World Bank proposal to integrate Rohingyas into Bangladesh unsustainable for both host nation, refugees
The country expects the world communities to consider all relevant issues including the socio-economic conditions in Bangladesh before making any recommendations to resolve the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis, writes Kazi Mohammad Jamshed for South Asia Monitor
Washington-based global lender, the World Bank, has often batted for Bangladesh, through its concessional lending arms, to help the country’s development initiatives since 1972. The lender has committed more than USD 30 billion by backing priority programs in economic, social and infrastructural development.
Since 2018, the UN-affiliated multilateral body - the largest source of financial assistance to developing nations - has committed a total USD 590 million grant to support Bangladesh in meeting the challenges posed by the influx of the forcibly displaced Muslim minority Rohingyas from Rakhine state in Myanmar.
Recently, the bank has been denounced both by policy wonks and the masses at large for proposing, through the "Refugee Policy Review Framework'' (RPRF), the integration of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. It is pertinent to study the rationality of the World Bank’s proposition.
Four years ago, in late August 2017, the massive influx of the Rohingyas to Bangladesh following a military-backed violent "clearance operation" in Myanmar, made international headlines. A 444-page report of the UN's Independent Fact-Finding Commission pointed out that more than 7,25,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after the deadly crackdown.
The degree of atrocities of the "campaign of terror" embarked upon by the military was so intense that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to it as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" while other investigators dubbed it "genocide". In the first three weeks of August 2017, Bangladesh received more refugees than entire Europe did in 2016 during the “Syrian crisis”. Since then, Bangladesh has been generously hosting more than 1.2 million Rohingyas as short-term guests on humanitarian grounds.
Now, the beleaguered community is housed in the Cox's Bazar-based 13-Km long Kutupalong "mega-camp" in southeastern Bangladesh. It is the world’s largest refugee settlement camp. Lately, close to 20,000 Rohingyas have been shifted to Bhasan Char island - in the Bay of Bengal and about 60 km from the Bangladesh mainland - under a plan for the relocation of about 100,000 of the refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar,
Rohingyas bonafide Myanmar citizens
Rohingyas, living in Arakan (now called Rakhine state) for a thousand years, have been actively involved in Myanmar’s (erstwhile Burma's) politics since independence from British rule in 1947. The recognition of the Rohingya as Myanmar's citizens by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) provided for a legal resolution of their identity crisis. Besides, at the ICJ hearing, Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi defined Rohingyas as Arakan’s Muslims.
Myanmar signed two repatriation agreements with Bangladesh in 2018 and 2019 respectively, consenting to take back their citizens. Although these repatriation agreements failed due to reluctance on the part of Myanmar in implementing them, still these pacts are significant proof of Myanmar’s official stance on the Rohingyas’ citizenship.
Though there is no light yet at the end of the tunnel, still Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, in response to the WB's proposition, stated point-blank that they have no desire to receive Bangladeshi citizenship and would like to return to Myanmar.
The World Bank has proposed to review the RPRF for 14 member states, currently hosting refugees, including Bangladesh, for gauging the effectiveness of its grants for the refugees and host communities under its "soft-loan window" International Development Assistance. The global framework, being reviewed triennially and undertaken in cooperation with UNHCR, suggests providing refugees the rights to procure land and property, choose the place of residence and freedom of movement, have equal access to the nation's public service, the labor market, etc. like the citizens of the host country.
World Bank offer
The World Bank offered USD 2 billion to Bangladesh if it integrates Rohingya refugees with economic and social rights. The framework is germane for Bangladesh since it will pave the way for the Rohingyas to become permanent citizens through integration into Bangladesh’s populace.
Bangladesh reiterated its stance, by rejecting the proposal outright, stating that Rohingyas are not “refugees”, rather “forcibly displaced persons” to whom Bangladesh has only extended temporary shelter.
The study "Impacts of the Rohingya Refugee influx on host communities" conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) detailed how the overcrowding of Rohingyas has affected host communities. The major adverse impact includes price hikes, an increase in poverty, rise in housing cost, reduction in wage rate, deforestation, environmental casualty, etc.
Moreover, the rise of intra-group and inter-group conflicts in the Rohingya camps have shrunk the space of coexistence between the host communities and the refugees. This month, August 2021, marks the fourth anniversary of the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh, but a sustainable solution is yet to be found.
Unsustainable proposal for Bangladesh
The 1951 Refugee Convention suggests three way-outs to the refugee crisis: integration; settlement to a third country; or repatriation. The approximately 166.65 million population of Bangladesh makes it the 8th largest in the world and one of the most densely populated countries with 1,125 people per sq. km. The small country, 92nd in terms of land size, with a total landmass of 147,570 sq. km, slightly smaller than the US state of Iowa, is hosting Rohingya refugees numbering 1.2 million - higher than the total population of Bhutan. No other country is bearing the burden of so many refugees.
Bangladesh, with an unemployment rate of 5.30 percent, exports approximately 60,000 workers abroad every year which indicates the country's inability to create employment and struggle to generate employment for its unemployed youths. This points to the inadequate demand for labor in Bangladesh. So, the possibility of integrating the Rohingya into the local community is by no means logical.
As the number of Rohingya refugees is gigantic, around 1.2 million in Bangladesh, with some more living in 19 other countries, no country has shown interest in receiving them. Thus the option to settle them in a third country seems impractical in the foreseeable future. The only way out of the Rohingya crisis lies in their safe repatriation to Myanmar.
As the Rohingyas also want to return to Myanmar, integration into Bangladesh, following WB's recommendations, is a virtual denial of their fundamental and human rights. Some local experts believe that integration may lead to a new “Palestine Crisis” by jeopardizing the sovereignty of Bangladesh and endangering the geopolitical stability of South Asia.
Such a proposal from responsible global leaders like WB will motivate Myanmar to slacken the repatriation process by injecting more complexities into this multi-faceted dilemma. Instead of giving such an impracticable proposal, the WB could have put pressure on Myanmar to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the UN. It could offer financial incentives to Myanmar for expediting the repatriation in internationally monitored safe zones.
Some international organizations are planning long-term programs for the “short-term emergency crisis” which will just linger the repatriation process.
Bangladesh’s humanitarian approach
Bangladesh is trying its level best to ensure decent arrangements for the Rohingyas with its limited financial strengths. Despite not being a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, Bangladesh complies with its conditions, i.e., not forcing any Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. Accepting WB’s proposal will add fuel to the fire by acting as a pull factor for other Rohingyas, around 600,000, to come to Bangladesh from restive Myanmar.
Bangladesh has to bring substantial changes in its policy if it agrees to accept the framework, a complex and time-consuming process that will intensify the misery. Safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar is the only sustainable solution.
Bangladesh needs more support from international communities to resolve this crisis. The country expects the world communities to consider all relevant issues including the socio-economic conditions in Bangladesh before making any recommendations to resolve the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis.
(The writer, a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst, is working as a lecturer at the Department of International Business, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)