The Rohingya in Bangladesh: Playing Politics with a People in Crisis

“It’s very simple,” Nosuba said while looking straight into my eyes. “We want citizenship and security.” Looking past me to the temporary shelter across the dusty path she added, “and justice.”

Sitting in a tent in Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh last week, I was struck how the clarity of her words belied the complexities of actualizing what she and her fellow Rohingya had been denied their entire lives.

“There have been lots of words said by the Myanmar government about these things in the past. But they have never happened. Citizenship and security and justice. That’s the minimum of what we need before we can go home. If we go now they will kill us.”

After initial outrage at what appears to have been at least ethnic cleansing and potentially genocide within Myanmar’s borders in late 2017, much of the international attention has surrounded deals to “repatriate” the Rohingya people back to Myanmar from Bangladesh. Almost a million Rohingya currently reside in Bangladesh, many having recently fled unimaginable brutality. Those that fled are thankful to be away from the violence and hardly consider repatriation a viable option.

Photo: Salman Saeed


I met Nosuba at Kutupalong, now the largest refugee camp in the world, with over 500,000 people living in temporary shelters. She was not the helpless caricature painted all too often by those—including historically some in the aid community—with incentive to sensationalize. She was strong, politically savvy, thankful to Bangladesh for opening its doors, and grounded in the realities of her situation.

Make no mistake, life in Kutupalong is basic at best. Shelters are dangerously close together and sanitation and food remain concerns despite the best efforts of the UN Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, and other local and international actors. Quality education opportunities are limited, and rapid deforestation will soon give deadly qualities to the impending monsoons. Bangladesh is also not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention—it considers the Rohingya “Forcibly Displaced Nationals of Myanmar” (i.e., not refugees)—meaning, among other things, that they cannot work legally, and they have fewer protections under international law.

Despite these challenges, Kutupalong camp is not a hopeless place full of hopeless people, even though the Rohingya living there have every right to be. Stripped of their citizenship officially in 1982 after two decades of being in limbo after the military took power in 1962, the Rohingya of Rakhine state in southwestern Myanmar have been stateless and vulnerable to abuse for over a half century. One of approximately 135 ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Rohingya are among the most historically persecuted, whether for religious (they are Muslim, whereas most Burmese are Buddhist) or other reasons. The most recent violence in late 2017 drove over 650,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh, but the Rohingya have been fleeing and returning and fleeing again for generations.

The plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh may not be hopeless yet in the minds of the refugees themselves, but without longer-term strategic planning (beyond ever-changing plans for repatriation), future trouble awaits. Bangladesh itself is a developing country with plenty of development challenges without the influx of a million people arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. But domestic politics in Bangladesh arguably play the biggest role in why conversations focus on short-term humanitarian assistance and repatriation rather than on what to do with a refugee population that is likely not going anywhere anytime soon.

2018 is an election year in Bangladesh and an important referendum on the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, who has served as prime minister since 2009. Prime Minister Hasina has been rightly praised for her welcome of the Rohingya, though whether she deserves the current “mother of humanity” honorific lining the streets of cities and villages across the country is up for debate. Presumably designed to place her on the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize, the title is also undoubtedly meant for domestic political purposes. After all, who could vote against the mother of humanity?

Prime Minister Hasina and her allies are toeing a fine line. On one hand, they are welcoming Muslim brethren, publicly out of generosity of spirit and privately to establish bona fides with more hardline Islamist voters. On the other hand, they are cognizant that the welcome may be wearing thin, especially near Cox’s Bazar where a majority of the Rohingya currently live and some work informally, often for half the pay of the locals. Not wanting to alienate those voters either, politicians have focused primarily on sending them home (i.e., repatriation), hampering the ability of aid agencies to focus on critical longer-term planning and not allowing Rohingya the opportunity to take formal jobs. As the days turn into months and years, this political balancing act could have enormous humanitarian and development consequences for the Rohingya and for their host communities.

Photo: Salman Saeed


This is a problem; the challenges are big enough without politics. Complicating an already complex situation are the coming rains and typhoons that pose imminent and predictable threats to health and safety. Aid groups and the Bangladeshi government need to be preparing these people for the monsoons rather than focusing on politically motivated repatriation efforts that very few, if any, Rohingya want. If the mess and mudslides caused by a single day of rain in December are any indication of preparedness—or a fundamental lack thereof—for monsoon season, we should all be worried.

Citizenship, security, and justice. These are what Nosuba told me she needed before returning to Myanmar. Security may be part of repatriation discussions, but citizenship and justice surely are not. Conversations must shift from repatriation to support for refugees and their host communities now and for the foreseeable future.

It is time to start thinking about Nosuba and her family’s future in Bangladesh and time to stop thinking of her as a pawn in a broader political game. Though simultaneously supportive rhetoric and talk of repatriation may secure a few votes in the short term, it does nothing to solve actual and imminent problems.

Erol Yayboke is a fellow and deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program