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Rohingyas: asylum seekers, not infiltrators

June 26, 2012

DHAKA: The Rohingya issue has received a fair degree of media coverage over the last few weeks. Admittedly, voices in favour of granting admission were far outweighed by those sharing the government’s position of denying admission. While the former based their case on moral and legal grounds, the latter's case has been shaped by, what one may say, misguided notion of state interest and unsound understanding of the international human rights and refugee laws. Politicians, pundits and policy makers belonging to the latter group have put several reasons in justifying their position. This brief essay will examine the efficacy of their reasoning.

One of the most common arguments put forward by the opponents of the admission and asylum to the Rohingyas is that Bangladesh is an overpopulated country and cannot afford to shoulder another group of aliens. Implicit in this line of argument is that these Rohingyas are here by choice, and resource constraint is a valid ground for rejecting them.

However, any objective analysis of the unfolding of events in northern Rakhine district would reveal that the Rohingyas were compelled to flee their usual place of residence. Mention must be made that during a visit to the affected areas a UN team found smouldering villages and estimated that about 30,000 people have been displaced. The regime itself has conceded that as many as 90 persons have so far been killed in the mayhem. Under such circumstances there is no scope to view them as economic migrants attempting to move into the greener pastures of Bangladesh. One would need to be a super cynic to suggest that these asylum seekers are putting on a carefully scripted act.

Another allegation against the Rohingyas is that they are not law abiding and are engaged in anti-social activities in the Cox Bazar — Ukhia region. A growth in their number would lead to further deterioration of law and order situation in the concerned areas. This claim that the Rohingyas are more inclined to criminal activities than the locals is not borne by facts. No research has been done on the issue nor has any analysis of police records been conducted that establishes merit of such claim.

This perception is very much in consonance with the stereotypical view of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees held world-wide. These voiceless people make the perfect scapegoats for any and every ill of any society. In reality, the human security of Rohingyas has all along been at stake. Often they are the victims of exploitation by employers, contractors and recruiters. This writer has documented many cases in which employers, contractors and fishing trawler operators systematically underpaid Rohingya workers. In certain cases they were denied substantial portion of their due earnings.

Rohingyas have been blamed for causing harm to the environment around the vicinity of their shelters. The logical inference is that presence of more Rohingyas would contribute to further damage. The refusal of successive governments of Bangladesh to extend protection to the Rohingyas who came after 1992, when the window to claim to refugee status was shut down, have forced these people to squatter in a disorganised way. Unlike those who arrived before 1992 and were fortunate enough to gain refugee status and be housed in the camps, the late-comers did not have access to shelter nor any kind of support for subsistence.

Under such circumstances, they had little option but to depend on natural resources for their basic survival. The ill-conceived policy of Bangladesh authorities to deny access to status determination procedure to the “late arrivals” and prohibition on international community and NGOs to extend support to this vulnerable group took severe toll both on human security of the Rohingyas as well as the natural environment. Therefore, it would be unfair to lay blame only on the Rohingya community for causing harm to the environment.

Rohingyas have been blamed for usurping Bangladesh labour market in countries like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Some have gone to the extent to suggest that when these Rohingyas are engaged in criminal activities in those countries the blame falls on Bangladeshi workers. Again, these are mere conjectures as there is little evidence to support these claims. If these Rohingyas had indeed travelled with Bangladeshi passports then it speaks volumes of the laxity of immigration and passport department of Bangladesh government. It may be pertinent to mention here that for their stateless condition the Rohingyas receive a modest level of favourable treatment with regard to employment in Saudi Arabia.

Some quarters are putting forward the argument that at a time when Myanmar is opening up, the Rohingya issue should not be allowed to be an irritant to improving diplomatic relations with that country. This group strongly feels that real politik and pragmatism dictate that we should shun vexing human rights issues to promotion of economic ties.

One would argue that “constructive engagement” and "look east" policies of various governments have yielded little results for Bangladesh in the past. While Bangladesh was experimenting with all those options, Burma continued with its policy of ethnic cleansing of different kind by creating an unfavourable condition for the Rohingyas in the northern Rakhine state, so that they were compelled to leave.

A few commentators have argued that by denying admission to the Rohingyas Bangladesh has not breached any legal obligation, as the country has not ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It has been pointed out that this claim is unconvincing as Bangladesh is obliged to uphold principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is a State party to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These instruments oblige Bangladesh not to send individuals forcibly to their country of origin if there is threat to their life and liberty.

Some experts have further argued that, as the Rohingyas were not victims of State persecution they cannot claim refugee status.

This is quite an erroneous reading of the relevant section of international refugee law (detailed out in the para 65 of Status Determination Handbook on Refugees of UNHCR, the authoritative text on the asylum claim). Refugee law states that the agents of persecution can be State agents as well as non-State actors. The law therefore covers all forms of persecution: (a) when it originates directly from the official agents of the government or is instigated by the State authorities and also (b) when private individuals inflict persecution.

Therefore, to qualify for refugee status one does not have to be subjected to only "State persecution." Persecution in the hands of non-state actors is very much a legitimate ground for seeking asylum. In the recent Rohingya case narratives of victims as well international media reports quoting independent sources in the northern Rakhine state have noted that in many instances law enforcement agencies not only abetted arson and torture, but also actively aided the perpetrators in those acts. We need to be mindful of the fact that persecution is a broad concept and encompasses human rights violations and other kinds of serious harm and intolerable predicament. The Rohingya case meets all these prerequisites.

From the above discussion one may conclude that both in government and non-governmental quarters prejudiced view of the Rohingyas have precluded a rational response with regard to the newly arrivals.

By arrangement with The Daily Star