The Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Strategies to Coordinate International Resolution of the Refugee Diaspora and Conflict in the Rakhine State

Pictured are two young, Rohingya refugees playing with water in Bangladesh by Pierre Prakash EU/ECHO 2013

Articled by Talha A. Mirza, JD 2021

Summary:

This article proposes national and international reconciliation and equal treatment for the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, primarily through Myanmar’s acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility for their plight, repatriation of the Rohingya diaspora, and their steady reintegration into Burmese society. This can be achieved through coordinated international diplomacy with organizations—ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and the UN (United Nations)—and states that currently house and assist refugees such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Strategies include refugee identification, registration, and eventual relocation–not “deportation”–programs through the financial, governmental, and logistical support of the aforementioned states and organizations. Possible obstacles to these strategies include reluctance of ASEAN support due to this strategy violating ASEAN’s third fundamental principle of noninterference in internal affairs of member states, opposition from the junta, and loss of domestic support for the NLD (National League of Democracy). Furthermore, failure leading to political turmoil and international condemnation can inflict great detriment upon Myanmar–such as increases in domestic insurgency and sectarian conflict–during this period of vast governmental reforms and transition.

Background:

Commonly referred to as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingya–whose indigenousness is contested–are comprised primarily of inhabitants of the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state. Some scholars claim the Rohingya migrated from Bengal during the period of British rule in Burma, and are also linked closely to Bangladesh through their shared religion of Islam and the Rohingya language – described as a distant variant of Bangla. However, many scholars also claim the Rohingya are indigenous to the Rakhine state and have inhabited Myanmar for centuries. Regardless, the plight of the Rohingya people has often been the center of the international human rights movement, with Myanmar drawing heavy criticisms for their contemporary inaction on the issue.

The Rohingya have long been oppressed under Myanmar’s junta rule, with the military implementing action and policies described as “ethnic cleansing”. A critical point in the  history of this persecution is the 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless by failing to recognize them as one of Myanmar’s 135 identified ethnic groups. Consequently, many entities, including the Human Rights Watch, accused Myanmar of crimes against humanity and the continuous denial of voting rights, citizenship, statehood, and other civil liberties. This has only made matters worse and escalated domestic and international tensions. Many innocent Rohingya were forced to flee, commencing the formation of the Rohingya diaspora abroad.

Nevertheless, the internal struggles shifted to conflict between the Rohingya and other domestic ethnic groups, specifically the Rakhine State Buddhists. There has since been extensive violence, turmoil, and increased Rohingya flight, with tensions culminating most recently in the 2012 Rakhine State riots where several hundred Rohingya were killed and nearly 100,000 more fled from violence. These riots have launched the persecution of the Rohingya into the global spotlight, along with other recent atrocities such as: the discovery of Thai authorities funneling Rohingya refugees into human trafficking rings, the rampant Rohingya HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the state-sanctioned expulsion of Doctors Without Borders from Myanmar due to perceived favoritism towards the Rohingya.

That being said, estimates by various organizations state that over 240,000 Rohingya are internally displaced and over 940,000 lack citizenship. Furthermore, there are over 120,000 Rohingya diaspora currently housed in Thailand, close to 500,000 in Bangladesh, and countless more in Malaysia and Indonesia, totaling approximately one-and-a-half million displaced Rohingya globally, and another one-and-a-half million “people of concern”, as defined by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Myanmar has received financial and logistical support from the UNHCR in the past, with the 2015 total budget at sixty-eight million USD. Furthermore, the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection has also provided fifty-seven million euros from 2010-2015 for Myanmar, twenty-six million euros for Bangladesh from 2007-2015, and 325,000 euros for Thailand, totaling recent contributions of eighty-four million euros for the Rohingya Crisis. Another large international aid donor is US Agency for International Development (USAID), which provided approximately sixty-nine million USD during 2016 Fiscal Year, comprised of contributions from Office of US Foreign Disaster Aid (OFDA), Food for Peace (FPP), and Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Minority(PRM). The majority of this aid is diverted solely to emergency and immediate relief. Yet, the lack of long term infrastructural aid and relief is significantly detrimental to Myanmar’s refugee crisis. Large portions of this humanitarian aid and logistical relief cannot reach certain areas containing internally displaced Rohingya, as they lie outside of Burmese governmental control. These regions are controlled by ethnic insurgents and militias, such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which seized control of a large region along the Burma-China border following the breakdown of KIO negotiations with the government.

Strategy:

The main strategy should aim to implement national and international reconciliation for the Rohingya. There is no single solution to this issue; rather reconciliation must be approached from a variety of different angles. I recommend a four-step plan encompassing international coordination and cooperation, logistical calculation of the Rohingya refugee diaspora abroad, increased funding for Myanmar and other nations housing Rohingya, and an eventual shift towards the steady societal reintegration of Rohingya and increased investment in development of the Rakhine for all ethnic inhabitants.

Firstly, Myanmar must call upon fellow ASEAN members–especially Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia–to hold a conference to ratify the UNHCR Refugee Convention and Its Protocol, as these nations, including Myanmar, can no longer deny basic fundamental rights and asylum for the displaced Rohingya. This is ideal to rally further international support, as it is a first step in the right direction towards acknowledging the problem of refugees and will make it easier to request more aid from the international organizations. However, calling upon other ASEAN members may present obstacles due to their strict adherence to the third fundamental principle of noninterference in other member states’ domestic affairs Additionally, Bangladesh must be convinced to attend said conference, as it is a key player in this crisis, and domestic and international pressure must be placed on Dhaka to work with Myanmar to draft a comprehensive shared-border refugee policy, which should include the immediate lifting of the Bengali ban on NGOs helping Rohingya refugees.

Secondly, although I have provided several figures and estimates regarding the size and logistics of the Rohingya diaspora, they are merely that – just estimates. The UNHCR and respective leaders of each nation housing the diaspora should establish a report on the current number of refugees, in addition to how much funding and other non-monetary aid is needed for their repatriation. This will include establishing re-integration camps in Myanmar and working with other nations hosting Rohingya to expand their refugee camps and registration services.

Thirdly, increases in funding must be requested from the UNHCR, EU, and USAID, specifically for Myanmar’s Refugee PILLAR 1 program, their Stateless PILLAR 2 program, and their IDP PILLAR 4 program. Bangladesh currently receives more than Myanmar for the PILLAR 1 program. Moreover, only two percent of USAID relief to Myanmar comprises allocations towards agrarian infrastructural development, which must be increased in efforts to expedite economic recovery and assist in the implementation of the final step of steady reintegration. It is quite probable that nations such as Thailand and Bangladesh will be reluctant to commit even more resources towards this strategy. If this occurs, increased public pressure–in coordination with UNHCR and OIC–could facilitate increased humanitarian relief funding and cooperation with said nations.

The final step is long-term Rohingya societal integration, and increased development of the Rakhine state to quell accusations of neglecting other Rakhine ethnic inhabitants. This can be commenced by repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law and recognizing the Rohingya as one of the now 136 various ethnic groups in Myanmar, and by integrating civil liberties for the Rohingya, such as voting rights. Following repatriation, the use of relief funds should be shifted towards long term development in the region to finally achieve national and international reconciliation. At this point, Myanmar–given their history of success–should request more loans from the World Bank to harvest the abundant natural resources relatively unused due to poor distributive infrastructure. This would include creating a self-sufficient regional focus on fishing and further natural gas extraction, in order to promote prosperity for all in the economically disenfranchised Rakhine state.