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Sheikh Hasina pledged support to refugees at the UN, but Bangladesh is shutting out Rohingyas
Monday, 28 November 2016

Two months ago, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stood at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and gave a speech in front of assembled government delegations. After quoting her father, the country’s independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina said:

“Violent conflicts continue to rage in several places, with heavy toll of human lives. Those fleeing from conflicts are often denied protection across borders. Dire humanitarian needs are at times ignored or access blocked. What crime Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year innocent child of Syria who drowned in the sea, had committed? What was the fault of 5-year-old Omran, who was seriously wounded by airstrike at his own home in Aleppo? It is indeed hard to bear all these cruelties as a mother. Won’t these happenings stir the world conscience?”

Such views would, of course, be expected from the leader of a country whose independence in 1971 followed a war that resulted in many millions of Bengalis obtaining sanctuary in India.

Two months on from her speech to the UN, however, the prime minister seems to have totally forgotten her very own words – and her country’s history.

Rather than giving sanctuary to thousands of Rohingyas fleeing extreme Army violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Hasina’s government is using armed guards to prevent boats carrying hundreds of the refugees, including children, from landing on the coast of southern Bangladesh, and has rejected the United Nations’ plea to open the country’s borders.

Amnesty International has described the Bangladesh government’s decision to push back the fleeing Rohingyas as callous.

Deaf to UN plea

On November 18, the United Nations urged the government to give sanctuary to Rohingyas fleeing a Myanmar military operation that is alleged to have razed villages and brutalised residents. The military operation followed attacks on police outposts that killed 10 police officers on october 9, which the Myanmar government claims were committed by a Rohingya group.

“We are appealing to the government of Bangladesh to keep its border with Myanmar open and allow safe passage to any civilians from Myanmar fleeing violence,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated at a press briefing in Geneva.

A spokesman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told AFP, “Up to 30,000 people are now estimated to be displaced and thousands more affected by the October 9 armed attacks and subsequent security operations across the north of Rakhine state. This includes as many as 15,000 people who, according to unverified information, may have been displaced after clashes between armed actors and the military on November 12-13.”

The news agency AFP reported that on the same day the UN made its appeal, Bangladesh government enforcement authorities patrolling the Naf river, which separates the country’s southeastern border from western Myanmar, pushed back a group of Rohingyas trying to enter the country. “There were 125 Myanmar nationals in seven wooden boats,” Coast Guard official Nafiur Rahman told AFP. “They included 61 women and 36 children. We resisted them from entering our water territory.”

Another Coast Guard officer said he saw two bodies floating in the river while on patrol.

Two days later, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said that the Border Guard Bangladesh and the Coast Guard had been alerted to prevent the illegal entry of Rohingyas at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. “Rohingya migration is an uncomfortable issue for Bangladesh,” Kamal was quoted as saying by the Dhaka Tribune.“Hopefully, no more illegal migration will happen now.”

The Daily Star reported that at Teknaf, the Border Guard Bangladesh had increased the number of troops at border outposts to prevent infiltration. A colonel with the paramilitary force was quoted as saying that they were holding meetings with residents, including fishermen, to help them stop the Rohingyas from entering the country.

And four days later, AFP continued to report that the government was doing all it could to stop the Rohingyas from landing. It said Border Guard Bangladesh troops had blocked nearly 300 Rohingyas from crossing the border overnight, the highest number since the crisis began last month. “We’re preventing them on the zero line, especially those who were trying to cross the barbed-wire fences erected by Myanmar,” an official was quoted as saying.

Despite these efforts, however, as many as 2,000 Rohingyas are reported to have avoided detection and entered Bangladesh, though the government maintained that it was determined to push back into Myanmar those they can detain.

Rohingyas in Bangladesh

There is a sizeable Rohingya population in Bangladesh with hundreds of thousands of them having fled to the country in the last 25 years to escape persecution from the military junta and Buddhist nationalists.

At present, there are two distinct groups of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. There are 33,000 registered refugees living under UNHCR protection in camps near Cox’s Bazaar, which they can only leave with permission from camp commanders. And then there are another 300,000 or so unregistered Rohingyas living in makeshift settlements surrounding the official camps who have no legal status and no legal rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed willingness to help the Bangladesh government cover the costs of registering the unregistered refugees and providing them services, but the government has refused to allow this to happen.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya camps are perceived as a hotbed of criminality as well as a national security concern. Government officials also argue that the country is small and heavily populated and they do not have the resources to assist the Rohingyas. In addition, Rohingyas are viewed with additional suspicion as they are religiously conservative and seen as natural allies of the Opposition political party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Sheikh Hasina’s stand

The Bangladesh prime minister’s current position is more consistent with her past record than her sweet words at the UN General Assembly.

In an interview to Al Jazeera Television in 2012, which was also a time when the government was stopping fleeing Rohingyas from entering Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina was asked, “These are people in a desperate humanitarian situation and surely, there are basic principles, human principles, moral principles that compel you to help them?” She had replied, “Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country. We cannot bear this burden.”

The interviewer then said, “But we have seen pictures ourselves. Bangladeshi guards physically turning people back, returning them to danger.” The prime minister said the guards had behaved in a humanitarian manner, “providing food for them, medicine for them, money for them and just allowed them to return to their own homes”.

She denied the claim made by Al Jazeera that the Rohingyas were “forced to return to their homes”, saying, “No, they did not force them. Rather they pursued them, that they should go back and they went back.”

The interviewer then said the prime minister “must know full well [the Rohingyas] are being persecuted in their own country, they tried to run away and they are refused entry to your own country”. To this, Hasina replied, “Why should we let them enter our country?” She added that she believed Myanmar government officials who had told her that the Rohingyas were living in a “convivial atmosphere” in their country.

Dhaka embarrassment?

Sheikh Hasina’s failure to live up to her words and commitments at the United Nations is certainly tragic for the Rohingyas, but it may also prove embarrassing for her government, which is due to host the Global Forum on Migration and Development in two weeks time in Dhaka.

This forum is intended to build on the work undertaken at the UN Summit on Migrants and Refugees, which had taken place just days before Hasina spoke at the General Assembly, and where she had, surprisingly given her previous position, been a leading participant. At the refugee summit, Bangladesh had become a signatory to the New York Declaration that referred to “our profound solidarity with, and support for, the millions of people in different parts of the world who, for reasons beyond their control, are forced to uproot themselves and their families from their homes”.

The declaration added, “Refugees and migrants in large movements often face a desperate ordeal. We are determined to save lives. Our challenge is above all moral and humanitarian.”

The concept paper for the meeting in Dhaka refers to the need to provide “safe and legal pathways for [migrants and refugees] seeking protection”.

This is something the government is steadfastly refusing to do in relation to the Rohingyas seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh.


Written by: David Bergman