With the world’s attention focused on the migrants in Ukraine, the world seems to be overlooking the misery of 10 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The focus has shifted away from the Rohingya, and the ethnic minority’s persecution in Myanmar is no longer a hot topic. The Covid-19 outbreak, Myanmar’s military coup, the Afghan refugee crisis, and, most lately, the Russia-Ukraine conflict have all put a veil over the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees trapped in Bangladesh.
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, escalating the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in 2014. The crisis has created Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 6.5 million Ukrainians fleeing the country and a third of the population displaced.
While the COVID-19 epidemic, Myanmar’s military coup in February, the Afghan refugee crisis, and now the Ukraine crisis have all cast a spotlight on Bangladesh’s Rohingya, the group remains in limbo, with many of its members lacking citizenship and the rights that come with it. Since 2017, almost a million Rohingya refugees have sought asylum in Bangladesh, while others have sought refuge in countries all over the world. When the military initiated a crackdown against Myanmar’s largely Muslim minority over five years ago, they were forced to flee their homes. Now that financing for the Rohingya has run out, Bangladesh is on its own to deal with the situation. International organizations believe that if this situation continues, a catastrophic disaster will occur.
Nearly 1.1 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, the majority of whom came on August 25, 2017, when Myanmar’s army carried out a violent operation described as a “classic example of ethnic cleansing.” The safe repatriation of refugees should have always been a priority for the international community. Bangladesh initiated diplomatic efforts to repatriate them and reached agreements with Myanmar. Despite this, not a single Rohingya has gone home for fear of persecution five years later. Bangladesh appears to be paying the price for sympathizing with a persecuted minority group in another country.
Bangladesh is still sheltering the world’s largest refugee camp after almost five years, but it has become embroiled in a controversy about shifting the Rohingya to an island, diverting attention away from where it should be.
The Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district is the world’s largest refugee camp at the moment. More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, more than half of whom are children, are housed in the settlement’s approximately 26 camps.
Repatriation talks have failed to gain pace in the five years since the influx. The superpowers’ visible efforts to advance the repatriation agenda have slowed. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi public’s attitude toward the Rohingya has deteriorated. The camps’ security situation has deteriorated. The government, which was initially more ready to delegate decision-making to UN and NGO responders, has come to realize that it must play a more decisive role.
The government elected to relocate a small group of Rohingya (less than 5% of the population) to a riverine island, which has received disproportionate worldwide media attention over the last two years. Human rights organizations’ skepticism of the justifications for moving any displaced people, even to better conditions, added to the process’s complexity. The debate in policy and activism circles, as well as in the international media, became so heated and polarized that it looked Bangladesh was committing a far more serious crime than Myanmar.
As a result of all of this, policy remains in uncertainty, with the Rohingya trapped in the crossfire. With the international donor community hesitating to support the government’s action, it has become a binary conversation – to move or not to move. The government has invested more than $350 million in the island’s infrastructure, including houses, schools, community centers, and embankments to protect it from natural calamities.
The Rohingya have become a source of low-cost labor for small businesses in Cox’s Bazar, lowering wages and limiting work opportunities for the indigenous people. Locals also claim that the cost of life in Cox’s Bazar has increased, adding to the problems.
The decline in overseas donations raises two questions: “Has the world forgotten about the Rohingya?” and “Has the world forgotten about the Rohingya?” and “Will Bangladesh be able to withstand the pressure?”
According to ISCG, $635 million was spent in 2021, with the majority of it going for food. Only 75% of food requirements were met with that amount, with only 35% of healthy, high-quality meals satisfied. Last year, that sum only covered 66 percent of educational demands and 36% of health-care needs.
It’s understandable that the Afghan refugee crisis, as well as the current Ukraine situation, necessitate financial assistance. However, the world community must remember that the Rohingya are also refugees, and most of them remain in the world’s most densed refugee camps.
Long-term uncertainty about repatriation may incentivize Rohingya refugees to commit crimes. As a result of the extended ambiguity surrounding their repatriation, many Rohingya are becoming frustrated. Human trafficking, prostitution, and illegal drug trade will become victims of the Rohingya when they realize there is little support for them. As a result, the entire region’s equilibrium may be jeopardized.
The chain of events linked to the Rohingya crisis can easily be related to the Western Grand Strategy of containing China in its backyard, where Myanmar was seen as a critical node of Beijing’s Belt Road scheme for bypassing Malacca Strait, a channel under the watch of the US and its allies. As Bangladesh took patient approach in mitigating the crisis amicably and bilaterally with regional actors, despite pressure from non-state actors leaning towards anti-Chinese camp into focusing towards insurgency, the World’s attention seemed to have dwindled down.
The prevalent narrative must be altered. So far, international discourse has been one-dimensional and disconnected from what is happening on the ground in real time. Bangladesh should also be given credit for helping to maintain regional stability by hosting tens of thousands of displaced persons.
The international community’s plea for repatriation to Myanmar must be louder, more visible, and more frequent. Bangladesh’s government must maintain a consistent policy of ensuring that all transfers are voluntary. Any long-term solution must take into account the regional and national context.