By Omar Waraich
Standing by Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, we watched the refugees slowly cross the thick, lime-green paddy fields. They wore signs of exhaustion. Their faces were drawn and their bare feet badly bruised. They gratefully accepted the rations being offered by aid workers: a bottle of water to quench their thirst, a high-energy biscuit to restore their strength, and an offer of rest in the shade after days, sometimes weeks-long, arduous journeys.
A European aid worker suddenly turned to me and asked, “Do you think there’s any Western country that would take in this many people?” It was a question that did not anticipate an answer. At a time when refugees face what Pope Francis has hauntingly termed “the globalisation of indifference”, Bangladesh stands out for opening its doors. Over the past two months, more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled killings, rape, torture and arson to seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. Dozens did not make it, drowning in capsized boats. Thousands are still making the journey, fearing persecution in a land where they are constantly demonised as ‘Bengali terrorists’ and ‘illegal migrants’. If one adds the numbers of Rohingya who were already here, cast out of their villages by earlier waves of violence, there are now more than a million refugees scattered across Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District. They now far outnumber those still left in their homeland.
Bangladesh has made no secret of the fact that it wants the refugees to return. In the past, they were reluctantly admitted into the country. “The Bangladesh government has traditionally seen the Rohingya as people who need to be controlled, rather than supported,” a UN official in Bangladesh told me. There have been pushbacks, and even attempts to starve them out of the camps. In 1979, when more than 200,000 Rohingya took refuge in Bangladesh’s camps, 10,000 of them perished of hunger within months.
This time could prove different. As the details of the crimes against humanity visited upon the Rohingya spread across Bangladesh, there was a wave of popular sympathy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shed her ambivalence and embraced them. On a visit to the camps in early September, she said that if Bangladesh could feed more than 170 million Bangladeshis, it could feed the new arrivals, too. The ruling Awami League has since adorned lampposts across Cox’s Bazar with signs hailing Sheikh Hasina as “the mother of humanity”, proudly showing her comforting Rohingya children.
But patience appears to be wearing thin. The Bangladeshi government has made no secret of the fact that it wants the Rohingya to return to Myanmar as soon as possible. Ministers now daily warn of the security risks that may emanate from the camps and the burden on their poor, densely populated country.
Bangladesh has denied the Rohingya refugee status. They are being kept away from the local community, consigned to a ‘mega camp’ where they are being squeezed into an endless sprawl of flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin tents. The government has shunned the humanitarian community’s pleas for multiple sites for easy access, and it is still toying with dangerous ideas of relocating all of the Rohingya refugees offshore, on to a pair of uninhabitable silt islands. Every Rohingya refugee I spoke to expressed a desire to go home – but only once shanti, or peace, returns. Sadly, that is unlikely to be anytime soon. Much will depend on the very generals in the Myanmar army, who have presided over ruthlessly efficient ethnic cleansing operations, and who appear to see the expulsion of the Rohingya as a solution rather than a problem.
Bangladesh already feels isolated. Its larger neighbours have been of little help. China has squarely sided with Myanmar. India has recently softened its position, expressing some concern for the violence in Rakhine state, without assigning any blame. The government of Narendra Modi hasn’t ruled out its plans to forcibly return 40,000 Rohingya refugees currently in India to Myanmar, in a brazen violation of international law. Pakistan has a clear role to play here – one that it has yet to assume. As a close ally of China, it must prevail upon Beijing to apply pressure on the Myanmar military, including halting sales of weaponry to Myanmar – including the 16 Chinese-Pakistani fighter jets due to be delivered this year. Myanmar’s generals are counting on the support of its powerful neighbour to shield it from scrutiny.
Pakistan should also offer Bangladesh whatever support it can to host the Rohingya refugees in humane, sustainable and dignified conditions – a move that would only enhance Pakistan’s reputation in the region and beyond. This must not become another human tragedy that dominates headlines for a few days, stirs outrage on the streets, and then fades from people’s attentions while victims continue to suffer for months and years. The Rohingya have suffered far too much to be abandoned yet again.
(The writer is deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.)