More than half a million Rohingyas have been expelled from their homeland and are seeking refuge in
Bangladesh, joining almost an equal number who were banished since 1991-92. PHOTO: STAR.
C R Abrar
More than a month has passed since the brutalised and uprooted Rohingya refugees, mostly women,
children and the elderly, began arriving in Bangladesh. Their gut-wrenching tales and testimonies covered
widely in national and international print and electronic media have stirred the world's conscience. While
most states (the powerful ones and those who aspire to be so) dither and weigh their options essentially
from myopic national interest perspectives, people around the world, guided by the principles of justice
and human dignity, find it revolting that the Burmese state continues to pursue its genocidal agenda with
near impunity. They are appalled that more than half a million Rohingyas were expelled from their
homeland and are seeking refuge in Bangladesh, joining almost an equal number who were banished
The lies dished out by the Burmese government and their international apologists hardly swayed
international public opinion. Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey were the first group of countries that
condemned the Burmese government and extended support to refugees. Gradually others began to come
on board in recognising the gruesome reality of the Arakan region. France condemned the genocide. The
UN Security Council (SC) met for a public hearing on the issue after more than eight years. Explaining the
gravity of the situation the Secretary General referred to this “world's fastest-developing refugee
emergency, a human right and a humanitarian nightmare”. The US representative at the SC meeting
stressed considering “action against Burmese security forces who are implicated in abuses and stoking
hatred among fellow citizens.”
The global civil society joined in solidarity with the persecuted Rohingyas. Rallies and demonstrations
were held in cities stretching from Grozny and London to Dhaka and Jakarta. The much-respected
Permanent People's Tribunal on alleged State Crimes against Rohingyas and other nationalities, at its
final session held in Kuala Lumpur on September 18-22, found the Burmese state guilty “of the crime of
genocide against the Rohingya”. Human Rights Watch and 87 other civil society organisations, in a joint
statement to the UNSC and General Assembly on September 29, demanded urgent action from the UN
and, citing evidence, stated that “the atrocities committed by the Myanmar state security forces amount to
crimes against humanity.”
The developments narrated above offer a glimmer of hope that at the very least the world is finally waking
up to the reality of crimes that the Burmese state is committing against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
While debates continue whether it should be termed as “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” or both,
freedom loving people across the world have begun to exert pressure on their respective governments to
move beyond “well-meaning diplomatic words”. Calls have been made for an arms embargo against the
military and sanctions against individuals responsible for crimes and serious abuse, suspension of military
assistance, training and other forms of cooperation, and trial of the Burmese leaders in the International
Criminal Court. The list also includes putting a stop to sports and cultural ties, downgrading of diplomatic
relations, freezing of overseas bank accounts and denying visas to state functionaries who are party to
the genocidal activities.
States that champion democracy, freedom and human rights, should start taking immediate action
unilaterally rather than linger for the UN to pass a resolution. Given the motivations of some of the
permanent members, waiting for a substantive UNSC resolution on Burmas genocidal act would remain a
chimera and an exercise in self-delusion.
The world has begun to respond to Bangladeshs call for attention and assistance for the hapless
Rohingyas. Such positive response obliges the country to develop a comprehensive, transparent and
accountable strategy and implementation mechanism for taking care of Rohingya refugees. Key element
here is how Bangladesh views the Rohingyas and how the country would like to project this group to the
A cursory recap of Bangladesh's experience in dealing with the Rohingya problem confirms that both in
1978 and 1991-92, Bangladesh accepted them as prima facie refugees. This is because Rohingyas had
crossed the border fleeing wanton persecution of the Burmese military. The scale of the flow and
similarity of narratives of survivors left little doubt that all those who came to Bangladesh qualified for
refugee status. Putting in place procedures for their individual status determination was deemed
In 1978 UNHCR was invited by the government of Bangladesh and assisted with repatriation. For the
record, sending back refugees under sub-optimal protection mechanism took a huge toll on refugees as
thousands perished on their return. During 1991-92, as the refugees were fleeing persecution and
violence, the Bangladesh government rightly termed Rohingyas as refugees. This was done long before
the UNHCR was involved in the operation.
Since 2012 the Bangladesh government stopped any new registration of refugees. The purported aim
was to stem further inflow. The government felt that extending refugee status would become a pull factor.
For the same reason, the government effectively shunned any move for third country resettlement of
refugees and also put on hold education programmes for Rohingya children until 2006.
Subsequent developments debunked the veracity of the government's position. Refugees kept coming,
despite non-recognition. This was so because Burma no longer sent refugees with bullet or bayonet
wounds, it began with what has been termed as “slow genocide”, creating conditions through destroying
identity and livelihood, by creating obstacles through arbitrary and discriminatory laws and procedures
under which Rohingyas could no longer sustain a livelihood. The incoming refugees were no economic
migrants; they were the victims of systemic state policy of persecution and genocide.
In the absence of any protection mechanism the refugees fended for themselves. The absence of legal
status made them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, servitude and trafficking. The Bangladesh
government made little effort to examine why Rohingyas were coming. Fixation of successive
governments in pursuing “look east” and “constructive engagement” policies yielded little result and kept
the Rohingya problem simmering. Those tasked with bilateral negotiations with Burma perhaps felt that
the “residual caseload” of registered refugees should be addressed first, before bringing in the thorny
issue of the “new arrivals”. It is in this context that subsequent flows occurred, the largest among them
was the post August 25, 2017.
While visiting them in Coxs Bazar, the prime minister expressed her solidarity with “Rohingya refugees”.
But, surprisingly, the official narrative presents them as “infiltrators” (anuprobeshkari), “illegal Myanmar
nationals” and “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”. The government appeal to the people to donate in
an account of Sonali Bank is titled “Humanitarian Assistance to the Myanmar Citizens Illegally Migrated
One wonders what keeps the government away from terming Rohingyas refugees? What is there to gain
by labelling them as they are being labelled now? All Rohingyas in Bangladesh, including those in and
outside camps, who have come before or after August 25, 2017, adequately fulfil the stiff criteria
stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Article 1 (A) of the Convention defines a refugee as “A person
who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is
unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”.
Dont the pundits who make the decisions know that acknowledging them as refugees will accord them
rights; foremost among them is the right to return. It also obligates the international community for
One also fails to understand why the UN mandated refugee agency the UNHCR, has been denied the
lead counterpart role when clearly it is a refugee crisis that Bangladesh faces and tied up with it is the
question of statelessness. Over the years, after working in various parts of the world, the agency has
developed the capacity, expertise and competence in coordinating mass influx refugee emergency
responses. Assigning such a delicate task to an agency which does not have the mandate or the
expertise, nor is covered under the UN normative framework, will be a monumental mistake.
Last Friday at a meeting in Dhaka, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that Rohingyas are fleeing
persecution and have taken shelter in Bangladesh. He went to say, “But, we do not want to call them
refugees. And, we have a strong logic behind this.”
Would the honourable Secretary please spell out the baffling logic?
CR Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka.
(c) 2017 The Daily Star