“There are documented and undocumented refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, which is a big risk for the country,” the government’s Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters in September 2013.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering approximately 800,000 and living in neighbouring Myanmar, have long faced persecution and discrimination there, including being stateless in the eyes of Burmese law.
Violence and inter-communal clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, most recently in June and October 2012, has prompted many Rohingya to flee, mostly across the border to Bangladesh, which stopped registering them as refugees in 1992.
“The fact that the drafting process for this new Rohingya strategy has been carried out behind closed doors sends signals that the government isn’t going to use it for any good,” Chowdhury Abrar, a professor of international relations and coordinator of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka in the Bangladeshi capital, told IRIN.
“We understand that it contains some sort of census – any such ‘head count’ should be used to drive long-term solutions,” he said, pursuing an argument he has made in local opinion columns.
Rights groups are concerned about what they have called a “legacy of mistreatment” that the Bangladeshi government has meted out to the Rohingya. “Bangladesh has managed to further abuse the rights of the Rohingya, the people that the UN says are among the most vulnerable persons on earth,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told IRIN from Bangkok. “Bangladesh should be prepared to provide them with refuge.”
A contentious count
Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not have any information on the national strategy beyond news reports, Stina Ljungdell, the UNHCR representative to Bangladesh, wrote to IRIN that the agency “welcomes a recognition of the fact that 200,000 - 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and remain here ‘undocumented’”, and she hopes the strategy provides the Rohingya – whether or not they have formal refugee status—with humanitarian assistance.
UNHCR jointly administers two refugee camps with the government of Bangladesh, hosting approximately 30,000 Rohingya. The rest live in settlements and communities, in what Médecins Sans Frontières has described as “deplorable conditions”.
“UNHCR understands that the [proposed] national strategy envisages some form of listing or registration of the Rohingya currently illegally in the country,” Ljungdell said. She hoped “the national strategy aims to provide the Rohingyas with a legal status in Bangladesh, albeit a temporary status, pending a comprehensive solution to the plight of the Rohingyas”.
Nilfuzar Zafarullah, a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is drawing up the strategy, declined to comment on the document’s content, citing political sensitivity and its draft status, but told IRIN: “The government is looking at the issue of the Myanmar Muslims [Rohingya] in Bangladesh, and taking it very seriously.”
Boon for Bangladesh?
Some analysts say a solid humanitarian response on the Rohingya issue may benefit Bangladesh as a host country. On the UN Human Development Index of living conditions in 186 countries, Bangladesh (at 146) ranks just above Myanmar (at 149).
“Bangladesh no doubt needs to react to this situation better,” said Abrar. “But at the end of the day it is Burma’s responsibility, and it is the international community’s responsibility to figure out how to make it work for everyone.”
Rising violence in parts of Myanmar has focused greater attention on the Rohingya in recent years, but analysts comment that Bangladesh has hardened its stance toward helping Rohingya refugees rather than using the issue to appeal to international donors.
“It’s a missed opportunity to engage with the international community, and turn some of the difficult questions to the West, such as: ‘If the Bhutanese Buddhists can be re-settled, why not Rohingya Muslims?’” Abrar said.
Others see the situation as an opportunity to garner extra development support.
“The government of Bangladesh has struggled for many years with hosting very large numbers of refugees,” acknowledged Melanie Teff, a senior advocate at the UK-based Refugees International, which described the Rohingya situation in Bangladesh a “silent crisis”.
Any international support to Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugees would also benefit host communities, which are “some of the poorest areas in Bangladesh” Teff noted.
The Rohingya as well as indigenous hill tribes are concentrated in Bangladesh’s southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar, near the border with Myanmar. The region has among the country’s highest levels of illiteracy and poverty, especially in the coastal areas, where deforestation has worsened the impact of periodic flooding.