Friday, February 28, 2014

Q&A Session with Meghna Guhathakurta

This report is prepared by Shreya Ghosh. She was a participant of the Eleventh Annual Orientation Course on Forced Migration, 2013
[Meghna Guhathakurta is the Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, a research organization working with marginalized communities. Formerly she was Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was the speaker of an interactive sessionat Eleventh Annual Orientation Course on Forced Migration, organized by Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group on December 8, 2013]

Meghna Guhathakurta initiated the discussion through sharing her work on family histories and how family can be a crucial site of investigation to understand the ways in which decisions related to migration are taken and to unravel the different gender roles in negotiating migration. She further spoke on the idea of 'violence', 'fear' and migration. She spoke of instances where violence does not necessarily demonstrate itself explicitly, but results in a sense of (psychological) fear. The idea of perceived 'fear' is important in understanding forced migration and, according to her, family is again an institution that negotiates with such fear and looking at family narratives can become critical in understanding fear driven migration.

Q.Can you speak on the experience of environment driven migration in Bangladesh and whether looking at 'family' can be used as a 'method' of investigation in such cases.

A.Bangladesh is among the countries that are prone to environmental disasters and related migration. This is especially so in case of south-west Bangladesh, which is also where the Sunderbans are located. Here, drastic changes take place in the environment due to siltation and erosion of soil which leads to large migration of mostly agricultural laborers. Another cause of forced migration remains the frequent change of river course in Bangladesh.

One has not used family narratives as a method for looking at environmental migrations. But there remains a possibility. Such environment driven migration often leads to men in the effected villages migrating for work, while women are left behind. There are villages now that only consists of women. Abandoned women become vulnerable. There are instances were seasonal laborers, who come into new areas, marry women who have once been abandoned and then they too leave after a while, at the end of the season.

An important aspect about cross border migration is that successive migrations take place through same border passes and areas, using the networks that are established. There is also a continuous negotiation with border guards and state institutions.

Q.Has there been any significant migration, specially of any minority community, due to recent political crisis in Bangladesh (Shahbag movement)?

A.One specific instance is that of migration among the Buddhist community in Bangladesh. There were some rumors and panic related to mob violence which led to migratory trends among the aforementioned group to other Buddhist majority states. Such migration can be momentary or cyclical.

Also there are other deeper issues that need to be highlighted here. In Bangladesh, there is a tendency towards land grabbing within the influential political and elite classes. Minorities and the land belonging to the migrants are especially susceptible. There is a systematic structure of laws and norms that has been devised to effect such land grabbing. The Enemy Property Act was a legislation of such kind. In more recent times, this has been followed by legislation to try and control temple land or property held by communities for religious purposes (devatya property).

Also there are times when the state encourages migration for remittances. Equally, it is true that migration happens because people want to live a better life. For instance people go out on dangerous and uncertain ventures, traveling long distances, in anticipation of better livelihood and living conditions. Some such travels even become fatal for few migrants.

Q.Is there any change in perception of self-identity among new generation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Does the new generation recognize a change from being refugees to being stateless?

A.Protracted refugee-hood can become a condition of statelessness. UNHCR has introduced the category of statelessness but the Bangladesh state does not consider Rohingyas as stateless. They consider Myanmar as responsible for them.

On part of the Rohingya refugees, the older generation is very conscious of their Myanmarese belonging and cultural and linguistic roots. They are also very conscious of ensuring a certain continuation of the same among their next generation. While teaching them language skills and education in camps, the mothers of the Rohingya refugee children often complained about the teaching medium not being the Burmese language and the fear of losing the language among the new generation. Hence while teaching at the camps, one had to develop teaching programmes in the Burmese language.

Q.Has there been any case of displacement due to the Rampal power plant project?

A.This again is a project in the south-western part of Bangladesh. The construction of the said project was stopped due to protests. But the rate of displacement due to large construction projects in Bangladesh is high. The displaced also receive very less or often no compensation. The displaced from the Jamuna bridge project have not received due compensation. Also there are gas explosion related disasters. The displaced and victims of Magurchara gas explosion have not yet received compensation. The Kaptai dam in Bangladesh has been the source of one of the largest refugee population group.

Q.On the nature of work by Research Initiative Bangladesh (RIB) in the Rohingya refugee camps?

A.RIB does not follow the top down developmental model of forcing change from above. In its efforts it negotiates with existing community conventions in order to make change participatory. Over the time, we have seen the relevance of working with and breaking the cultural codes.

Q.Is it not that working through existing cultural norms of communities re-enforces prevailing patriarchal norms. How does it foresee change?

A.Yes, but it is important to work with existing cultural norms in order to make change acceptable. It is like walking on a thin line. Negotiating with community conventions is also important for legitimizing change and in guise work towards women empowerment. Another important aspect is of protection. In case of negotiating through community conventions it helps to gain the confidence of the community and hence one is better placed to protect them. Losing the confidence of the community leadership might lead to loosing access to the community all-together. It is important to remember here that one is dealing with multiple stake-holders – the Bangladesh government on the one hand and the UNHCR on the other – who might not like very much interference. In such a scenario one always has to retain the confidence of the community. The question one always has to keep in mind, over and above everything else, is the responsibility to protect the community. Hence the perspective of refugees is crucial, it is important to understand what people want.

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