Amid growing concern over the prolonged, indefinite stay of over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi makeshift camps, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has flown to China for a five-day official visit.
Her visit is expected to focus primarily on enlisting Beijing’s support in resolving the festering crisis by using its influence to persuade Myanmar to take its nationals back.
“We hope the Rohingya issue will get prominence during the prime minister’s visit,” Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters on Friday. “We have high hopes to see progress in this regard.” His “high hopes” drew sharp questions from reporters, who asked what made him optimistic, this time, after China has publicly declined Bangladesh’s repeated requests to persuade Myanmar to take back its nationals.
“We will tell them that Rohingya are Myanmar people,” the minister said. “They faced persecution and fled to Bangladesh. We sheltered them temporarily.” He added that an indefinite, prolonged stay of such a large number of people languishing in refugee camps could make them easy targets for international radical Islamists.
Nearly 750,000 Rohingya have found refuge in the coastal Bangladesh border town of Cox’s Bazar since August 2017, fleeing the Myanmar military’s campaign of murder, rape and arson against the minority Muslim ethnic group in the Arakan state.
The campaign was launched in retaliation for the killing of nine military security personnel by alleged “radical” Rohingya. The campaign against the Rohingya, which began in late August, has been called “ethnic cleansing” by the United States and the United Nations.
That latest influx was in addition to over 300,000 Rohingya who had fled in previous years to escape carnage and mayhem, likewise unleashed by Myanmar security forces. They were denied citizenship and basic rights, although they had been living in Rakhine for over 100 years. Myanmar insists they originally came from what was then East Bengal and cannot be considered as its citizens.
Already burdened with a huge population of nearly 170 million, Bangladesh initially found it hard to accept the refugees but reluctantly rolled out the welcome mat on humanitarian grounds.
While Myanmar denied having committed atrocities, the international community praised Dhaka’s generosity and showered it with logistical and financial aid to ease the extra burden.
Foreign aid workers’ role questioned
But as the crisis lingered with no prospect of the refugees’ return anytime soon because of Myanmar’s intransigence, Bangladesh authorities are now saying they are more interested in quick repatriation of the Rohingya rather than international help and sympathy – which are proving to be a deterrent toward the repatriation goal.
It appears that the bulk of the foreign assistance is being spent on the pay and emoluments of foreign aid workers and not the refugees, a Bangladesh minister recently said at an event in Dhaka.
“They spent some 150 crore taka (approximately $13 million) in less than two years on luxury hotels and travels,” AKM Mozammel Haq, the Freedom Fighters Affairs minister, said.
His comments drew sharp criticism from commentators as well as common folk, raising serious doubts about the real intentions of foreign organizations which, critics say, are thriving on the refugees’ miseries.
Prime minister Hasina also publicly questioned the real motives of international aid workers.
“They are trying to block our efforts to relocate the refugees to Bhasan Char because there no luxury hotels like Cox’s Bazar and the commute to that island is not that easy,”she told Parliament recently, referring to the remote island in southern Bangladesh where the government has built new structures with basic facilities to house refugees.
The foreign NGOs are also alleged to be partially responsible for the failed attempt to begin the repatriation process last November because of the last-minute refusal of the refugees, who cited lack of security in their homeland in Rakhine.
The first batch of the refugees was scheduled to leave for Rakhaine on November 16, 2017, after Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement on Oct 30.
Myanmar signed that agreement under pressure from the international community after widespread media coverage of atrocities. At the same time, Bangladesh had been actively engaged in negotiations with Myanmar for a bilateral agreement.
A similar deal between the two countries had resulted in the repatriation of more than 100,000 refugees shortly after over 300,000 fled to Bangladesh in 1991. Earlier in 1978-79, another wave of Rohingyas swamped Bangladesh.
This time, refugees demanded the creation of conducive atmosphere in Rakhine as a precondition for their return. The Channel24 News, quoting local residents, reported shortly afterward that foreign aid workers actively instigated the camp residents and persuaded them to openly protest the move.
The aid workers, led by UNHCR, responded to the government charges. UNHCR held a press conference, saying it tries to be as cautious as possible in its spending. But it needs to make sure that its workers get required facilities to discharge their duties effectively.
Seven months after the repatriation attempt failed, UNDP and UNHCR struck a tripartite deal with Myanmar in June last year on creating conditions conducive for Rohingya return. But no tangible progress has been made so far, as Myanmar is consistently refusing to allow independent verification of its claim of having created conditions conducive to the refugees’ safe return.
The delay, coupled with rising unrest in and around the refugee camps, appears to have prompted Bangladesh to seek an immediate solution to the crisis through the active intervention of China, a close ally of Myanmar.
In recent weeks about a dozen Rohingya suspected of involvement in human and drug trafficking were killed in encounters with police.
“These kinds of incidents are going to rise in the near future as the camp residents, especially adolescents, are growing impatient with their miserable existence and they would be easy targets for recruiting by the international radical organizations,” retired Major General Muniruzzaman, a security analyst and chairman of the Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies, a Dhaka think tank, wrote in Sunday’s Prothom Alo.
The growing threat of looming instability is also causing a big headache for the prime minister, prompting her to make a public statement four days ago.
She told Parliament on June 26 that Bangladesh’s security and stability may be hampered if the Rohingya refugees cannot be repatriated soon.
Against this backdrop, the prime minister’s visit is “very significant,” analysts say, adding that there are not many options left for Bangladesh and that China could be a crucial player, given its long-standing relationship with Myanmar.
China has been advocating for a bilateral solution to the crisis since the beginning and that still is its public position. Privately, though, it can influence Myanmar and on that Bangladesh is pinning its hope.
“Frankly, I don’t think we can do much given the urgency of the matter and we simply have to keep on trying to convince China about the long-term benefit it can derive out of the quick resolution of the Rohingya crisis,” Munshi Faiz Ahmad, Chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a semi-official think tank here, told Asia Times. He also served as ambassador to China from 2007 to 2012.
Chinese investment in Bangladesh is sharply rising, he said, adding that it’s in the best interest of Beijing to see its investment protected through the establishment of peace and security here as well as in Myanmar, where China has a huge economic interest.
China became the largest foreign investor in Bangladesh last year. It invested, mostly in the power sector and mobile phone technology, $1.3 billion, out of a total $3.6 billion received during the year. In 2017, Chinese investment had been a mere $119 million.