ASIA/BANGLADESH - Awami League wins elections; a Rohingya integration plan is urgently needed

Monday, 8 January 2024 rohingya   refugees  

Chittagong (Agenzia Fides) - "For about six years, Bangladesh has welcomed more than a million Rohingyas. These displaced people found refuge in the camps of Cox's Bazar but, six years after the exodus, no lasting solution has been found in sight for them. The Rohingya may not be able to return home to Myanmar in the near future. The government should think of a plan to integrate them into Bangladeshi society." This is the hope expressed, the day after the vote in the national elections, by Father Terence Rodrigues, vicar general of the archdiocese of Chattogram, in whose territory is the district of Cox's bazaar, where the Rohingyas who fled from Myanmar reside in 33 refugee camps. The appeal is addressed to the government led by Sheikh Hasina, who obtained her fifth mandate with a landslide victory in the January 7 elections. In a vote boycotted by the opposition - who considered it undemocratic - Hasina's party, the Awami League, obtained over 3/4 of the parliamentary seats.
The Electoral Commission announced this morning that the participation rate was around 40% and that Hasina's party obtained 223 seats out of 300 in the unicameral parliament. Faced with the government's new mandate, the Bangladeshi Catholic community, also in agreement with the calls of Pope Francis, is asking the political world to approach the issue of the Rohingya on new bases in order to find a solution to their prolonged state of precariousness. “Since the 1980s,” recalls Father Terence, “the Rohingya have been crossing the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh to escape persecution and widespread conflict. The first major influx took place in 1991-1992, when more than 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following a severe state repression in Myanmar. Another mass influx began in August 2017 after the Myanmar military's crackdown in northern Rakhine state. Since then, more than 750,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh, and the vast majority of them are women and children. Bangladesh is their preferred destination given the religious and ethnic proximity as well as the historical affiliation of the two countries." A first problem, pointed out by the priest, concerns the status: "The government of Bangladesh, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, recognizes the Rohingya who found refuge in the Cox's Bazar camps as " forced migrants and foreign nationals". The government does not formally recognize their refugee status and, considering the settlement in Cox's Bazar as a 'temporary' solution, has demanded voluntary repatriation to Myanmar". The humanitarian situation in 33 refugee camps, he said, "has been stabilized thanks to a massive aid operation, with the government, UN agencies and NGOs responding to the basic humanitarian needs of these people, such as food, shelter, clean water, healthcare and education. But despite these laudable efforts, creating livelihoods for the Rohingya remains a vital issue." It must be said that the Rohingya do not have freedom of movement or authorization to work, but that they are engaged in informal activities, both for education and for income-generating crafts. “So far, no government policy has been put in place to integrate refugees into the nation, as is happening, even gradually, in other countries. We should move in this direction,” hopes the vicar. The living conditions inside the camps are dramatic: “They are overcrowded,” he says, “poorly lit and lacking adequate sanitary facilities.” Camp residents, particularly women and children, are exposed to violence, exploitation and human trafficking. There is a shortage of medical supplies and personnel, limited access to sufficient and nutritious food; educational facilities are limited and there are barriers to comprehensive psychosocial support programs for people who have experienced trauma. A joint effort of humanitarian organizations, governments and the international community is necessary to provide an effective and sustainable response to the Rohingya people." In this context, Caritas Bangladesh is one of the strong and active actors in Cox's Bazar, "emergency response" interventions and, in six years, it has offered assistance to more than 300,000 refugees. The problem of armed conflicts also arises. As of 2023, at least 48 Rohingya have lost their lives in clashes and shootings. The Rohingya camps are located in a region where drug trafficking is present. “Taking advantage of the current conflicts between factions within the camp, this illegal trade further aggravates the difficulties faced by the Rohingya. Currently, the"Refugees live in fear and uncertainty, with armed conflicts and kidnappings being the order of the day," notes the vicar with concern. Furthermore, "the prolonged stay of Rohingya refugees is straining the resources available to the community living in areas adjacent to the camps, with whom tensions have arisen. This has led to public hostility, complicating the situation general,” he concludes. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 8/1/2023)