Although the tragedy of the Rohingya people has been unfolding for decades, the latest exodus of refugees to Bangladesh, fleeing violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, has become front-page news due to the sheer scale of the trauma. The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the figure at 415,000 Rohingya who have fled their homes for Bangladesh in just the past three weeks. While struggling with its own development needs, Bangladesh is providing the last place of refuge for a stateless people often called “the most persecuted minority” in the world.
To put the past month’s developments into historical perspective, Bangladesh—in the southernmost tip of the country, south of a port city named Cox’s Bazaar—began hosting Rohingya refugees in the 1970s. The first wave of around 200,000 refugees came in 1978. A second wave of around 250,000 fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in 1991–92.
Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and international aid groups provided assistance for the refugees, Bangladesh long sought for the refugees to repatriate to Myanmar, rather than become permanent residents. A repatriation phase in the late 1990s saw some 230,000 Rohingya return to Myanmar. But in the summer of 2012, renewed religious violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state resulted in another influx to Bangladesh. Some Rohingya also attempted to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand that summer, tragically, by boat.
Bangladesh is a poor country by any measure. Using International Monetary Fund gross domestic product per capita data (purchasing power parity), it ranks among the poorest fifty countries in the world, illustrated by this chart. For this reason, Dhaka for years feared that the existence of refugee camps and settlements served as a “pull factor,” bringing more Rohingya to already-stressed Bangladesh.
In the summer of 2012, Bangladesh prohibited three international aid organizations from assisting Rohingya who were not officially registered as refugees. In other words, Bangladesh has not always been a welcoming host.
The problem has always been that however bad conditions may be in Bangladeshi refugee camps or makeshift settlements, the Rohingya are running from worse, often forced to leave whatever they possess behind, likely forever, and trudge for miles through mud and across a river to reach refuge in Bangladesh.
That’s the backdrop for the events since August 25.
According to the latest figures tracked by the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (a coalition of humanitarian agencies assisting with Rohingya relief in the Cox's Bazar area), a total of more than 197,000 “undocumented Myanmar nationals” had been resident in refugee camps, “makeshift settlements,” and “host communities” in this region of Bangladesh prior to August 25, 2017. Since that date, more than 420,000 have arrived in these same refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities—with at least six new “spontaneous settlements” now housing more than 200,000 of this enormous population now totaling nearly 620,000. It is a tripling of the total number of refugees now in Bangladesh in under one month, all of whom need emergency medical attention and basic sustenance.
Yesterday, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which she said, “We have 160 million people in a small geographical land. But if we can feed 160 million people, another 500 or 700,000 people—we can do it.” But she has also clearly called for Myanmar to take back the Rohingya, consistent with Bangladesh’s longstanding position.
As this tragedy continues, short of a sea change in Myanmar’s willingness to accept the Rohingya as their own citizens, the situation is unlikely to improve. That will mean continued existence as refugees, with the great bulk of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. And the refugees will continue to need international assistance to meet the most basic medical care and food security needs. The IOM just issued a fundraising appeal for $26 million to cover the coming three months.
This crisis can only be solved through a political solution. But one appears nowhere in sight.
My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).