Tazreena Sajjad on Rohingya Refugees

Dr. Tazreena Sajjad currently serves as Senior Professorial Lecturer in the Global Governance, Politics and Security (GGPS) Program in the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington D.C. She also serves as the Program Coordinator for the undergraduate Peace, Global Security and Conflict Resolution Program (PGSCR) at SIS. Her areas of specialization include transitional justice, refugees and forced displacement, post-conflict governance, gender and conflict, and social movements in south Asia. Currently, her research projects examine the politics of labelling in Europe's refugee 'crisis,' the repatriation process of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh, border fortifications an era of criminalization and securitization of migration, and the rise and dynamics of political Islam in Bangladesh (the latter with Dr. Anders Hardig). Her other research interests include the role of private military companies in post-conflict contexts, DDR, and questions of criminal accountability and impunity in the aftermath of war. Prior to joining SIS, Dr. Sajjad worked in the Afghanistan program at Global Rights in Afghanistan, and in the South Asia program at the National Democratic Institute (NDI). She has also served as a research consultant at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) in Kabul, Afghanistan, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Washington D.C. and the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Her most recent articles include "Heavy Hands, Helping Hands, Holding Hands: The Politics of Exclusion in Victims' Networks in Nepal" and "Too Many Enemies: Mobilization, Marginalization and Political Violence" (co-authored with Dr. Carl Anders Hardig). Her book Transitional Justice in South Asia: A Study of Afghanistan and Nepal was published in 2013.


Bangladesh has received a mass influx of Rohingya minority refugees since the Myanmar army first began its ethnic cleansing operations in August 2017. How has the Bangladeshi government responded to the refugees’ basic needs, given limited resources?

Contrary to popular belief, this is not the first time Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh. There have been three major waves of Rohingya arrivals, and in between those waves, smaller numbers of refugees have consistently been forced to seek shelter in Bangladesh. The first wave started in the 1970s, and the second wave was in the 1990s. Both waves were followed by controversial repatriation programs. During the first wave, Bangladesh itself had just become an independent country after a bloody war with Pakistan. At that time, it was extremely poor and struggling with the aftermath of a violent conflict. It was also struggling to deal with the return of almost 10 million Bengali refugees from India, complicated issues of internal displacement and other political and economic challenges that typically plague post-conflict societies. Despite these realities, Bangladesh did not take any steps (nor did it have the means to do so) to bar the entry of Rohingya refugees.

According to Doctors without Borders, the combined refugee camps in Bangladesh are sheltering 868,000 refugees as of December 31, 2017.[1] This is in addition to between 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingyas that have remained over the past several decades dispersed in official and unofficial camps along the south-eastern border of Bangladesh, which also happens to be one of the poorest regions in the country. Despite the large numbers that have arrived recently i.e. the fall of 2017, political figures, including the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, did not portray them as ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ but instead publicly stated that these refugees needed sanctuary, reminding Bangladeshis that they too were refugees once during the Liberation War of the country. The Prime Minister also stated that although Bangladesh may not be a rich country, “if we can feed 160 million people, we can feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees”[2] and that “our people are already doing it.”[3]This was a heartfelt message, but the reality is much more complicated. Bangladesh had for a short time obstructed aid agencies from reaching the most recent arrivals, because of bureaucracy and other reasons, but now well-established NGOs, both international and national, as well as local initiatives have full access to the people the crisis. Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), CARE, and BRAC (a Bangladesh development organization), are amongst many of the NGOs on the ground. Local doctors and volunteers now also have access to the Rohingya refugees. People in the local community, who themselves struggle for basic provisions, have been extremely accommodating, providing emergency humanitarian assistance including food and water to the new arrivals, as well as taking in children and families who need shelter. The Bangladeshi government has also entered into formal discussions with Myanmar and with UNHCR about the scale of the challenge and how to respond effectively to the crisis.

There are concerns that the temporary camps in Bangladesh lack the proper care for reproductive health, especially for Rohingya individuals whom Human Rights Watch reports were raped by the Myanmar military. What are some of the steps the Bangladeshi government could take to provide the necessary medical care?

The Bangladesh government has limited resources and its own challenges when it comes to the question of providing adequate support to survivors of sexual violence, particularly for people coming from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Survivors of sexual assault and rape often struggle with limitations in existing laws to recognize this form of violence, issues of impunity, inefficient bureaucracy, corruption, and lack of medical assistance and psychological support. When it comes to the question of Rohingya refugees, it is important to remember that the Bangladeshi government does not have the same level of authority or jurisdiction as it does with its own citizens.  The Rohingya have been subjected to rape and various forms of sexual assault not only by the Myanmar military, but also en route to Bangladesh by different kinds of non-state actors at the border, even before they entered the country. Once they entered Bangladesh, they may have been violated by individuals in the camps, local criminals, and lone actors taking advantage of a vulnerable and chaotic situation. Human trafficking (particularly sex trafficking and child trafficking) is also a sobering reality in the camps. Under these complex circumstances, the Bangladeshi government should continue to allow access to medical care to rape survivors currently being provided by national, international, and local actors. It should of course follow up on any reported cases of sexual violence and rape committed by a Bangladeshi citizen against the Rohingya and investigate reported cases of Bangladeshi traffickers exploiting and abusing the refugee population. The government can also continue to cooperate with agencies on the ground to ensure a better sense of security for the people in the camps. Navigating this complex terrain with multiple challenges is already beyond the capacity of the Bangladeshi government, but it should continue to do as much as it can to support ongoing medical assistance to all those who need it on the ground.

What is the potential damage that international donors, aid agencies, or NGOs might unintentionally cause in their response to a massive refugee crisis such as the Rohingya’s settlement in Bangladesh? What are the standards that these third-party actors should abide by in order to minimize their potential for harm, especially for Rohingya women and children?

International agencies, NGOs, and local volunteers by their very presence change the existing dynamic on the ground in any context. In many instances, their work can cause harm to the local population or a vulnerable community, even though this may be unintentional. When discussing the question of international engagement, one has to remember this comprises a wide variety of actors — donors, aid agencies, volunteers, etc. When speaking about international donors, we are often talking about different governments, such as the U.S., the EU, individual European countries, India, and Japan, as well as international aid organizations such as World Bank for instance. Thus, when talking about donors, it is important to remember that each country has its own political agenda in providing funding or assistance, and it is necessary to ask what each actor’s intentions are and whether they are taking Bangladeshi concerns and constraints into consideration. There are similar questions that may be raised about different aid agencies and the general NGO community. Their understanding of ‘success’ may be varied, and they may not all focus on concerns of long-term sustainability. For instance, today we are seeing an increase in the number of refugees that are repatriated to countries that are far from safe, and are unable to provide for the basic safety and dignity of returning refugees. Having 500,000 Rohingyas repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar, for instance, may be seen as a success by some actors, and it may be preferable for donor countries and aid agencies, including the UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), because that signals an ‘end’ to a refugee crisis and because the need for humanitarian assistance may seem to be lowered. But if the Myanmar military has no intention of halting the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, large-scale violence targeting other minority groups or has no interest in recognizing the Rohingyas’ right to citizenship, another massive refugee crisis possibly will occur again in the near future.

Another important consideration is that still too often, donor agencies and many NGOs want to implement boiler-plate solutions to a conflict, or want a fast solution, without recognizing or paying close attention to the complex and nuanced realities of a given context. It is critical to understand that while there are similarities in the violence that people experience in conflict, and there are lessons to be learned from each situation, the realities facing the Rohingya and their experiences is not the same as the challenges that face Syrians for instance, or the people of the Congo. These differences matter. International actors need to listen, understand, and engage with the nuances of struggles in each context. It is also important to recognize that refugee host countries are not all the same and don’t have the same capacities, even though the vast majority of them are from the Global South. There are differences between the domestic challenges and sociopolitical and economic realities in Bangladesh, compared to Turkey, Pakistan, and Kenya. Lessons from other countries are important, but it is crucial to recognize the realities in each local context in order to be able to negotiate with the opportunities and challenges that are presented and devise ways to address the refugee situation in each context.

How could the United States government and other international actors exert leverage over the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments?

It is important to remember Bangladesh and Myanmar are two different countries and have two different roles and sets of responsibilities when it comes to the Rohingya. The Bangladeshi government is not responsible for the genocide and ethnic cleansing that is being perpetrated against the Rohingya. It is important to ask why the pressure is needed for the Bangladeshi government, what kind of pressure would be considered effective, and why it should be exerted. These questions are very different from the ones that need to be posed about Myanmar.

When it comes to providing an immediate place of refuge for people fleeing violence, Bangladesh is already doing much more than the United States, the United Kingdom, or many other countries in Europe where the discussion and the policies have been far more focused on creating walls and measures to deter the entry of refugees. To get an understanding of the scale of the crisis in Bangladesh – about 800,000 people have arrived in Bangladesh seeking refuge in a period of about five months. In contrast, about 600,000 people arrived in Italy over a period of 4 years causing notable panic and a rise in xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Similarly, Uganda and Lebanon, both very small countries with a lot of internal problems, individually host way over a million refugees each within their respective territories. Yet, our attention and interest has been grabbed by the arrival of about a million refugees and migrants to the continent of Europe in 2015, where the EU itself (counting the UK which did not have the Brexit vote that year) has 28 member nation-states. In fact, the world in general did not realize that we have had an ongoing global refugee crisis until presented with the extensive media coverage on what was unfolding in Europe, and then it was defined largely as Europe’s ‘migrant crisis.’  In terms of the scale of a crisis then, what happened in Europe in 2015 can in no way compare to the realities facing Bangladesh, Uganda, Lebanon, or even Turkey, each of which has faced about a million or more people at their borders seeking refuge from war, violence, and other sources of forced displacement. So we need to interrogate the way we understand crises, how we depict them, when and how we even use the term ‘crisis,’ and how we respond to these issues.

Since equitable refugee-burden sharing between nation-states is highly unlikely given the existing politics and power structure in the international system in the near future, powerful and wealthy nation-states need to provide smart , well-thought out and multidimensional support to Bangladesh so it can host about a million refugees until they can return voluntarily to Myanmar. You cannot pressure the Bangladeshi government to do more without providing it with proper resources. Certainly, the Bangladeshi government should not use force against the Rohingya refugees or force them to return. International actors can warn Bangladesh if such action is taken against a vulnerable community. But they should also listen to the concerns Bangladesh has about the strains it faces in having to host such a large population while dealing with its own socioeconomic and political challenges.

Myanmar’s administration, on the other hand, is directly responsible for the ongoing plight of the Rohingya. Myanmar itself is a country that has consistently been under the control of a military junta for decades. Even though it made a small but significant transition to democracy, the military is still very much in control of the country. Powerful countries have consistently looked away from the human rights violations under the Myanmar government because they prioritized the establishment of a democracy and a neoliberal order in the country. And even though Aung Sun Su Kyi has limited power within the current political arrangement in the country, she still has a responsibility toward all people of Myanmar, to human rights norms, and the democratic ideals for which she has received international recognition. Unfortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi has been a Western sweetheart for a very long time, which means she has not been under international pressure to condemn persecution against the Rohingya (and other minorities) and neither has she faced any expectation to do what she can against the ongoing systemic violence against the Rohingya community. Instead, she has infamously refuted the idea that ethnic cleansing is taking place against the Rohingya and has even denied their existence in Myanmar. It is only recently that a few international actors have begun calling out Aung Sun Su Kyi, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that recently rescinded the award she was given. Such actions certainly help raise international awareness about the Rohingya situation. But more concerted actions are needed regarding the Myanmar military, which is the real source for the displacement of the Rohingyas and other minorities. In addition to violent persecution, the Rohingya also do not have basic rights in Myanmar such as the right to citizenship, marriage, have more than two children, or own property. Various actors such as the big powers in Asia such as China and India, several of the Southeast Asian countries and the Western powers can do more to apply pressure on the Myanmar government to change its current policies toward the Rohingya. Human rights organizations should continue to report and monitor the situation and ensure that the struggles of the Rohingya people are not forgotten.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have delayed their plan to repatriate Rohingyas refugees to Myanmar. What are the existing international standards that must be met for the repatriation of refugees, and have the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments shown the capacity to uphold such standards?

It is problematic to equate Myanmar and Bangladesh in the same sentence because it implies that they have equal responsibility toward the Rohingya when they do not. One is a host country that has its own responsibilities toward a refugee population, and the other is a country that is responsible for the persecution of a people.

The concept of repatriation developed from the 1951 Refugee Convention. A country cannot send back a person who fears death or persecution. The Convention Against Torture also recognizes that a person cannot be sent back to a situation where she/he faces the possibility of torture or harm.

Myanmar has no interest in repatriating the Rohingya refugees because the official position of the Myanmar government has been that the Rohingya are ‘illegal Bengali economic migrants,’ who have no political claim to citizenship in Myanmar. Myanmar has been reluctant to take back Rohingyas in the past, and they have tried to dictate very specific terms and conditions under which repatriation could take place. Even then, the conditions in Myanmar for the Rohingya minority have not changed, which resulted in three waves of the refugees entering Bangladesh in addition to constant displacement over the years.

According to international standards, repatriation requires the fulfillment of certain conditions. First, refugees must return voluntarily. Second, refugees should have access to information about the social and political circumstances of their homeland and should be informed about the terms and conditions of their repatriation. Third, repatriation has to be a safe process. The refugees must also be guaranteed security and a sense of livelihood once they return.

While the standard of safety has changed over time, and certainly, refugees are increasingly being returned to conditions that are far from ideal, it is still critical that they make the decision to return willingly and do not face death or serious harm upon return.

Even though Bangladesh is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it cannot force people to return, and the Bangladeshi government has the responsibility to work with the UNHCR and IOM to ensure that the Rohingya return routinely, effectively, and equipped with adequate information about the conditions in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has a larger role to play here because it needs to ensure the conditions under which the Rohingya refugees return are safe. Under the recent deal, Myanmar authorities have made no commitment to changing the conditions which forced the Rohingyas to leave in the first place. It also seems to have little interest in providing security to returned refugees, which is a source of great anxiety for the Rohingyas. Without sincere assurances and actual measures taken, the next round of Rohingya repatriation when it happens will not be a sustainable one.

Are there domestic factors in Bangladesh that could accelerate the repatriation process without proper review of their refugee status?

One big challenge about this situation is that the Rohingya are currently settled in one of the poorest areas in Bangladesh. As the Rohingya continue to stay, limited access to food and basic necessities may pressurize some of them to engage in illegal activities in order to survive. Many certainly will offer their labor for very cheap, driving down wages in the local community. Human traffickers and smugglers are already making the situation extremely dangerous for the refugees on the ground, particularly for children, girls, and women who are the most vulnerable. The local population feels extremely burdened, given their lack of resources and the pressure that emerges from the arrival of a large number of newcomers in an already challenging environment. The prices of oil and food supplies have increased due to the refugee crisis, which is natural since the area is so small and the demands for basic resources are so high. Politicians may attempt to use the Rohingya as a scapegoat, which will have resonance because there are legitimate grievances that local Bangladeshi citizens already have and people tend to gravitate toward easy solutions to complex problems. There are also significant security concerns regarding Bangladesh’s borders with Myanmar. Right-wing armed groups inside Bangladesh rely on well-established arms and drug trafficking networks along a fairly porous border with Myanmar. The complexity and fluidity of the situation mean that Rohingya camps are vulnerable to these issues. The Myanmar military sometimes also retaliates against Rohingya insurgents who operate in the border areas, which only aggravates security concerns for Bangladesh and threatens its territorial sovereignty.

Currently, overpopulation in the camps leads to other pressing issues. The possibility of an outbreak of diseases is a central concern. The cyclone season is beginning soon, and the damaging high winds and incessant rain and storms will cause significant damage in such a poor community and wash away many of the temporary shelters.

These are just a few of the domestic concerns that Bangladesh has to consider, and they are by no means exhaustive. Any of these conditions, and certainly a combination of any of these factors will produce significant pressure on Bangladesh to expedite the repatriation process. After all, Bangladesh is an independent sovereign state that will think about its own concerns first. Powerful western countries should not simply wag their fingers at Bangladesh for a failure to respond to the crisis in the most effective manner. It should also provide the support that the country needs to continue to support a big refugee population.

Is it possible for the Rohingya to seek justice for the crimes against humanity that they have suffered, either through the International Criminal Court or the Myanmar judicial system? If possible, what would the procedures entail, and who are the relevant stakeholders that could assist the process?

Justice has many different manifestations, and it is not only punitive. Justice could take the form of a truth commission where victims have an opportunity to tell their story and perpetrators honestly talk about what role they played in the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. At their best, such commissions can contribute to legal, political, and social reform without pardoning those who have violated international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Social justice for victims can also be in the shape of land reform, which is very important for the Rohingya who are currently not allowed to own property. The Rohingya have the right to demand the truth about what has happened to their missing relatives, and they have the right to compensation, restitution and rehabilitation for the different kinds of persecution they have endured. There is also an important place for the role of culture and religion in informing what kind of justice mechanism would be legitimate and credible in the eyes of the survivors. So justice in the context of conflict has many different dimensions.

Regarding punitive measures, as mentioned above, the Rohingya crisis involves various violations of international humanitarian law, international criminal law and customary international law, which means the current events do fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). If the Rohingya case is referred to the ICC (and there are specific ways in which this could happen), its team of investigators will be responsible for collecting evidence on the different types of violations committed such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide. Outside of the complex process through which each of these cases can perhaps be brought to trial, there are also questions about funding for the entire legal process and the need for witnesses and witness protection for legal proceedings. Of course, in all of this, sustained political will be crucial for bringing the case to the ICC.

Of course, involvement of the ICC is a long-term process and it will take a lot of time for specific cases to be brought to trial. By that time, the international community may well have forgotten about the Rohingya crisis. In the near future however, it is not possible to try all these crimes in the courts of Myanmar. There are significant questions that may be raised about the legal and institutional capacity of local courts, the scale and scope of existing laws in the Myanmar legal system that recognize crimes of this nature, and issues of corruption and the political will and commitment needed to actually delve into this complicated issue. That does not mean that a punitive process seeking justice in Myanmar is impossible in the future. Crimes that have been committed against the Rohingya do not have a statute of limitations. A process to seek punitive justice may take place in 30, 40 or 50 years. For instance, Israel continues to try those responsible for the Holocaust and crimes committed by Nazi officials even today. Similarly, Bangladesh and Cambodia have recently conducted trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against their respective populations in the 1970s. But again, pursuing punitive justice for the Rohingya will require a lot of groundwork and concerted effort.  As I mentioned, it is important to remember that justice can take multiple forms and does not only have to be punitive. The most important issue is that the people who have suffered have a say in what kind of justice they want and are satisfied with the mechanisms and processes that emerge to account for the wrongs. There is room to consider both punitive measures for the wrongs done, as well as means to achieve economic and social justice for the persecution the Rohingya have faced for decades.



Seoyoon Choi CMC '19Student Journalist

{{Information |Description=Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh after being driven out of Myanmar, 2017 |Source=Screenshot from the [https://www.voanews.com/a/4252871.html source video] |Date=February 14, 2018 |Author=Zlatica Hoke (VOA) |Permission= |other_versions= }} =={{int:license-header}}== {{PD-USGov-VOA}}

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