Rohingya children waiting for food in refugee camp in Bangladesh. Food is distributed by Turkish NGO. Photo: iStock
Rohingya children wait for food in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: iStock

The expulsion of some 700,000 Rohingya – a designation that the Myanmar government does not recognize, preferring to call the group “Bengalis” – from Myanmar to Bangladesh reads like a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing”: the wholesale expulsion of a community from the territory of a state of which they were habitual residents.

While the reaction to the eviction went from undisguised outrage to embarrassed silence, the expulsion in itself is but one more example of similar occurrences that have, more often than not, been the rule in crisis situations.

In recent times, “ethnic cleansing” was one of the hallmarks of the closing months of World War II. In the wake of the Soviet advance toward Germany, millions of ethnic Germans who had inhabited Poland and who had welcomed Adolf Hitler with open arms fled toward Germany as the German army retreated. By 1950 some 8 million Germans had been expelled from the countries of the Eastern Bloc. In addition to this number, some 2.5 million ethnic Germans who for generations had inhabited the Sudeten regions of Czechoslovakia were expelled from their homes.

The expulsions, which completely changed the ethnic makeup of Central and Eastern Europe, was fully endorsed by the Western powers. With resentment against all things German running high, no country in the region was willing to tolerate on its soil a sizable German community.

The decades that followed World War II saw a shift of forced population movements from Europe to the Third World. As a byproduct of decolonization and the emergence of new states that proved unreceptive to the presence of minorities in their midst, an increasing number of social groups suddenly found themselves in a political environment that was no longer receptive to their presence. Thus for many of these states expelling minorities became a component of their path to independence.

The partition of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan resulted in the uprooting of some 15 million people who moved from one state to the other

The partition of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan resulted in the uprooting of some 15 million people who moved from one state to the other. In 1962 the independence of Algeria resulted in the forced departure of some 800,000 so-called “Pieds Noirs,” that is, people of French nationality, many of whom were born in Algeria but were neither Arabs nor Muslims. In 1972 the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled some 80,000 “Asians,” in essence people of Indian origin who had moved to Africa during British colonial rule.

What all these expulsions had in common was the fact that the victims ultimately had a country of destination that was not only willing to grant them asylum, but was also a society in which they could integrate and start a new life. Thus the German displaced persons were resettled in Germany, the “Pieds Noirs” in France, the Ugandan Asians, most of whom had British passports, in the UK and the displaced from the subcontinent in Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India respectively.

The fact that each crisis carried an inbuilt territorial solution in no way detracts from the moral shortcomings that stood at its roots. But it did mitigate in the long term the human suffering as well as the political disruption that it created.

The Palestinian case

Conversely, when there was no territorial solution, mass population expulsion and its political fallout carried consequences that went far beyond the initial confines of the crisis. The Palestinian refugee problem is a case in point.

In the wake of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, some 730,000 Palestinians lost their homes and found refuge in neighboring Arab countries. Though they shared a common language, ethnicity and religion, none of the Arab countries proved willing to resettle the refugees permanently and they insisted on their right to return to their original homes.

The effect was that the refugees were restricted to camps provided by the United Nations, prohibited from seeking outside work and kept in permanent limbo as pawns in a political process. Over the years the host countries lost control of the camps, which became the equivalent of a state within a state before evolving into incubators of terrorism and aircraft hijacking. Today, some 70 years later, the camps endure and while the host countries keep a tight and uneasy control over them, the problem of what to do with the refugees remains unsolved.

If there was a territorial solution for the Palestinian refugees, albeit one that the Arab states sought deliberately to deny, there was none as regards the Vietnamese boat-people crisis.

The boat people

After the fall of the Saigon regime in 1976, the reunification of Vietnam in 1976 and the escalating tension with China, the government in Hanoi sought to export a whole segment of its population, the presence of which it viewed as incompatible with its Marxist orientation. Within this ideological vision, while the American War was over, the “class war” that was the war between Vietnam’s “working class” and the representatives of its “bourgeois society” erupted with a vengeance.

Tensions with China compounded the clash. While in southern Vietnam most of the mercantile classes, which were anathema to Hanoi’s doctrinaire Marxists, were of Chinese ethnic origin, practically all the Chinese in northern Vietnam belonged to the working classes. This, however, did not prevent them from being expelled to China in keeping with a political option in which “ethnic cleansing” walked hand in hand with ideological purification.

Perversely, the policy of expulsion was greatly facilitated by Hanoi’s policy of radical collectivization, which created a major economic crisis, thus further encouraging those who could to leave.

However, except for China, none of the countries in the region were willing to accept the Vietnamese for permanent resettlement. This absence of a territorial solution was offset by the role played by the United States. Having suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam, Washington sought to assuage its bruised ego by ensuring that all Vietnamese who reached the shores of the countries of Southeast Asia would be permitted to land subject to their resettling in the US or in other Western countries. Thus a territorial solution was found, albeit one that was extra-regional.

Altogether, between 1975 and 1996 some 1.6 million Vietnamese, of whom an estimated half were of Chinese ethnic origin, were for all practical purposes driven out of Vietnam. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union – Vietnam’s only sponsor – as well as a generational change among Hanoi’s Marxist leadership combined with the end of collectivization to bring the exodus to a stop. But when it did, Vietnam had successfully exported a sizable unwanted portion of its population.

But what had worked in Vietnam did not work in Serbia.

In the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbian forces undertook to expel some 1 million Albanians from Kosovo. The exodus, occurring in the heart of Europe, put a considerable strain on the neighboring countries, and in March 1999 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a major bombing campaign against Serbian forces. By June a peace accord was signed and by the autumn some 1 million Albanian refugees had returned to their homes in Kosovo. Ethnic cleansing had not been tolerated.

No easy – or pleasant – solutions

While the context of every major population-displacement crisis is unique, there are also a number of common issues that, against this global backdrop, apply to the Rohingya displacement crisis.

Interethnic strife has been a hallmark of Myanmar’s history since independence. None, however, has reached the level of systematic violence and harassment aimed over the years at the Muslim Rohingya.

Interethnic strife has been a hallmark of Myanmar’s history since independence

Deprived of citizenship and subject to constant harassment, many Rohingya sought safety abroad, and it is estimated that currently some 150,000 reside in Saudi Arabia, 100,000 in Malaysia and 50,000 in India. To this number one should add the some 550,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar and the 700,000 who have been recently expelled and are in camps in Bangladesh.

International population displacement, wherever it may occur, is the consequence of unresolved internal crises. These, rather than being solved by the country of origin, become an international burden when the country of origin undertakes to export the problem. Consequently, when a national problem becomes an international encumbrance, the solution can only be international, or at least regional.

Crafting a solution also depends on how much states are willing to invest in order to bring to reason the country of origin. In the case of Kosovo, the Western alliance resorted to war in order to force Serbia to back down from its policy of “ethnic cleansing” and permit a return of the refugees to their place of origin.

In the case of Vietnam, the initial reaction to the expulsions was wholesale resettlement in the West. Resettlement, however, had its limits, and after 20 years a changed political context and the threat of an unending trade embargo and political ostracism brought the country of origin to reason. Vietnam thus terminated its policy of expulsions and actually took back some 98,000 of its citizens who did not qualify for refugee status and were stranded in camps in Southeast Asia.

In the case of the Palestinians, a holding pattern was adopted, namely keeping the refugees in camps pending a political solution; this approach, in the long term, proved to be a major liability both humanly and politically for all the parties concerned.

Against this backdrop, the international reaction to the expulsion of the Rohingya was one that went from disapproving silence to outspoken condemnation. However, beyond the words and the declarations of principle, the real issue was whether the countries directly exposed to the expulsions would react, and how.

Among the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the only one exposed to the exodus of the Rohingya is Malaysia. While their status is unclear, the numbers are still manageable and their presence facilitated by their being Muslims. Thus Malaysia is not liable to raise the issue internationally, and Asean even less likely to do so.

Ultimately, the only country affected by the expulsions is Bangladesh; with a refugee population of some 700,000 concentrated in one massive refugee camp, the issue amounts to a major humanitarian, political and economic disaster.

In the short term, Bangladesh has neither the capacity to seal its border with Myanmar nor to address the crisis with its own means. Part of the problem has been solved with international aid to the amount of US$1 billion, albeit a sum that might not be indefinitely available. Conversely, this leaves unanswered another question: How many more Rohingya will Myanmar expel.”

While most of the current papers on the issue provide for a policy of at least partial repatriation of the expelled together with measures to stabilize the Rohingya community in Myanmar, there are no indications that the authorities in Naypyidaw are even close to following that path. And while the decision-making process in Myanmar is one of the world’s most obscure, all the available indications are that the authorities are more liable than not to continue with their policy of ostracizing the Rohingya to the point of ensuring their exodus.

Thus, ultimately, while various options more in line with international humanitarian principles are currently on the table, these remain abstract ruminations, and the most likely scenario is the worse-case one, with the expulsions continuing and Bangladesh having to face an influx not of 700,000 refugees but 1.2 million.

Confronted with an influx of such dimensions, and assuming that the international community will bear the initial costs, there are only two possible outcomes. The first is the creation of large camps where the refugees will be housed for what could be decades. Factoring in an unavoidable demographic increase as well as the desperation they will generate, it will only be a short step for armed groups to take advantage of the situation. The outcome is liable to be a “Palestinization” of the problem with the government of Bangladesh finding it increasingly difficult to control the camps and the armed groups they will harbor.

The other alternative will be for Bangladesh to integrate the Rohingya. While the government of Bangladesh has already expressed its objections, this can be probably overcome through considerable pressure from the international community in addition to generous funding.

Given the lessons of the past, and barring an improbable about-face by Myanmar, the choice today appears between a bad solution, which implicitly endorses “ethnic cleansing,” and an even worse one, which would see the creation of an incubator for terrorism in Southeast Asia.
In both cases international ethical standards will have to be overlooked. It will certainly not be the first time, and it is safe to presume that it will not be the last one either.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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