Contemporary issues, the refugee ‘crisis’ and proposed ‘solutions’


This book has been written during a global pandemic when the ‘age of migration' (Castles et al., 2014) outlined at the beginning of this book has been questioned, social distancing in places such as camps in Greece and Bangladesh has been impossible, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matters movement have seen statues of colonists and slavers fall, and new questions are being asked about the lives of those seeking asylum or being forced to migrate across the globe.

This chapter introduces and addresses just some of the contemporary situations for the forcibly displaced, arbitrarily drawn from those occurring during the past five years. However, as will be seen in cases such as the Rohingya from Burma, it is always vital to look at the historic backdrop to these situations that are today being described as refugee or migration ‘crisis’ situations. A discussion around the ‘migration crisis’ following refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas reinforces the idea that viewing the historic backdrop and backstories involved is essential to understanding migration but also appropriate policy responses, protection and assistance. Some recent ideas to find solutions for the forcibly displaced are outlined, and some speculatory comments are made on the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic and how the study of forced migration might engage further in issues of race and racism. Suggested further reading then completes this book.

The Rohingya from Myanmar

The Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar are considered to be amongst the most persecuted minorities in the world. This Muslim group who lives in a majority' Buddhist country, has experienced discrimination and persecution for decades. This has included arbitrary arrest, detention, extortion, severe limitations on marriage and freedom of movement and a range of other human rights violations, not least deprivation of their Myanmar citizenship (Ibrahim, 2016).

This deprivation of citizenship has occurred over time, from being described as Rohingya in the 1961 Census, to the 1974 Constitution, which removed the status of Rohingya and insisted on identity cards describing them as ‘Foreigners’, again reinforced in the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. As a direct result of their statelessness, the Rohinyga now face the denial of basic human rights. It has been argued by de Chickera (2018) that the statelessness of the Rohingya has not been adequately factored into the responses to the Rohingya situation. As de Chickera suggests:

There are many reasons why this is so, and many seen and unseen consequences. It reflects a wider lack of capacity among humanitarian and other actors to identify statelessness, recognise how it relates to their work and respond accordingly. It also reflects a lack of serious engagement - by all influential players — with the most important, structural and root causes of the crisis. Inevitably, this has contributed to the cyclical denial of identity, persecution, displacement, lack of protection and repatriation that has plagued the Rohingya since the 1970s.

(de Chickera, 2018:7)

Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar before. In 1978, some 290,000 people fled Myanmar, followed by a repatriation of some 180,000 people. Between 1991 and 1992, 260,000 people fled the country, again followed by a repatriation of around 200,000 people. As Crisp recounts, the repatriations in the 1970s and 1990s involved ‘large numbers of Rohingya refugees (who] were [sic] returned to Myanmar in a manner that was premature, involuntary and unsafe’ (2018:13).

From 2012 onwards the decades of persecution took on a new and intensified form, with violence and segregation escalating (Green et al., 2015:99). International advocacy organisations had been describing the situation for the Rohingya as a process of ‘slow-burning genocide’ over the past 35 years (Zarni and Cowley, 2014), the final stages of‘a genocidal process’ (Green et al., 2015:99), and ‘genocide’ (Fortify Rights, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018). During 2015, media reports drew attention to Rohingya refugees having crossed the Andaman Sea and having nowhere to disembark as Southeast Asian countries denied asylum. Media outlets also reported graves found in jungle camps in southern Thailand bordering Malaysia, describing how ‘smugglers’ and/or ‘traffickers’ were exploiting and holding people in camps for months while ransoms were demanded from their families inside Myanmar.

Thereafter, consistent reports have indicated that since violence in Rakh-ine State in August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh, joining existing Rohingya communities and a total of some 900,000 people, one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the world. This violence by the Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya, replicated the killings, rapes, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and looting of villages seen in other ethnic States across the country. Attacks against the civilian population were considered to have been systematic and coordinated, intended to drive the Rohingya population out of Myanmar. For

Contemporary issues and the refugee ‘crisis’ 199 example, an attack on the village of Tula Toli on 30 August 2017 saw hundreds of men separated from women and children, rounded up along a riverbank and executed in front of their families. Many women and children were killed or raped, and the village was looted and burned to the ground. As Human Rights Watch (2017) demonstrates with satellite images, whole villages were destroyed in Rakhine State during this violence.

Refugee camps in Bangladesh are spread over an area in Cox’s Bazar and, since their arrival, overcrowding, health issues, and cyclone and monsoon preparedness have been key considerations. People remain in precarious situations, almost completely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Discussions around hosting Rohingya on an uninhabited and muddy Bay of Bengal island called Bhasan Char have been ongoing, seen as a temporary arrangement to ease congestion in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Beyond Bangladesh, other Rohingya refugees have tried sea routes to Thailand, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. There are also an estimated 40,000 Rohingya living in India. However, refugee camps close to Delhi in India were burned down in April 2018. Discussions about repatriation to Myanmar have also been ongoing in Bangladesh with commentators suggesting that this is premature and, like the repatriations of the 1970s and 1990s, likely to be unsafe, involuntary and undignified given that repressive laws and policies are yet to be dismantled within Myanmar.

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Rights of the Rohingya have called for a ‘whole-of-society-approach’ to longer-term investment in Cox’s Bazar in order to deliver 'triple wins’ for host communities and Rohingya whilst at the same time advancing Bangladesh’s development ambitions and encouraging progress towards the SDGs by supporting the ‘left-behind communities in Cox’s Bazar’ (APPG, 2019:5). This report also challenges the culture of impunity within Myanmar, the ‘overwhelming evidence collated . . . that the crimes committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military amount to crimes against humanity — and possibly genocide’ and the need for referral to the International Criminal Court without further delay (APPG, 2019:6). In 2019 Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging the crime of Genocide against the Rohingya. Myanmar was represented by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who defended the military’s actions.

Points for discussion - the Rohingya

  • • Why do you consider that repatriation became a key narrative of the Rohingya situation so quickly after people arrived into Bangladesh?
  • • Why do you think this ‘durable solution’ was the key focus and not local integration or resettlement options?
  • • How would it be possible for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar in a safe, voluntary and dignified way?
  • • What laws and policies would have to be dismantled before the Rohingya returned to Myanmar?

• What support might the international community give to Bangladesh to support progress towards the SDGs, and how does this relate to the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar?

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