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  Opinion   Oped  20 Feb 2019  Hasina’s Rohingya dilemma growing, Delhi must help Dhaka resolve crisis

Hasina’s Rohingya dilemma growing, Delhi must help Dhaka resolve crisis

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
Published : Feb 20, 2019, 2:13 am IST
Updated : Feb 20, 2019, 2:13 am IST

Muslim refugees many of whom have now spent more than 18 months in the camps.

Sheikh Hasina (Photo: PTI)
 Sheikh Hasina (Photo: PTI)

Bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh have blossomed into a full-fledged, broad-based relationship that has broken new ground over the past decade. Weeks after Sheikh Hasina’s government was re-elected for a third term, Bangladesh foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen was in New Delhi for his first foreign visit.

Aside from signing three memoranda of understanding on linking Indian and Bangladeshi government departments and other institutions, the Rohingya issue was the most important subject that the Bangladeshi minister wanted to discuss with Indian leaders. Dr Momen sought India’s support for the repatriation of Rohingya refuges during his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior Congress leader Anand Sharma.


The Bangladeshi leader floated a proposal to create a safe haven in Myanmar’s Rakhine province for the return of the refugees, which could be monitored by the regional powers, including India, China and the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. According to the foreign minister, India and China, which have good relations with Myanmar, would be in a position to persuade the government there to agree to the proposal.

Though Mr Momen spoke of the Rohingya issue to Prime Minister Modi, it was not mentioned in the Indian statement issued after the meeting. Nor did his proposal for a safe haven elicit a specific response from the Indian side.


The problem of accommodating over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has become more acute for the Sheikh Hasina government since a fresh flow of refugees has reached the country. In October 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed an agreement to repatriate the Rohingyas, but there has been no headway in persuading the refugees to return home. Last November, an attempt to repatriate the first batch of refugees failed when they refused to board the vehicles that were to take them back to Myanmar. Bangladesh is wary of the possibility of radicalisation of the

Muslim refugees many of whom have now spent more than 18 months in the camps.


Dhaka is also disappointed at the fact that international aid offered for the support of the refugees has not materialised. There is a growing sentiment in Dhaka that the international community has forgotten about the Rohingyas living in the overflowing camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh has over 1.2 million refugees who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine province in August 2017 after a severe crackdown by the security forces in retaliation to armed attacks on their own camps.

New Delhi has been in an uneasy position over the issue of the Rohingyas. It has been seeking a diplomatic balance between its two friendly neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and also its own position on the Rohingya refugees, termed “illegal immigrants”, living in India. New Delhi has given relief material to the displaced Rohingyas in the Bangladeshi camps. In Myanmar, India has taken up a programme to construct prefabricated housing for the returning Rohingya refugees.


Last year, New Delhi had faced an embarrassing face-off between the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) over 31 Rohingyas who were stranded on the India-Bangladesh border while trying to enter Bangladeshi territory. The refugees had been living in Jammu for several years but had been intimidated by local activists and forced to leave. The group was among the hundreds of Rohingya families that have returned to Bangladesh since the Indian government deported two batches of Rohingya men to Myanmar. But because of the confrontation, India had to assure Dhaka that the Rohingyas would not be pushed into Bangladesh.


The situation in Myanmar has become more complicated with the outbreak of violence in the Rakhine province. The rise of the Arakan Army, an indigenous Buddhist insurgent group, has made the situation even more volatile. The well-armed group has been demanding self-determination for the multi-ethnic Arakanese population. It has been drawing support from the local people in Rakhine, who have felt politically and economically marginalised in the resource-rich state. The Arakan Army has had a few skirmishes with the security forces since 2015. But on January 4, which is Independence Day in Myanmar, the militant group mounted several coordinated attacks in which 13 policemen were killed. Following the attacks, the Myanmar Army launched a renewed operation against the insurgent outfit leading to a fresh influx of refugees into Bangladesh, many of them Buddhists and belonging to other ethnic groups. The Myanmar authorities have claimed that the Arakan Army is acting in coordination with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation
Army (ARSP), the Rohingya militant group that was responsible for the attacks on the security force camps in 2017.


The Bangladesh government has a plan to relocate many of the refugees to an island named Bhashan Char in the Bay of Bengal. It has already begun construction of housing and other facilities for the refugees on the island. The relocation of about 100,000 Rohingya would ease the cramped conditions in the camps and also alleviate the apprehension that the Rohingya were merging into the Bangladeshi population. But the relocation plan has not found favour with the UN Special Rapporteur and other agencies, as it would isolate the refugees on the island. The newly formed, low-lying island, three hours by boat from the mainland, is not the best option for the refugees as parts of the island could be submerged during a violent storm.


Nevertheless, the Rohingyas are a top priority for the Bangladeshi government. Bangladesh’s safe haven proposal may not have found favour with New Delhi, but it is not an unworkable plan, even though it would require wider international pressure on Myanmar to persuade its government to accept it. Also, the refugees have to be convinced about their safety. An internationally-monitored haven would provide them the security they require to return.

New Delhi needs to take a more active role in finding a solution for the Rohingya crisis. With the general election looming ahead, the Modi government may not be in a position to devote much attention to the issue, but a listless response by New Delhi to Dhaka’s dilemma could strain a relationship built up through the past decade.


Tags: sheikh hasina, narendra modi, rohingyas