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If officials from Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau and Foreign Ministry were to have a meeting tomorrow about how to deal with the current crisis with the Rohingya, and set the criteria that they wanted to cause maximum damage to Bangladesh’s international reputation, cause maximum suffering for the Rohingya, break international law, cause Bangladeshi citizens to miss out on development opportunities, and be completely ineffective at developing a long term strategy dealing with the root cause of the problem, they wouldn’t have to change a single policy that Bangladesh is already following today.
What is surprising is that despite this policy failing for the past twenty years and beyond, rather than reassessing the policy and changing direction, Bangladesh’s response to the current crisis has been to adopt an even more extreme and hard-line version of its failed policies. Last week’s order to three international aid agencies, MSF, Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid, to stop proving aid to Rohingya refugees, in the full knowledge of the suffering and possible deaths that such an order will cause, will not solve any of the problems Bangladesh faces with Rohingya refugees.
Rohingya people are not going to Bangladesh because they are drawn by the prospect of luxury refugee camps. Rohingya people flee to Bangladesh because for decades in Burma they have faced severe human rights abuses at the hands of one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. And more people are fleeing now because the military-backed government, facing the prospect of having its political party wiped out by the National League for Democracy at the next elections, is playing the nationalist card in order to try to build support, and is targeting the Rohingya as an unpopular Muslim ethnic minority.
The root cause of Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh is the persecution they face, and also the long-term refusal of the government to allow international agencies full and free access to assist the Rohingya. Preventing refugees in Bangladesh from receiving aid doesn’t address this problem. Devoting significant military police and security resources to trying to turn back refugees doesn’t solve this problem. What is needed is a political solution.
Bangladesh could win significant international plaudits and favours by allowing Rohingya refugees’ entry to Bangladesh, and negotiating a fully-fledged international aid operation, funded internationally, to assist those refugees. It could use the goodwill created by such a gesture to secure humanitarian and development funding for the whole border region, transforming the lives of local Bangladeshi citizens. There would be no significant cost to the government of Bangladesh, and there would be significant benefits for Bangladeshi people and the reputation of Bangladesh.
At the same time Bangladesh should begin a diplomatic initiative to tackle the root causes of the problem, which is Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya. It could mobilise support from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which includes the governments of Indian and Sri-Lanka, both close to Burma’s military-backed government. The current high profile of the Rohingya issue gives Bangladesh the opportunity to enlist the support of not just western countries, but a much broader alliance in international forums such as the Human Rights Council and United Nations General Assembly, which can be used to apply pressure on the government of Burma to stop persecution of the Rohingya and reform the laws which render them stateless.
There is no quick fix or easy solution to the refugee crisis or the political problems at its root cause, which makes it all the more important that Bangladesh change policy now to try to find a more moral and humanitarian, and more effective strategy, to address this crisis. Bangladesh has so far followed a lose-lose policy on the Rohingya. It loses, the Rohingya lose. It’s time for a win-win policy.
-Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK.