The Response of Bangladesh to Burmese Refugees


Refugees are often tarnished in the media as pursuing a perverse agenda to pilfer another country’s resources to achieve a better life for themselves. However, to cast one’s identity in terms of refugee status is not the luxury some seem to portray it to be. Rather, refugee status involves immense sacrifice, being driven away from a familiar culture to a foreign land and often entails being cast as an ‘outsider.’ The Rohingya Muslim population of Burma was forced to flee following renewed persecution by the military. In Burma, Rohingya Muslims are labeled ‘immigrants’ and thus denied citizenship and civil rights. As a result of horrific rape, burning of homes and murder, close to 1 million of the Rohingya Muslim  population are seeking refuge elsewhere, with many turning to Bangladesh. Like many other refugees, they turned to a neighbouring state which shared a border with their home territory, so to avoid an exceptionally long journey, albeit still fraught with danger. However, their arrival in Bangladesh, a country that was formed only in 1971 as a result of the independence war with Pakistan, has not been met with much joy.

Data from the World Bank shows that, in 2010, 18.5% of the Bangladeshi population was living with less than $1.90 a day, the level of absolute poverty as by international standards. Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with 1251.5 persons per sq. km in 2016. Burma, instead, had a population density of only 83.2 per square kilometre. This reveals some of the issues that the Bangladeshi government and people face on a daily basis, which the influx of refugees would only serve to exacerbate. Moreover, Rohingya Muslims already comprised between 300,000 and 500,000 of the Bangladesh population, living as ‘undocumented Myanmar nationals. This shows how they are associated with a state that refuses to recognize their existence by another state that does the same. These were to be joined by 65,000 others fleeing Burma following the increased persecution in October 2016.

The tensions associated with incorporating yet more people into the region have led to a number of initiatives attempting to deal with the issues. One of these was the proposal in 2015 to relocate thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Thengar Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal that floods at high tide and is thus uninhabitable. This would also be only a temporary initiative, with the ultimate aim being the return of this community to Burma. A statement was issued by the Bangladeshi government on January 26th 2017: according to this “the identified refugees should be arrested or pushed back to the camps if they try to go out beyond the assigned boundaries,” with the possibility of the Rohingya Muslims being moved to the island once again being raised.

This radical solution addresses the underlying concerns of the Bangladeshi community. Bangladesh never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, revealing initial worries about having to incorporate an excessive number people into the population. As such Human Rights Watch have called on international donors to support the burden that Bangladesh is placed under. In December 2016, the EU provided €300 000 in assistance, a credible step yet ultimately too little to dissipate the concerns of the Bangladeshi.

Concern also rests with the racist attitudes being instigated against the Rohingya community. The UN in 2015 described them as one of the ‘world’s most persecuted minorities.’ Not only Bangladesh, but also Indonesia and Malaysia have restricted access and attempted to turn them away. Indeed, the Malaysian Deputy Home Minister in May 2015 stated that ‘we cannot welcome here’, in reference to refugee Rohingya Muslims.

The status of the Rohingya Muslim remains one of flux and ultimately statelessness. You can learn more about how the UK can respond by looking at this parliament petition HEREIf you would like to donate to the refugees of Burma, you can do so by clicking HERE.

- This piece was written by Sophie Burke, who is studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge and is part of the STAND UK Education Taskforce.