The Rohingya tragedy and global inaction: How much longer can Bangladesh carry the burden?

The encampments in Cox's Bazar have metamorphosed into hotbeds of militant activities, underpinned by the infusion of funds from the Middle East, Pakistan, and other nations, which are cynically utilized to perpetrate a nexus of militancy within these precincts.

Farabi Bin Zahir May 08, 2024
Rohingya in Bangladesh (Photo: Twitter)

August 25, 2017, marked a somber chapter in the annals of human history. On this fateful day, global attention was drawn to a profound humanitarian crisis unfurling within the confines of Myanmar's Rakhine State. The militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) perpetrated attacks on 30 military outposts, thereby precipitating a series of events that would reverberate across the international community. 

In the wake of these egregious assaults, ARSA publicly avowed responsibility for their actions. In response, the Myanmar military initiated a retaliatory campaign against the Rohingya population. Regrettably, this counter-offensive descended into a maelstrom of indiscriminate violence: villages were razed to the ground; Rohingya youths fell victim to wanton brutality; and Rohingya women and girls were subjected to unspeakable acts of sexual violence. Furthermore, the planting of landmines compounded the already dire circumstances. The resultant exodus saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas compelled to seek refuge beyond Myanmar's borders, with Bangladesh emerging as the principal destination. Within a matter of weeks, the influx of displaced individuals swelled to exceed 1.1 million, as they sought sanctuary and succor within Bangladeshi territory.

Bangladesh's altruistic provision of shelter to tens of thousands of fleeing Rohingya refugees amidst their plight stands as a testament to unparalleled magnanimity. However, the burden thus assumed by Bangladesh has proved onerous, as the Rohingya population imposes a significant strain upon the nation's resources and infrastructure. From their initial ingress to the present juncture, Myanmar's cooperation in facilitating the repatriation of Rohingyas has been conspicuously absent. Rather, Myanmar's priorities seem to be oriented towards developing economic enclaves within the Arakan State, thereby attracting investment from global stakeholders such as China, India, Japan, and the European Union. Myanmar appears remiss in acknowledging the marginalized status of the Rohingya community, characterized by low levels of education and employability.

The potential utilization of Rohingya labor within these economic zones could have served as a reservoir of a cost-effective workforce. Absent the presence of Rohingyas, Myanmar now finds itself compelled to procure labor at elevated costs. Put differently, had Myanmar exhibited cooperation in facilitating the repatriation of Rohingyas, the allure of its economic zones to foreign investors might have been significantly heightened.

Strain on nation's resources

Nevertheless, it is imperative to acknowledge the escalating complexity surrounding the issue of Rohingya repatriation vis-à-vis Bangladesh. With each passing day, the Rohingyas pose an increasingly burdensome challenge to Bangladesh, necessitating the nation to contend with an array of multifaceted dilemmas. And, the Rohingya crisis only compounds in severity over time.

Bangladesh, an already densely populated nation, grapples with the weighty presence of over 1.1 million Rohingyas, exacerbating the strain on its resources. Furthermore, the burgeoning population within Rohingya camps exacerbates this strain. To elucidate the gravity of this demographic surge, a scrutiny of statistical data is warranted. According to a UNICEF press release dated October 23, 2017, the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh, inclusive of recent arrivals from Myanmar, approached the threshold of 1.2 million individuals. Amongst this demographic, 700,000 were minors under 18, with 450,000 falling within the age bracket of 4 to 18 years. At that juncture, a pressing exigency was evident, with 120,000 pregnant and malnourished women necessitating urgent provision of supplementary nourishment. By May of the following year, as articulated in a UNICEF bulletin, an average of 60 Rohingya infants were being born daily within the confines of Cox's Bazar refugee camps.

Sad plight of Rohingyas

As per data compiled by BRAC's volunteers, spanning a two-week interval from February 28 to March 13, 2022, in a survey of 100,000 families, it was found that over 8,000 pregnant women were identified. Corresponding reports and bulletins disseminated by UNICEF have underscored the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar, denoting their lack of legal recognition or citizenship. Within Bangladesh, the absence of valid identification and refugee status precludes the formal registration of births among this populace.

The growing population of Rohingya children exacerbates their stateless status in the absence of legal recognition by Myanmar. Myanmar is disinclined to acknowledge the repatriation of these children, while Bangladesh encounters procedural obstacles in legally documenting their births. The steady arrival of newborns has further complicated the already intricate repatriation process.

The benevolent accommodation of Rohingyas by Bangladesh has exacted a substantial environmental toll. The nation confronts an impending environmental crisis precipitated by the displacement of Rohingyas. Following the genocidal events of August 2017 in Myanmar, Rohingyas sought refuge within various areas under the purview of the Forest Department, precipitating the decimation of approximately 6,200 acres of communal and natural woodland. The quantifiable fiscal ramifications of this ecological degradation surpass 2,420 crore taka. However, an appraisal presented during the 8th assembly of the National Committee on Environment, Forestry, and Climate Change delineated the aggregate economic toll, estimated at approximately 1,865 crore 56 lakh taka, encompassing damage to forest resources and biodiversity.

Further exacerbating the ecological repercussions, Rohingyas have encroached upon an additional 1,835 acres of forestland outside designated camp perimeters for fuel procurement, thereby exacerbating environmental degradation. The swathes of ravaged forestland collectively span 8,001.02 acres, with the cumulative fiscal toll encompassing 2,420 crore 67 lakh Taka. A comprehensive study conducted by the UNDP elucidated 11 distinct forms of environmental degradation attributed to Rohingya settlements in Ukhiya and Teknaf.

Altruistic considerations notwithstanding, the shelter extended to Rohingyas has precipitated an acute environmental calamity. The palpable escalation of these environmental risks portends an ominous trajectory, with the potential for reaching a threshold beyond remediation.

Looming security threat 

Foremost among the myriad challenges confronting Bangladesh is the looming specter of security threats precipitated by the Rohingya crisis. The encampments in Cox's Bazar have metamorphosed into hotbeds of militant activities, underpinned by the infusion of funds from the Middle East, Pakistan, and other nations, which are cynically utilized to perpetrate a nexus of militancy within these precincts. Notably, members of these militant factions have been involved in the illicit production of counterfeit currency and the trafficking of yaba narcotics. The panoply of militant organizations implicated in these nefarious undertakings encompasses the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Islamic Mahaz and Jamiyatul Mujahideen, and Al-Yaqin, among others. Recent media disclosures have also brought to the fore the disconcerting machinations of notorious Rohingya terrorist Nabi Hossain, who purportedly harbors ambitions of establishing a sovereign enclave for Rohingyas within the confines of Bangladesh. The implications of such brazen initiatives by Hossain portend grave security threats for Bangladesh, necessitating concerted countermeasures to preclude such deleterious eventualities.

Amidst the cacophony of grandiloquent pronouncements by luminaries, dignitaries, and diplomats in the public sphere, one is compelled to ponder the underlying motivations. Are such statements merely rhetorical flourishes designed to burnish personal or political stature, or do they genuinely aspire towards a substantive resolution of the crisis at hand? Moreover, can the United Nations elude culpability for its conspicuous failure to ameliorate the Rohingya predicament?

Notwithstanding its inherent constraints, Bangladesh has shown exceptional magnanimity in its response to the Rohingya crisis. However, the time has come for global leaders to transcend the rhetorical posturing and come up with tangible measures to facilitate Rohingya repatriation. The United Nations must also accord precedence to Rohingya repatriation and make effective interventions. Failure to do so not only imperils the credibility of the United Nations as an institution but also engenders existential questions regarding its relevance in addressing humanitarian crises of such magnitude.

(The writer is a Dhaka-based columnist and activist. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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