In August and September, massive refugee camps were reestablished in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, near the border with Myanmar. The refugees are largely from the Rohingya minority, which the Myanmar army expelled for the fourth time since 1978. This was a humanitarian catastrophe, followed by a miracle of sorts; in short order, refugee camps were established for 600,000 to 700,000 Rohingya refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Bangladesh government without precipitating a war between Bangladesh and Myanmar, a cholera epidemic, famine or the other catastrophes that humanitarian aid prevents. Unfortunately, this success does not necessarily have a long-term solution embedded in it. History points to few simple solutions to such refugee situations, which always occur in the context of the political demands that caused them in the first place. Despite this history, the UNHCR and other international players insist that the best solution is a quick return of presumably apolitical refugees to Myanmar under the auspices of the National League for Democracy/military government. The problem is that this ignores the inherently politicized nature of both refugee situations, and particularly the refugees themselves.
Units of the Myanmar army asserted a national security crisis following an attack on border police posts by a small Islamic insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), in August. Some 30 police officers died. The goals of ARSA were vague — presumably in the short run they wished to provoke a revolt among the Islamic populations of Myanmar against the government. However, in a massive response the Myanmar army quickly drove over 600,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, and according to reports from foreign nongovernmental organizations in December, at least 6,700 died. What happened in Rakhine State has been called ethnic cleansing by the UN and others, and the Myanmar army is accused of crimes against humanity.
As for ARSA, their short-term strategy did not work and there has been no revolt in Myanmar. The danger is that ARSA will instead achieve a longer-term goal, which is to create a large population of radicalized and aggrieved refugees, a proportion of whom will be susceptible to the promises of violent Islamic extremism. Massive isolated refugee camps like those in Cox’s Bazar provide an environment for radicalization; camps for Rwandans in Congo/Zaire and for Palestinians in the Middle East are recent extreme examples of this. Refugee camps are often short-term humanitarian blessings, but in the longer run they can be a curse for the countries involved, and especially for the refugees themselves.
This brings up an issue for the international community, which always seeks quick “durable” solutions in any refugee crisis. Despite diplomatic protestations, the Rohingya crisis of 2017 is now at a standstill, as any student of refugee history knows. The political situation is too complicated, and the logistics problems for such a return too daunting. So, at the insistence of Bangladesh, the international community is funding the camps “temporarily” while placing the blame for the refugee crisis on the shoulders of Myanmar. The refugees themselves of course are reluctant to seek the “protection” of Myanmar, the country that expelled them and asserts that many are foreigners. Indeed, these refugees are well aware that this is the fourth expulsion exercise in Rakhine since 1978 and that the three previous ones, in which large numbers did repatriate, resulted in further expulsions a few years later. So as usual, refugees are caught in the middle. Undoubtedly, most are just scared — legitimately afraid to “voluntarily” repatriate to Myanmar, where the army remains in power, but also prevented from moving to other parts of Bangladesh by that country’s army. Many ask for resettlement in a third country, but Southeast Asian nations and the West are as reluctant as Bangladesh to admit refugees. And so UN agencies establish “temporary” refugee camps of bamboo and plastic in the hope that the refugee problem will somehow disappear when the “durable solution” of voluntary repatriation magically appears.
So the likely long-term de facto policy is the status quo of temporariness. “Temporary” refugee camps require little immediate sacrifice in the form of refugee resettlement or political compromise by donors, home countries, host countries or neighboring countries. This is why large “temporary” refugee camps are found in places like Lebanon, Gaza, Jordan, Thailand and Tanzania decades after establishment. In the Middle East, Palestinians were first housed in camps beginning in 1948. In central Africa, large temporary camps for Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians were established in 1993 following earlier decades of refugee flight. In Thailand, camps for refugees from Myanmar were established in 1984. In such temporary camps, life is remolded around real grievances of displacement, contributing to insurgency, host country resentment and potential political instability. And in this fashion the original goals of organizations like ARSA, which sought to radicalize aggrieved populations, are realized.
The problem is that truly “durable” solutions require political sacrifice by receiving countries (Bangladesh), home countries (Myanmar), stable neighboring countries and third countries further afield. Durable refugee solutions in Western Europe after World War II, Indochina after the refugee crises of 1975 and elsewhere all involved global sacrifice, not just another quick return, as wished for by the UN and legitimately feared by the refugees.
So why is the fiction of quick refugee return embedded in the UN’s simplistic dogma that there are only three “durable solutions” for refugees: return to the home country, legal resettlement in the host country, and legal resettlement in a third country? Since Bangladesh and other countries ruled out legal resettlement as a matter of policy, refugees are told by the UNHCR that the only “choice” is “voluntary” return to Myanmar, where new camps will be established in a land which has expelled Rohingya, and others, many times since independence. But in fact there are other solutions. Refugees everywhere quietly know that in practice there are at least five other de facto “solutions” to refugee crises. For example, there is continued long-term confinement (e.g. Palestinians in Gaza); illegal migration (e.g. people from Myanmar to Thailand, Central Americans to the United States, and Syrians to the EU); forced repatriation and war (Rwandans in the Great Lakes Region); massacres and further war (Rwandans in Congo in 1997); establishment of de facto states (Afghans in Pakistan’s border areas, and Palestinians in Gaza); and de facto extra-legal integration into labor markets (Mexicans in the United States, people from Myanmar in Thailand). And then, always in the back of all Rohingya minds, are the memories of previous expulsions and quick repatriations in 1978, 1991-1992 and 2012-2013.
Such a revised policy menu means that addressing the status of refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar is urgent. The orderly conclusion assumed by the international diplomatic community to a disorderly refugee crisis is actually pretty unlikely — only the legalistic minds of the UN and powerful states could imagine otherwise. As for the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, they find themselves in the refugee’s classic paradox: They must remain on the move, even as they can go nowhere. This paradox is familiar in refugee studies, and it is one rarely navigated well, as the refugees of Central Africa’s forests, Central America’s wars and Gaza well know. What might such de facto “solutions” for Cox’s Bazar look like in five or 10 years? Here are some plausible outcomes:
— Forced repatriation by Bangladeshi and/or the Myanmar army to Myanmar. The result might be deadly in the way forced repatriation to Congo/Zaire by the region’s militaries in 1996-1997 was, when several hundred thousand refugees were lost in Congo’s forests and the deadliest war since World War II was triggered. Or as in previous cases in Rakhine and Bangladesh, one repatriation plants the seed for the next expulsion.
— Continued existence of the Cox’s Bazar camps. In the long run farmers will be deskilled and youth will become susceptible to recruitment by Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS and ARSA. A likely by-product will be continued insurgency in Myanmar.
— Continued surreptitious migration to neighboring countries, particularly to South and Southeast Asia’s burgeoning cities, where there is demand for cheap labor.
— Establishment of a volatile de facto refugee sub-state in Bangladesh, such as in Gaza and the Pakistani borderlands.
— Orderly resettlement of refugees in urban and rural areas in Myanmar, Bangladesh and other countries.
The expansion of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in 2017 was a humanitarian miracle. If the camps are still in Cox’s Bazar in 2027, they will become a humanitarian catastrophe. Policy decisions today will shape what happens in the future.
Tony Waters is a faculty member of the Department of Peace Studies at Thailand’s Payap University.