Sunday, August 9, 2009

Don't forget about the Rohingya

In a perfect world, no one would be a refugee or an internally displaced person. Even in a resource-rich imperfect world there would be enough cash, donors, goodwill, and supplies to assist refugees and IDPs. The world we live in is not such a place. Aid should be prioritized for countries, such as Bangladesh, which are hosting large populations of refugees who are unable to be repatriated either due to fear of persecution or to the intransigence of the home country.

The Rohingya refugees, fleeing the military junta in Burma, recently gained higher visibility than usual thanks to the thoroughly criminal way that the Thai military treated the refugees - confining them to a boat and setting them adrift in the Indian Ocean (al-Jazeera). There may be as many as 200,000 Rohingya scattered throughout Bangladesh mostly in makeshift camps along the border, some of which are administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees. Only 24,000 are registered.

Burma has long asserted that it is not throwing out its own people, merely repatriating "Bengalis" (Irrawaddy). Whether or not this question is answered by the Burmese junta, Bangladeshi government, or West Bengali government - the Rohingya community has a right to live on their land and to enjoy equal citizenship with the rest of Burma's ethnic groups, regardless of when they arrived in Burma, their religion, or their language.

That so many Rohingya are pushed into Bangladesh, itself a struggling "Less Developed Country," is the nadir of misfortune. Earlier today, Dr. Abdur Razzaque (Food Minister in Bangladesh) called for international organizations to expand a "social safety net" in Myanmar/Burma and the implementation of an immediate rehabilitation program. He also suggested that unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh were "creating social problems" (New Nation).

In a perfect world, rehabilitation/repatriation and an expanded safety network would be more than enough to address the Rohingya's plight. The fact that Western aid organizations had to wait months before gaining access to the Irrawaddy delta after Cyclone Nargis, to help Burma' own "acknowledged" ethnic groups, makes this nothing more than wishful thinking.

To scapegoat "unregistered Rohingya" as the cause of the country's social problems smacks of ethno-centricism and is distressingly similar to the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the forums of many countries, from the U.S., to Russia, to Australia.

Until the military junta collapses, Bangladesh will have to carry the weight of the Rohingyas since ASEAN will never address the problem (and countries like Thailand are all too content with pushing the problem into the ocean). The only available option for Dr. Razzaque is to open his hand to the UN and to other humanitarian organizations and hope that additional aid flows into the country.

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