The Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh: A Matter of White Elephant

Author:   Md. Habibur Rahman

      The Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh: A Matter of White Elephant 



The Rohingya people (historically also called Arakanese Indians) are an Indo-Aryan stateless people from Myanmar, Rakhine State (Noor et al., 2011). They recognize themselves to be a separate group of Muslims indigenous to their society with a language and cultural identity. While they often referred to as "Rakhine Muslims," after Burma's independence in 1948, the name Rohingya spread widely (Ullah, 2011). 1948 Myanmar's government acknowledged Rohingya as a citizen of the state, but government rejected their citizenship in 1982 (Jaffer, 2017). Although being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Myanmar law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the eight "national races" (Lewis, 2018). They are also constrained from free motion, education and employment in the civil service. Under the Myanmar junta governments and their Buddhist extremists, the Rohingya have faced discrimination, persecution, torture, rape and arson for many decades (Ullah, 2011). The Rohingyas have confronted military crackdowns in the year 1978, 1991–1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016–2017 (Martin, 2018). As of August 2017, the mass deportation of Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces created a major humanitarian crisis in neighboring Bangladesh and the world’s largest refugee settlement. About one million Rohingya live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, from this and previous exoduses. 

While the focus of global concern is generally on the plight of refugees and the need for assistance and security for vulnerable groups, the effect on local populations in host countries is often neglected, although equally overwhelming. The effect of the sudden arrival of a massive influx of refugees in Bangladesh can be both positive and negative. It can be beneficial as NGOs and sponsors have provided additional resources and economic assistance. Increasing employment opportunities for local people and improving infrastructure improve the economy in the areas of refugee settlement. But the negative impacts can be even more significant because the harmful effects on the cultural, economic, environmental and safety aspects of the society can be destructive and sustained, putting immense pressure on the local community. Despite the huge costs and risks associated with hosting such a massive refugee population, Bangladesh has so far done so with remarkable patience and compassion, with the support of other nations, international aid agencies, and local NGOs.

Concern for Local Economy

Economic market stability is maintained by constantly balancing supply and demand between employee and job availability. The Rohingya crisis could disrupt society's stability and more problems will increase as large numbers of marginalized refugees seek livelihood opportunities. 

Increasing food costs from day to day particularly in Cox's Bazar region is a visible challenge for economic growth of Bangladesh. Price of rice in Chittagong has already risen because of the Rohingya issue (Islam and Ahmed, 2017). Regular food prices also continue to rise due to the higher demand of the products in the host communities. These price rises put tremendous pressure to bear on the national budget to support one million Rohingya and Bangladesh needs to pay 712600 Trillion Taka per year as Rohingya refugees' expenses (Ahmad and Naeem, 2020). In these situations, international food aid is required not only for the Rohingya people, but also for the indigenous residents.

It is rather plausible that the Rohingya will go outside the job seeking refugee camp and face conflicts with the local community, creating social chaos. In Rohingya camps, local labor demands 500 taka while Rohingya laborers are available at 270 taka (Myat, 2018), resulting in cheaper Rohingya laborers being employed by the employer. This triggers a significant degradation in the lives of the poor local population who depend on their small earnings on a daily basis. In broader extent, the flow of foreign assistance and expanded international spending to support refugees can be beneficial to Bangladesh's economic growth. UNHCR, donor governments and NGOs are funding assistance to help the refugees, which has generated some positive results, such as increased employment opportunities for educated local people. But the tremendous influx of refugees has adversely affected tourism profits of Bangladesh. Because of Rohingya inclusion, Cox's Bazaar is turned into a densely populated area. As a result, the mighty cox's bazar tourism sector is slowly losing its attraction and a great number of tourists traveling to the area have declined due to the ongoing instability (Ahmad and Naeem, 2020). Cross-border trade with Myanmar and Naf River fishing has also declined due to government restrictions that have had a severe economic impact on Bangladesh.    

Housing Location and Fear of Landslide

Bangladesh has faced environmental degradation problems due to the influx of refugees for decades, but the recent influx of refugees has been much more prominent. The increased influx of refugees into the existing local community creates unsustainable demand for natural resources with long-term sustainability challenges. The consequence of deforestation has a significant impact on local people's livelihoods of the camp area as they are depleted of natural resources and sufficient water supply. According to the department of forestry in Bangladesh, the existence of Rohingya has resulted in the extraction of 4,000 acres of forest fields (Myat, 2018).  In the camp area, excessive water removal from the shallow aquifer fears that within several months the shallow aquifer could be drained. On the other hand, landslide is one of the most serious and potentially destructive disasters in the camp areas (Ahmed et al., 2020). A study was conducted inKutupalong camps and study had found, out of 27.76% settlements in the camps area about 9.61% of settlements are at risk of landslide (Quader et al., 2020) because the hills were so severely cut in some areas that a landslide could occur at any time. Land stability is also a threat and there is increasing instability in both slopes and flat terrain. (Quader et al., 2020). 

National Security Threat 

The Rohingya crisis in is no longer just a humanitarian problem, but now poses a possible threat to Bangladesh's inner stability and security. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) jihadist group has already demonstrated its ability to recruit Rohingya jihad soldiers from refugee camps for cross border combat and the trafficking of small arms and drugs that threaten law and security (Felix-Joehnk, 2017). For example, in January 1998 armed refugees claimed that they were from the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) confiscated the refugee camp at Nayapara; three people were killed in battle with Myanmar security forces close to Bangladesh border (Idris, 2017). Ullah Claimed (Ullah, 2011) existing Rohingya camps were being run by Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islam (HUJI). He did point to interrelations between militant group in Bangladesh and Myanmar. For instance, Jamaat-i-Islami has been rated for its RSO financing (Ullah, 2011). Recently, the Muslim extremist Al-Qaeda organization made an online appeal calling on Muslims from Bangladesh to assist Rohingya by performing terrorist activities against Myanmar. Rohingya's activities include a variety of extremist groups, including the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), the Arakan Islamic Front and the Rohingya Patriotic Front, active in Bangladesh-Myanmar border regions (Idris, 2017). Although much of the security threat posed by the Rohingya and extremist groups is clandestine and is unlikely to be readily identified, it seems that much more violence is likely to occur than is understood, indicating that the security problem has yet to be fully realized or calculated. 

In the same time, after the Rohingya are trying to adopt the host community’s language and culture. If they totally adopt the language and culture of the host community, they will easily mix up with the people of the host community and their culture as well. And that will create identity crisis between local and Rohingya. Then it may lead a cultural conflict between local people and Rohingya refugee. Now-a-days many Rohingya make fake Bangladeshi passport and National ID Card (NID). As a result Rohingya are involving illegal activities inside and outside the country using Bangladeshi passport (Mayat, 2018). Those will also serious matter of national security toward the government of Bangladesh.

Concern for Government Institutions 

There is very little doubt that the influx of refugees has significantly stretched the capacity of local government institutions and civil servants to carry out their appointed duties. Governance organizations are generally not very strong in Bangladesh, but they have become even more limited in their effectiveness in the face of this massive crisis. Some local government and sector representatives spend 50% or more of their time on matters relating to Rohingya, resulting in delayed, if not scaled-down, delivery of public service (Islam, 2018). Officials from different departments at different levels indicated that they had taken up a considerable amount of their time to attend refugee-related work rather than the tasks they were required to perform. They also work without additional compensation on weekends. Often there is no reimbursement for expenses incurred when dealing with refugee problems. To complicate the situation, disagreements between different government agencies trigger more delays in the implementation of projects for both the refugees and the local community. So there is a possibility, Rohingya influx will complex the situation and reduces the effectiveness of Governance institutions and also deducts the efficiency of the stakeholder in future. 

Anti-India Sentiment in Bangladesh

The Indian position on the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh has caused anger. Dhaka was not well received the request from New Delhi to evict Rohingyas in India.  Throughout his visit to Myanmar, Narendra Modi's failure to address the refugee crisis facing Bangladesh provoked particular frustration (Martin, 2018). India issued a statement later, expressing concern over the outflow of Rakhine refugees. Some argue that motivates Bangladesh to understand there are very less Indian interests regarding Rohingya issue. The growing sentiment in Bangladesh is that India is prioritizing its strategic goals in Myanmar:  In a sense, the strategic problems of Bangladesh are being sacrificed to achieve those goals (Idris, 2017). Researcher has found that there is disappointment and dissatisfaction with India, Bangladesh's previous support for that country and because India (before the crisis) was seen as Bangladesh's ' special friend’. Is the Rohingya crisis and anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh will occur new political crisis between Bangladesh and India?

Concluding Remarks

Government officials, humanitarian agencies, environmental and law enforcement agencies evaluated the presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, especially in the Southern portion, have severe long-term negative influences on Bangladesh's population, economy, politics and environment. Bangladesh has already seen an increase in daily commodity prices, a drop in the wage rate and an increase in the poverty rate in the southern region due to the influx. Government spending in that area has risen with the exception of foreign-country grants. Bangladesh should adopt some pragmatic measures to tackle more prudently the problem of Rohingya intruders. Addressing the problems first, the action of the government should be realistic and meet the needs and fulfill the gaps that will be significant and sustainable. History, geo-politics, diplomatic power, etc. should be taken into consideration when discussing the problems and formulating the strategy. 

As Rohingya refugees are still living here, Conflict resolution between refugees and host communities should give the first priority that enhance the peace and promote social cohesion. Suggested approaches may include: a) Mapping the tensions issues and drivers to conflict 

b) Creating an effective early warning system for Government of Bangladesh and the international community c) Enhancing social cohesion and trust-building initiatives d) Develop and implement a systematic plan for conflict prevention. Along with the above initiatives, the framework for extensive bilateral and multilateral agreements between Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and other main participants such as China, the United States and Russia is crucial. Bangladesh may persuade the international community to keep pressure on Myanmar to address the issue of Rohingya refugees. The nation requires a dynamic, proactive diplomacy in this respect. Unless Bangladesh Government can put a strong pressure on the Myanmar Government, this issue is unlikely to be solved. Therefore, Bangladesh Government should re-think the situation and act decisively. 


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Md. Habibur Rahman holds MSS & BSS in Disaster and Human Security Management from Bangladesh University of Professionals

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