Bangladesh’s Rohingya Conundrum

by Dr. Moazzem Hossain    14.7.2018



Compared to many developing nations, Bangladesh scored strongly in reducing poverty and other goals of the UN MDGs program over 2000 and 2015. Bangladesh has major initiatives now to implement several projects to make UN’s plan of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda a grand success.

To make SDGs a success, there is only 12 years to go to 2030. In order to transform Bangladesh into a higher middle income country by 2030 at per its ambitious Vision 2041, the government needs to create an effective domestic education agenda in order to develop a critical mass of globally competent citizens. While the country has been pursuing the vision in the aim of transforming itself into a developed economy with sustainable economic growth and consistent improvement of human and social development indicators by the year 2041, the new generation will need to compete with their peers around the world according to a recent dialogue jointly organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Bangladesh and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), an international development NGO.

Keeping these in mind, the present piece will investigate the challenges of a different kind which Bangladesh cannot live with an indefinite period. I am talking about the current Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.  The nation now is sheltering more than 1.1 million refugees thrown out from Rakhine province of Myanmar. There is not much space here to illustrate political aspect of the crisis. This issue by now well covered in the world media. But, what we would like to address today is the Bangladesh’s Rohingya conundrum and Australia’s role in extending hand towards Bangladesh in solving the crisis in a respectable manner since Australia has a very good friendly relation with both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Before coming to this point, one needs to know what is in stake for Bangladesh if the crisis drags on for an indefinite period like in other parts of the world.

To examine this let us see first the Bangladesh’s socio-economic ascendancy over the last two decades.


                                                             THE ECONOMY

Table 1 compares the major economic indicators between 1983 and 2015.  Bangladesh had more than 90 million people with a density of population over 590 per square kilometre in 1983. The annual rate of population growth was 2.7 per cent. The GDP per capita was very low at US$ 150 in 1983 prices. The growth rate in 1982 was only 0.1 per cent.  The readymade garment (RMG) and shrimp exports had been nil or negligible. The remittance from abroad was only US$300 million in 1983. The population under poverty line (head count ratio) was 60 per cent in the same year.  The production of rice was only 13 million tons and inflation was running at 19 per cent. Literacy rate was dismal below 50%. Longevity was less than 50 years in early 1970s.

The picture has changed dramatically over the last three decades to 2015 (Table1). Population increased by 80 per cent as a result of drop in growth rate by 60 per cent. Population density per square kilometre increased was 70 per cent.  The GDP per capita advanced to almost 9 fold as a result of sustained growth in GDP between 5.0 and 6.5 per cent in recent decades. The difference of population growth and GDP growth in 2015 suggests that GDP has been growing by more than 4 times. In 1983, the population growth was more than 27 time of the GDP rate.  The garments exports reached to more than US$ 25 billion and shrimp exports worth US$650 million in 2015. The remittance hit US$15 billion and foreign reserve was at its peak at US$27 billion in 2015 well above the required minimum three months’ imports for LDCs.  In the rice production front (staple food), the nation is having a surplus of 2 million tons in 2015 as against a deficit of a same amount few years back. The production has hit at 33 million tons. The inflation rate has been brought down to single digit at 6.5 per cent in 2015. The inflation has been running at double digit over a long period of time since 1983. The literacy rate has improved with a strong pace which is at 75% or more at present and the longevity has crossed 70 years.


Poverty Reduction


In terms of reducing extreme poverty in Asia, certainly the East Asian nations have been ahead of South Asia. The Head Count Ratio (HCR) suggests that almost half of the population in Bangladesh and 41% in India lived under Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) $1.25 a day. Recently, the Bangladesh Planning Commission (PC) publishes a report on the country’s achievements and non-achievements in poverty reduction until 2014. The PC’s assessment was based on data collected by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). Table 2 presents a picture of poverty reduction over 2002 and 2014. Figures for 2014 are very encouraging. National poverty level went down to one fourth of the population compared to almost one half in early 2000. More interestingly, hard core poor in 2014 makes 10.6% out of the 24.3% of total poor. This suggests that if this momentum can be continued, the prediction is by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence, it would be in a position to push another 15% out of poverty and the entire hard core poor eliminated with only 10% of the total population would remain poor. In absolute terms, this would be below 20 million under poverty line as against present day 40 million. In absolute terms indeed poverty will remain a challenge for the nation in the years to come


Table 1: Bangladesh’s achievements over 1983-2013

Items                                                                               1983             2015         Folds

Population (in million)                                                 90                 160          1.80

Population growth rate (%)                                         2.7                1.7          1.60

Population per sq kilometre                                       590                1,030       1.70

GDP (in billion US$)                                                    NA                     205         –

GDP per capita (in US$)                                              150                 1,300       8.67

Growth rate (%)                                                             0.1                  6.5          65.00

Garments Exports (in billion US$)                            Nil                    26             –

Shrimp Exports (in billion US$)                                 Neg                  0.64           –

Remittance (in billion US$)                                         0.3                  15.50      51.67

Foreign Reserve (in billion US$)                                NA                    27               –

Under Poverty Line (in % of total population)        60                     23          – 2.60

Rice Production (in million tonne)                             13                     33            2.54

Inflation Rate (%)                                                             19                     6.5        – 3.00

Literacy Rate (%)                                                             25                    65            2.60

Longevity (years)                                                             45                    70            1.60


Note: NA = Not available; Neg = Negligible: Source: several studies by the author

With all these achievements in the economic and social fronts, according to the World Bank’s definition of prosperity, Bangladesh has now in the path to become lower middle income nation progressed from least developed. The next step in the ladder is achieving middle income and it appears that with current development in economic activities it is indeed likely to be achieved by 2030, providing the country maintains political stability.  In view of the above, the incumbent government has a major agenda in place called Vision 2041. The aim of this vision is to make the nation catching up with more developed nations at least in economic and social terms. In other words, it would like to achieve a GDP per capita in PPP terms equivalent to developed nations and reach literacy rate, longevity, sanitation, maternal and child mortality, nutrition intake and so on at par developed nations. Of course, these are tall orders achieving by another quarter of a century. However, if Bangladesh continues to grow with present pace for another 25 to 30 years there is a possibility of reaching the targets before it celebrates 100 year of its birth in 2071. The major obstacles which appear in the horizon at this moment are the impacts of global warming induced climate change to 2100. It is predicted that seal level rise to 2100, if unabated, almost 40% of the farmland would be inundated by saline water and more than half of its population would become climate refugees.


Table 2: Poverty reduction in Bangladesh, 2002-2014 (%)


Year              People under Poverty*   –  Hard Core Poor**  – People above Poverty Level

2002                   44.6                                –                                       55.4

2006                   38.4                                –                                       61.6

2009                   33.4                                –                                       66.6

2013                   26.2                                –                                       73.8

2014                   24.3                               10.6                                  75.5


Note: The Planning Commission defines poverty in terms of calories a person requires per day. In Bangladesh this is about 2122Kcal. To purchase required calories the income of a person per month has been considered to determine who are poor or people under poverty and hard core poor. It has been estimated that Taka 3000 per capita per month is needed to buy 2122Kcal per day. The following estimates have been provided by the PC for these groups:

*People under poverty: Having income below Taka 3000 per month per person is a poor

**Hard core poor: Having income below Taka 1600 per month per person is a hard core poor.

Source:  Author’s recent study


Sanitation Access

Professor Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have published a volume in 2014 called, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, in which authors have strongly criticized India’s non-achievement in sanitation access even after this nation’s recent success in economic prosperity. When comparing with India’s neighbours, they were disappointed that India placed well behind.

Compared to its immediate neighbours, on an aggregate nationally, Bangladesh performs quite well in terms of improved and shared sanitation access.  For example, a study by the present authors shows India, with 53% access (improved plus shared facilities) to sanitation performs poorly relative to Pakistan (54%) and Bangladesh (81%) in 2010. Comparing this national performance in rural and urban areas, the difference at urban level in India (77%) is lower against Bangladesh (83%) and Pakistan at 78%.

At the rural level, the difference has been phenomenal. For example, in Pakistan, 40% of the rural population has access to an improved plus shared sanitation facility, which is significantly higher than the 27% of rural people in India. In stark contrast to both India and Pakistan, in Bangladesh 80% of rural people has access. This raises the question of why Bangladesh has been outperforming Pakistan and India. The main reason was availability of microfinance and remittance to the rural people. Bangladesh is the home of large microfinance institutions (MFIs) of the world such as BRAC, Grameen Bank, ASA, and so on (this also got mentioned in Sen’s observations on 16 July 2014 edition of the prestigious London based daily, The Guardian).



Having a relative prosperity in the economic front, in recent years, education and its importance in Bangladesh have been effectively and sustainably gaining recognition over the last three decades. The country has now a literacy rate of 70%, this was only 20% in 1981 and 17% in 1961. Education beyond primary level has been within the reach of only the well-off. Some of the major problems and difficulties in improving education in Bangladesh have been: inadequate implementation mechanisms in introducing education programs, social inhibitions discouraging the education of girls, poverty, shortage of trained teachers, and lack of or poor quality of physical facilities. These are typical problems of developing countries in the 1960s and 1970s (Hossain and NOOSR, 1992).

However, in Bangladesh, two forces, the GOs (Public) and the NGOs (Private), worked together to improve education since 1980s. Major efforts have been made to change the century-old education system, to make more effective and universal and less elitist. The Second Five Year Plan (SFYP) of 1980-85, for the first time made provision for a national primary education and mass literacy program. The Government was willing to develop a skilled labour force base instead of expanding liberal education. The Third Five Year Plan (TFYP) for 1986-1990 aimed at increasing primary age enrolments to 70% and improve retention rate to the end of the primary school cycle. It also aimed to reduce the rural-urban gap in educational facilities, reduce the gap in educational opportunities between the sexes, continue the efforts to reduce illiteracy among adults and provide more in-service training for teachers.

In an effort to improve the degree of participation of the people in education development, efforts are being made to decentralize basic education at the Upazila (sub-district) level. However, there exist some issues which need immediate attention:

  • Unsatisfactory participation rate in post-primary education;
  • High drop-out rates in all stages;
  • Access to education is unequal. The imbalance is two-fold: a rural-urban imbalance and a gender imbalance;
  • The availability of trained and committed teachers at primary level. This has caused a major problem in terms of teacher-student ratio at primary level where a participation rate has jumped in recent years;
  • The physical infrastructure still remains inadequate given increase in participation rate; and,
  • Absenteeism by primary teachers is a major cause of concern




It is now recognized by both foreign and multilateral development partners and agencies that Bangladesh at last got momentum towards achieving prosperity, for example, a study by Kaushik Basu the former chief economist of the World Bank recently published an essay, Why is Bangladesh Booming?  While domestically, the nation has been enjoying political stability in a land of non-stop political unrest between military and quasi military regimes over 1975 and 1990, democratic regimes at work since 1991, the two political alliances are at loggerhead over the last quarter of a century. On top of these, there is always a threat of terrorism exists since many incidents have occurred in the nation since 1996. All these made great loss in GDP over the last two decades.

The Rohingya refugee crisis has been making the political stability and security of the nation from bad to worse. The recent episode of Myanmar’s atrocities towards Rohingya people in the Arakan province pushed hundreds and thousands of refugees to Bangladesh. This is now recognized by the UN as ethnic cleansing on the part of Myanmar’s military junta along with the support of religious monks. This operation pushed more than 1.1 million Rohingyas cross the Bangladesh border over the last 12 months. The present refugee crisis created by Myanmar at a scale was unexpected and made the Bangladesh government entirely off-guard.  The government had no option than opened the border for Rohingya refugees for a safe haven. Now, Bangladesh is stuck with the problem.
Most recently, the UN Secretary General and the President of World Bank visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar together (see below). Of course, this was not a pleasure trip for them, but wanted to show the world the seriousness of the crisis and poor Bangladesh cannot live with this alone to an indefinite period.

Also, recently the Bangladesh Diaspora in Brisbane Australia sent a petition with more than 2000 signatures to the parliament via the Hon. Graham Paratt, MP and Dr Jim Chalmers MP on 23 October 2017 (see below).

Hon. Chambers said, “Labor expressed our deep concerns through the Shadow Foreign Minister, Senator Wong. What is happening there is horrific and inexcusable.” In his speech Hon. Parett has forcefully said, “The atrocities committed against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State are almost beyond our comprehension…It is crucial that there is unimpeded humanitarian access to the camps in Bangladesh and that regional partners, including Australia, work together in response to this crisis to ensure that the Rohingya population has a safe and secure place to live in peace.”

‘Rohingya Support Group’ members with Honourable Chambers, MP

At this stage repatriation of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees is the priority of the Bangladesh government. In one count it has confirmed that the Rohingya refugees are staying in 12 cramped camps spread across 5,000 acres of land.

‘Rohingya Support Group’ leaders with Honourable Parret, MP. Oncologist Dr Zaman Islam and Gastroenterologist  Dr Mazhar Haque


Rohingya refugee camps


To get first-hand knowledge about the crisis, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim visited the camps together accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AHM Mahmood Ali on July 2. It is unprecedented that such a visit took place to camps in the monsoon season. They have watched by moving freely in the camps the worst conditions refugees have been putting with in a foreign land, in one hand. On the other, the locals seem by now realized, enough is enough, and asking what on earth made these people suffering from untold conditions for no reason. Bangladesh government is getting nervous about this huge crowd of locals and refugees who could be in conflict any time over the entitlement of aid money and resources pouring in the area. This is not new.  Many such incidents took place in South Pacific nations in recent time when Australia sent the boat people in the camps off shore.

UN SG and WB President with Bangladesh’s FM with Rohingya refugees

In conclusion, one must emphasise that, in the era of uncertainty and looming trade wars between US-China and US- EU, the bed of politics is warming up again in several parts of the world and taking a turn to create more uncertainty in both economic and security fronts of the Asia-Pacific. Opening up a new front in a strategic region crowded by interest groups of two large Asian giants, India and China, is certainly nonsensical. Australia a middle power nation in the region needs to recognise this new threat of uncertainty close to its doorstep involving its trading partners and political allies. The Rohingya issue must be addressed soon before it gets out of hand, to say the least.  Repatriation of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees within a short period of time indeed remains as a priority.

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