Thursday May 23, 2024 07:01 pm

REPATRIATION OF ROHINGYA FROM BANGLADESH: IS IT A FAR CRY?

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🕐 2023-05-13 13:56:12

REPATRIATION OF ROHINGYA FROM BANGLADESH: IS IT A FAR CRY?


Major General M Ashab Uddin (Retd)


Introduction
Rohingyas, the most marginalized majority Muslim community of Myanmar have been making headlines since 2017. The distressed and officially stateless people have suffered from the most horrific atrocities and human rights abuse from who they thought to be their own government. Almost a million Rohingyas have fled violence that took place in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. The atrocity is referred by UN as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Bangladesh is now faced with the burden of more than one million Forcibly Displaced Myanmar National (FDMN); mostly from Rohingya Muslim community.  The initial influx of Rohingya to Bangladesh dates back to 1978, with a large arrival in 1991-1992. However, a systematic persecution in 2017 forcibly displaced a mass exodus of more than 700,000 FDMN people to Bangladesh.
Accordingly, the vast FDMN population has become a matter of great concern and worry for the Bangladesh government. The conditions in the FDMN Camps are appalling, raising the possibility of an epidemic, environmental hazards and a spike in crime, including rape, murder, abduction and drug, human trafficking. Therefore, to bring normalcy back to the lives of the FDMN population, a repatriation process from Bangladesh to Myanmar, must be initiated and implemented. In addition, effective measures in regional and international arena can also significantly contribute to the stabilization of the ongoing situation of the FDMN Camps. 
It is intended to highlight the current security situation, social and environmental imbalance prevailing in FDMN Camps. Thereafter, it will identify the challenges to mitigate the ongoing situation. Finally, it will recommend the ways forward for a peaceful repatriation of this FDMN population to Myanmar and future strategies for Bangladesh in absence of an organized or a forceful repatriation to Myanmar. It will include the possible roadmap for a peaceful repatriation of FDMNs to Myanmar and future strategies of Bangladesh in view of ongoing insecurity and imbalance in FDMN Camps.

Current Situation in FDMN Camps
The FDMN crisis poses security threats and challenges on the full spectrum of the national, regional and international security landscape. The security situation ranges from human or non-traditional security encompassing transnational security, internal security, militancy and terrorism, border security etc:
Human Trafficking. FDMN Camps are the hub of human trafficking due to their statelessness and desperate determination for a better life. FDMNs are easily exploited by the human smugglers and traffickers as it is a profitable business and does not require any passport or visa. As such, various international human trafficking groups are also actively looking at this situation to exploit the vulnerability of these people. Traffickers prey on these individuals, offering false promises of a better life elsewhere. It is to note that many FDMN families have arrived in Bangladesh without any male family members. Therefore, these young women and children are easily falling victim to the trafficking groups and ending up in international markets for prostitution and slave labour.
Drug Trafficking. The geographical proximity of the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent makes Cox’s Bazar; in particular the FDMN Camps an attractive route for drug smuggling. The international groups are exploiting FDMN as couriers for the drugs and small arms smuggling. The criminals and terrorist groups may eventually pose a threat to the internal security of Bangladesh, as more drug cartels and criminal gangs would mushroom near the border areas. Increase in illegal drug trafficking will certainly increase the number of drug addicts which is likely to affect the youths of Bangladesh. 
Armed Militancy and Terrorism. The FDMNs are easy targets for recruitment by Islamic fundamentalists groups and other criminal networks. The stateless and frustrated FDMNs are prone to radicalization as they can be easily motivated with very little money and by exploiting their religious connection. There are many FDMN militant groups namely Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Rohingya National Alliance (RNA) and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which are involved in armed insurgency in Myanmar. These groups have members, supporters and sympathizers within the FDMNs and illegal migrants in Bangladesh. In this regard, the FDMN camps are acting as fertile ground for recruitment of these groups. The members of these groups are frequently trespassing inside Myanmar to bring weapons, ammunitions, drugs etc. 
Arms Trade.  FDMNs are being involved in illegal arms trades. Many of them are carrying those illegal arms to the criminals across the border in exchange of money. They are exploited to do such activities as they need livelihood for survival.
Effects on Internal Security. The massive exodus of FDMN people is altering the internal security scenario of Bangladesh. The camps are overcrowded and have limited security infrastructure, which makes them vulnerable to violence and crime. There have been reports of theft, assault, and rape in the camps. 
Social Instability. Influx of FDMNs has greatly affected the socio-economic sectors. Involvement in heinous activities including robbery, plunder, rape and polygamy is posing a serious threat to the social life of entire region. The social vices in the FDMN community: commercial sexual exploitation, fake marriages, fake proposal of work, and the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STI) also threaten the local social life.  It is to note that, more than 5 thousand FDMN ladies are active prostitutes working in different hotels of Cox’s Bazar Area. 
Border Security. The FDMN crisis is making the border of Bangladesh vulnerable and unstable. There has been number of violation of the airspace of Bangladesh by the Myanmar Air Force in the last few years since the arrival of FDMNs. This is not conducive for the border security and stability. It is impossible to completely seal off the border due to the porous nature of the Bangladesh-Myanmar boundary. Thus the instability and violence in Rakhine State, especially activities of terror groups with linkages to the FDMN  is posing great threat to Bangladesh’s border security. This instability at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border are giving rise to the emergence of non-state actors and thus complicating the internal security of the states.
Part of the Rohingyas who have taken refuge in Bangladesh.

Threat to National Economy. FDMN crisis imposes quite a heavy burden on Bangladeshi economy and scant resources. Moreover, the FDMNs are a source of very cheap labour and snatching away the labour market from the Bangladeshi labours. Besides, many of them managed to travel abroad giving false identity as Bangladeshi and have involved themselves in various criminal activities. Thus, they are tarnishing the image of Bangladesh in the international job market and as a result damaging to the country’s economic stability. 
Fire Hazard Incidents in FDMN Camps. The FDMN Camps are made up of makeshift shelters, which are often constructed from flammable materials. Fires can quickly spread through the camps, causing extensive damage and putting lives at risk. Accordingly, a large number of fire incidents occasionally take place in the FDMN Camps. Total 222 fire incident were reported from 01 January 2021 to 01 October 2022. Among these, 99 accidental fire incidents, 60 sabotage incidents and 63 due to unknown reasons were reported.
Demographic Imbalance. Demography of south-eastern area of Bangladesh is threatened and almost undergoing a total change with the influx of FDMNs. The FDMNs have a very high rate of growth (4.3%). They produce more children for getting more facilities from UNHCR and different NGOs, thus causing demographic change in the Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar area. Against 0.4 million host people, there are presently 1.1 million FDMNs living in the FDMN camps. Accordingly, a lot of changes have taken place in the overall demographic texture of the area.
The Health Insecurity. The FDMN camps are prone to outbreaks of disease due to poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. These are leading to widespread illness and death, particularly among vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. Any contagious diseases that rely on the human host have the potential to become an epidemic as refugees are living in densely packed camps. Many of the FDMN have carried a number of diseases, including tuberculosis, skin diseases and HIV/AIDS etc. The severe lack of safe drinking water is also contributing to diarrhoea and cholera that is spreading to the local population. FDMNs are also vulnerable to various Pandemics like HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and so on. Till date 612 HIV positive cases have been diagnosed in Cox’s Bazar area. Amongst these people total 61 FDMNs died in HIV.
Increasing Birth Rate. The birth rate in the FDMN Camps is considerably high. The unaware FDMN population are giving birth to a large numbers contributing to a surge in the overall FDMN population. In last 5 years, more than 1.5 lac babies were born in FDMN Camps. It is note that around 35000 babies are born every year in FDMN Camps at the rate of 3.19%. Accordingly, by the year 2025, total FDMN population may rise to 1.3-1.5 million The estimated FDMN population by the end of 2025 will be approx 12,40,000.
Food Insecurity. There is gross food insecurity within the FDMN Camps. This has resulted in malnutrition and allied problems of food insecurity within them. The international organizations have also started to decline in providing aid to these large groups of people for such a long period of time.
Ecological Imbalance. The FDMNs are adding extra pressure on the existing crisis of the land and forests in the Cox’s Bazar region. Bangladesh has lost considerable area of reserve forest for providing land to the refugees for construction of their shelter. As such there has been widespread deforestation, causing severe land degradation of the locality. Bangladesh is already vulnerable to a new threat from human-induced degradation of the environment that can have a long-term impact on its environmental security. Total Forest Area in Cox’s Bazar (2016) was 2,092,016 acres. Due to FDMN influx, initial loss of forest area was 3,500 acres, which is equivalent to 1.67% loss in Cox’s bazar forest area and 0.05% loss in total national forest area. The value of forest land occupied by the FDMNs has been estimated to be BDT 500 crore. It is to note that, total 9500 acres of deforestation took place since the arrival of FDMNs in Bangladesh. 

Challenges to Manage the Security Situation and Peaceful Repatriation
Absence of Special Tribunal System. FDMNs are living in Camps under the parameter of existing criminal justice proceedings of Bangladesh. Accordingly, the local justice system of our country is being protracted and a huge pressure is being created on the overall law and justice proceedings of Bangladesh. These convicted criminals are getting released in the loophole of this protracted justice system and again getting involved in various criminal activities. Accordingly, there is no improvement in the law and order situation in FDMN Camps.
The Ratio between FDMNs (one million) and Deployed Members of Law Enforcing Agencies
The number of FDMN compared to the number of law enforcement agencies in FDMN Camps is very low. There is an estimated 1.1 million FDMN living in the Camps. To ensure the law enforcing affairs and security of this large group of FDMNs, there are only three Armed Police Battalion and one company Ansar totalling approximately 2000 personnel deployed in FDMN Camps. It’s worth noting that management in FDMN Camps involves not only law enforcement but also distribution of humanitarian aid and ensuring human rights. Presently, elements of Army is deployed as Quick Reaction Force. As such, it is very difficult for this small group of personnel to maintain the security of these camps.
Unwillingness of FDMNs to Relocate to Vashan Char. The FDMN population prefers to live in the cramped and squalid refugee camps of Ukhia, rather than living in a potentially better-sheltered and relatively more comfortable facility on Bhasan Char. Most FDMN refugees are unwilling to relocate there as they fear death by starvation, floods and a lack of humanitarian aid. The unwillingness of the FDMNs to relocate is delaying the relocation plan to Bashan Char.
Lack of Initiative from Myanmar for Peaceful Repatriation. Despite huge international pressure and calls for action, the Myanmar government is showing a lack of initiative in repatriating the FDMN. They are not taking concrete steps to address the root causes of the crisis and failing to create conditions conducive to the safe and voluntary return of the FDMNs. In recent years, the Myanmar government has made some efforts to address the issue, including signing a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh in 2018 and sending a 22 member delegation to FDMN Camps on 15 March 2023. However, progress on implementing the agreement has been slow, with only a small number of FDMN returning to Myanmar in last 5 years. In addition, there is not adequate support for those who have returned to Myanmar, including access to basic services and protection from violence.
Lack of Direct Support from World Super Powers. The world super powers like Russia and China are not showing any initiative and support for the repatriation of FDMNs to Myanmar. It is to note that both the countries have historically maintained close ties with Myanmar’s military government. In November 2017, China proposed a “three-stage plan” for resolving the crisis, which involved a ceasefire, dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and a long-term solution to address the root causes of the conflict. However, they have not directly supported the repatriation of FDMNs to Myanmar. In addition, China and Russia have vetoed number of UN Security council resolution against Myanmar military government.  The junta officials continue to visit these countries and exchange in arms trade between them. These factors are resulting in reluctance of Myanmar in solving the crisis.
Lack of Interest of FDMNs to Repatriate inside Myanmar. Most of the FDMNs are unwilling to go back to Myanmar till they have guaranteed peace, equal rights including being able to work and travel freely. Many people specially women, were deeply traumatized by their experiences, including rape and killing, deeply fear returning to Myanmar and facing the same consequences again.
Rohingya crisis: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina calls on Myanmar to end violence during visit to refugee camps. (File photo)

Ways Forward in order to Mitigate the FDMN Crisis
Peaceful Repatriation. The only solution of the FDMN crisis is peaceful repatriation. But the repatriation of FDMN to Myanmar requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of the crisis, ensures the safety and dignity of the refugees and involves the cooperation of both the Myanmar government and the international community. Few of the ways forward to repatriate FDMNs to Myanmar are enumerated below:
Address the Root causes of the Crisis. The FDMN crisis is rooted in long-standing discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Any effort to repatriate the refugees must address these underlying issues, including the need for citizenship, amendment of 1982 Citizenship Law and equal rights for them.
Ensure the safety and dignity of the FDMNs.  Any repatriation process must prioritize the safety and dignity of the refugees. This includes ensuring that FDMN are not subjected to violence, discrimination or forced return, and that they have access to basic services such as healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities once they return to Myanmar.
Involve the International Community. The repatriation process should involve the cooperation and support of the international community, including the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. International organizations can help to monitor the repatriation process, ensure the safety and well-being of the returning Rohingyas and provide assistance to the returnees.
Engage the Myanmar Government: The Myanmar government must be an active partner in the repatriation process. This includes providing assurances of the safety and well-being of the returnees, allowing independent monitoring of the repatriation process and addressing the root causes of the crisis. It is well understood that only Myanmar can solve this longstanding crisis by either amending or repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law to recognise Rohingyas as an ethnic group of Myanmar. Other discriminatory laws in this regards may also be amended by Myanmar Government. 
Involvement of China, Russia and India: Myanmar has developed a strong relationship with China, Russia and India. These high power nations have re-vitalized their relation with Myanmar due to geo-strategic interest of trade and security due to obvious reasons. A positive and constructive involvement of these countries may speed up peaceful repatriation of FDMNs. 
Develop a Comprehensive Repatriation Plan: A comprehensive plan for repatriation should be developed, which includes a clear timeline, criteria for return, and measures to ensure the safety and well-being of the refugees. The plan should also include provisions for monitoring and evaluation of the repatriation process, and for addressing any challenges that may arise.
Introduction of a Separate Tribunal System and Establishment of Correctional Centre for FDMNs:  A special tribunal system may be established in the FDMN Camps with the introduction of separate laws and criminal proceedings for FDMNs. Furthermore, correctional centres can be established in the crime prone areas in FDMN Camps.
Strict Control Over Drug and Human Trafficking:  The ministries/ departments of governments, law enforcing agencies should work concurrently in order to control the drug and human trafficking from FDMN Camps. In this case, BGB, Coast Guard, RAB, Bangladesh Police and Narcotics Control Board should take effective control measures to curb drug smuggling and human trafficking.
Effective Employment of FDMNs to Contribute in National Economy:  The crime tendency among the FDMN community can be reduced to a great extent by employing them in various jobs. In this case, RMG Sector can be a potential area of their recruitment. Domestic and foreign entrepreneurs can set up RMG factories in Ukhia area under the brand name ‘FDMN’. In these factories FDMNs can be employed in low wages under the slogan “We want to go back to Myanmar’. Thereby these large number of unemployed FDMNs population can play an important role in the country’s economy as well as their own income. In addition, around 51% of the FDMN population are women, who are currently involved in various criminal activities in Cox’s Bazar Area. As such, the number of crimes in FDMN Camps can be reduced to a great extent by properly employing this large female population in RMG Sector and other jobs. Furthermore, the youth population of the FDMN community can be transformed into skilled human resources by imparting vocational training to them.
Future Strategies   In absence of an organized or forceful repatriation of FDMNs; Bangladesh has to live with this crisis and engage the community effectively to the best of each other’s benefits involving all stakeholders. In that case, our future strategies can be:
Visible identification marks and instilling microchips in their bodies for acquiring all associated facilities in Camps can be one of the plausible measures to logically integrate them in the system for monitoring their movement and prevent easy mingling with the host community.
A focused approach is required to create strong FDMN Diaspora around the world based on a perspective plan. It will include education of the selected FDMNs at different tiers including renowned universities and leadership education to potential male and female leaders.
Women form 51% of the total FDMN population. Effective engagement of these ladies will reduce social crime and birth rate.
Vocational training for the men and youths may be arranged to effectively engage and turn them into skilled manpower.
Group or individual migration to other countries must be encouraged and all other countries must be requested through UN to allow quota for Job opportunity for the skilled or unskilled FDMNs. 
Endeavour to instill nationalism and racial pride as a FDMN among the FDMNs.
International Court of Justice (ICJ) to be proactive and identify the perpetrators for Justice.

Conclusion
The Rohingya refugee problem is a creation of the Myanmar ruling Junta; it was created by denying their citizenship rights which are inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by enacting discriminatory laws. The Rohingyas settled in Arakan (Rakhain) long before the British occupation of the country. In fact Rohingyas had entered Arakan from time immemorial and their community is as much as integral part of Myanmar as any other ethnic group.
Bangladesh has been suffering from the FDMN crisis since long. As such there has been widespread upsurge of law and order instability, social and human insecurity and ecological imbalance in the region and entire country. But past experiences of FDMN exodus in Bangladesh and in other countries, as well as the ongoing political impasse at the global and regional level, indicate that this crisis is likely to be persistent for some more years. The resources for FDMNs are scarce now. It is not possible for Bangladesh to carry such huge responsibility. At this backdrop, the well-concerted effort by all the stakeholders should be orchestrated for the crisis resolution. Myanmar’s atrocity can only be answered by ensuring the safe return of FDMN to their homes, by holding concerned authorities accountable for such heinous crime against humanity and by bringing them to justice. But, in absence of an organized repatriation to Myanmar, Bangladesh should engage itself in various national strategies to transform these huge FDMN population into skilled human resources.

Major General M Ashab Uddin, ndc, psc (Retd) was General Officer Commanding of Savar & Chottrogram Area. He was also an Ambassador of Bangladesh to State of Kuwait and Yemen.