Nearly a million Rohingya refugees have crossed from their homes in western Myanmar into southeast Bangladesh since August, joining hundreds of thousands of their brothers and sisters who made the same journey in previous years. The Rohingya fled what the United Nations calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” recounting horrific stories of burned villages and killings at the hands of Myanmar’s military.
Bangladesh has accepted the Rohingya and has worked hard to help them. At the same time, Bangladesh negotiated with Myanmar to facilitate their repatriation, and the two sides recently agreed to do so over the next two years.
Bangladesh has expanded and improved existing refugee camps for the Rohingya and is building new ones. The government is vaccinating children, registering Rohingya so they can receive assistance, and building living quarters and other infrastructure. These actions have been praised around the world, including by Pope Francis who visited Bangladesh in December.
Even so, the government of Bangladesh has drawn criticism for limiting the Rohingyas’ movements to inside the camps and by not granting them permanent residency. Neither is the result of a lack of compassion. Rather, the policies are designed to protect the security of the Bangladeshi people.
The media are reporting that the military crackdown on the Rohingya – though clearly unjustified in its scale and cruelty – began as a response to the killing of 12 Myanmar security officers by the Rohingya militant group known as ARSA or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The group has been linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda, though ASRA denies this, saying it is fighting for the rights of the Rohingya.
Bangladesh’s security concern stems from the fact that the armed ARSA militants, that have crossed into Bangladesh along with the waves of other Rohingya, make the refugee camps a breeding ground for radicalization.
In a December article in the Financial Times, analyst Richard Horsey, who lives in Myanmar, wrote, “Any long-term hopeless situation is very conducive for recruitment by radical groups who want to pursue their agenda.” He added, “ARSA will have no problem in identifying young people willing to join” in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.
This is why Bangladesh cannot safely allow countrywide freedom of movement to the Rohingya. The government can’t ensure that terrorists will not recruit new members to carry out cross-border attacks into Myanmar or, more importantly, to wage terror in Bangladesh.
Over the years, Bangladesh has granted refugee status to about 30,000 Rohingya that have fled from Myanmar. But absorbing all 1.3 million Rohingya would constitute an instant population increase of nearly one percent. That may sound small, but similar spikes have contributed to destabilization in other governments around the world. Further, nearly all of the Rohingya in Bangladesh are at the lowest end of the economic spectrum and thus would present an outsized burden on the nation’s social safety net.
Bangladesh is proud of its rapid development. In 2015, the World Bank said Bangladesh moved into its lower-middle-income bracket and its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is over 7 percent. But Bangladesh isn’t a wealthy country. It can help the Rohingya in the short-term and is expending resources to do so. But granting all of the Rohingya permanent residency would shock the economy and set back hard-won gains for everyone.
Other than the Rohingya, almost nobody has wanted to emigrate to Bangladesh. As a result, Bangladesh does not have an immigration system like more developed nations. The only way anyone can get Bangladeshi citizenship is by marriage or if one parent is Bangladeshi. Being born in Bangladesh does not confer citizenship. As such, there is no legal path to citizenship for immigrants or refugees.
Bangladesh has managed to balance two conflicting demands: supplying humanitarian aid to the Rohingya while ensuring the stability and security in Bangladesh. The government will continue to do everything it can for the Rohingya and will work with Myanmar during their repatriation. But it must also protect the Bangladeshi people.
Sajeeb Wazed is the information technology adviser to the government of Bangladesh and the son of the prime minister.