There is no question that Rohingyas – stripped of their rights to citizenship, abused, killed and forcibly displaced by Myanmar authorities – deserve the world's compassion and assistance. But how is it that the onus for that always falls on Bangladesh?
More importantly, how is it that when Rohingyas find refuge in other parts of the world, namely Saudi Arabia and India, these countries feel it is okay to forcibly send them to Bangladesh?
What wrong message have we sent to these countries with our behaviour that they presume Bangladesh is a potential dumping ground for Rohingyas whenever they plan on disowning, relocating and expelling them?
To set the context, let's do a recap.
The government of Myanmar has always tried to deny the Rohingya citizenship and even excluded them from the 2014 census, by tagging them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The most recent crisis started in August 2017 when Rohingya ARSA militants attacked more than 30 Myanmar police posts. The forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals who arrived in Bangladesh said they fled when local Buddhist mobs backed the troops in burning their villages and killing civilians. Estimation by the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says at least 6,700 Rohingyas, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the month the violence broke out and according to BBC at least 288 villages were totally or partially destroyed by fire.
Also, Amnesty International confirmed that the Myanmar military raped and abused Rohingya women and girls. The United Nations later described it as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". Since then, more than one million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals have migrated to Bangladesh to escape the communal violence or abuses by the security forces.
What happened later on is frequently discussed in the popular media, and in order to remain on topic, we can skip that part for now.
Around 40,000 Rohingya refugees are estimated to have fled to India from neighboring Myanmar. About 16,500 of them have been issued identity cards by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that says helps them: "prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention, and deportation".
A decade ago, India said it does not recognise these cards and has rejected the UN's stand that deporting the Rohingya violates the principle of refoulment – sending back refugees to a place where they face danger. And, at that time, India handed over seven Rohingya men who were held in detention centres (as the international media reported at the time) to the Myanmar authorities.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs of the country said, "Anyone who has entered the country without a valid legal permit is considered illegal. As per the law, anyone illegal will have to be sent back. As per law, they will be repatriated."
Even after a decade, the country stands still holds the same view on Rohingya crisis. During this time, there were numerous attempts to push the refugees into Bangladesh through certain border points. Bangladeshi agencies monitoring the movement of Rohingyas confirmed the attempts at the time. But thanks to our border troops and local police, the attempts were blocked.
Nearly three to four decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s Saudi Arabia took in a few Rohingyas, considering their sufferings. In the early days of 2019, leaked video footage showed handcuffed Rohingya refugees in a detention center situated in Jeddah. Media interviews with the Rohingyas proved that they were being forced to comply with the Saudi government's plan to relocate them to Bangladesh.
One of the Rohingya refugees said, "We have no other choice but to kill ourselves."
So why did the Kingdom take them in, in the first place, and now feels the need to expel them? Is it because considering international relations at the time, Saudi Arabia needed to prove itself the "guardian" of Islam and defender of the Muslim "ummah," or community, and now that is not necessary anymore?
How can one explain the country's dubious ill-treatment and indifference towards Muslim minority refugees who fled genocide and oppression? Now, for the last few years, the Saudi government is trying to push thousands of Rohingyas into Bangladesh claiming that they hold Bangladeshi passports. Starting from a few thousand, the number has recently reached 54,000.
Rohingyas who reached Saudi Arabia between 1992 and 2011 obtained passports with the help of a few organised human trafficking groups, for securing work permits there. This illegal activity stopped after 2011 when Saudi immigration introduced a finger-print based system.
So, even if the Saudi government is right about their claims about just a few of the refugees, how do they plan to differentiate the ones with the real documents from those who hold decades-old fake ones? Very recently, Saudi Arabia asked Bangladesh to issue new passports for those 54,000 Rohingyas and threatened that non-compliance will result in sending back Bangladeshis who are legally working there.
Recent developments surrounding this issue regarding Saudi Arabia is quite concerning. It is quite clear that we are always lagging behind in negotiations and policy implications, and it is even not clear whether we have any properly worked out policy or not.
So, if we cannot find answers to these questions soon, and get our act straight, then this will be a total failure of our foreign relations, policy, and internal affairs as well. How?
Let's consider Nauru for instance as a distantly similar case. Australia used Nauru as a remote 'offshore processing' site for the people who seek asylum and protection. But what began as a hurried political response has been altered over nearly two decades into a standing permanent policy.
In comparison to the volume of the Rohingya crisis, the numbers are insignificant though. In total, nearly 500 asylum seekers and refugees are living in the "regional processing center" of Nauru and an additional several hundred more have mixed with the communities, in other words, they are all stuck on the tiny island.
The expectation is that no resettlement is ever going to happen. Nauru's politics, foreign policy, corruption, etc has put the country in this position. Also, the huge stimulus of hundreds of millions of Australian dollars, and jobs for the under-employed workforce outweighs the imposition of refugees upon their island and every other thing which comes with it.
So, when it comes to dichotomous foreign relations, leverage points, power structure, etc, though we are not as vulnerable as Nauru, we still have a long way to go. And, that means this is high time to think straight for ourselves.
Hossain Mohammed Omar Khayum, writer and researcher; email: [email protected].