[BBC's Correspondent for East and Northeast India based in Calcutta]
Bangladesh's new Awami League government has decided to send back to Myanmar all of the 30,000 odd Rohingya refugees staying in the "official camps" between Cox's Bazar and Teknaf, creating uncertainties for the beleaguered ethnic minority that has been victim of the one of the worst cases of displacement in post-colonial Asia .
In 1978, nearly 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army. This operation apparently sought to “scrutinise each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally." But on ground, this became a brutal military campaign targeting Rohingya civilians and what followed were widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and other forms of religious persecution.
During 1991-92 a fresh exodus of Rohingyas started with more than a quarter of a million Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces.
Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the displayed hostility of the Myanmar military junta. But now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they do not receive support from the government any longer. As a result, thousands of Rohingyas have been undertaking hazardous boat journeys to Southeast Asia (even as far as Australia), looking for work and livelihood.
Over the years thousands of Rohingya also have fled to Thailand. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing boatloads of Rohingyas out to sea. I investigated and did a series of stories in the BBC exposing how the Rohingyas were put on boats after their engines were removed and were left to die on high seas.
A few hundreds of them were rescued by Indian and Indonesian coast guards, after which they narrated harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February there were reports that of a group of 5 boats were towed out to open sea, of which 4 boats sank in a storm, and 1 boat washed up on the shore. On February 12, 2009 , two weeks after the BBC exposes, Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there were "some instances" in which Rohingya people were pushed out to sea and promised an enquiry
All these Rohingyas had paid a fortune to dubious agents in Bangladesh who organised the deadly boat journeys. But leaders of the community in Bangladesh now say more and more Rohingyas will be undertaking these deadly voyages because they are left with no option after Bangladesh decided it will start repatriating the Rohingya refugees back top Myanmar. In the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, these refugees will be sent back in "the soonest possible time."
The Awami League government wants to send back the Rohingyas because it feels this community provides the maximum number of recruits to Islamic terror groups active in the country. The Rohingya armed groups, which traditionally received support from the Bangladesh military intelligence during the country's military regimes, are also feeling the heat. Most have been disarmed and many of their top leaders have fled the country and settled in UK or Saudi Arabia. In fact, top Awami League leaders are spearheading the anti-Rohingya resistance committee recently set up in Cox's Bazar - Teknaf area. The whole idea is to make it difficult for the Rohingyas to live in southeastern Bangladesh (between Chittagong and Teknaf), so that they are forced to return to Myanmar.
"The Rohingya jehadis have fought in Palestine, Kashmir, as far as Chechnya. They are the single most dangerous community living in our country because they provide support and recruits to the cause of Islamic terror. If we have to crush the Islamic fundamentalist forces down south, the Rohingyas must be made to go back to Burma," says Shamsul Arefin, a retired military official who advises the Awami League on security issues. So Bangladesh has now said they will begin by sending back about 9000 Rohingya refugees.
But according to Kristy Crabtree, an American researcher who has worked on the Rohingya refugees, “promoting the Rohingyas' repatriation as the only possible solution to their displacement overlooks an internationally recognized norm of protection for those seeking refuge. This is the principle of non-refoulement. Basically, this principle prohibits nations from expelling or returning a refugee to a place where their freedom will be threatened or there is a risk of persecution." This principle is recognized in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and applies to refugees that are formally recognized as well as those who lack an official status, she says.
Although Bangladesh is not a party to the Convention, the principle still applies because non-refoulement is an international custom. This means that the principle is a “general practice accepted as law” because it has fulfilled the two elements necessary to become customary international law: consistent State practice and opinio juris. The latter means it is a practice recognized by states as obligatory.
Having satisfied these requirements, the principle of non-refoulement is considered customary international law, and therefore, binding on all states regardless of their adoption of the 1951 Convention. Furthermore, the principle is defended in other treaties which Bangladesh has signed, such as the Convention Against Torture and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This principle should protect the Rohingya from forced or coerced repatriation to Burma.
"Bangladesh's plan for Rohingya repatriation not only goes against customary international law but her request for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to pursue socio-economic development in Myanmar also falls short. The reason for the flight of the Rohingya into neighboring countries is not the result of a socio-economic problem. The root cause of their displacement is the lack of recognition of their citizenship rights in Myanmar. Without these national rights, their other basic rights, such as freedom to travel or marry or practice their faith, are routinely violated, and the Rohingya are subject to other gross human rights abuses such as forced labor and property confiscation," says Crabtree.
There is enough justification in the suggestion that until and unless Myanmar recognises the citizenship rights of the Rohingyas, they should not be forced to return.
Resettlement of Rohingya refugees must continue in countries like the US, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. Funding must also support local villagers living in the area surrounding the camps. This is necessary to change the local perception of the refugee camps from being a financial burden for the country to infusing the area with international aid and development. But if the Rohingyas are seen as "potential Islamic terrorists", this may also suffer.
In fact, the Rohingyas are victims of this "outsider" image. Buddhist Myanmar sees them as a migrant Muslim community who came to live in the Arakans from the East Bengal coast -- a complete distortion of history of the fluid Chittagong-Arakan coastal region ( a bit of a melting pot) where Islam came as the "handmaiden of commerce" and not at the head of an all conquering army. Bangladesh sees them (at least the present regime) as Burmese Muslims who pose a threat to its secular fabric and stability. The West sees them as potential jihadis. In south east Asia, they are seen as "illegal migrants" who should be detected and thrown out. And elements in the Islamic world see them as useful recruits for an extreme cause but quite expendable. They are indeed nobody's people in a noman's land and the world does not realise that it is the uncertainty of their existence that drives them to extreme steps -- be it the hazardous boat journeys from Bangladesh to southeast Asia or the plunge into the world of jihad.