Priyanca Mathur Velath
The month of June traditionally celebrates World Refugee Day. However the month of June in 2012 brought back international attention on one of the world’s “most persecuted and most forgotten” peoples, the Rohingyas, when communal clashes in western Myanmar claimed more than 60 lives, displaced more than 30,000 and forced hundreds to flee into the neighbouring state of Bangladesh. Since then Bangladesh has turned back more than 2,000 Rohingyas who tried to enter the country after the deadly sectarian violence between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted in the Burmese Arakan state.1
Rohingya ‘boatpeople’ have for decades been leaving Myanmar and entering Bangladesh but discrimination and denial of citizenship has forced them to flee further. 2 The book being reviewed here is the outcome of a study carried out by Centre for Alternatives, Bangladesh, that brought together the efforts of both the students and faculty of the Universities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Jahangirnagar to relook at the condition of Rohingya refugees (both documented and undocumented) in Bangladesh. Underlying the enquiry is the hypothesis that “the Rohingya refugee crisis has been long ignored in the development discourse in Bangladesh”. As the book emphasises, “in tracing the plight of the Rohingya refugees, the study shows that the Rohingyas are both stateless and refugees.” (First they became stateless in their homeland and then eventually they had to embrace the status of refugeehood under the conditions of persecution, discrimination and torture) The crucial point of understanding is that the causes and conditions of their refugeehood are becoming almost identical.
The book ‘The Plight of the Stateless Rohingyas: Responses of the State: Society & the International Community’ 3 has been edited by Imtiaz Ahmed and co-written by Delwar Hossain, Shahab Enam Khan and Md. Faridul Alam. All Bangladesh based academics, the four authors have penned the chapters separately that together went into the making of this book. The Myanmar state has systematically denied the existence of the Rohingyas so much so that the word ‘Rohingya’ is not officially recognised in Myanmar. While tracing the historical origins of the Rohingya refugee migration in Bangladesh, Ahmed notes that the “patterns of refugee migration are a product of the interrelationship among the oppressive regimes in Myanmar, crisis in identity (ethnic, religious and political), and the lack of attention from the international community.” In the second chapter Delwar Hossain addresses the identity concerns of the second generation Rohingyas in Bangladesh by also asking if states can realistically respond to the challenges posed by the same.
Chapter three seeks to analyse the psychosocial dimensions of refugeehood while chapter four views the situation from the ‘security’ lens. It emphasises that security concerns are four dimensional (politico-military, economic, social and human) and that the responsibility of security must be shared by multiple actors viz., both country of origin and host country, both refugee populations and locals, by donor states, regional organisations, the UNHCR, its operational partners – all alike. But the essential understanding is that the relationship between refugees and the internal security of the state of Bangladesh is a complex one, further complicated by the reality that physical resemblance between Rohingyas and Bengalis which merges the demarcation between ‘legitimate and illicit political dissents’.
While chapter five, interrogating the role of Bangladesh in handling this refugee issue urges the Bangladesh government to adopt a national policy on refugees and provide a framework that addresses the repatriation needs, chapter six evaluates the actions of the international community in protecting their lives and ensuring the livelihoods. Shahab Enam Khan notes that the response of the international community is positive and proactive but there is still a lot of work to be done particularly with the undocumented Rohingyas living outside the camps, to address the continuing and increasing cross border flows. Mere humanitarian support will not be enough. In the next chapter Md. Faridul Alam observes a dichotomy in the involvement of non-state actors as the latter impact policy developments in the field of environment and human rights more than they impact refugee lives. Finally Ahmed, in the concluding chapter, lists tasks to be done by various stakeholders in the refugee discourse, laying out not “timescales in implementing the recommendations” but the “level of involvement.”
But with Rohingya refugees mere involvement will not provide solutions; the commitment to protect and secure the lives of this tragically displaced population demands serious accountability in actions from all concerned actors. While there is international condemnation of the Bangladeshi push-back of the fleeing Rohingyas there are voices within Bangladesh urging the government to provide temporary refuge. 4 Some within the academic community of Bangladesh have also been arguing that ‘opening doors to the Rohingyas is a duty not charity’ and that pushing the Rohingyas back is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement. There is reiteration that the state of Bangladesh needs to frame a national law for refugees that would lay down basic principles of refugee treatment and set up necessary administrative structures to deal with situations such as the Rohingya inflow. “If proper procedures were in place the government’s reaction would not have been as reactive.” 5
The highlight of this compilation are the detailed evocative fifteen case studies of Rohingya refugees living in the Kutapalong and Nayapara refugee camps and in Chittagong, conducted by students of the Universities of Dhaka and Chittagong. Written in first person they are emotional accounts of personal histories of hope and despair, with equally emphatic titles like ‘Dream’, ‘Shame’, ‘The Void in a merciless world, ‘A moment of silence’, ‘Irony of fate’, ‘Denied from denied’, ‘We pass our days crying’, ‘I have nothing else to do’, ‘Better to kill us all by bombing’, ‘Living like insects’, ‘Son of the soils’, ‘We stay by crying’. They are narratives that underline that while trauma and traumatic memories continue to shape the Rohingya identity, so does the hope and dream of a future of return and freedom. The present and the future for these persecuted and forgotten people is one that all regional and international actors need to come together to protect, ensure and enshrine.
1. See - ‘Bangladesh: Stop Boat Push-backs to Burma’, Human Rights Watch, June 20, 2012 - http://www.hrw.org/node/108156
2. See – ‘Rohingya Boatpeople sentences on Immigration Charges’, June 22, 2012, http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/7537
3. by University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2010.
4. See online petitions like
5. See CR Abrar, ‘Opening doors to Rohingyas: duty, not charity’, New Age, Dhaka, June 20, 2012, http://www.newagebd.com/detail.php?date=2012-06-20&nid=14308