We want to take you back to 2017. Ayesha Begum was twenty years old and the mother of a one-year-old boy at the time. She was having dinner with her sisters-in-law when Myanmar army forces stormed into their home and pushed the women into a room. For the next few hours, Ayesha and her sisters were raped in turns by twelve soldiers. Later when the opportunity arose, they walked for eight days and fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Two of Ayesha’s sisters-in-law did not survive the tempestuous journey.
Many Rohingya refugees have shared similar tales on various other platforms throughout the years, recounting decades of systematic discrimination and targeted violence perpetrated by the Myanmar government against them. At different times, soldiers in the Myanmar military have confessed their participation in the killing, torturing and raping of civilians. Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the forced migration of Rohingya people to neighbouring nations, especially Bangladesh, is not a new phenomenon. There is evidence that suggests that Rohingya people have been coming to Bangladesh since 1784.
However, as the level of aggression and violence against them in Myanmar increased, so did the number of Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh. The most significant mass displacement occurred in 2017, when over 742,000 Rohingya people were forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh to avoid detention, torture, rape, and other grave human rights violations following a “clearance operation” conducted by the Myanmar military. About a million Rohingya people are currently living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Myanmar security forces have even fired on fleeing civilians and placed landmines at border crossings. In 2018, they tortured and imprisoned Rohingya refugees who returned to Rakhine State from Bangladesh. This explains, among other things, why Rohingya refugees are skeptical of being guaranteed security, citizenship rights, and freedom of movement, resulting in numerous failed repatriation attempts.
The latest repatriation plan published by the Myanmar government has also been criticised as “opaque,”. The fact that key government officials in recent interviews have kept referring to the Rohingya people as Bengalis only exacerbates their doubts and fears about their safety. Many believe that this repatriation plan is merely an attempt to improve their position in the report they are required to present before the International Court of Justice by 24 April 2023. This report will be in response to the case brought by The Gambia against them in 2019.
Almost six years have passed since the largest displacement. Recognising the significant shifts in the Myanmar geopolitical landscape and in the region since then, particularly following the 2021 coup d’état, this article focuses on identifying certain key areas of concern that require greater and urgent attention from us if we want to ensure a better future for the Rohingya people.
The first point to consider is the sharp decline in funds, indicating that the international community’s attention has shifted away from the plight of the Rohingya people and they are now on the brink of being forgotten. For example, in the 2019 Joint Response Plan, $650 million was raised out of the $921 million requested (70%). In contrast, the 2022 Joint Response Plan received only $378 million out of the $881 million sought (43%).
It is also worth mentioning that for the first time since 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP) reduced monthly food vouchers for the Rohingya refugees from $12 to $10 per person on March 1, 2023, citing a $125 million donation shortfall. This announcement comes at a time when 45% of Rohingya families are not eating a sufficient diet and malnutrition is widespread in the camps. This decrease in funds will only worsen a situation that is already dire.
Informed observers believe that the decrease in funding has resulted from the overwhelming attention the western world has devoted to the Ukraine crisis. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, said in an interview, “the way the West looks at Ukraine, they do not look at the rest of the world. They live in a very euro-centric world.” In this era of polycrisis and interconnected global challenges, it would be unwise and insensitive of the international community to devote all of its attention and resources to one humanitarian crisis at the expense of another moving forward.
Furthermore, the future of the Rohingya people should be decided with their full engagement and cooperation. In other words, we must ensure that the voices of Rohingya people are heard and reflected in decisions that impact them. The point of inclusion of Rohingya voices in decisions affecting them is gaining traction globally. This is evident, for instance, in the UN Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which acknowledges that “[r]esponses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist.”
In the coming days, greater emphasis must be placed on dialogue and engagement. This will, among other things, help foster a strong working relationship between old and emerging actors, enabling them to better address the root causes of the mass displacement of the Rohingya people and diffuse tensions between larger and smaller ethnic groups in Myanmar. Md. Mostofa Hosain, Assistant Professor at BRAC University, believes that given their influence and ties with both Bangladesh and Myanmar, China and India can play a more proactive role in this regard. Indeed, the recent role of China in restoring the KSA-Iran relationship portrays Chinese influence and experience in such matters. Considering this, their support for voluntary repatriation will definitely be very useful. Finding a solution to this ongoing crisis is also in their best interest because they have invested heavily in Myanmar, particularly Rakhine.
On the other hand, if the Rohingya crisis or the situation in Myanmar in general worsens, India, as a country located very close to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, is likely to see greater illegal migration, trafficking, and so on. They are also expanding their economic involvement in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine. So, by making sure that a long-term solution in the form of voluntary repatriation is found to this crisis and the environment is stable in Myanmar they benefit greatly as well.
On the domestic front, Dr M Sanjeeb Hossain, Director, Research at the Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University, has in the past identified the absence of a domestic law to address refugee matters as a lacuna in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee response. He believes that just as Bangladesh, despite many challenges, demonstrated in the past the strength to host one million Rohingya refugees, she must now draw from its rich experiences to acquire the political will needed to enact a domestic law on refugee matters that provides refugees with a set of judicially enforceable rights.
In conclusion, although some commendable efforts have been made over the years, they are far from sufficient. Moving forward, our emphasis should be on the areas identified above. The path ahead is arduous, but we must stand in solidarity with the Rohingya people in their struggle because they deserve dignity and fulfillment, like every other human being.