Bangladesh’s Right of Refusal

By DAN MORRISON

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The Rohingyas of Myanmar would seem to be a most impolite people. They refuse to die.

A population of Muslims descended from Burmese Buddhists, ethnic Bengalis and Arab seafarers, the Rohingyas are despised and violated in their homeland and often rejected when they seek refuge elsewhere.

Since last week, Bangladeshi authorities have turned back boats carrying more than 800 Rohingyas who were fleeing attacks by members of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Bangladesh, which already plays unwilling host to an estimated 300,000 Rohingyas, hasn’t been swayed by pleas from Washington and other governments to let new arrivals in.

A Bangladeshi border guard on patrol by the Naf River, where Rohingyas from Myanmar commonly try to enter the country by boat.Andrew Biraj/ReutersA Bangladeshi border guard on patrol by the Naf River, where Rohingyas from Myanmar commonly try to enter the country by boat.

Bangladesh’s refusal to help these desperate families is, despite its claims to the contrary, a likely violation of its international obligations.

It’s also entirely reasonable.

To date, Bangladesh has justified the denial of sanctuary through cold, legalistic claims. “Bangladesh never signed any kind of international act, convention or law for allowing and giving shelter to refugees,” the foreign minister, Dipu Moni, said last week. “That’s why we are not bound to provide shelter to the Rohingyas.”

Bangladeshi officials might serve their case better by condemning the violence while pointing out that Bangladesh is among the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, that in 1978 and 1991 it sheltered Rohingyas fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and that as it struggles to meet the aspirations of its 160 million citizens, it cannot consider another “temporary” influx of refugees.

Instead Moni’s statements came across as callous at a time when images of suffering Rohingyas are being flashed across the world.

Rohingyas face a deep well of hatred [paid content] within Myanmar, where nation-building has often meant cutting segments of the population out of the civic fabric. While some ethnic groups are granted a form of partial citizenship, the country’s 800,000 Rohingyas lost theirs in Myanmar’s 1982 constitution. They are officially stateless.

A Rohingya girl in the town of Sittwe, Myanmar.Damir Sagolj/ReutersA Rohingya girl in the town of Sittwe, Myanmar.

The situation is little better across the border in Bangladesh’s Chittagong district. The 300,000 Rohingyas who live there are treated like the lowest of the low. All but 10 percent are prevented from receiving humanitarian aid. Those who can find work toil for little pay; their wives and daughters are preyed upon. Recently a friend of mine, a senior Bangladeshi journalist, confronted a local councilor who’d been accused of raping Rohingyas with impunity. “He denied it, but then said it was perfectly O.K. for any Bangladeshi to rape Rohingya women,” my friend recalled.

It’s a shame to think that many Burmese, who suffered for so long under military dictatorship, harbor such racism. Even the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided supporting Rohingyas.

And it’s a pity that Bangladesh, itself born in 1971 amid a massive refugee crisis, should be so unwilling to help.

So what to do?

Bangladesh should receive new refugees with the ironclad understanding that they will be sent home after a brief respite. If Myanmar won’t take back its own people, then a wealthy third-party state should take them in.

Bangladesh has ample problems of its own. It shouldn’t bear the burden of another country’s hatred.

Source: NYTimes

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