There’s an old joke about a patient who went to see a doctor about back pain. The physician advised the patient that he should not remain sitting, neither should he stand, nor lie down. “Otherwise,” the physician warned, “your back could deteriorate permanently.” The patient, extremely confused and annoyed, asked the doctor, “Shall I then hang like a jacket on a hanger?”
The helplessness of the patient portrayed in this story provides an apt analogy for the situation of the Rohingya – the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing in their own country, Myanmar, now stuck in limbo in crowded camps in Bangladesh. Their homeland will not take them back, which nullifies the possibility of their repatriation. The host country will not grant them any form of status (whether as citizens or refugees), which has exacerbated their situation. And finally, no third country has come forward to take them as part of a resettlement plan.
The states involved have politicized the Rohingya issue so much that none of these three options – repatriation in Myanmar, granting them status in Bangladesh, or resettlement in a third country – seems realistic now. Marking six years of genocide for the Rohingya, as the world does today, is therefore a symbolic act only.
Should the Rohingya then, like the patient in the apocryphal story, be left hanging in the void outside the geopolitical territory of any state? That is as impossible as a person spending their life dangling from a clothes hanger.
Repatriation: A Failed Project
For a long time, the government of Bangladesh looked at repatriation as the only solution to the Rohingya crisis. Yet Myanmar has shown no real interest. Its officials prepared lists of the Rohingya (and then disowned those same lists) and visited Bangladesh for discussions with no specific plan of action on Rohingya repatriation.
All these delaying tactics have pushed repatriation deep into uncertain territory. At the same time, these futile efforts simply revealed the diplomatic failure of Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue. Despite Dhaka pursuing this as its primary solution to the refugee crisis, not a single Rohingya has been repatriated over the past six years. Does such a failure not convey the message to Myanmar that atrocities and genocide are acceptable?
Repatriation of the Rohingya is no longer a bilateral issue. Clearly, Myanmar’s extremely strong trade relationship with powerful states that have chosen not to pressure Naypyidaw on the Rohingya issue has shaped discussions over repatriation. Through its arrogant behavior, Myanmar has proved that it is more than willing to act unilaterally.
And that is why Myanmar failed to complete even the pilot repatriation project (indeed, a project backed up by China), which involved preparing a list of only 1,140 Rohingya out of 1.1 million living in Bangladesh – just one-tenth of a percent. And even this meager effort was confirmed not by Myanmar but by Bangladeshi authorities.
This was discussed in early 2023; over five months later, nobody knows whether this token repatriation of the Rohingya will take place at all. According to the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar, “711 [Rohingya] have had their cases cleared and the remaining 429 on the list, including some newborn babies, were still being processed.”
Resettlement: The Least Prioritized Area
While repatriation has failed from the beginning, resettlement has received the least attention. In the past, Bangladesh’s government always used to say that Rohingya resettlement, which was once attempted but was canceled in 2010, would pull more Rohingya from Myanmar. Finally, this misconception of the government has changed recently and a small-scale resettlement has started.
But the inevitable question is whether such a change in mindset is only temporary, aiming to create a positive impression about the government since the national election is approaching. If not, why did the government not seriously explore the possibility of resettlement to a third country immediately after the exodus in 2017, or at any other time over the past six years? This represents a lack of both insight and prudent planning on the part of the government, as well as the weak diplomacy of Bangladesh, which was unable to convince the international community to pursue resettlement.
Like repatriation, resettlement has also been politicized. There is no reason to believe that, for example, the United States has stepped in to offer resettlement just because of its love for the Rohingya. In fact, the complex bilateral relationship between China and the United States has forced both to act differently. While China and Russia never open their mouths on the issue of Rohingya resettlement, the U.S. and its allies – keen to differentiate themselves – are interested in it. But Bangladesh is yet to seize this opportunity wisely.
Gradual Integration Through Relocation?
The island of Bhasan Char, the site of an ongoing project to relocate Rohingya from Cox’s Bazar, has become a new hotspot for aid agencies. Donors have paid enough attention to the Rohingya relocation project to undertake the frightening sea travel to this island and set up various programs, from offering fortified biscuits to the children attending 29 learning centers to establishing a garment industry for Rohingya women.
But the aid agencies’ heavily secured, well-lit, air-conditioned offices on the island are in stark contrast to the camp’s dark roads and houses, which are without electricity. There is nothing wrong with luring children to learning centers by providing biscuits, but the rudimentary literacy programs on offer will take them nowhere. Like in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya children in Bhasan Char have no access to formal schools.
Worse, the relocation has not even achieved its stated purpose: providing safety to Rohingya as the crowded camps near Cox’s Bazar are increasingly beset by violence. Many of the Rohingya whom I met with at Bhasan Char in July 2023 claimed that the terrorists arrived at the island from Cox’s Bazar, pretending to be “genuine” Rohingya. Such persons have allegedly already committed at least 10 murders on the island.
The investment of $350 million in Bhasan Char raises questions about Bangladesh’s refugee policy. The government of Bangladesh continues to insist that repatriation is the only solution to the crisis. If so, what has this huge investment in Bhasan Char, and the arduous relocation process, done to support the repatriation process? How can a country like Bangladesh, where people still struggle with poverty, invest such a huge amount for people who are only “temporarily” in Bangladesh (as the government claims)?
Also, the reason for choosing Bhasan Char instead of a closer location to relocate the Rohingya remains unknown.
Living on this isolated island for long periods – with no education for the children, no work for the adults, and no freedom of movement, but with fear of terrorists – will most likely force the Rohingya to escape to Hatiya, Sandwip, and nearby areas to seek local integration. Even if the government insists on pursuing repatriation, many of the relocated Rohingya have given up hope of ever returning to Myanmar.
What To Do With Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day?
In Bangladesh, and among refugee agencies around the world, people observe the Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day on August 25 each year, marking the start of the brutal military clearance campaign of 2017. But what benefit does this symbolic remembrance offer the Rohingya?
No doubt, the courage and kindness Bangladesh showed to admit 1.1 million Rohingya is unparalleled. But the hospitality once shown to the Rohingya has already turned into hostility between the Rohingya and local people. Meanwhile, international donors have shifted their attention to other global crises, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, which has affected the funding for the Rohingya in Bangladesh.
While countries such as China, Russia, India, Singapore, Japan, the United States, and others continue their humanitarian support to the Rohingya, no one is pressuring Myanmar to ensure a safe and dignified repatriation. This is simply because of their business interest and investment in Myanmar.
The Rohingya crisis has thus become a political issue devoid of humanitarian principles, where the role of China is dominating. For instance, the latest move toward Rohingya repatriation came at China’s behest, after Bangladesh’s government leaned toward China to a great extent. Yet, China does not support large-scale repatriation due to its investment in Myanmar, so the success of this effort seems unlikely.
China remains silent on the possibility of Rohingya resettlement to a third country, hence Bangladesh seems passive and slow in pursuing that option. The United States has started symbolic resettlement – 24 out of selected 62 left for the U.S. recently – as it wanted to show its presence in South Asia amid the intense rivalry with China. But this, too, is largely a token move made with geopolitical, not humanitarian, gains in mind.
Despite the Bangladesh government’s opposition to the very idea of Rohingya integration, it seems this solution is the one that the great power silently hopes for. If indeed Rohingya integration into Bangladesh is in the cards, Bhasan Char can be the beginning.
“Refugees” vs. “FDMNs”
Perhaps the biggest irony of the current situation is that Bangladesh and Myanmar have one thing in common: Despite the historical evidence, they have come up with alternate names for the Rohingya people. According to Myanmar, the Rohingya are “not the natives” but rather are “just Bengalis.”
And to Bangladesh, the Rohingya are often called by the cumbersome term of Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). The result of calling the Rohingya FDMNs, rather than formally acknowledging them as refugees, is to strip 1.1 million people of their rights under international refugee conventions. In the view of the Bangladesh government, the Rohingya are not seeking – or being offered – “refuge” in Bangladesh or elsewhere; instead, they are “foreign nationals” that will eventually be returned home – whether they wish it or not.
Both Myanmar and Bangladesh insist the Rohingya “belong” in the other country; the result is that they are not welcome in any country. But they do hold their own distinct identity as Rohingya.
Bangladeshi diplomacy should demonstrate its courage and wisdom to convince the world powers to take action and force Myanmar to take its people back. Failing that, working with the international community for resettlement and granting formal refugee status to the Rohingya living in Bangladesh are the pragmatic tasks moving forward.
Marking the Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day is great. But allowing 1.1 million stateless people to live a life with minimum dignity and rights as refugees would be far more meaningful.