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Why are Rohingyas denied entry into Bangladesh?
Publication Date : 20-06-2012
Myanmar is a multi-religious country with 60 million people. Statistics show that 89 per cent of the population are Buddhists, 4 per cent are Christians, 4 per cent are Muslims, and 3 per cent follow other religions, including Hinduism and the Bahai Faith.
The name "Rohingya" is derived from "Rohang", believed to be the ancient name of the Rakhine (Arakan) state of Myanmar. The recent violence in Rakhine state has led many Rohingyas to flee Myanmar and attempt to cross the 200-kilometre porous border with Bangladesh. Around 40 per cent of the population of the Rakhine state is estimated to be Muslim.
Bangladesh shares borders with two Myanmar states -- Rakhine (Arakan) and Chin. Most people of Chin state practice Christianity and no refugees came from Chin state to Bangladesh.
Besides Rakhine Muslims, there are Muslims living in other parts of Myanmar. They came from Gujarat (India) and China, and live peacefully with other ethnic groups in various parts of the country, including Yangon.
Rohingyas look similar to Bangladesh people living in the southeast and speak in a dialect which is close to that of Bangladesh people on the border. They can easily mingle with the local people.
It is reported that the recent unrest began on June 3 after the police in Rakhine detained three Muslim men (Rohingyas) in relation to the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman late last month. That was followed by a wanton attack by Buddhists on a bus in early June in which 10 Muslims were killed. 13 Buddhist Rakhines and 16 Rohingyas have been killed, Myanmar officials told AP last week.
The question is, given the unrest in the Rakine state can Rohingyas be considered as "refugees" under the UN 1951 Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol?
To be eligible as a refugee, there must be "well-founded fear of persecution" by the state. The present unrest emanated from an allegedly criminal act on a Buddhist female by some Rohingyas and did not arise from persecution by the authorities. It is considered as a law and order issue for Myanmar.
Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Convention of the Refugees and there is no legal obligation to accept them.
There could be, however, a moral or humanitarian obligation in a war-like situation, but given the sectarian clash
between minority and majority groups in the Rakhine state, Rohingyas cannot arguably come within the definition of "refugees."
On June 13, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni said Bangladesh was not willing to give shelter to Rohingyas despite international calls for opening the border. "We're already burdened with thousands of Rohingya refugees staying in Bangladesh and we don't want any more," she reportedly said.
In my view, the stance of the government is correct. Some reasons are given below:
First, Bangladesh is an overpopulated country compared to its territorial size (about 160 million people squeezed in an area of 147, 570 square kilometres). Bangladeshi officials estimate that there are 300,000 Rohingyas already in the country, with about a tenth of them in two official refugee camps in the southern district of Cox's Bazaar.
Second, Rohingya refugees are a heavy burden on Bangladesh's economy and scant resources. It is reported that many local people do not want to accept Rohingya refugees, some of whom are allegedly involved in undesirable activities either within the local area or on the border, posing a threat to peace and security of local people.
Third, Rohingya refugees have reportedly created a bad image of Bangladesh in the Middle East. It is alleged that most of the "Bangladeshis" who committed crimes in Saudi Arabia were Rohingyas with fake or forged Bangladesh passports.
Fourth, many believe that, having being deprived of amenities as citizens since 1962 when General Ne Win seized power, some Rohingyas reportedly constituted guerilla outfits including the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation and Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front fighting for a Rohingya land in Rakhine state. In 1978, when Bangladesh in agreement with Myanmar repatriated Rohingya refugees, these entities reportedly resisted their repatriation until the land was "secure" from their point of view.
Fifth, a serious misunderstanding was created in the past between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the issue of Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh does not wish any more to be misunderstood on this issue with one of its closest neighbour, which is on a steady path to democratic reforms. The Bangladesh prime minister visited Myanmar last December and the Myanmar president is expected to visit in mid-July -- after a 26-year gap.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month met thousands of Myanmar refugees now living in a Thai border camp. She promised to try as much as she could to help them return home, vowing not to forget them. It is disappointing to note she has been conspicuously silent on the current violence in Rakhine state and on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
It is expected that while Suu Kyi is on a tour of Europe, the European leaders and Human Rights Organisations should urge her to address the current unrest and the root causes for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The Secretary General of the UN needs to play an active role in addressing the issues of religious minority community in the Rakhine state with Myanmar authorities.
Since Bangladesh is already sheltering more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, there is a view that those countries and organisations which call upon Bangladesh to open the border to Rohingyas on humanitarian considerations may send their planes or passenger boats to Chittagong, and Bangladesh may open the border on the condition that those who come to Bangladesh from Myanmar will be sent to those countries.
Out of 15.4 million refugees in the world as of today, records show that developing countries in Asia and Africa host 80 per cent of them, and not the Western countries which have turned their countries into "fortresses" and are very reluctant to accept refugees in their own countries.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.