The Rohingya are now occupying the largest refugee camp in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has an official count of about 900,000, but many believe the real number may be as high as 1 million.
They initially found safety in Bangladesh as they were fleeing the “clearing operations” of the Myanmar army in their native Rakhine state, but safety alone is not sufficient for civilized living; certainly not at the kind of population densities the Rohingya have had to adapt to in the refugee camps.
Both Dhaka and the UN had hoped against hope that the refugee situation would be temporary, so there have been few provisions made for long-term living for such a large number of people around Cox’s Bazar. Dhaka, in particular, is adamant that the refuge it is providing to the Rohingya ought to be temporary, and that the refugees should be able to return home to Myanmar. This position is somewhat understandable given that Bangladesh is a poor country with its own problems and with relatively limited capacity to look after the refugees properly.
But, as the circumstances that pushed the Rohingya away from their homes and their villages have seen no improvements, the international observers are increasingly resigned to Cox’s Bazar being a new normal for the Rohingya.
For their part, all the Rohingya I spoke to when I visited the camps want to return to Myanmar in principle. But, wisely, they insist that they cannot return without receiving the full citizenship rights they have been deprived of in the country of their birth for decades, as well as some kind of guarantee of equal protection under the law that is enforceable by international arbitration.
But Myanmar remains firmly in the grip of the military establishment that decided to “cleanse” the Rohingya in the first place. Dehumanizing, genocidal anti-Rohingya rhetoric continues to be rampant in the country, and even the civilian government of erstwhile human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi has proven itself either passively acquiescent or sometimes even actively supportive of the perpetrators of the genocide in the military establishment, rather than of their Rohingya victims.
As long as that remains the case, it would be at least imprudent for any Rohingya to consider returning. And it would be criminal for anyone else to induce or compel them to return, like for example the government of Bangladesh or any part of the international community.
It is imperative that the international community acknowledges that we must make provisions for the long-term, sustainable settlement of these people. — Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
So we must all face up to this reality now. And, while Cox’s Bazar need not be the only place where the Rohingya end up being settled, it is imperative that the international community acknowledges that we must make provisions for the long-term, sustainable settlement of these people.
That is to say, so long as we decline to, or are unable to, compel Myanmar to meet their obligations toward the Rohingya under international law and basic human decency and grant them their natural rights within Myanmar, we must at least acknowledge our own responsibilities toward these people and help set up some kind of permanent accommodation and corresponding facilities.
Needless to say, it is not for Bangladesh to bear the financial burden for this. It has already offered a decent amount and generously continues to offer its land. So any country that does not offer to take in at least a reasonable amount of refugee families to ease the burden on Bangladesh should step up with a proportionate financial contribution, both directly to the Rohingya communities so that they can be upgraded with facilities appropriate for normal, settled living, and to the government of Bangladesh to offset its costs and reward the country’s beneficence.
For their part, the Rohingya themselves are asking for much less than even this basic recompense of justice. From my conversations with the people in the camps, the Rohingya seem to have almost accepted their fate as a stateless group. And, beyond basic human regard, they demand nothing of anyone. In fact, they are immensely thankful to Bangladesh for at least the safety they were able to provide — a safety they do not take for granted and scarcely dare demand as a right.
When pressed on whether there was anything more the international community could do for them, the answer seems to almost always be education for the children. Bangladesh is understandably not so keen on providing full schooling facilities to the refugees. Besides the cost considerations, its leaders are still hoping — or at least are still insisting to their domestic audience — that the refugee situation is temporary. If they formally create permanent facilities, they fear it will signal the acceptance of the status quo, which might mean the Rohingya may never return to Myanmar, even if they had a reasonable opportunity to do so.
But there are approximately 400,000 children going without education in Cox’s Bazar. And the Rohingya are right: If anything should be a humanitarian priority, it should be the education of children. The financial cost of providing that is not too onerous. It is certainly something that the international community could accommodate — and then some. In fact, to bring Bangladesh on board with this, we should also offer to inject funds into the domestic education system for locals. What better way for us to show our appreciation for Bangladesh’s generosity than to improve the education of all the children?
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
This article was originally published in Arab News on June 19, 2019.