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Children attend a class on the Koran conducted by a Rohingya Muslim religious teacher at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar. REUTERS/

Bangladesh’s refugee policies

Shudha Chowdhury

Bangladesh shares it’s borders with India to the east, west, and north and with Myanmar in the south-east. Off the coast of Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is the world’s biggest delta, which makes it prone to several natural disasters. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated the population of Bangladesh to be 166,280,712 in June 2014[1] indicating a density of 1127 people per square kilometers, making it one of the most densely populated nations in the world. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), Bangladesh currently hosts 232,597 refugees and asylum seekers. Almost all of these refugees and asylum seekers are Rohingya Muslims or Burmese from Myanmar.

Since it independence Bangladesh has been affected by Civil war, famine, natural disasters, and prolonged political unrest, which has left hundreds and thousands of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPS).  The 1971 war between the then-East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and West Pakistan left a substantial number of displaced Urdu-speaking people (bihari people) within the country. The Biharis were not granted Bangladeshi citizenship and were stripped of their jobs and positions in society and forced to take up residence in one of the hundreds of overcrowded and dilapidated urban camp settlements for their political support towards the Pakistani regime. Whilst many of these Urdu-speaking minorities thought they would be permitted to move back to Pakistan, only a small percentage was admitted. For almost 40 years, this minority remained stateless as non-citizens of Bangladesh or Pakistan.  They were denied access to government services, including education, formal employment, property ownership, and driver’s licenses.

In 2008, a landmark Supreme Court decision, granted nationality to almost 300,000 Urdu-speaking minorities. This was a straightforward, easy and momentous decision, which large addressed the issue of stateless people within the country. A large percentage of adults from this population were registered to vote in the 2009 election[2]. As a result of decades of isolation and discrimination, 94% of the populations within this group have not had access to formal education, which is almost double the national rate. Despite being registered as voters and recognised as citizens, many Urdu speakers are still consistently discriminated against and are unable to obtain government jobs, access to credit, receive passports or obtain compensation for their property, which was confiscated during the war.

The largest group of refugees in Bangladesh are currently the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar. Following constitutional discrimination against them through citizenship laws that have particularly stopped recognising Rohingyas as Myanmar citizens, and their institutional ethnic cleansing since the late 1970s, a total exceeding 300,000 Rohingyas have found themselves across the border in Bangladesh[3]. According to UNHCR, however, only 10% of them are receiving any kind of help from the government. The rest remain undocumented in make-shift camps with little to no access to food, shelter, healthcare etc.

Since 2009, Bangladesh has been criticised for playing political “ping-pong” by trying to repatriate some 9000 refugees back to Burma, knowing full well the fact that they may face persecution upon return. Additionally, the government attempted to get three prominent international aid organisations – Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), and Muslim Aid – to cease providing assistance to Rohingyas living in Cox’s Bazaar and surrounding areas in 2012[4].

Strictly speaking, Bangladesh is under no legal obligation to host refugees given that it is neither a party to the UN convention relating to the status of nor its protocol of 1967. Also there are no national laws which define and regulate the status of refugees within the country. Whilst Bangladesh is signatory to a number of international human rights treaties whose provisions indirectly promote the rights of refugees, these are not enforceable in courts of law. The exception to this is if specific provisions are incorporated into existing national laws or given effect through separate legislation.

However, the constitution of Bangladesh upholds the right to life and liberty of all individuals. Not only are the lives of Bangladeshi citizens guaranteed, but the lives of everyone who inhabit this country are assured protection with respect to liberty. However, despite several legal instruments guaranteeing the right of people living within the country, there has still not been any particular legal instrument aimed at stateless peoples alone, despite the fact that such groups have been living in Bangladesh since its independence.

In 2014, the government declared that they would document all Burmese people in Bangladesh illegally or without documentation and work to provide temporary shelter to them, before making cross-governmental efforts to repatriate them. However, this has not been put into action and there is still a lack of legislation aimed at stateless people within Bangladesh. The country’s long political struggle has played an active role in this. There has been little stability in terms of trade, commerce, or even day-to-day matters within the country for the past half a decade. Nationwide strikes have left the economy crippled and the people angry as they have been unable to achieve anything.

With a growing amount of tension, the government has been unable to live up to expectations and have been looking to find ways to repatriate Rohingya refugees despite the fact that they may face persecution and severe human rights violations if they are sent back to Myanmar. The lack of any relief mechanism within the country, political instability, and poverty have all placed the already overpopulated Bangladesh into a difficult position when dealing with refugees. The country’s lack of response mechanisms can be owed to the political instability, the lack of international pressure, and most importantly the government’s unwillingness to host refugees altogether.

Shudha Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi human rights activist.

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