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International relations

Bangladesh faces Catch-22 over Rohingyas

Repatriation puts refugees at risk; letting them stay brings backlash at home

Few believe a safe return of Rohingyas to Myanmar will happen any time soon, prompting calls for their resettlement in Bangladesh. (Photo by Mitsuru Obe)

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh -- More than a year after massive numbers of Rohingya refugees began arriving in a southeastern section of the country, Bangladesh finds itself performing a delicate balancing act.

The international community is calling on the government to allow the Muslim refugees to settle in the country, but Bangladeshis are pressuring the government to quickly return the Rohingya.

Nearly 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in Myanmar, and there is little sign that Myanmar is willing to take them back.

Meanwhile, the Rohingyas have proved themselves to be resourceful, showing the potential to contribute to the Bangladeshi economy. There is no better testament to their ingenuity than a giant tent camp that emerged in this remote district in the past year.

According to Alastair Lawson-Tancred, UNICEF spokesman for Cox's Bazar, the refugees have built camps and shelters mostly by themselves, using bamboo and tarpaulins obtained from aid groups. They have learned to lay concrete floors so their shelters stand firm. They staff the 1,000 or so learning centers where children between 9 and 14 receive basic educations. Support groups have been organized to assist vulnerable members of the community, such as families with malnourished babies or pregnant girls. Small businesses have also mushroomed to sell fish, eggs and beverages.

"Rohingyas are very, very entrepreneurial people," Lawson-Tancred said. "Look how quickly they made that camp into what it is. You compare what it looks like today to a year ago. It's unbelievable."

"Far from being seen as a drain on resources, Rohingyas could be a huge asset. It's a young, dynamic population that doesn't hold a begging bowl out. If they are given a helping hand by the government or aid agency, there is no reason why in five or 10 years' time they couldn't be contributing to the Bangladeshi exchequer."

The problem is, the more secure the refugees feel in Bangladesh, the less likely they are to want to return to Myanmar. During a recent government-organized tour of the camps, 35-year-old Jamila Aziz said she would go back to Myanmar once the situation stabilizes.

But there are questions about her true desire, given that her husband and a child were killed in Myanmar. Many refugees say they would not feel at all safe in Myanmar.

Bangladesh insists that the refugees must eventually return to Myanmar, arguing that it does not have the means to accommodate so many immigrants.

"The long-term solution is only when 1.2 million Rohingyas go back," said Hasanul Haq Inu, Bangladesh's information minister and top government spokesman. "That is the final solution. We will not compromise."

Chimed Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, speaker of the Bangladeshi parliament: "We are a small country. We don't have a big land. It's very difficult for us to accommodate them on a long-term basis."

Bangladesh is one of Asia's poorest countries, with per capita income of $1,736. But this year it is expected to record economic growth of more than 7% for a third consecutive year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The country has a population of 160 million and covers an area of 147,570 sq. km.

Bangladesh officials also argue that accommodating the refugees would set a bad precedent and send the wrong message to Myanmar -- that it could expel minority groups with impunity. Some 300,000 Rohingya Muslims are still believed to remain in Myanmar, mostly in internment camps.

The refugees in Bangladesh have caused no major friction with the local population, thanks in part to massive support from the international community. But there are fears that if they were allowed to stay, they would compete with locals for low-wage jobs in agriculture and fisheries, the main industries of Cox's Bazar.

The refugees remain in limbo. They are not given proper educations or employment opportunities. Bangladesh worries that schooling and employing the refugees would create an impression that the Rohingya could stay for the long haul.

Despite the emergence of some small businesses, most adults remain jobless, except for occasional participation in food-for-work programs. Adolescents, especially 14- to 18-year-olds, receive no education and are at risk of growing up without learning the skills that will be needed to emerge from poverty.

There are also fears that these school-less, jobless teens will become susceptible to drug use, drug trafficking and other crimes.

"The No. 1 thing [for refugees], aside from staying alive, is dignity," an international diplomat said. "Work is quite a big part of dignity."

U.N. officials also worry that the makeshift camps on hilly terrain near the border with Myanmar are a disaster in waiting. The monsoon this year wasn't so strong, but if future storms pack more strength, they could trigger landslides and destroy shelters.

One solution now being floated is to turn the entire Cox's Bazar district into a special economic zone, where refugees would be allowed to work, start businesses and be given tax breaks.

Cox's Bazar, one of Bangladesh's least-developed districts, is being considered for railways and highways. Such large-scale infrastructure projects would require massive amounts of labor, which the Rohingya could supply, the international diplomat said. "There are ways [for refugees and host communities] to coexist," the diplomat said.

But this is a politically sensitive topic, one that Bangladesh's ruling party wants to avoid before a general election that is expected to be held by the end of the year. U.N. officials are hoping that the country becomes more receptive to resettlement once the election is over.

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