“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”
by Sabria Chowdhury Balland 19 September 2019
Two years ago, Bangladesh took in nearly 750,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees who were expelled from Myanmar due to a military crackdown. These attacks were referred to as ethnic cleansing by the United States whereas United Nations investigators referred to them as crimes against humanity.
At that time, many questioned whether Bangladesh, a country, with a population of over 160 million and a developing economy, could take in such a large number of refugees. Considering that the refugees in question are fellow Muslims escaping severe human rights violations, the foremost concerns may have been those related to the humane aspect of the issue. However, the practicality of how Bangladesh would manage such a huge influx of refugees economically and socially were equally of tremendous concern.
Perhaps the only person not profoundly apprehensive about the situation was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who, when asked what her thoughts were regarding the Rohingya refugee crisis replied surprisingly nonchalantly that Bangladesh manages to feed 160 million people and it can manage feed a million more.
Many believe that Sheikh Hasina’s decision was not entirely or even remotely altruistic, nor was it based on the human rights abuses inflicted on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military. Rather, her decision seems to have been based on international recognition as a humanitarian, as a savior.
Two years on, we are seeing proof of this. Had the Bangladesh government’s intentions in taking in the Rohingya been based on sincere humanitarian grounds, it would not be so tactlessly desperate to send them back to Myanmar to face irrefutable torture and death. The Bangladesh authorities have already attempted two major repatriation efforts only to face refusal by the Rohingya to return to a country where they have suffered grave injustices and human rights abuses for decades, a country that has never given them the dignity to consider them as citizens.
Recently, the Rohingya commemorated their second anniversary in Bangladesh, an event which was immensely unwelcome by the government. According to the Rohingya, the gathering was mostly an event for them to discuss their uncertain future but it did not sit well with the authorities. Within days, mobile telecom operators were ordered to block all telephone and internet coverage in the area of the refugee camps. In blocking telephone and internet access of the Rohingya, in imposing a total communications blackout, Bangladesh is not gaining anything at all. Rather, the Rohingya are being further isolated.
It should be mentioned here that the Rohingya have been accused of criminal activities such as theft and drug peddling and young Rohingya women are turning to prostitution. On the flip side, a young Rohingya university student studying law was expelled from her university due to her immigration status, clearly indicating that for Bangladesh, as far as the Rohingya are concerned, there is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” policy.
So, why did Sheikh Hasina do an about face on the Rohingya, whom she willingly took in two years ago? If, as mentioned before, it was merely a question of feeding almost a million more people, why the drastic measures of a communications blackout, similar to that imposed by the Indian government in Kashmir? Could it be that there is impending pressure from India to take in the Assamese people which it claims are Bangladeshis? Could this be the reason Bangladesh is trying to rid itself of the Rohingya at any cost?
Based on this change of policy, it is only fair to state that Sheikh Hasina had completely miscalculated what it means to welcome refugees and clearly, it is not just about feeding some 750,000 extra mouths and claiming international glory and fame.
In the past two years, both Bangladesh and Myanmar have repeatedly conducted theatrics to give the impression that repatriation was imminent but it has now become evident that there were no such plans in reality. In fact, how could Sheikh Hasina even expect that the country which has inflicted human rights abuses on the Rohingya and burnt their homes and villages will take them back? Last week, she had made a statement to the press that Myanmar is “dilly dallying” the repatriation. Aside from the absurdity of this claim, what is apparent is that Bangladesh is not faultless here.
A nation cannot decide to willingly accept refugees who have lost everything to an oppressive regime and impose hardships on them when it feels that the refugees have overstayed their welcome. There was never any bilateral treaty signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar which stipulates that the latter country would welcome the Rohingya back in two years. Nor has Bangladesh ever attempted to seek assistance from the United States or the European Union in finding viable solutions. Thus, Bangladesh’s harsh treatment of an already marginalized people falls under the categories of the illogical and the abusive.
Where Bangladesh expects to go with its mistreatment of the Rohingya is unclear. In fact, there is simply no semblance of a plan, only hasty decisions, which are erroneous. The time to make a decision on whether the refugees should be allowed to enter the country was two years ago. To welcome them, take credit for doing so and then abruptly to mistreat them thinking this will force them to move back to Myanmar is simply naive on the part of Bangladesh.
To persecute an already persecuted people is unconscionable. The United Nations states that 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar face the threat of genocide. How then can Sheikh Hasina justify attempting to send them back? Ironically, she is currently on the cover of a Dutch magazine called Diplomat which calls her “The Mother Of Humanity”. This timely ironical propaganda cannot camouflage the reality of the situation: Sheikh Hasina has placed Bangladesh on the wrong side of history with regards to the Rohingya.