Things Get Worse: Rohingya in Bangladesh

About two years ago I secretly met with a dozen stateless Rohingya refugees in a hotel room in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.  They were new arrivals from Rakhine State in Myanmar and had waded through shallow areas of the Naf River on the Bay of Bengal to escape violence and persecution. We met clandestinely because they were afraid that if they were identified as Rohingya, they would be arrested, detained, and sent back to Myanmar. Newspapers worldwide were reporting the expulsion of large numbers of Rohingya, and the refugees knew of others who had been spotted and deported. 

Bangladesh is a reluctant host to more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees. Some have been there since 1978, when they were forced out of Rakhine State, and most live in the area of Cox’s Bazar or Teknaf. Only 30,000 Rohingya are registered as refugees and live in camps supported by the UN Refugee Agency. The rest live alongside these camps, relying on the registered refugees for food and clean water, or they live in other pockets of the area in more treacherous conditions, and under the constant threat of deportation. 

Life is hard for most people in Bangladesh. According to UNICEF, in 2013, 41 percent of children in Bangladesh suffered from stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition, and 15 percent were classified as “wasting” -  a strong predictor of mortality before age 5. And while it is not surprising that meeting basic needs is also very difficult for the unregistered Rohingya, Bangladesh compounds their destitution by barring Rohingya children from attending school and denying all Rohingya access to health care because both are viewed as “pull” factors.

Yet the Rohingya keep arriving because they have few other choices, and all are terrible. Since 2012, more than 100,000 other Rohingya have fled Rakhine State on boats headed to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Hundreds of refugees have drowned in the water, thousands more have been trafficked and sold as slaves, and countless numbers are detained in jails across the region. 

The situation in Rakhine State has deteriorated since 2012; Myanmar’s government has said it will indefinitely detain all Rohingya who do not participate in a “citizenship verification process” that would require them to deny their ethnicity. In Bangladesh last year, the long-awaited plan to address the circumstances of the Rohingya included expelling up to 270,000 unregistered Rohingya. Myanmar has been clear that it will only accept registered refugees, and the reality is that very few Rohingya in either population are willing to return voluntarily. There have been no “voluntary” returns since 2006, and only 300 Rohingya were repatriated between 2004 and 2005.

In Bangladesh last year, the long-awaited plan to address the circumstances of the Rohingya included expelling up to 270,000 unregistered Rohingya. Myanmar has been clear that it will only accept registered refugees, and the reality is that very few Rohingya in either population are willing to return voluntarily.

In the meantime, Bangladesh is making life for the Rohingya even more miserable with the expectation that at some point they will just give up and leave. A few weeks ago Bangladeshi authorities tore down 2,500 makeshift shelters, displacing up to 35,000 Rohingya refugees. This was just the newest round of forcible eviction, and it came without any plan to relocate or assist those displaced. Instead, local authorities said the Rohingya would be sent back to Myanmar. 

In January, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced that it had signed a three-year, $18 million agreement with the government to provide health, water, hygiene and sanitation services in Cox’s Bazar. But while the IOM is “dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration,” it’s not well-suited to addressing the needs of a protracted refugee population and their severely impoverished host community.

Indeed, a report released two months ago found that 45 percent of the children in Chittagong region, which includes Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf, have stunted growth, and 39 percent are underweight. Not including the unregistered Rohingya, there were 253,000 people living in Cox’s Bazar at the time of the last national census in 1991. Even if the population had not grown, $18 million in IOM programming means that, at best, each citizen of Cox’s Bazar will receive only $71 in support over three years - a drop in the bucket.

Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its resources are certainly limited. But expelling Rohingya in an ad hoc manner, without any plan for their security, almost guarantees their return. A better solution would be to register the Rohingya, support a regional response that would promote and protect the human rights of the Rohingya, and accept international assistance that would bolster the lives of all who live in Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf. Unfortunately to date, Bangladesh has refused more than $100 million offered for humanitarian assistance to Cox’s Bazar because it said that improved conditions in the area would create a “pull” factor. 

Myanmar is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the Rohingya can live in security in their country of origin. While it is not fair that Bangladesh has had to shelter so many for so long, until Myanmar stops persecuting the Rohingya, Bangladesh has an irreplaceable role to play in their protection.  

Photo: Children at Leda site in Cox’s Bazaar district, home to 12,000 unregistered refugees.