“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Rohingya Seeking Refuge in Bangladesh” by Su-Ann Oh

2017/54, 5 September 2017

The maelstrom of militant attacks, civilian reprisals and government security crackdowns in western Rakhine, Myanmar has brought about another surge of Rohingya arrivals, or Bengalis as the local population calls them, in Bangladesh. It has been reported that almost 90 000 have crossed into Bangladesh, with between 18 000 and 28 000 having been permitted entry; the rest were turned away. Some have returned to Bangladesh despite being refused entry, and/or are squatting in an area beyond the boundary guarded by Bangladesh’s Border Guard.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees from Rakhine State since the late 1970s, all the while maintaining that its assistance is temporary and encouraging their immediate return to Myanmar. Over the years, waves of Rohingya and other refugees from Myanmar have crossed the Naf River into Bangladesh in search of sanctuary as a result of Myanmar state prosecution of those they perceive to be ‘illegal entrants’; state-sponsored structural violence including forced relocation, restrictions on the right to movement and land confiscation among others; and intercommunal violence.

Bangladesh’s policy on the refugees has focused on 1) limiting the number of refugees registered by the UNHCR, 2) labelling unregistered refugees as ‘economic migrants’, 3) forcibly repatriating them to Myanmar and 4) conducting push-backs and denying entry in recent years.

The present group of refugees who have entered Bangladesh has set up unofficial camps, but their future remains precarious. If they are allowed to stay in Bangladesh, they will probably join the estimated 200 000 to 500 000 Rohingya who are labelled ‘economic migrants’ by the Bangladesh government. This group lives in unofficial camps and among local communities, hidden from the authorities and is vulnerable to eviction and deportation by security forces.

Only 33 000 refugees are registered with the UNHCR and sheltered in two UNHCR refugee camps. While life in the camps is basic, being registered does provide them with access to rations and the very slim possibility of being resettled in a different country. It is unlikely that the present group of refugees will be registered with the UNHCR as the Bangladesh government does not permit the UNHCR to register anymore Myanmar individuals. Nevertheless, all the refugees are wracked with the fear that they will be forcibly repatriated to Myanmar, as was the case in 1993.

For those refugees who have been refused entry to Bangladesh, the future is grim. Many have managed to get into Bangladesh but there are others who remain on the periphery of Bangladesh’s border. It was reported that Myanmar soldiers opened fire on these civilians as they attempted to cross into Bangladesh. The refugees stand between Scylla and Charybdis.

Given that the conflagaration in Rakhine State will take months, if not years to resolve, the likelihood that more Rohingya will flee from their homes or the camps they have been interned in is high. With Bangladesh refusing entry to many asylum seekers, it is highly likely that the refugees will seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries, including those in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian countries need to rethink their current ad hoc refugee policy to provide systematic and comprehensive protection to refugees, so as to avert further contretemps such as the 2015 Rohingya refugee boat crisis.

Dr Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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