Last Thursday the UN Security Council held its first public meeting on the situation of Rohingyas in more than eight years. The Secretary General informed the Council that the situation has "spiraled into the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare. “We've received bone-chilling accounts from those who fled, mainly women, children and the elderly," he observed. In his address the Secretary General reiterated his “great appreciation for care being provided to refugees” by Bangladesh.
Bangladesh faces formidable challenges in hosting the refugees. No scale of preparation would have been enough to cope with the influx of such magnitude within such a short time. High density of population, lack of resources, level of poverty and poor infrastructure in refugee affected southeastern region, coupled with the absence of legal and institutional frameworks in dealing with refugees, have made the task daunting. Despite these constraints at the instruction of the highest authority of the state a number of sectors have been identified and entities (both government and UN bodies) have been assigned with specific responsibilities. It is in the spirit of international burden sharing Bangladesh has appealed for support from the international community, a call that is beginning to yield result.
While the international community grapple for a durable solution of the Rohingya question Bangladesh now faces the unenviable task of providing relief and protection to over a million of refugees, including those in and outside the camps arriving before 25 August 2017. A solution encompassing voluntary return in dignity does not appear on the horizon. Under such circumstances, faced with a possible scenario of a protracted refugee situation, requiring sustained international engagement, Bangladesh has to be cautious and prudent on how it handles the refugees. Compassion has to be shored up by appropriate assessment of the reality. This, in turn, entails clear identification of the target population, the beneficiaries. It also requires involvement of institutions with experience, expertise, transparency and accountability. On both counts Bangladesh’s performance appear to be wanting.
There is little doubt that all Rohingya groups (in and outside camps, registered and new arrivals) meet the strict definitional criteria set by the 1951 Refugee Convention. They have been forced to flee their country “because of persecution, war or violence” adequately qualifying the Convention stipulation of having “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality…”.
In the aftermath of 25 August 2017 as Rohingyas began crossing Bangladesh sealed the border and pushed back (refouled) many. Within days faced with overwhelming number of refugees the government changed its course and admitted them. During her visit to Cox’s Bazar on 12 September the prime minister expressed her solidarity with the “Rohingya refugees”. In her speech at the UN General Assembly she empathized with them and reminded the members that she herself was a refugee in 1971. However, contrary to these statements of the prime minister Rohingyas are being referred to as ‘infiltrators’, ‘illegal Myanmar migrants’ or ‘forcibly displaced Mynamar nationals’ in speeches of ministers and high state functionaries, and in official communication and documentations. The government appeals to the people to donate in an account titled “Humanitarian Assistance to the Myanmar Citizens Illegally Migrated (Rohingya)”.
The current Rohingya influx is a refugee crisis with key component of statelessness. Any attempt to identify these Rohingyas as ‘illegal migrants’ is erroneous and have serious protection implications. The term refugee brings in rights; foremost among them is the right to return. It also obliges international community to look for solutions and burden sharing. Identifying them as illegal migrants or intruders takes away that right and absolves international community of its responsibility.
As corollary to such flawed conceptualization Bangladesh government has assigned International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the lead government counterpart, an institution that has virtually no experience in handling mass influx refugee situations. It also does not have the expertise, capacity and not even the legal mandate. The agency remains outside the purview of the normative framework of the UN. In contrast, the UN General Assembly unequivocally recognizes the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as the mandated agency on both refugees and statelessness. Over decades the UNHCR has gained rich experience in coordinating refugee emergencies the world over. It is responsible to the UN Secretary General. There is no reason why UNHCR cannot play the lead counterpart role as it did in Bangladesh during 1991-2.
Rohingya refugees who survived the genocide and arrived in Bangladesh deserve a second chance. Refugee protection is complex and multi-faceted. Flawed strategy may result in serious harm to the tens of thousands of refugees. It is time the authorities in Bangladesh and the international community committed to share Bangladesh’s burden make sure that refugees are considered as refugees, and their protection is guaranteed by an authority that has the mandate, competence and experience.
C R Abrar is Professor of International Relations of the University of Dhaka