Prolonged Rohingya Crisis: A Regional Solution

The Prolonged Rohingya Refugee Crisis: a Regional Solution

The future is not looking good for the thousands of displaced Rohingyas. Last year, close to 600,000 escaped the pogrom unleashed by the Myanmar army aided by machete wielding Buddhist neighbors and escaped to Bangladesh swelling the numbers already there.

Bangladesh has given shelter to these desperate refugees. But it is swamped by this sudden, huge influx. Large squalid camps have sprung up in southern Bangladesh near Cox’s Bazar. This is a poor, underdeveloped area with scant resources. The Rohingyas put up flimsy shelters, a few sticks of bamboo covered with a tarp or thatch, if available. They build on any available ground, often the most undesirable lands left fallow by the local Bangladeshis. Cyclones from the Bay of Bengal often ravage the area. During rains it becomes a sea of mud. Diarrhea, cholera and other infectious diseases are a constant threat. Clean water is scarce. Aid agencies cannot keep up. Even when food is available, the paucity of good roads makes it impossible to reach everyone. Same for mobile clinics and schools. Since Rohingyas are not allowed to work legally, the adult males scrounge for whatever odd jobs they can find as hired daily laborers. They are often exploited and cheated. Malnutrition is rife. Girls as young as thirteen are lured by unscrupulous locals into the sex trade and find their way into the hotels of nearby Cox’s Bazar. Often, this is the only source of income for the family.

A solution to this crisis is needed and fast, otherwise the shantytowns will inevitably turn into permanent Rohingya refugee camps. The inescapable comparison is with Palestinian refugee camps. This does not inspire confidence. The long term consequences could be very destabilizing. The Muslim Rohingyas are surrounded by Hindu majority India to the north, Buddhist majority Myanmar to the south and atheist China in the east. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Bangladesh and this pernicious ideology could easily find many willing followers in the squalid refugee camps. If so, it would send shock waves through the restive Muslim populations in the neighboring countries and pit radical Islam against Buddhism and Hinduism. The resulting conflagration would eclipse that in the Middle East.

A radical step is for China and India to take the lead in forcing Myanmar and Bangladesh to seek a solution for a Rohingya homeland. These are the regional superpowers and they should play the part. China can influence the generals in Myanmar who benefit enormously from their neighbor’s largesse. China should persuade the generals to demarcate land for the Rohingyas in northern Rakhine. It is only fair since they have been living there for generations. This would not be popular with the local Buddhists, but ethnic cleansing and mass murder cannot be condoned. Similarly, India has some leverage in Bangladesh and should insist on better care for the refugees in the interim. The UN should take a more active role. More aid is needed in the short term to feed, and house the refugees. It is time for the rich Gulf States to show solidarity with their Muslim brethren and open their wallets. The West should realize that the honeymoon with Aung San Suu Kye and the new government in Myanmar is over and threaten to impose sanctions again if the Rohingya refugees are not peacefully resettled and their safety ensured.

The world cannot keep turning a blind eye to the desperate plight of nearly 1 million stateless people. The consequences of inaction could be devastating.

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