000 out of at least 200,000 Rohingya refugees are registered – which enables them to access legal justice and basic protection. Residents know that they can abuse Rohingya refugees with impunity because the unregistered refugees cannot access justice. Furthermore, those not registered are not allowed to work, nor are they provided with any food or livelihood assistance. As a result, they face severe malnutrition.
Rohingya also face unlimited detention for working illegally, even though it is often the only way they can keep their families alive. Many Rohingya women are left alone while their husbands are held in detention or are forced to stay far away from their families to make money for their survival. Unregistered Rohingya refugee women in these circumstances have suffered sexual assaults, but cannot access justice because of their own lack of legal status.
Bangladesh has made significant progress in reducing poverty and lowering the rates of maternal and child mortality over time. It has proved resilient in the face of famines, cyclones and civil war. As a result, Bangladesh is one of the top development aid recipients, with more than $US2 billion provided last year primarily from western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, little of the international aid money is going to help the Rohingya. In fact, Bangladesh is willing to deprive its own citizens of international assistance in order to maintain inhospitable conditions for the Rohingya. Recently, Bangladeshi authorities rejected a $33 million aid package from the United Nations intended for Cox’s Bazar, one of the most impoverished districts in the country, and where the majority of Rohingya refugees live. The UN program was designed to help reverse the annual three precent economic decline, a decline that Minister Razzaque blames on the Rohingya refugees. Other Bangladesh authorities say that the aid package was rejected because it might encourage other Rohingya currently living in Burma to flee to Bangladesh. This is appalling.
Bangladesh has not been forced to deal with the problem of the Rohingya refugees alone. Western countries provide the bulk of funds for the UN refugee agency and non-governmental organizations that provide assistance. Eight western countries have also resettled more than 700 Rohingya refugees. Yet last October, Bangladesh abruptly halted all refugee resettlement, including for urgent medical cases.
Bangladesh and other refugee-hosting countries in the region must recognize that the Rohingya refugees are not going to stop escaping from Burma until the Burmese government ends the ongoing persecution of these people. Instead of blaming the victims, Bangladesh, along with China, India and Thailand, must address the root cause and pressure Burma to reinstate citizenship rights for the Rohingya. Bangladesh has leverage with its neighbour – Dhaka’s relationship with Burma has grown significantly since a deal was agreed to create a gas pipeline from western Burma through Bangladesh and on to India.
After hosting Rohingya refugees for more than 30 years, the Bangladeshi authorities must realize that denying them their basic rights does nothing to resolve the problems posed by their presence in the country. Now is the time for the Government of Bangladesh to demonstrate that it is a responsible and accountable international partner by prioritising and protecting the rights of Rohingya refugees.
Michel Gabaudan is president of Refugees International, a Washington DC-based organization that advocates to end refugee crises and receives no government or UN funding. For more information, please visit the website.