Other countries need to do their part in creating a sustainable solution for the Rohingya
The terrible news that dozens of Rohingya refugees have apparently drowned after their boat sank in the Bay of Bengal serves as a reminder of the dangers facing their community.
The circumstances of the tragedy aren’t fully clear, but it seems the accident occurred as people tried to leave the island of Bhashan Char in Hatiya Upazila, about 60km from the mainland.
This is where the Bangladesh government has created new homes for the Rohingya. Some 20,000 people have been relocated thus far, with more to follow.
The Bhasan Char camps are not luxurious. However, nor are they akin to prisons, as some foreign press reports have suggested. The goal is modest: To offer a safe environment, basic education, and medical support until the residents return to their homeland.
Some recent reports in the media suggest that the country’s government is planning to hide the Rohingya away in a remote location, to forget about their plight.
However, my reading of the situation is quite different. I believe that Bangladesh’s leaders remain compassionate. I believe it is right to try to ease the overcrowding in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and move people to the island. The current camps are severely overcrowded, threatened by fires, monsoons, and Covid-19. They are also leading to degradation of the environment.
Of course, for some of the refugees taken to the island of Bhashan Char, it must have been a dismal experience and left them even more despondent about their future. Perhaps that is why some took to the stormy seas in flimsy boats, apparently driven by the desire to reunite with relatives. But had they any idea of the risk they were taking?
It is very clear to me that any robust plan to help the Rohingya must receive international support. This has been the theme of top level meetings this summer between representatives of Bangladesh, India, and China.
India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar recently reaffirmed his commitment to assisting Bangladesh in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, during a meeting in Uzbekistan with Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abdul Momen.
Momen also discussed the issue with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, at a conference in Tashkent. The Chinese said they would be prepared to broker talks on the matter between Bangladesh and Myanmar. When the Rohingya originally flooded across the border into Bangladesh in 2017, following a situation described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was praised by The Wall Street Journal as “the face of compassion.”
Yet, in a recent speech to a conference on international security in Moscow, Sheikh Hasina insisted that Bangladesh cannot resolve the crisis alone. She also warned that the refugee crisis is creating mounting problems in the region.
There is also an economic issue. Bangladesh spends more than $1 billion a year supporting the refugees and costs rise as the population of the camps increases. Some countries have been generous with their help, especially the United States. However, the flow of assistance is decreasing.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Myanmar’s so-called government-in-exile has changed its approach from the previous civilian government and indicated that it will now recognize and welcome home the Rohingya.
However, the problem is that the National Unity Government holds no power. That rests in the hands of the junta, led by military General Min Aung Hlaing. Until the political situation eases, the chances of the Rohingya returning safely to their homes seem desperately remote.
Given the circumstances, I believe the Bangladesh government is doing its best to create a better outcome for the refugees than their present situation. But other countries, including India and China, also need to play their part in creating a sustainable solution.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and has reported from Bangladesh for the BBC and other outlets. He is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, and is currently teaching diplomacy and international relations on the Economist Executive Education course, “A New Global Order.”