DESPITE our efforts, the Rohingya refugee crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon. The crisis has presented us with both opportunities and hardships. The government’s decision to allow the Rohinyga refugees in Bangladesh has been globally applauded and improved the image of our country. However, aside from gaining international goodwill, we can also use the refugee crisis to strengthen our economic and political standing in the region. To that end our policies should be aimed at meeting several objectives. These objectives can be set as short and long term goals. During their period in the refugee camps, as short term goals, we must focus on: 1) lessen the negative economic impact of hosting the Rohingyas; 2) allow them to contribute to the local economy; 3) prevent radicalisation among them through promotion of secular values; 4) tackle criminal activities within the camp; and, 5) allow them to organize politically so that they can better fight for their rights. When they go back to Rakhain state, our long term goals should be that 1) they continue to act as a consumer base for our goods and services, 2) become a medium through which we can enter the markets in Myanmar, and 3) they give us the scope to gain some strategic advantage over Myanmar.
In order to achieve these goals, we need a robust refugee policy that seeks to socially and economically empower the Rohingyas. We have two very different models before us — Pakistan and Uganda. Pakistan has been hosting 1.4 million Afghan refugees for decades while Uganda has given refuge to over 1.5 million Africans fleeing war and violence. The approaches of the two governments are very different and so were the results. In Pakistan, successive governments have repeatedly excluded the Afghans from the formal economy and refused them access to educational and health care services. The results of such policies were, of course, the continued vulnerability of the refugee and an added burden to the struggling Pakistani economy. Unlike Pakistan, Uganda has been praised by the UNHCR and has been cited as a model host country for refugees fleeing war and violence in surrounding countries. Refugees in Uganda enjoy freedom of movement, can sell and buy movable properties and lease or sublease land. They have access to the formal economy as they can be legally hired and can start their own businesses. They can also avail various social, educational, legal and healthcare services. Refugees of East African origin can even open bank accounts — an economic right that is occasionally extended to other refugees too. A 2014 study by the Humanitarian Innovation Project found that over half of refugees were self-employed through operating business, engaging in small trade or working as vendors. The same study showed that in Kampala, 21 per cent of refugee business owners created jobs in the market through employment and 40 per cent of those employed by them were Ugandan nationals.
Given the two vastly different models and results, it should not be hard for us to decide which is better in terms of dealing with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh. A policy that closely resembles the one undertaken by the Ugandan government would help achieve most of the short-term and long-term economic goals. Allowing the refugees to legally work or start businesses will eventually reduce government expenditure on them. Financially independent Rohingyas will pay taxes and spend in the local economy. We are currently trying to grow our services and IT sector. Given how such sectors have been traditionally closed to the Rohingya in Myanmar, they will have to keep relying on our services and IT sectors even after they go back in Myanmar if we give them access to such services now. The refugee crisis has shown us that we are a stakeholder in the conflict and in the economic development in Arakan. Being a secular country with a Muslim majority population, Bangladesh is in a unique position to utilise the religious and cultural links we have with the various ethno-religious groups that live in India, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Consider this, Muslims in India, Nepal and Myanmar are often excluded from formal financial sectors. This provides us with a huge opportunity to target these populations for the growth of some of our specific sectors like education, banking and IT. This is also true in case of our ethnic identity since Bengalis are a large population group in Assam and Jharkhand and are a majority in West Bengal and Tripura. If these communities grow as a result of their economic links with Bangladesh and gains political leverage in their respective countries, then Bangladesh in turn gains some strategic foothold in these states. The Malaysian religious and ethnic link with the Moro people in the Philippines gave the Malaysian government the opportunity to act as mediator between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and help achieve the recent peace deal. Now Malaysia is in a prime position to not only economically expand in the newly established Muslim ruled autonomous entity of Bangsamoro but also utilise the goodwill of the Filipinos to advance its regional objectives. Mahathir Mohammad in his latest visit to the country cautioned the Filipinos against becoming indebted to China, something he would not have done unless his own prestige and the goodwill generated from the mediation process allowed him to do so. Similarly, we can utilise our links with the Rohingya, in the event where they go back home, to get a strategic foothold in Myanmar.
The major security threat from hosting the Rohingya is religious extremism. The only effective way of dealing with this would be to introduce secular education among the Rohingya and encourage the secular leadership among them. So long as madrasas remain the main service provider for their education, religion will play a disproportionate role in their struggle and this in turn will keep attracting the attention of global Jihadi groups. Therefore, we must emphasise on education and leadership. It is also of vital importance that women are included in the Rohingya leadership under Bangladeshi patronage as this will help garner more sympathy from Western policy makers and the press. We must allow the Rohingya to tell their own stories, but we should use our leverage over them to shape their struggle as a mostly secular, ethnic and democratic one. Religion should be a factor, else it will turn into just another ethnic struggle in Myanmar that nobody pays attention to, but that factor should be used carefully and strategically.
Overall an educated and secular leadership leading a socially and economically Rohingya population will ensure the long-term survival and development of the Rohingya population once they go back to Myanmar. If we play our cards right, we may gain some major advantage over our main strategic competitor in the region, Myanmar.
Adhit Rahman is a Knowledge Mobilisation Student Assistant with On the Move Partnership in Newfoundland, Canada.
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