Humanitarian Bangladesh must not turn inhuman

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Rohingya refugee. File PhotoWhen one million Rohingyas, faced with ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, fled across the border to escape the genocide, Bangladesh readily offered them shelter despite its own inadequacies. Over the past two years Bangladesh has been lauded globally for this humanitarian gesture. But certain measures taken over the recent past are now serving to cast a shadow on that positive image. Bangladesh and the Rohingya issue have come to the limelight again in the global media, but not in a very flattering manner.

The headlines in the media are highlighting the Bangladesh government’s directives to halt mobile phone services in the Rohingya refugee camps. Along with that is the foreign minister’s threat to the UN to leave the country if they do not support the government’s initiative to relocate the Rohingyas to Bhashanchar. He made this threat recently while talking to the German radio Deutsche Welle.

The media has also pointed to other issues pertaining to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, such as halting the work of certain NGOs in the refugee camps, a number of anti-Rohingya rallies, and the tendency to blame the all Rohingyas for drug trade and human trafficking. The media has also reported a few Rohingyas being shot dead on suspicion of being involved in criminal activities.

The Wall Street Journal has said the Bangladesh government claims that they are halting the mobile phone service in the refugee camps to keep crime under control. However, WSJ correspondent Jon Emont wrote that the rights activists say this will simply isolate the refugees more. They depend on the mobile service to keep in touch with their families back home. (Bangladesh Cuts Mobile Access to Rohingya Refugees, 3 September 2019, Wall Street Journal)

The New York Times has said that while the Myanmar authorities deny committing any brutality and have not committed to halting any possible persecution, the Bangladesh government is in a hurry to send the Rohingyas back. Correspondent Hannah Beech wrote while Bangladesh extended a welcome to the huge traumatised population of Rohingyas, the government declined to categorise them as refugees as that also brings forward the question of various rights to be granted to them. (A Million Refugees May Soon Lose their Line to the Outside World, 5 September 2019, The New York Times)

The newspaper mentioned that during the night and early morning the camps have no mobile phone connections. As there is curfew imposed at night, no volunteers can even enter if there is any danger.

The Guardian said that while the Bangladesh government has said that restrictions have been imposed on the use of mobile phones in the camps to prevent the drug trade and other crimes, it is speculated that the communications crackdown is linked to the non-violent rallies in the camp on 25 August, the second anniversary of the forced disappearance of the Rohingya people from Myanmar after military brutalities against them there. (Bangladesh Imposes Mobile Phone Blackout in Rohingya Refugee Camps, 5 September 2019)

The Economist has said that isolating the Rohingyas further is not a solution (No Signal: Bangladesh Bans Mobile Phones for One Million Rohingya Refugees). Not being able to move out of the cramped camps, mobile phones were the only way for the refugees to communicate with the outside world. Quoting a UN official, the Economist wrote that the oppressed population are being further isolated and pushed towards more suffering. He feared this would push them towards negative activities, even militancy.

It is natural for the government to be frustrated at the diplomatic failure in the repatriation process. But if this leads to unrest among the policymakers, this is bound to leak out to the outside world. This is reflected in the reaction to the ban on mobile phone services. The government’s treatment of the NGOs too is a manifestation of its restiveness. The NGOs and international relief workers are not only serving the refugees, but are also trying to help the local host population.

Recovering agricultural implements like spades and trowels and identifying these as weapons is ridiculous. Then brining allegations against the NGOs also causes concern among the relief workers. The government bureaucrats do not have the expertise or the experience of these relief workers to help out such huge numbers of vulnerable persons. It is because of the UN organisations and the NGOs that there were no serious disease outbreaks or accidents during the last two monsoons.

This unrest within the government has affected the administration, activists and supporters of the ruling party and even some media outlets. This has caused irresponsible statements and reports, spreading hatred. There have been attempts to create alarm over the 25 August Rohingya rally, though no one at the rally had demanded Bangladesh citizenship or even permanent residency. They expressed their gratitude towards the people of Bangladesh. Their demands were for justice concerning the genocide, for citizenship and citizens’ rights, for repatriation with dignity.

If these Rohingyas are being accused of trading in drugs and human trafficking, can they do so without help from local people? It is hard to imagine them doing so without the help of the drug dons who have been on the government’s lists for long. Measures must first be taken against the drug dons who are conducting the trade with political protection.

It is meaningless to belittle the Rohingyas, threaten them or forcefully send them back. Over the past two years it has been useless trying to get China or India to mediate a solution. Wasting further time is suicidal.

It has taken two years to understand that international crises cannot be solved on a bilateral basis. It would now be most unfortunate if further confusion is created by trying for third party mediation. Help should be taken from the global community while it is still sympathetic.

The Rohingyas want to return and we want them to return too. But they must be recognised as citizens of Myanmar and their security must be ensured. That is where the focus must be placed. If not, Bangladesh’s reputation as a humanitarian country will rapidly diminish.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist.
*This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir

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