Guest Column

The Rohingya Situation on Myanmar-Bangladesh Border Is Getting More Dangerous

By Tony Waters 25 January 2022

Since Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s peoples have looked inward, focused on the coup, the battles on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, economic collapse, and the resumption of highland wars.  Left to fester is another looming catastrophe on the western border of Myanmar with Bangladesh, where about 1 million Rohingya refugees forced out of their homes by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) in 2012 and 2017, wait for a cyclone to drown their camps. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government rattles its sabers in The Diplomat, insisting that the burden on Bangladesh is unjust, and must be resolved by the refugees returning to Rakhine State. International actors often agree, pointing out that such “return” policies are consistent with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) policies asserting that return to the home country is preferable to resettlement in a “second country” like Bangladesh, or a plausible third country further afield. But in fact, Voluntary Repatriation Doctrine for refugees is too simplistic, and does not reflect complexities inherent to refugee situations. The result is long-term “temporary” situations like the refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar, which have been opening, shutting and opening since 1978.

Bangladesh does of course have a point, just like a couple dozen other countries hosting large refugee populations today. Refugee hosts do much more to protect the peace than do countries who create refugees in the first place, and those which push refugees back. But refugee host countries always only begrudgingly accept the human victims of their neighbor’s violent excesses. Begrudgingly too, reception countries cooperate with the UNHCR to first protect refugees from forcible repatriation, and second to seek international assistance in the name of “burden sharing,” which is the money needed to maintain the large camps in places like Cox’s Bazar. This happens even as host countries deal with xenophobic resentment about foreigners receiving “free stuff” from the UNHCR. Locals ask, why are foreigners given privileges and assistance that local poor do not receive?

But criticism of refugee hosts like Bangladesh risks making a bad situation even worse. Bangladesh generously allowed 1 million Rohingya to withdraw from ruthless ethnic cleansing operations in Myanmar. For this, the UNHCR passes the hat at donor meetings, seeking to compensate Bangladesh for this hospitality. The amount thrown in the UNHCR’s collection hat for each refugee crisis is typically insufficient to sustain the refugees, which only exacerbates those xenophobic tensions.  At which point host countries like Bangladesh threaten deportation, and talk about forcibly repatriating refugees back to the home country using military and police force. This happened most dramatically in the Great Lakes of Africa in 1996-1997, when central African militaries deported about 2 million Rwandans back to Rwanda, while hundreds of thousands fled into the Congolese jungles, where many died of hunger, disease, and violence.   

Not a durable solution

Despite Bangladeshi rhetoric, the biggest victims are the Rohingya refugees who are pawns in a greater game which began with the Myanmar military. But their situation is sometimes made worse by insistence on quick voluntary return to Rakhine. Reviewing the Rohingya history of the last 40 years or so calls into doubt the effectiveness of UNHCR and Bangladeshi repatriation policies, which have repeatedly resulted in overly quick repatriations.

The Tatmadaw forced the Rohingya out of Rakhine State in 1978 and into Bangladesh in “Operation Dragon King.” Some 200,000-250,000 left for Bangladesh, with about 180,000 returning later that year as a result of an agreement between the Myanmar [then known as Burma] and Bangladesh governments; 70,000 presumably disappeared into the woodwork.  Then the Myanmar authorities in Rakhine in 1991-1992 conducted “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation” and there was another expulsion by the Myanmar authorities from Rakhine.  Again, there were 200,000-250,000 leaving and a quick return of 150,000 negotiated by Myanmar, Bangladesh and the UNHCR.  Missing from the accounting were 50,000-100,000.  The next mass exodus was in 2012, after which there was another call for return.  The 2012 return did not occur as in the past, and fewer Rohingya went back to Rakhine, and the camps remained open.  But then came the catastrophic expulsions in 2017: 600,000-800,000 more Rohingya were pushed into Bangladesh following the violent deaths of over 10,000 in Rakhine.  

In 2017 the situation became even worse in Rakhine. Civil war erupted when the Arakan Army carved out its own territory which it now governs, with support from the Kachin Independence Army. The Rohingya refugees are still left marooned in the dangerous coastal areas in Cox’s Bazar and not “volunteering” for the UNHCR repatriation programs.  Where in Rakhine would they go?  The choice is between territories controlled by the Tatmadaw, which expelled them in the first place, or the Arakan Army, which is engaged in a war of its own. 

Peacebuilding

Protecting and resettling refugees is one of the greatest war-prevention strategies adopted since World War II.  And this is what Bangladesh is indeed contributing to the world.  Withdrawing refugees from a violent situation protects them from attack from both the home country which expelled them, but also a host country like Bangladesh, which may appease domestic constituencies by relabeling the refugees as “illegal immigrants,” and therefore eligible for deportation. Hosting refugees is also a war and massacre prevention strategy—though rarely framed as such.  

But hosting refugees is dangerous. Refugee camps are always near borders, and refugees are always in opposition to the home government which persecuted them.  Refugee camps risk attack by the home country, radicalization of refugee youth, and the militarization of camps for armed groups. 

Providing safe havens to  refugees may prevent war between home and host countries in the short term by permitting a “cooling off” period. Potential combatants include the home country, host country, third countries and the refugees themselves.  But the longer-term presence of refugees also increases chances of war in the long term, perhaps making durable solutions less likely. Examples included the Palestinian refugees in the Middle East (since the 1940s), Afghanistan refugees in Pakistan (since the 1980s) and Rwandans in Congo (after 1994).  Refugee camps are dangerous for the refugee victims, and risk escalation and renewed fighting for all.  Long-term refugee presence can trigger new wars.

Out-of-date doctrine 

Discourse about refugees is typically embedded in a legalistic rights-based doctrine in which rights are asserted, and fault assigned.  But this oversimplifies the political, social, and even military nature of refugee situations.  In the big picture, refugees are a tragic by-product of the modern state system which insists on borders, citizenship papers and an “us-them” dichotomy. There is a pretense that such a distinction is natural, and that humans are divisible into different species of human beings, each, like bees, with a home territory. But of course this is not natural; such categories have historical and legal origins.  For example, in the case of the Rohingya, rights—and lack of rights–emerged from the detritus of colonialism in British India and British Burma, and were then leveraged by Burmese nationalists who asserted that the Rohingya could not possibly be “us.” Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government insists legalistically that Rohingya were from Myanmar and certainly not Bangladeshi.  As for the Rohingya, like refugees everywhere, they were not really consulted in the legal maneuvering which involves a game of musical chairs between Myanmar and Bangladesh in which the refugees always lose. So, the next thing you know Rakhine is ethnically cleansed of Rohingya, and a million people face an indefinite stateless status in Cox’s Bazar.

Sitting at the center of the fight over refugee rights is the UNHCR.  The UNHCR is a calming presence at the beginning of a crisis, because they offer potential sanctuary from on-going fighting.  But when the UNHCR’s repatriation doctrine kicks in, resettlement in the host country and transfer to a third country are moved off the table for most refugees, and there is an insistence that the refugees go “home.” This is irrespective of the volatility of that home.  Still host countries prefer the repatriation dogma because it appeases domestic constituencies and pretends long-term commitments can be evaded. Thus, Bangladesh assured citizens that the Rohingya foreigners will only stay temporarily and then return to Myanmar. This is what Bangladesh seemingly did after 1978, and 1991-1992.  But as perhaps only the Rohingya themselves remember, this repatriation policy failed in the long run, at great cost, which is why the Rohingya are still in Bangladesh today, sitting in vulnerable refugee camps, rather than returning to Rakhine.  For what it is worth, this is the same question Germany’s few surviving Jews wondered about after they were rescued from Nazi death camps in 1945.  Few returned to Germany—most went to Israel (where ironically they displaced Palestinians, many of whom are still refugees), or one of the victorious Allied countries.

Admittedly, providing such resettlement opportunities is not a “just” solution; after all Myanmar’s generals are getting away with ethnic cleansing. Rather, at least for now, it is a best-case scenario. Sometimes, in the medium term the durable and just solution is having refugees move to a place where they can rebuild their lives in peace whether in Myanmar, Bangladesh, or elsewhere. The point is to close the temporary refugee camps. A just solution also may include an international recognition of a right of return to a future peaceful Myanmar, for those displaced from Rakhine.  Oddly enough, this right was exercised by the current Bangladeshi prime minister herself after she was a refugee in the 1980s in India.

Importance of refugee policy

Of course, Bangladesh in its own way is right; the country is accepting a burden by welcoming refugees on behalf of the rest of the world, due to an accident of geography. Hopefully Bangladesh continues to provide haven; in the short term even lowland camps in a “typhoon alley” are better than returning to the unsettled territory of your nervous enemies.  

But the real challenge for Bangladesh, the UNHCR, and the refugees themselves is still to close the Rohingya camps as soon as possible.  No one wants the “temporary” camps in Cox’s Bazar to become more permanent.  But the truth is, the international community and Bangladesh have no good quick solution to the “Rohingya Problem.” So policies instead need to also identify “least bad” alternatives.  Settlement in Bangladesh and elsewhere are among the “least bad” alternatives, especially when return to Rakhine risks more war, and the status quo means radicalization of refugee youth in that ever risky “typhoon alley.”

Dramatic examples of how long-term refugee situations go wrong include the stateless Palestinian refugees pushed out of what is now Israel in 1948, and who continue to be spread across the Middle East; Afghan refugees in Pakistan; and Somalis in Kenya.  Less dramatic but more successful examples come to mind only slowly. After all, successful integration does not make headlines.  Successfully resolved refugee flights include Syrians in Germany after 2015, Burundians in Tanzania after 1972, Indochinese in Southeast Asia after 1975, and post-World War II refugees, including Jewish victims of the Holocaust, who spread across the world.  

What will ultimately happen to the Rohingya refugees themselves will be responsive to the policies of outsiders, especially that of Myanmar but also the UNHCR, Bangladesh and others.  These policies will not emerge from the vagueness of the UNHCR’s repatriation doctrine, but the sacrifices the international community takes on behalf of the least powerful, and most vulnerable.

Tony Waters is Professor of Sociology at Payap University, and Director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Chiangmai. He works with Burmese, Karen and other students in the university’s PhD program in Peacebuilding. He is the author of academic books and articles about refugee relief and development such as Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan, and an occasional contributor to The Irrawaddy. He can be reached at [email protected]

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