The massive number of migrants and refugees, the so-called “boat people,” arriving from Bangladesh and Myanmar in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia dominated the headlines this summer. The vast majority of these “boat people” were Rohingya, a Muslim Bengali-speaking ethnic group that live in Rakhine State, on Myanmar’s western coast. They are fleeing oppressive conditions in Myanmar, where they are categorically denied citizenship rights, as well as subjected to violent repression at the hands of government forces, Buddhist extremists, and the region’s majority ethnic group, the Arakan/Rakhine. While a deal was reached in June for Malaysia and Indonesia to provide temporary shelter to Rohingya asylum seekers, this temporary solution cannot stop the refugee crisis engulfing Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Not all Rohingya are leaving on boats, however. Many thousands more have crossed into Bangladesh, where despite offers of international assistance, the Bangladesh government continues to deny the majority of Rohingya basic humanitarian relief or the right to legally register as refugees.
Why is Bangladesh, the homeland of Bengali Muslims, reluctant to take on more Muslim Rohingya refugees? An obvious answer, it would seem, is Bangladesh’s own poverty. However, the real explanation is more complex. Bangladesh has proven to be recalcitrant on the Rohingya issue for two closely intertwined reasons: governmental incapacity and a complex Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
The Rohingya in Myanmar
The Rohingya are an ethnic group closely linked through language, culture, and religion to the dominant Bengali population of Bangladesh. Indeed, the Rohingya language is very close the variety of Bangla spoken in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s major port in the southeast, and until the late 1600s part of the Arakanese Empire in today’s Myanmar. The Rohingya are concentrated in Rakhine (previously Arakan) State, Myanmar. However, under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law, Rohingya were denied the right to claim Burmese citizenship. The government argued that the Rohingya were illegal migrants that only settled in the country during British rule, which justified the denial of their citizenship rights.
Today, the Rohingya continue to face routine harassment at the hands of the Myanmar government, Buddhist extremists, and Arakan nationalist groups, despite the presence of an elected government in Naypyidaw and an improving human rights regime in Myanmar.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, vaulted leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement and supporter of minority rights, has been curiously silent on the Rohingya issue. Speaking out in favor of the Rohingya population would hurt her popularity with the majority Buddhist population, and would also damage the shaky modus operandi she has managed to build with the current government. In light of these conditions, many thousands of Rohingya have been fleeing their birthplace.
The Rohingya in Bangladesh
Refugees International estimates that 29,000 Rohingya live in official refugee camps in Bangladesh, while another 200,000 are in unofficial camps, where they are categorically denied legal protections and humanitarian assistance. The majority of them live near Cox’s Bazar, a city located on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed its willingness to help the Bangladesh government cover the costs of additional services and registering refugees, Bangladesh refuses to act. The UNHCR and other international NGOs have offered numerous proposals for ways to improve the situation, but the government continues to drag its feet.
The cost factor is simply not enough to fully explain this puzzle. Indeed, in 1971 when 10 million refugees poured into India from East Pakistan, an extremely impoverished country managed to provide basic services with little or no international assistance. Not only could Bangladesh receive far more international assistance, but the total Rohingya population in Myanmar does not amount to more than 2 million.
Despite close cultural and religious affinity, the Bangladesh government has been reluctant to take responsibility for the Rohingya issue. New arrivals are turned away, and Rohingya are blamed for drug-related and violent crimes in Cox’s Bazaar; their movement and access to basic services were further restricted in 2012, following attacks on Buddhist communities in southeastern Bangladesh. Indeed, despite this continuing influx of refugees Bangladesh has not come up with a comprehensive refugee policy.
In 2010, Bangladesh announced that it was working on a national refugee policy, and until it was agreed upon, no new refugees could be registered at the country’s two official refugee camps. Nor, for that matter, could NGOs or the UNHCR offer any additional services. However, it took until 2014 for the government to announce its national strategy for Myanmar refugees and undocumented nationals. The policy included five key elements: listing unregistered refugees, providing temporary basic humanitarian relief, strengthening border management, diplomatic engagement with the government of Myanmar, and increasing national level coordination. Although the statement acknowledged the need for basic humanitarian relief, it fell far short of demands for building a system that allowed refugees any opportunities for self-reliance.
More recently, the government has come up with more callous plans to deal with the refugee influx. In May of this year, for example, The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had announced plans to relocate the refugee camps from their current location near Cox’s Bazar to an island in the Bay of Bengal. The move appears to be motivated by plans to boost the number of tourists visiting Cox’s Bazar’s famous beaches.
Besides governmental inefficacy, Bangladesh’s highly strained relationship with Myanmar also accounts for the situation of the Rohingya. Continuing differences over border security and insurgencies in regions abutting their borders loom large. Despite ongoing negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire, various insurgent groups are still fighting the Myanmar government. The movement of stateless Rohingya complicates an already insecure border, plagued by drug trafficking and insurgency groups.
The border between these two countries is a major transit zone for methamphetamines from Myanmar. For example, in June 2015, a member of the Border Guard Bangladesh was abducted by the Myanmar Border Guard Police and held for about 10 days before his unconditional release. Neither side offered much in the way of explanation of the incident; many people in Dhaka were convinced that the abduction was probably tied to the involvement of the two border forces in the drug trade from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Methamphetamine addiction is on the rise in Dhaka, even as millions of pills, locally known as yaba, are confiscated annually at the border.
Insurgent groups have also taken advantage of the chaos surrounding the border area. In late August, the Bangladesh military organized a series of operations into the border areas to oust members of the Arakan Army, one of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations, which had been operating in the region illegally while hiding from Myanmar government forces. Rohingya insurgents have also sought refuge in Bangladesh, as have Bangladesh’s own insurgent groups from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The unchecked movement of Rohingya refugees adds to the Bangladesh government’s legitimate concerns about the area. The border is difficult for the state to control given its remoteness from any major cities, there is rampant illegal trade and border crossings, and it appears that some ethnic insurgencies and Islamist groups have used the area as a base of operations. Indeed, the Rohingya are increasingly being pulled into criminal and extremist/terrorist networks.
Resolving the issue of the porous border and ending the sanctuaries of various insurgent groups would require the two states to enter into long-term diplomatic discussions. It would also depend on the expansion of Myanmar’s state capacity, which remains limited, especially in remote border areas. For these reasons, it is difficult to prescribe easy policy options for dealing with this issue. However, there are very tangible and viable steps that Bangladesh can pursue to alleviate the dire plight of the Rohingyas.
First, the UNHCR and international NGOs working with refugees need to pressure Dhaka to produce a comprehensive refugee strategy that can realistically address the Rohingya issue. Dhaka needs to comes to grips with the sad but ineluctable fact that Naypyidaw will not take steps to improve the lot of Rohingya in Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis is unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Second, Bangladesh Border Guards should be instructed to allow Rohingya refugees into the country for immediate registration, unless there is sufficient evidence that the asylum seekers are either drug traffickers or insurgents. Denying Rohingya legal entry only incentivizes illegal entry and cooperation with insurgency groups and drug traffickers. Indeed, accepting more official refugees should be integrated into Dhaka’s border security, anti-narcotics, and anti-terrorist legislation. By accepting refugees, the Bangladesh government will be in a better position to keep them out of criminal and extremist networks.
Third, Bangladesh has a moral imperative to contribute to global humanitarian activities. Arguably, Bangladesh has benefited most from international aid, poverty reduction programs, and humanitarian assistance. Since the country’s independence, it has been the darling of international development and could count on substantial aid in times of difficulty. Taking on more Rohingya refugees is not just a practical policy issue, it is an intrinsically moral issue for Bangladesh.
Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. Brandon Miliate is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.