Public opinion in Bangladesh, at least the liberal segment of it, has become inflamed by a single, powerful image of the Rohingya refugee crisis: a Rohingya man begging for shelter with clasped hands, while his family sits in patent misery in the background on a boat. It is hard not to feel moved by such a compelling image of human plight. As it happens, though, a state cannot make decisions based on emotive reflexes.
There is a long history of journalistic images turning public debate on an issue. Nick Ut’s photo of a naked 9-year old Vietnamese girl fleeing napalm-bombing is one of the most famous instances of this. The image perfectly captured the excessive violence that was wreaked in the name of that needless war and its cruel impact on an innocent population.
Bangladeshi liberals seem to want the photo of the Rohingya family to galvanize our public opinion the same way that Ut’s photo moved Americans. There are, however, crucial differences in the political context of the two images. Ut’s photo captured a situation that was of America’s own making, and America possessed the power to end it unilaterally. Bangladesh, however, is not the cause of the plight of the Rohingyas, nor will humane or unilateral action on our side bring an end to their misery.
None of this is to say that providing shelter to those in dire need, especially if it is within one’s powers, is not a compelling moral imperative. But the depth of the Rohingyas’ need, and the effects of giving them open-arms shelter is far less simple than it seems.
There are roughly 800,000 Rohingyas in the Rakhine province of Myanmar, who were stripped off their citizenship in 1982. Up to a quarter million of them sought and found refuge in Bangladesh in the 80s and the 90s. While Bangladesh has managed to repatriate a number of them, there have been smaller periodic influxes too. Following riots in May and June of this year, tens of thousands of Rohingyas are believed to be internally displaced. Given how the Myanmar government chooses to behave, and how quickly or widely Bangladesh opens its borders, Bangladesh faces the overwhelming prospect of hosting thousands of new refugees, perhaps for decades.
Liberals maintain that the Bangladesh government is both in moral and legal breach by not offering shelter to the refugees. Neither the moral nor the legal calls are as simplistic as some would have us believe. While there are conventions obliging nations to provide shelters to refugees, it is a nation’s sovereign right to choose the conventions they sign – or the people they let in. Even developed countries (US, France, Australia) routinely deny entry to desperate refugees.
Such hard reasons of state do not of course endear a government to all quarters at home or abroad. Our government could make the case more effectively perhaps, by not insisting so much only on the legalistic aspects. At the same, it is unfortunate that many of our intellectuals feel the need to condemn our government so vigorously in taking a cautious approach to a complex situation.
The main argument in favour of an open-arms welcome is to meet the immediate needs of a population in distress. One must, however, note that while the violence within Myanmar is serious – not even a discriminated minority abandons home easily – it is not an immediate genocidal situation like Rwanda. In two months of rioting, only 28 people have died so far. So, while the people floating to our shores are indeed in distress, it is not the case that they are in imminent danger of death if turned back.
Frankly speaking, Bangladesh’s refusing entry to refugees has forced the news of the Rohingyas into the world’s headlines, putting pressure rightly on Myanmar’s poor conduct. Bangladesh’s giving ready shelter to the refugees would end the pressure not just on Myanmar, but also on other responsible international parties. Any action that allows Myanmar to quietly get away with these offences will only encourage them to step up their ethnic cleansing.
Another argument in favour of an open-arms welcome involves the fact that the Indians hosted millions of Bangladeshi refugees in 1971. The arguments run that we owe a similar hospitality today to anyone at our doors. Yet the situation is not comparable on many levels. India in 1971 did not possess border controls comparable even to Bangladeshi capabilities today. There is no way to know what India might have done if it were in a position to stem such an inflow.
More importantly, India had good reason in 1971 to believe that the Bangladeshi refugees would return to an independent home – which the overwhelming majority of them indeed did. Just as crucially, India was in a position to make the condition of the refugees’ return – a free Bangladesh – a reality. Recent studies conclude that India intervened when it did foremost because the burden of the refugees was becoming too great to bear.
The Rohingya refugees will not be temporary. Nor is Bangladesh in a position to bring about changes to Myanmar’s internal conditions through unilateral action. Any Rohingyas we allow in, we let in practically for life. Even benchmarked at our current GDP, a half million refugees would cost billions – in dollar terms – over their life-time, and hundreds of millions during the first years of resettlement. The costs in terms of social and political complications are hard to put a price on.
Myanmar was wrong to strip any of its citizens of their citizenship — that is the fact most deserving of condemnation by all persons of conscience. It is surprising that many Bangladeshi liberals are quicker to condemn their own government than they are to denounce Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who has been less than vocal on the issue so far.
Bangladesh must not allow Myanmar to push their citizens into Bangladesh territory. Rather, by resisting such ethnic purging, Bangladesh can help sensitize the world to this callous act of Myanmar. Now is the right time to make great noise, as Myanmar is clearly desirous of a degree of rehabilitation in the international community.
In the meantime, Bangladesh still faces the heart-breaking problem of a poor, persecuted people washing up on its shores. To turn them away does seem inhuman and heartless. Bangladesh may have to consider a more open border policy if, heaven forefend, the situation took a graver turn; namely, truly approached mass killings. But as long as the situation is well short of that, the Bangladesh government is right to take a stance of no easy entry.
A strategic stance to deny entry for now, however, does not preclude providing humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas in their desperate journeys out of or back towards home. Bangladesh could, for example, deploy its naval resources to provide help to the refugees on the waters, rather than on land. Given that refugee boats have numbered only in the dozens per day so far, and given the narrowness of the Naf river and the accessibility of our coastal waters, this can be a feasible approach.
Bangladesh should in fact, provide any Rohingyas reaching our border or shores with medical aid, and enough food supplies. At the same time, Bangladesh must take all possible moves for speedy and vigorous calls from the UN and/or Security Council to urge Myanmar not only to ensure safety of its populations from riots or ethnic purges, but even to restore their citizenship. Bangladesh must keep this news alive in global media, and keep holding relevant international parties accountable, rather than letting them play moral counsel to us.
Any new refugee camps for the Rohingyas, if they prove unavoidable, should go up on the Myanmar side of the border; not on Bangladesh soil. Sustained pressure from Bangladesh and the world is the only way to compel the Myanmar regime towards a long-term and decent solution for the Rohingyas. An emotionally charged open-arms policy from Bangladesh will promote no such solution, but certainly invite long-term problems for Bangladesh.
K. Anis Ahmed is vice-president of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).