The recent outbursts of violence that took place in May and June 2012 in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have shed the light on the plight of the Rohingyas, a Muslim people who suffer from religious and ethnic persecution in their country. As a result, according to different sources from human right agencies, ten thousand people were internally displaced within Myanmar, and other hundreds travelled by boat on the Naf River to migrate to Bangladesh, creating what is now regarded as a refugee crisis.
Growing international attention has been given to the management of this crisis from both Bangladesh and Myanmar sides. Indeed, on July 12, Burmese President Thein Sein suggested that Myanmar could end the crisis by expelling all of its Rohingyas (who have been stripped of their Burmese nationality and are considered as stateless) or by having the United Nations resettle them — a proposal that UN officials quickly rejected. The media coverage focused on the unwillingness of the government of Bangladesh to welcome these new refugees and respond to this humanitarian crisis.
Yet what seems to be a new crisis is actually a long standing issue that lies on different waves of movement of population from the Rakhine state to Bangladesh that started at least forty years ago. Hence, the focus should not only be on how to mitigate the flux of migration from Myanmar but on how to better address the needs of those who have already been in Bangladesh for decades.
A crisis that dates back to the 1970s
In 1970, a first wave of people from the North Rakhine State (NRS) of Myanmar, known as Rohingyas, took refuge in Southeast Bangladesh following religious and ethnic persecution. Most of them ended up being repatriated to Burma.
From late 1991 to early 1992, some 250,000 Rohingyas crossed the border again, seeking asylum. 26,311 have been recognized as prima facie (ie. self-evident) refugees by the government of Bangladesh and live in official camps near the town of Cox’s Bazaar under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Despite controversial repatriation operations, an estimated 220,000 other unrecognized Rohingyas have settled in Bangladesh, mainly in Chittagong District, located in the south-eastern region of Bangladesh. The exact number of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh is however still unknown; estimates vary between 200,000 and 400,000.
Under the radar of Bangladeshi society
Traditionally these ‘unofficial refugees’ survived under the radar of Bangladeshi society, not necessarily accepted but tolerated to live alongside their Bangladeshi neighbours with whom they share the same religion, Islam.
Rohingyas settled in camps, some official (Kutupalong in Ukhia Upazilla, with 15,000 Households (HH), and one in Nayapara in Teknaf Upazilla, with 17,000 HH), and some unofficial (Leda (Teknaf) where 2,000 HH are living and Kutupalong (Ukhia)). But the majority live outside the camps, mainly in villages on the seaside, amongst the other main ethnic groups: the local Bengali people and the minorities (indigenous people). These Rohingyas are not recognized as refugees and are considered as illegal trespassing immigrants by the government of Bangladesh.
A new turn of events
Over the last years, however, the situation has begun to take a turn. More and more, the media report systematic crackdowns on Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, many of whom are new, many of whom have been here for twenty years or more.
The exact reasons for the crackdown remain unclear but the consequences are plain to see: Rohingya families seek refuge in the two swelling unofficial camps and in the anonymity of urban slums. This is the result of a climate of fear, resentment and violence that increasingly characterizes interactions between Bangladeshis and the Rohingya populations, and that has contributed to narrow the humanitarian space for years now.
Bangladesh, as all of its regional neighbours, has signed none of the Refugee conventions, and no step towards such ratification, be it at a national or regional level, is expected in the near future. Also, there is little current literature available on the exact number of unregistered refugees in Bangladesh, in part due to the reluctance of the government and local government bodies to allow such work that acknowledges the scale of the problems.
Life in the Bangladeshi refugee camps
Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi government does allow UNHCR and NGOs to assist the 28,000 Rohingyas who live in the two official camps. Yet it prevents them from accessing unrecognized refugees. This leads to serious gaps in basic services and protection for 200,000 to 400,000 people. Thusn there is little opportunity to understand how they are integrating into both rural and slum communities in the Chittagong Division or what their impact on local economies and their ability to access goods and services is.
In mid-2008, under the pressure of UNHCR and the international community, the government of Bangladesh allocated new land in Leda Bazar for around 10,000 people.
The NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Holland, which insures health assistance in the camps, reported that these last years, more and more Rohingyas, until now dispersed in the Southeast region, have gathered around the official camps trying to escape violence or forced repatriation.
A World Food Program and UNHCR report also states that “to encourage repatriation and discourage a further influx, the government of Bangladesh has placed restrictions on the refugees’ access to incomes and livelihoods. Policies such as the prohibition of permanent structures within the camps, limited schooling and training opportunities and the restriction of movement in and out of the camps hinder the attainment of refugee self-reliance and perpetuate refugee dependence on humanitarian assistance”.
The Rohingya crisis in the midst of environmentally induced migration
As in most refugee host countries, while thousands of self-settled Rohingyas have lived in the local community for years, they are perceived both as a burden and a threat as they weigh on already limited resources and compete by providing cheap labor in a saturated job market.
Furthermore the Rohingya crisis goes hand in hand with a larger phenomenon of rural-urban migration flux that is already overflowing with the movements of vulnerable people currently living in disaster prone areas where their livelihoods are insecure. Since the mid-90s, more and more Bangladeshi people are leaving the coastal islands due to erosion of their land and are arriving in the same area of Cox’s Bazaar or Chittagong city which recorded high urban growth over the last years.
These environmentally induced migrants – that have received great international attention in the past years - gather in slums or peri-urban areas, inducing a new tension on the question of relief and assistance and fairness in terms of distribution of resources and access to services.
The specific needs of refugees should not be overlooked but instead must be understood within the wider context of the needs of all migrating rural households. It is the dynamics of the swelling slum communities that must be addressed, and direction should be given on how best to meet the challenges that will inevitably arise as both Rohingyas and the local Bengali of the region are forced from their rural homesteads to the ever-more crowded urban slums.
Photo credit: UNHCR/G.M.B Akash