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Asia’s ‘forgotten’ refugee crisis

The Straits Times
Syed Munir Khasru
February 23, 2024


While the world’s attention is currently gripped by the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, a “forgotten” humanitarian crisis continues to unfold and deepen in Asia: that of the Rohingya, about a million of whom reside in densely packed camps in Bangladesh, grappling with appalling conditions and scant access to basic resources.

For decades, the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have suffered from discrimination. In 2017, a brutal military crackdown led to the mass exodus of over 700,000 of them to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Since then, the situation has deteriorated badly with efforts at repatriation getting nowhere. Now it looks likely to worsen as a result of two recent developments: the escalation in fighting in Myanmar and the growing impatience of host countries, tired of bearing the burden of Rohingya refugees with no political solution in sight.

Unlike the Palestinians, for whom protests in support of their cause have sprouted in various cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the Rohingya are faced instead with dangerously dwindling material and political support as compassion fatigue grows in host countries.

International aid is declining sharply, forcing the United Nations to cut vital food aid in 2023.

On Feb 7, 2024, the Bangladesh government put its foot down and declared that it will no longer accept any more Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

“We will not allow any more Rohingya to enter the country... They have already become a burden for us,” Mr Obaidul Quader, Bangladesh’s Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, told reporters. “International aid has been significantly reduced. How long can we support them?”

Mr Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner based in Cox’s Bazar, noted pointedly that efforts to repatriate the refugees over the past seven years have failed. “Keeping Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh has become a threat to our security, our law and order. It is creating a vulnerable situation for cross-border crime.”

In 2022, in making a plea for greater international action to address the problem, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said: “The protracted stay of the Rohingya in Bangladesh poses enormous challenges to our development aspirations... We have to spend around US$1.22 billion (S$1.6 billion) every year for the Rohingya.” That’s not counting the serious damage done to the environment to accommodate the large number of refugees.

What also worries the authorities in Dhaka currently is the spillover effect as fighting between Myanmar’s rebel forces and the junta regime intensifies. Earlier in February, Bangladesh’s border agency said some Myanmar troops had entered the country during fighting with the Arakan Army in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Last week, at a meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh government resisted appeals by a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take in another 900 Rohingya seeking safety at many points along the border, Nikkei Asia reported.

As the situation in the camps worsens, thousands of Rohingya have taken to fleeing by boat in an attempt to reach Malaysia or Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries. But attitudes in both countries towards the refugees have become less hospitable in recent years. In late 2023, a mob of Indonesian university students stormed a temporary shelter for Rohingya refugees in Banda Aceh, demanding that they be deported.

Earlier narratives of the Rohingya being victims of religious persecution by non-Muslims in Myanmar have faded, replaced instead by hostility towards the outsiders seen as a source of crime and competition for jobs in the informal sector.

Indonesia has stepped up patrols of its waters, promising to crack down on suspected human traffickers it says are involved in the boat arrivals.

Asean has yet to muster a coordinated response to the deepening crisis. Indonesia and Malaysia have yet to ratify the UN refugee convention. Asean’s non-interference policy restricts its ability to influence Myanmar’s military rulers.

Separately, India is home to an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, scattered in places such as Delhi, Jammu and Hyderabad. They face anti-immigrant hatred, Islamophobia and the threat of arbitrary detention or deportation by the state. Vicious social media posts have likened the Rohingya to “cockroaches (that creep) from (the) sink at night” and rats that have to be exterminated like poison.

Can anything be done given the growing precarity of the Rohingya refugee situation in Asia?

China, which has close ties with both Myanmar and Bangladesh, has been emphasising the need for all parties to collectively address the Rohingya issue. In a series of tripartite meetings involving Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China, discussions have centred on expediting the Rohingya repatriation process. In reality, very little progress has been made as the Rohingya refuse to return until their safe and dignified return is guaranteed, which remains a far cry under the current circumstances.

Rohingya refugees living in 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar make up the world’s largest refugee settlement. It is also literally a growing problem – as Sheikh Hasina noted in 2022, 30,000 babies are born in the camps every year. Living conditions in the densely populated camps are desperate, particularly for women and children who are vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and human trafficking.

The outlook grows more dire each passing year without a lasting solution.

The Rohingya story is a human tragedy that is entangled in a complex web wrought by history and the politics of regional players. Unlike the Gaza conflict, it grinds on relentlessly, mostly out of sight of the cameras. But it would be a mistake to think that it is always somebody else’s problem. The resulting criminality, radicalisation and extremism could come to haunt those who either have turned a blind eye to or chose to do nothing about this growing humanitarian crisis. The clock is ticking.

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