Govt cannot turn its back on such a humanitarian crisis
THE assertion by the foreign minister on Tuesday of the Awami League-Jatiya Party government’s position that ‘it is not in the best of our [Bangladesh’s] interest that refugees from Myanmar enter the country again’, in the wake of the ongoing sectarian violence in the western Rakhine state of Myanmar, is understandable on political grounds but not acceptable on humanitarian consideration. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, she also insisted, at an impromptu foreign ministry press briefing, that the government had not received any request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to open the border to the Rohingyas, as reported by the BBC Bangla Service hours earlier, quoting the UNHCR representative in Dhaka.
The rationale for the government’s position, as explained by the foreign minister, seems to be that Bangladesh has been grappling with the Rohingya refugee issue especially since 1982 when the military junta in Myanmar stripped the members of the ethnic minority community of their citizenship. According to officials quoted in New Age report, more than 400,000 unregistered Rohingyas live in Bangladesh’s coastal districts, with only 24,000 officially registered in two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, where they are assisted by the UNHCR and non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has thus far taken hardly any meaningful steps to repatriate the Rohingyas. Worse still, it even refuses to agree that all these refugees belong to Myanmar. For a resource-constrained country as ours, where the government is engaged in a perpetual struggle to ensure the basic needs for some 150 million people, it is indeed a daunting challenge to have provide sustenance to nearly half a million of refugees.
However, the fresh exodus of Rohingyas from the sectarian strife-stricken Rakhine state is a humanitarian crisis, too. Moreover, Bangladeshis are very much aware of the ordeal generally experienced by refugees. After all, during the war of independence in 1971, a sizeable section of the population went through similar ordeals when they were forced to take refuge in India, to escape atrocities committed by the Pakistani occupation forces and their local cohorts. As such, Bangladesh cannot simply close its border and look the other way while an increasing number of Rohingyas fleeing their burning homes float about, hurt and hungry, in desperate need for food and medical treatment.
Indeed, the sectarian strife in the Rakhine state is Myanmar’s internal affair. However, given the geographical and geopolitical reality, Bangladesh cannot be but affected by whatever happens in any neighbouring country. While it cannot host the Rohingya refugees for years on end, it cannot just turn its back on them at their moments of crisis. Hence, the government needs to extend a helping hand to the fleeing Rohingyas. At the same, it needs to bring the international community on board to effectively deal with the crisis and also bring the pressure to bear on the Myanmar government, to take effective steps to contain the sectarian strife in the short term and repatriate not only the refugees who have recently crossed the border into Bangladesh but also those who have been living in the registered and unregistered camps in the coastal districts for so many years.
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