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The growing cost of doing right by the Rohingya

  • Published at 12:31 am August 28th, 2021
Sheikh Hasina Rohingya
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shows affection to a Rohingya child during her visit to Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar on September 12, 2017 Focus Bangla

And why the rest of the world must help

The face of the Rohingya crisis had long been the image of denuded hillsides crammed with refugee shelters in Bangladesh’s southwest. Then for a while it was the newly purpose-built refugee township on the island of Bhashan Char.

In policy circles, the image of gutted homesteads in Rakhine and the long train of suffering humanity crouching against the rain on the long trek to safety seem long forgotten.

And it is a measure of Bangladesh’s judicious and humane management of one of the biggest refugee crises in the world, that there have not been images of angry young men taking things into their own hands.

But, as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has pointed out, the risk of untoward developments will remain if the world fails to provide the Rohingya with a safe path home.   

Recall that Bangladesh, on humanitarian grounds, has accommodated over one million refugees in the crammed camps of Cox’s Bazar and thousands more on Bhashan Char.

The biggest Rohingya exodus began on August 25, 2017, which witnessed over 740,000 people fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state following continued atrocities by Myanmar security forces, local Buddhist mobs and people from other ethnic groups.

Myanmar has remained largely unresponsive to demands to guarantee security for returning Rohingya.

The rest of the world has turned a blind eye to sheltering the Rohingya – even neighbors in Southeast Asia.

Bangladesh continues to do the right thing for Rohingya refugees, at a staggering cost.

In March 2019, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said Bangladesh spends $300 million monthly to host the Rohingyas. That amount translates into a whopping $3.6 billion annually.

In September 2019, experts warned that costs would rise with population growth, inflation and a decline in foreign funding.

In the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, Bangladesh allocated a special fund of Tk400 crore for Rohingya rehabilitation, mainly to build shelters.

No such fund has been allocated in the budget for FY2020-21.

The environmental impact of the massive refugee crisis - deforestation, denuded hillsides and immense population density – is tremendous.

Teknaf and Ukhiya upazilas in Cox’s Bazar host 34 refugee camps, including Kutupalong-Balukhali, the largest of its kind in the world.

A Forest Department report revealed in 2019 that as much as 8,001 acres of forest land had been razed to the ground to arrange accommodation for the Rohingya refugees.

The extent of economic losses had then been estimated at more than Tk2,420.67 crore. A parliamentary panel claimed that the amount would be as much as Tk6,000 crore.

In addition, the Bangladesh government has developed Bhashan Char, spending about Tk3,100 crore to relocate nearly over 100,000 Rohingyas. Currently, the island refugee township houses nearly 20,000 refugees.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina termed the 1.1 million displaced Rohingya, mostly Muslims, as being not only a threat to the security of Bangladesh but to the region.

The premier’s concerns have been borne out by criminal acts including murders, gunfights with law enforcers, human trafficking and drug peddling in and around the camps. A number of people of the host community have also fallen victim to such crimes.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a local thinktank, estimates that repatriation, once started, will take 12 years, assuming 300 Rohingyas are sent back a day, and population growth and inflation rates stay on the existing trend.

The CPD then predicted that almost $7 billion would be required to support and host the Rohingyas for the first five years with no repatriation.

Bangladesh has left no stone unturned to ensure a safe return of the Rohingya. Not once, but twice—but all in vain.

The first repatriation attempt on November 15, 2018, as well as the second one on August 22, 2019, failed as Myanmar did not create a favorable condition for their return.

Under immense international pressure, Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in January 2018 to take back the Rohingya.

But since then, Myanmar has not only been uncooperative with Bangladesh, but has ignored repeated calls from the international community to provide for a successful and safe repatriation.

In the meantime, a generation of displaced and traumatized children are being raised in a world that seems to have forgotten how these kids ended up in a refugee camp in the first place.

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