“Abuses by police in the Cox’s Bazar camps have left Rohingya refugees suffering at the hands of the very forces who are supposed to protect them…”
– Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
1. Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group of ethnic origin who follow a Sufi-influenced version of Sunni Islam. Approximately 3.5 million Rohingya are living across the world, with the majority residing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State until August 2017. The Rohingya differ from Myanmar’s predominant Buddhist groups in terms of their ethnicity, language, and religion.
The Rohingya trace their historical roots in the region to the fifteenth century, when a large number of Muslims migrated to the former Arakan Kingdom. Many others arrived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under British colonial rule in India. However, since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the country’s governments have repeatedly denied the Rohingya’s historical claims and refused to recognize them as one of the 135 official ethnic groups of Myanmar. Instead, the Rohingya are deemed illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries.
Both the central government and the Rakhine, the dominant ethnic Buddhist group in the Rakhine State, refuse to acknowledge the term “Rohingya” as a self-identifying label. Experts suggest that the term emerged in the 1950s to provide the group with a collective political identity. The etymology of the word “Rohingya” is debated, but the most widely accepted theory is that it originates from the Rohingya dialect, with “Rohang” being derived from “Arakan,” and “ga” or “gya” meaning “from.” By identifying as Rohingya, the Muslim group asserts its historical ties to the land once controlled by the Arakan Kingdom.
2. What is the legal status of the Rohingya?
The Rohingya have been denied citizenship by the government, resulting in the majority of the group’s members lacking legal documentation and being stateless. Myanmar’s citizenship law of 1948 was already discriminatory, and in 1982, the military junta further restricted the Rohingya’s access to full citizenship. Although the Rohingya were able to register as temporary residents with white cards, these provided limited rights and were not recognized as proof of citizenship. In 2014, during a national census, the Rohingya were allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya, but due to pressure from Buddhist nationalists, the government later required them to register as Bengali instead.
In addition, in 2015, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote, the government revoked the temporary identity cards, thereby denying the group the right to vote. Furthermore, in recent years, the government has compelled the Rohingya to carry national verification cards that do not grant them citizenship and effectively identify them as foreigners. Although Myanmar officials have claimed that these cards are a first step towards citizenship, critics argue that they deny the Rohingya their identity and could make it easier for the government to further restrict their rights.
3.What’s caused the exodus?
The government of Myanmar has implemented discriminatory policies against the Rohingya ethnic group, which severely limit their ability to exercise basic human rights. These policies include restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. For instance, Rohingya couples in certain areas are limited to having only two children, (Kashyap, 2013) and individuals must obtain government approval to move to a new location or leave their township. Obtaining permission to marry can also require bribery and adherence to practices that conflicts with Muslim customs, such as providing photographs of the bride without a headscarf and the groom with a clean-shaven face. (Campbell et al., n.d.)
Rakhine State, where many Rohingya reside, has significant economic challenges, with a poverty rate of 78 per cent compared to the national average of 37.5 per cent, as estimated by the World Bank. The lack of economic opportunities, poor infrastructure, and widespread poverty in Rakhine have contributed to tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, exacerbating the already fraught relationship between the Rohingya and the government. These divisions are also fueled by religious differences and have sometimes led to violent conflicts.
In August 2017, clashes erupted in Rakhine, Myanmar, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police and army posts. (Annan, 2017)The Myanmar government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, (ARSA Declared Terrorist Group, 2017)and the military launched a brutal campaign that destroyed numerous Rohingya villages, forcing nearly 700,000 individuals to flee the country. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the initial month of the attacks. Myanmar’s security forces were also accused of opening fire on fleeing civilians and planting land mines near border crossings utilized by Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the violence as ethnic cleansing, with the humanitarian situation reaching catastrophic levels. Rights organizations and other UN leaders have suggested that acts of genocide may have occurred. In September 2018, a UN fact-finding panel released a report stating that the Myanmar government had “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya. The panel’s chair found patterns of abuse by the military, including the systematic targeting of civilians, committing sexual violence, promoting discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and creating a climate of impunity for security forces.
Since early 2018, the Myanmar government has cleared abandoned Rohingya villages and farmland to construct homes, security bases, and infrastructure. Although the government claims that this development is for the repatriation of refugees, human rights activists are concerned that these moves may be intended to accommodate populations other than the Rohingya in Rakhine. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist for girls’ education have spoken out on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, calling attention to the persecution and discrimination faced by the minority group. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has described the situation as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and urged Myanmar’s government to take action to protect the Rohingya people’s rights. Similarly, Malala Yousafzai has called on the international community to take action to help the refugees and has criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, the former leader of Myanmar, for her silence on the issue. Together, their statements highlight the urgency of the situation and the need for swift action to address the ongoing crisis.
Furthermore, some have cast doubt on the government’s tactics as a response to ARSA attacks, as reports indicate that the military had begun implementing its policies almost a year before ARSA struck. Sectarian violence is not new to Rakhine State, as security campaigns in the previous five years, particularly in 2012 and 2016, resulted in tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing their homes.
4. The Bangladesh Question
In August 2017, a large number of Rohingya Muslims fled from their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar, to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. This was the third wave of Rohingya refugees to enter Bangladesh in the last five decades, with previous instances occurring in the late 1970s and early 1990s. The Rohingya community, which has faced religiously motivated violence and discrimination in Myanmar for a considerable period, fled a violent military crackdown following attacks by Rohingya militants on Myanmar police outposts. In March 2022, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared the Myanmar military’s actions against the Rohingya as genocide and crimes against humanity(Lewis & Pamuk, 2022). Despite most Rohingya refugees returning to Myanmar after the previous waves of violence, only a few have done so after the 2017 crackdown, and currently, over 950,000 refugees reside in Bangladesh, primarily in 30 crowded refugee camps. (World’s Largest Refugee Camp: 920,000 Refugees, n.d.)
The Bangladeshi government allowed the Rohingya refugees to enter and continues to shelter them. Various government offices and agencies in Bangladesh, in coordination with international organizations and non-governmental organizations, oversee the refugee camps to ensure safety and provide humanitarian aid. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention protects refugees’ rights and offers them necessary protections based on race, religion, or other identity categories, preventing their punishment for illegal entry, forcing their expulsion against their will, or denying their access to education and work (The 1951 Refugee Convention, n.d.). However, Bangladesh is not a signatory of the Convention (Rahim, 2023).
Although the Bangladeshi government initially allowed the Rohingya refugees into the country, they have since imposed stringent regulations to prevent their social integration. Instead of referring to them as refugees, the government labels them as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” (Arkar, 2018) This may be due to concerns over the significant economic and governance burden that a long-term refugee encampment of this magnitude would impose on Bangladesh. The country has only recently (in November 2021) graduated from the United Nations classification of “least developed country,” and the areas surrounding the refugee camps are mostly underprivileged
The Bangladeshi government’s primary objective in the Rohingya crisis is to repatriate them. However, the government has implemented stringent measures to prevent the social integration of the refugees, including prohibiting intermarriage between Bangladeshis and Rohingya and restricting refugee access to Bangladeshi schools (Bangladesh: New Restrictions on Rohingya Camps, 2022). Recent actions by the government include the installation of barbed wire fencing around encampments, the shutdown of unregistered schools, and the expulsion of humanitarian NGOs for purportedly encouraging refugees to resist repatriation to Myanmar, which the majority of Rohingya consider unsafe under the current Myanmar junta. The government has called for international pressure on Myanmar to ensure the safe, voluntary, and sustained repatriation of the refugees. Even after the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the Bangladeshi government reiterated its intention to continue engaging with the Myanmar junta to repatriate the Rohingya sheltered in Bangladesh.
As attempts to encourage voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar have proven unsuccessful, the Bangladeshi government has intensified its efforts to relocate the refugees to Bhasan Char, a remote island located off the coast of Bangladesh (“An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea”, 2021). Despite concerns raised by human rights organizations about inadequate flood protection and poor infrastructure on Bhasan Char, the government has relocated approximately 30,000 refugees to the island, with plans to relocate a total of 100,000 shortly (Zahed & Rose, 2020). However, the living conditions in both the mainland and offshore camps remain substandard, prompting many Rohingya to attempt to flee Bangladesh by boat to Malaysia, which does not provide shelter to Rohingya refugees. Tragically, dozens of Rohingya have lost their lives at sea while attempting to flee (Das & Paul, 2022). Despite the diminishing prospects for repatriation, the Bangladeshi government has been hesitant to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to ensure the well-being of the refugee population.
This hesitancy can be attributed to a combination of factors, including limited resources, political and international pressure, and security concerns.
One of the primary reasons for the government’s hesitancy is the limited resources available to manage the refugee crisis. Bangladesh is a developing country with limited financial, human, and infrastructural resources. Providing basic services, such as food, shelter, and healthcare to over a million refugees, is a significant challenge, particularly when many of them are living in sub-standard conditions. The government has made efforts to address the crisis, but it faces significant challenges in providing long-term solutions.
According to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Rohingya refugee crisis has stretched Bangladesh’s resources to the limit, and the government is struggling to provide basic services to the refugees. The report also notes that the government has been unable to provide adequate shelter to the refugees, and many of them are living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Another factor that has contributed to the government’s hesitancy is the political and international pressure surrounding the issue. The Rohingya refugee crisis is a politically sensitive topic in Bangladesh, and the government faces pressure from different political groups and stakeholders. For example, the ruling party in Bangladesh, the Awami League, has been accused of using the refugee crisis as a political tool to win support in upcoming elections. In addition, the government has been under pressure from the international community, including the United Nations and various human rights organizations, to ensure the well-being of the refugee population. (Kudrat-E-Khuda (Babu), 2022)
Finally, security concerns have also contributed to the government’s hesitancy. The government is concerned that the refugee camps could become breeding grounds for criminal or terrorist activities, which could further destabilise the region. This concern was highlighted by a recent attack on a Rohingya refugee camp by suspected militants, which left several people dead and many more injured. (Rohingyas’ Camps Becoming Den For Radical Groups, Conflict With Locals Rising: Official, 2022)
As conditions in and around the refugee camps worsen, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the Bangladeshi population. Reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that many Bangladeshis are increasingly concerned about issues such as insecurity, environmental damage, economic costs, and other adverse impacts caused by the presence of the camps. While there have been few instances of violence between Bangladeshi locals and Rohingya refugees, the risk of greater conflict increases as the grievances of the Bangladeshi community go unaddressed.
5. Challenges and mistreatment experienced by Rohingya asylum seekers.
According to the World Report 2023 released by Human Rights Watch, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are facing insurmountable obstacles to a safe and voluntary return to their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine State (Human Rights Watch Highlights Dire Situation of Rohingya in Bangladesh, 2023). The report highlights that Bangladeshi security forces and other authorities subject the Rohingya to threats, extortion, and ill-treatment. The Bangladeshi officials have also imposed new barriers on movement, closed community-led schools, and arbitrarily destroyed shops in the Rohingya refugee camps. Based on the refugees’ claims, the report alleges that the Armed Police Battalion (APB) stationed in the congested makeshift tents is subjecting Rohingya to threats, extortion, arbitrary arrests, and torture (Rashid, 2023).
HRW further notes that despite the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Rohingya refugees are being prevented from returning to mainland camps to reunite with their close relatives. Additionally, while the Bangladeshi government has permitted humanitarian groups to teach the Myanmar curriculum, refugee children have been denied any accredited education.
Since July 2020, the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) has been responsible for security in the Rohingya camps. However, both refugees and humanitarian workers claim that the APBn’s supervision has led to a decline in safety due to an increase in police abuses and criminal activity. There are also allegations from some refugees that suggest APBn officers may be colluding with armed groups and gangs operating within the camps.
In October and November 2022, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with more than 40 Rohingya refugees and examined police reports, uncovering more than 16 instances of severe abuse by APBn officers (Human Rights Watch Accuses Bangladesh Police Unit of ‘Rampant’ Rohingya Abuse, 2023). Among those interviewed were 10 refugees who were detained on fabricated charges related to drug trafficking or violence. Bangladesh security forces have frequently been accused of framing suspects with drugs or weapons. In nearly all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, extortion was involved, with police demanding bribes ranging from 10,000-40,000 taka (US$100-400) to avoid arrest and 50,000-100,000 taka ($500-1,000) for the release of a detained family member (Bangladesh: Rampant Police Abuse of Rohingya Refugees, 2023). This often led families to sell gold jewellery or borrow money to pay bribes or legal fees, with concerns about damage to their reputation being a common concern.
Several refugees were targeted for information they had shared online regarding APBn harassment of Rohingya. For example, Sayed Hossein, a 27-year-old health volunteer and citizen journalist, stated that in July 2022, approximately 30 APBn officers arrived at his house at 10 p.m., confiscated his laptop and flash drive, and handcuffed him. He claimed that they arrested him for posting on social media about an APBn officer who had been harassing innocent Rohingya, and demanded a bribe of 50,000 taka ($500) from him. When his family could not pay the bribe, the officers forcibly photographed him with yaba tablets and took him to the nearby Ukhiya police station.
Numerous Rohingya refugees who have been subjected to harassment and abuse by the APBn are individuals working for non-governmental organizations or as educators. As a result, humanitarian groups have expressed apprehension about the negative influence of such conduct on their personnel and activities. In one instance, an APBn officer confiscated a health volunteer’s work phone and proceeded to download and frame him with photos and videos associated with armed groups, compelling him to pay a bribe of 6,000 takas ($60). These incidents highlight the possibility of adverse repercussions of APBn misconduct on the ability of humanitarian organizations to carry out their critical work.
The actions of the APBn have exacerbated feelings of anxiety and helplessness among the one million Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh. Police brutality has escalated due to increasingly restrictive measures on livelihoods, movement, and education within the camps. This includes frequent harassment at checkpoints and the forced closure of community-run schools and markets. Additionally, the refugees face threats from the presence of armed groups and gangs that are becoming more prominent in the area. In response to a surge in targeted killings by these groups, the APBn launched “Operation Root Out” in late October, leading to the arrests of around 900 Rohingya since mid-2022. However, many refugees claim that corruption within the APBn has allowed criminal activity to thrive, and as a result, individuals not involved in crimes have been caught up in police crackdowns.
In my view, the Rohingya refugee crisis is a severe humanitarian issue that demands immediate attention and action from the international community. The Rohingya people have been subjected to horrific atrocities at the hands of the Myanmar military, and their displacement has created a dire situation that demands immediate action.
While Bangladesh has demonstrated remarkable generosity in hosting the Rohingya refugees, the situation in the refugee camps is becoming increasingly unsustainable. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the camps, combined with the lack of opportunities for refugees to earn a living, have created an extremely challenging environment for the Rohingya people.
Moreover, the lack of a clear path for repatriation, coupled with ongoing security concerns, makes it imperative for the Bangladeshi government to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to ensure the well-being of the refugee population.
As we consider the severity of the Rohingya refugee crisis, we must also acknowledge the unique challenges facing this vulnerable population. The Rohingya people are stateless, and they have been subjected to systematic discrimination and persecution in Myanmar for decades. These factors, combined with the challenges of life in refugee camps, make it crucial that we develop comprehensive and compassionate solutions to support their well-being.
To address this crisis effectively, we must develop a well-structured framework that recognizes the unique challenges facing Rohingya refugees. We must prioritize efforts to improve the living conditions in the camps, provide access to education and job training programs, and facilitate the integration of the Rohingya refugees into wider society.
it is my firm belief that the Rohingya refugee crisis requires urgent attention and action from the international community, including organizations like the United Nations. By working together to develop and implement effective solutions and, ensure that the Rohingya refugees receive the support and assistance they need to rebuild their lives and secure a brighter future. International organisations & governments must prioritize efforts to improve the living conditions in the camps, provide access to education and job training programs, and facilitate the integration of the Rohingya refugees into wider society. Only through a sustained and collaborative effort can we hope to address this humanitarian crisis and support the well-being of this vulnerable population.
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About the author …
Junaid Suhais is a diligent academic writer whose research delves into the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and International Relations, specifically in diplomacy, foreign policy, and cyber security. His aim is to generate insightful and thought-provoking contributions that amplify our comprehension of these crucial areas.
Aside from his academic endeavors, Junaid Suhais is an adept photographer who captures the world’s magnificence and intricacy in a unique and innovative manner. He approaches his writing and photography with modesty and reverence, acknowledging that there is always room for growth and discovery.
Furthermore, Junaid Suhais is an independent journalist who covers diverse topics related to international affairs. He is currently pursuing his academic interests at the prestigious MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.