|Volume 5 Issue 08 | August 2011|
The Curious Case of Rohingya Refugees
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY looks at possible ways to solve the issue of the Rohingya refugees.
Typically we in Bangladesh are used to seeing our people migrate to other countries in search of work, a better living, or simply to escape harsh economic conditions. We are used to emigration from our country, and not immigration. That perception was changed abruptly when we faced a large-scale influx of people in our eastern border, from the state of Arakan -- a large swath of land in Burma, now Myanmar, in April 1978.
I had joined Chittagong (greater Chittagong that included Cox's Bazar) as Deputy Commissioner toward the end of March 1978. As I was getting to know my new district I was suddenly sucked into this maelstrom in the south eastern corner. From the middle of April a seemingly unending flow of people started to cross into that region through Ukhiya-Teknaf border with Burma. In no time the influx that started with a few hundred swelled into several thousand. The fleeing families complained of evictions from their homes in the Arakan by the military, loot, rape and murder. Our border guards could not turn families with women and small children away. So the tide began with thousands spilling into the country with their belongings -- clothes, utensils and domestic animals.
We neither had the means nor the logistics to handle such a massive flow of people from across the border. What we did however was to stop the human traffic going deeper into the district.
Photo: SHUDEEPTO ARIQUZZAMAN
The police and the border guards restricted their movement further into the district, but we had to make some impromptu shelters with materials that were locally available -- largely tarpaulins. This was augmented with some relief materials available in the district warehouses. However, soon it became apparent to us that with the never-ending tide of human crossings our local efforts would be mere drops of water in a sea. The central authorities were notified, and in a matter of weeks, the whole incident became a scene of human misery on a grand scale that would need international support.
We would end up finally with over 200,000 of the refugees in that influx who we were able to contain in 13 camps -- spread along much of the 117 mile long land border with Burma (Myanmar). Relief came from international organisations as well as foreign NGOs. The government amassed an army of civil servants and law-enforcing agents to administer relief and security of the refugees. Along with that the government also mounted parallel efforts to repatriate the refugees back to their homes in the Arakan. This involved opening dialogue with the Burmese authorities and engaging with them patiently for a solution of the problems.
The root of the problem in repatriation of the refugees was their identity. Who were the Rohingyas? Although Muslims have lived in the Arakan province of Burma since the 13th century with the arrivals of Arab traders in the Arakan/Bengal coast, the Rohingyas were relatively recent settlers. They were ethnically Bengalis from Chittagong region who had migrated to the Arakan over many decades in search of work and had settled there. They were different from the Arakanese in that they were Muslim, spoke Chittagonian dialect (with some variation), and followed the culture of the land they had migrated from. The local Arakanese, who are called Rakhines, and Buddhist by religion, used the migrants as farm workers, and over time allowed them to settle in groups in the villages. More recent migrants maintained links with their extended families in Cox's Bazar region and frequently travelled between two territories. The Burmese treated the Rohingya people differently, terming them as foreigners and sometimes as illegal immigrants.
The crisis of 1978 began when the Burmese government undertook a major campaign against the Rakhine opposition groups, particularly the Arakan Communist Party, the Arakan Independence Organization and the Arakan National Liberation Front, as well as the Rohingya guerrillas, then referred to as the mujahidin. This was followed by a major military operation in Arakan called "King Dragon". People in small villages were uprooted and concentrated in fenced stockades. The result was that we had over 200,000 of the so called Rohingyas in our hands, and we had no way to settle them in our already overpopulated lands.
In dealing with the crisis, we focused on three aspects: (a) confining the refugees in designated camps and keeping them under strict security to prevent their melting away into the neighbouring villages; (b) ensuring food, shelter and medicine in the camps enough for survival; and (c) arranging the repatriation of the refugees with the Burmese authorities without internationalising the issue. But these were not easy tasks.
The Burmese initially denied any responsibility for the refugees as in their eyes they were illegal immigrants into Arakan and therefore, could not be taken back. We in Bangladesh on the other hand insisted that the refugees were Burmese citizens from Arakan state who had been forcibly thrown out. The Burmese initially balked at any wholesale repatriation, insisting on taking only “genuine” citizens back. But with hardly any documentation with any of the refugees except “ration cards” the Burmese realised it would be difficult for them to separate the “legal” from the “illegal”. The situation was further complicated with ongoing strife of the authorities with other insurgents in other parts of Burma.
With some astute diplomacy, and umpteen numbers of meetings between the two governments with officials at different levels spread over several months, we agreed on a repatriation schedule in July 1978. But implementation of the agreement was made difficult, not by the Burmese, but by the refugees by raising fears of renewed persecution once repatriated. This was further exacerbated by the activists of the so-called Rohingya Liberation Front and similar Guerilla outfits who insisted that the refugees not be repatriated until the land was secure from their perspective. (These entities had been fighting for a Rohingya Land in the Arakan with financial support from some foreign elements.) The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which had become involved in the relief operation, also stipulated that there be no involuntary repatriation.
However, despite these obstacles and resistances, we were able to begin the repatriation in early 1979.
I myself escorted the first batch of refugees across Gundum border to Burma after foiling an attempt by some refugees to stop the repatriation. This first success opened up the road for an uninterrupted repatriation for the rest of the refugees. By mid-1979, well over half of the refugees had returned to Burma and by the end of the year, nearly all had gone back. .
Unfortunately, the tide would turn again a decade later, and we were back to square one. We would again have an influx of over 250,000 Rohingyas crowding our borders along Cox's Bazar-Teknaf corridor citing the same complaints of forced labour, land confiscation, religious intolerance, rape and other forms of persecution by the Myanmar military regime. The difference between the crisis of 1991 and the one 10 years before was that we were able to solve our 1978 problem tactfully within a year, but we are still struggling with the subsequent adversity even to this day. Officially we have been able to repatriate to Myanmar nearly 200,000 over the last several years, but we still have a large number staying back as unregistered refugees, some in camps, but the majority in squatter camps in the border villages. Why, because they refuse to be repatriated. They refuse to go back expressing apprehension of persecution in the land they left behind. But this is only for the registered refugees who are only a small percent of the whole. The uncounted thousands are difficult to identify, and they will not leave.
How do we deal with this problem? We can neither absorb this surplus population in our crowded land, nor can we get rid of them. On the one hand Bangladesh has acceded to several of the existing international rights Covenants and Conventions, and we have provisions within our Constitution that uphold the rights and duties within the UN Charter and further safeguard the legal protection of non-citizens within our territory. As a result we recognise a body of international law which provides the framework for protecting refugees. We cannot therefore forcibly repatriate any refugee to a land where they apprehend persecution of any kind. On the other hand we have the terrible reality of overcrowding our already crumbling infrastructure and physical facilities to take care of this burgeoning Rohingya population. We have done what we could in official repatriation of some of them, but they keep on coming back. Since the refugees are ethnically and linguistically similar to the local population it is difficult to identify them as foreigners unless they are pointed out by the locals.
We have few options, but what I do know is that we have to stop this unending saga of Rohingya migration in our eastern border. We have to realise that there are elements across the border who would like to keep the issue alive for their own goals of having a separate land for their kind. Neither economically nor diplomatically are we in a position to support such “goals” of people, however lofty they may be without jeopardising our existence. Refugees should be registered in squatter camps and villages, with help of local Unions. We also need a close watch on some religion-based non-government organisations that have sprouted in the area who lend their support to the Rohingya activists, and provide incentives to the Rohingyas for migration. We need also to keep on engaging in continuous dialogue with the Burmese authorities to prevent recurrence of happenings that force the Rohingyas to emigrate. I cannot vouch that these will actually solve all our problems in the eastern border, but at least these are worth considering since the Rohingya problem is a ticking time bomb.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a former civil servant in Bangladesh, who now works for an international organisation in USA.
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