Washington-based global lender, the World Bank (WB), through concessional lending arms has gone to bat for Bangladesh to foster its development initiatives since 1972, committing more than $30 billion by backing priorities in economic, social and infrastructural development. Since 2018, this UN-affiliated multilateral body — the largest source of financial assistance to developing nations — has committed a total $590 million grant to support Bangladesh to confront the challenges posed by the influx of the forcibly displaced Rohingya.
Recently, the Bank has been extensively denounced both by policy wonks as well as the masses after its proposal through Refugee Policy Review Framework’ (RPRF) on Rohingya’s integration in Bangladesh. How rational is this proposition of the World Bank?
Four years ago, in late August 2017, the “breaking news” across the world was dominated by the massive influx of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, a result of military-backed bloody “clearance operation”. A 444-page report of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Commission substantiated that more than 7,25,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after this deadly crackdown. The degree of atrocities of this “campaign of terror” embarked on by the military was so intense that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to it as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” whilst other investigators dubbed it as a “genocide”.
In the first three weeks of August 2017, Bangladesh received more refugees than the entire Europe did in 2016 during the Syrian crisis. Since then, Bangladesh has been generously hosting more than 1.2 million Rohingyas as short-term guests ensuring a “safe haven” on humanitarian grounds. Now, Cox’s Bazar-based 13 kilometre-long Kutupalong “mega-camp”, the largest refugee settlement camp in the world, is home to this beleaguered community.
Rohingyas have been living in Arakan for thousands of years and actively involved in Burma’s politics since independence. The recognition of Rohingyas as Myanmar’s citizens by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can resolve their identity crisis by providing a legal base. Besides, in the hearing of ICJ, Aung San Suu Kyi defined Rohingyas as Arakan’s Muslims. Myanmar signed two repatriation agreements with Bangladesh in 2018 and 2019. respectively giving consent to take back their citizens.
Although these repatriation agreements were in vain due to the reluctance of Myanmar, these agreements are nevertheless a significant proof of Myanmar’s official stance on Rohingyas’ citizenship. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, but Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, in response to the WB’s framework, stated in point-blank that they have no desire to receive Bangladeshi citizenship and would like to return to Myanmar.
The WB has proposed to review the RPRF for 14 member states currently hosting refugees, including Bangladesh, for gauging the effectiveness of the grants for the refugees and host communities under its “soft-loan window” International Development Assistance. This global framework is reviewed triennially and undertaken in cooperation with the UNHCR and suggested providing refugees with the right to procure land and property, choose the place of residence and freedom of movement, have equal access to the nation’s public service, and the labour market etc. just like the citizens of the host country.
The WB offered $2 billion to Bangladesh if it integrates Rohingya refugees with economic and social rights. The framework is germane for Bangladesh since this move will pave the way for the Rohingyas to become permanent citizens through integration into Bangladesh’s populace. Bangladesh reiterated its stance by rejecting the proposal outright, stating that Rohingyas are not “refugees”, but rather “forcibly displaced persons” to whom Bangladesh extended temporary shelter.
The study ‘Impacts of the Rohingya Refugee Influx on Host Communities’ conducted by the UNDP expounded how the overcrowding of Rohingyas has affected host communities. The major adverse impact includes price hikes, an increase in poverty, rise in housing cost, reduction in wage rate, deforestation, environmental casualty etc. Moreover, the rise of intragroup and intergroup conflicts in the Rohingya camps shrunk the space of coexistence between the host communities and refugees by recasting the social makeup. August 2021 marks the fourth anniversary of the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh but a sustainable solution is yet to be found.
The 1951 Refugee Convention suggests three way-outs to the refugee crisis: integration; settlement to a third country; or repatriation. Approximately 166.65 million population of Bangladesh, the eighth largest in the world, makes it one of the densely populated countries with 1,125 people per sq km. This small country, 92nd in terms of land size and with a total landmass of 147,570 sq km, slightly smaller than the US Iowa state, is hosting 1.2 million Rohingyas, which is higher than the total population of Bhutan. No country in the world is bearing the burden of so many refugees like this.
With an unemployment rate of 5.30%, approximately 60,000 workers migrate abroad every year, indicating the country’s inability to create employment and or generate employment for its gargantuan unemployed youths. This attracts pointed attention towards the inadequate demand for labour in Bangladesh.
So, the possibility of integrating the Rohingyas into the local community is nipped in the bud. As the number of Rohingya refugees is gigantic, more than a million in Bangladesh and some more are living in 19 other countries. No other country has shown interest in receiving them and the option to settle them in a third country seems impassable in foreseeable future. The only way out of the Rohingya crisis lies in safe repatriation to Myanmar.
As the Rohingyas also want to return to Myanmar, integration into Bangladesh following WB’s recommendations is like denying Rohingyas of their fundamental and human rights. Some local experts believe that integration may lead to a new “Palestine Crisis” by jeopardising the sovereignty of Bangladesh and endangering the geopolitical stability of South Asia. This kind of proposal from responsible global leaders like WB will motivate Myanmar to slacken the repatriation process by increasing complexities to this multifaced dilemma.
Instead of suggesting such an impracticable proposal, WB should create pressure on Myanmar to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the UN. It could offer financial incentives to Myanmar for expediting the repatriation in internationally monitored safe zones. Some international organisations are planning long-term programmes for this “short-term emergency crisis”, which will just linger the repatriation process.
Bangladesh is trying its level best to ensure decent arrangements for the Rohingyas with its limited financial strengths. Despite not being a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Bangladesh is complying with its conditions, i.e., not forcing any Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. Accepting WB’s proposal will add fuel to the fire by acting as a pull factor for other Rohingyas, around six lack of them, to come to Bangladesh from restive Myanmar.
Bangladesh has to bring substantial changes in its policy if it agrees to accept the framework, a complex and time-consuming process that will intensify the misery. Safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar is the only sustainable solution to bring the crisis to an end to their plight. Bangladesh needs more support from international communities to resolve this crisis. The country may expect that the world communities will consider all the relevant issues including socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh before making any recommendations to resolve the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis by bringing the light of hope to put an end to their struggling present.
Note: The article has been previously posted on other media platforms as well.