Washington-based global lender World Bank, through concessional lending arms, has tried to foster its development initiatives in Bangladesh since 1972, committing more than $30 billion by backing priorities in economic, social and infrastructural development. Since 2018, this UN-affiliated multilateral body, the largest source of financial assistance to developing nations, has committed a total $590 million grant to support Bangladesh to confront the challenges posed by the influx of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas. Recently, this bank has been extensively denounced both by policy wonks and people after its proposal, “Refugee Policy Review Framework” (RPRF), on Rohingya’s integration in Bangladesh. How rational is this proposition of the World Bank?
Four years ago, in late August 2017, “breaking-news” across the world was dominated by the massive influx of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, a result of military-backed bloody “clearance operation” in Myanmar. A 444-page report of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Commission substantiated that more than 7,25,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh after this deadly crackdown. The scale of atrocities of this “campaign of terror” by the military was so intense that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to it as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” whilst other investigators dubbed it as “genocide”. In the first three weeks of August 2017, Bangladesh received more refugees than the 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 ensuring “safe haven” on humanitarian grounds. Now, Cox’s Bazar-based 13-kilometer-long Kutupalong “mega-camp”, the largest refugee settlement camp in the world, is home to this beleaguered community.
Rohingyas, living in Arakan for thousand years, have been actively involved in Burma’s politics since independence. The recognition of Rohingyas as Myanmar’s citizens by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) resolves their identity crisis by providing a legal base. Besides, in the hearing of ICJ, Aung San Suu Kyi defined Rohingyas as Arakan’s Muslims. Myanmar signed two repatriation agreements with Bangladesh in 2018 and 2019 respectively giving consent to take back their citizens. Although these repatriation agreements were in vain due to reluctance of Myanmar, still these agreements are significant proof of Myanmar’s official stance on Rohingyas’ citizenship. Though there is no light at the end of the tunnel, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, in response to the WB’s framework, stated that they have no desire to receive Bangladeshi citizenship and would like to return to Myanmar.
The WB has proposed to review the RPRF for 14 member states currently hosting refugees, including Bangladesh, for gauging the effectiveness of the grants for the refugees and host communities under its “soft-loan window” International Development Assistance. This global framework, being reviewed triennially, undertaken in cooperation with UNHCR, suggests providing refugees the rights to procure land & property, choose place of residence, freedom of movement, equal access to the nation’s public service & the labour market, etc, like the citizens of the host country. The WB offered $2 billion to Bangladesh if it integrates Rohingya refugees with economic & social rights. The framework is germane for Bangladesh since this move 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” but rather “forcibly displaced persons” to whom Bangladesh has extended temporary shelter.
The study, “Impacts of the Rohingya Refugee Influx on Host Communities”, conducted by the UNDP, expounded how the overcrowding of Rohingyas affected host communities. The major adverse impacts include price hike, increase of poverty, rise in housing cost, reduction in wage rate, deforestation, environmental casualties, etc. Moreover, the rise of intra-group and intergroup conflicts in the Rohingya camps shrunk the space of coexistence between the host communities and refugees by recasting the social makeup. August 2021 marks the fourth anniversary of the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh, but a sustainable solution is yet to be found.
The 1951 Refugee Convention suggests three ways out to the refugee crisis: integration, settlement to a third country, or repatriation. Approximately 166.65 million population of Bangladesh, 8th largest in the world, makes it one of the mpst densely populated countries with 1,125 people per sq km. This small country, 92nd in terms of land size, with a total landmass of 147,570 sq km, slightly smaller than the Iowa state in the US, is hosting 1.2 million Rohingyas which is higher than the total population of Bhutan. No country in the world is bearing the burden of so many refugees as overpopulated Bangladesh. Bangladesh, with an unemployment rate of 5.30%, exports approximately 60,000 workers abroad every year, which indicates the country’s inability to create employment for its gargantuan number of unemployed youths. This requires pointed attention towards the inadequate demand of labour in Bangladesh. So, the possibility of integrating the Rohingyas into the local community is nipped in the bud. While the number of Rohingya refugees is gigantic, no other country has shown interest in receiving them. The option to settle them in a third country seems impossible in the foreseeable future. The only way out to the Rohingya crisis lies in safe repatriation to Myanmar.
As the Rohingyas also want to return to Myanmar, integration into Bangladesh, following WB’s recommendations, is like denial of their fundamental & human rights. Some local experts believe that integration may lead to a new “Palestine Crisis” by jeopardising the sovereignty of Bangladesh and endangering the geo-political stability of South Asia. Such a proposal from WB will motivate Myanmar to slacken the repatriation process by increasing complexities to this multifaceted dilemma. Instead of suggesting such an impracticable proposal, the WB could create 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 their repatriation in internationally monitored safe zones. Some international organisations are planning long-term programmes for this “short-term emergency crisis” which will only prolong the repatriation process.
Bangladesh is trying its level best to ensure decent arrangements for 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 six lakhs, 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 which will intensify the Rohingyas’ miseries. Safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar is the only sustainable solution to put an end to their plight. Bangladesh needs more support from international communities to resolve this crisis. The country may expect that the world communities will consider all the relevant issues including socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh before making any recommendations to resolve the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis by bringing hope that their struggle may end some time in the near future.
The writer is a strategic affair and foreign policy analyst, working as a lecturer at Department of International Business, University of Dhaka. [email protected]