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Rohingya Refugee Camps Created In Bangladesh Aren't A Sustainable Situation

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 11:12 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The mass migration of Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar has been called ethnic cleansing by some, genocide by others. The Myanmar military calls it a cleanup operation against terrorists. All week we've been hearing NPR's Jason Beaubien's reports from the crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh where nearly a million Rohingya refugees are crammed in together. Today he's here to discuss what's next. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: As you've described this week, the Rohingya appear to be settling in in Bangladesh. So is this where they're going to stay?

BEAUBIEN: That is the big question. And Bangladesh has been accepting of them, but it's also making it very clear that they don't want them. Inside these camps, the Bangladesh authorities have made it clear that the kids are not allowed to learn Bengali. So you'd be walking around, and you'll hear English. You'll hear them counting in English, or you'll hear them speaking in their local Rohingya language. But they're not allowed to actually study Bengali.

They also are not allowed to buy SIM cards for the local cell phone network, so they're more cut off inside there. Bangladesh has taken them in. But at the same time, it doesn't want to have this huge humanitarian crisis right next to one of its leading beach resorts.

SHAPIRO: For any country to take 700,000 people in the span of just a few months would be a burden. Bangladesh is not a wealthy country.

BEAUBIEN: No, it's not. It's also incredibly densely populated already. You know, when I was there right at the end of January, I came across protests by some locals who feel like they're getting no benefits from these people being here.

They're getting all of the problems - additional traffic, environmental problems, the potential to drive down wages 'cause even though people are not supposed to be working who are in the camps, some of them are coming out and working in the local community. You know, so this refugee crisis has become also a political crisis for the Bangladesh government.

SHAPIRO: And is the plan to send people back to Myanmar totally dead? Is that off the table?

BEAUBIEN: It's not totally dead. They've said that it's just on hold. However, amongst the refugees that I talked to, none of the ones that I spoke to - none - said that they are ready to go back anytime soon. And I've been talking to other people.

I just talked to this author Azeem Ibrahim. He's with the Center for Global Policy. And he wrote a book before this mass exodus started, and it's called "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide." And he says Myanmar is completely disingenuous in saying that they're willing to take the Rohingya refugees back.

AZEEM IBRAHIM: Myanmar has spent the last half century trying to get rid of the Rohingya in one way or another, and so they have now finally managed to succeed. And so the probability of them turning around and taking them back is very slim indeed.

SHAPIRO: As you reported yesterday, Myanmar recognizes more than a hundred different ethnic groups. Why are the Rohingya so persecuted? The U.N. has described them as one of the most persecuted minorities on Earth.

BEAUBIEN: You know, they are a small Muslim ethnic group inside this country that has a Buddhist majority. They look different. They speak a different language. They have been isolated geographically inside there. Myanmar has even denied them citizenship, doesn't even recognize their name. They refer to them as Bengalis and basically say that they are illegal immigrants that have come in.

This whole exodus started when some militant groups within the Rohingya attacked some police stations, and the Myanmar military then came in and did this scorched-earth policy against them. But Azeem Ibrahim basically says that they have become demonized and abused inside the greater Burmese society.

IBRAHIM: And this is justified by the Buddhist monks by saying these people actually aren't full human beings. So when you rape them, you're not actually raping a human being at all. When you do actually kill them, when you do actually massacre them, you're not actually committing any sort of sin whatsoever.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Tell me about the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in all of this because of course she's a Nobel Prize winner.

BEAUBIEN: Right.

SHAPIRO: She's been accused of complicity in these assaults against the Rohingya. What role does she play?

BEAUBIEN: You know, she is the civilian leader of Myanmar. But it needs to be noted that she does not control the military, which is the group that has been attacking the Rohingya. She, however, has come under some very serious, harsh criticism over the way the Rohingya have been treated.

You had former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He was on this panel that Myanmar had set up to address this issue. He resigned, basically calling it a whitewash. He basically accused Aung San Suu Kyi of a lack of moral leadership. So definitely her sort of star, saint image that she has in the West is losing some of its luster over this huge humanitarian crisis.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thanks a lot.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.