Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 14, 2017
Rohingya crisis: Need for a robust refugee policy

The recent reprisal by Myanmar security forces in retaliation to attacks on some police and army posts by Rohingya militants in the Rakhine region has led to large scale exodus of the Rohingya population to neighbouring countries. The consequent humanitarian crisis faced by them has drawn international attention. Since the communal violence in 2012, there has been a significant influx of Rohingyas into India. The route they follow is from Bangladesh into India’s North Eastern states. India has the second largest population of Rohingya refugees after Bangladesh and with the present crisis growing number of Rohingyas are turning to India for refuge. In the light of these developments, there is a pressing need for India to have a domestic policy on refugees, neutral to faith, colour and ethnicity, which can provide an effective mechanism to tackle such situations.

Rohingya Muslims, who claim to be of Myanmarese origin, reside in the northern Arakan/Rakhine State of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. There is deep rooted animosity, mutual distrust and a long history of ethnic strife between majority Buddhists and Rohingyas.  The 1982 Burmese National Law denied Rohingyas’ citizenship, classifying them as stateless “Bengali Muslims”. The transition to democracy in Myanmar has also failed to address the Rohingya cause.  This ethnic rift has taken to a new low as it has converted into an armed conflict in the region.

The majority Buddhist community of the Rakhine region considers the Muslim minority as a security threat, leading to confinement of Rohingyas in concentration camps and employment of repressive measures such as severe restriction on their movement, marriage, education and denial to access health facilities and employment. Such marginalisation instills a sense of injustice and breeds militancy and a violent backlash in an attempt to claim what the Rohingyas perceive as rightfully theirs. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s recent offensive military operations against the security forces is representative of this backlash, and the reaction of the Myanmar security forces with a crackdown on the Rohingya population, has had a destabilising effect in the entire region. The issue has humanitarian, security and religious sides to it.

The International community has condemned the violence in the region and called for humanitarian intervention to stop the severe atrocities being faced by the Rohingya population. Registered as refugees under the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), Rohingya’s are a stateless and persecuted population attempting to flee the discrimination, violence and bloodshed they face in their homeland.  Therefore it is the obligation of emerging powers in the region like India to take up the cause not only on humanitarian grounds but also as a strategic measure which is important for stability of the region.

PM Narendra Modi’s skirting of the humanitarian issue of Rohingyas during his visit to the Myanmar brings to the forefront the geopolitical and security backdrop which inhibits the India’s maneuverability  on the issue. Under India’s Act East Policy, Myanmar is a key player, and the threat of greater influence of China in the region is a reason for India’s muted response to the Rohingya crisis. It is also a known fact that China is actively pursuing its policy of encircling India, Myanmar too is part of it and India is pitted against China in politico-economic competition in the region. The criticism of the Myanmar about its handling of its Rohingyas could also have negative ramifications on the border management efforts in the northeast.

Rohingya, Myanmar, Rakhine, Bangladesh Rohingya refugees wait for the food to be distributed by local organisations near Balukhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

On the other hand, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju’s statement of deportation of the Rohingyas settled in India has come in for much criticism. His statement is questionable on humanitarian grounds but does implicitly indicate towards the fear of security such influx of alien population creates in the psyche of the local population. There is a threat to the ethno-religious balance of the north-eastern States of India, with the Rohingya refugee movement. Pertinently Kiren Rijiju belongs to North East and has been the only minister to speak on the issue. India also faces a problem of infiltration of terrorists, criminals and unwarranted elements which pose a serious threat to the internal security of the nation.  This stateless population with deep animosity towards the Buddhist majority of Myanmar can pose threat to Buddhist sites and population in India and would be an easy target group for radicalisation on religious lines.

According to the UNHCR, India has approximately 16000 registered Rohingya refugees (July 2017), while unofficial estimates peg it near 40,000.

India is not a signatory of either the UNHCR Convention (1951) or Protocol (1967) but has always been sensitive to the refugee problem and effectively integrated various ethnic groups like Tibetans, Muslims from Afghanistan, Christians and Hindus form Pakistan. Drawing inspiration from the integrative approach towards refugees and keeping in mind the security ramifications of immigration, the Rohingya migration can be leveraged as an opportunity to create Domestic Refugee Policy which strikes a balance between internal security and humanitarian responsibility.

Upholding the Principle of Non-Refoulement, which protects the refugees from returning to a country where they may face harm, India can take the following steps:

(i) Conduct census of the Rohingya refugee population along with assessing their economic and social condition in the country. This would give the broad contours of the size of the problem.

(ii) Improve border security and regulate inflow of illegal migration to tackle the security concern attached with the situation. Here cooperation of the Myanmar Government and Army would be essential.

(iii) The source of the problem lies in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. According to World Bank estimates, Rakhine is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average. Widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine has widened the rift between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Therefore, in order to truly contain the crisis, the socio economic condition of the region needs to be improved. India’s initiative to provide funding to socio economic developmental projects in partnership with Myanmar government is a welcome step in this direction.

(iv) India can also work on formulating a tentative repatriation plan for the refugees as the situation in the Rakhine region improves. Taking a leaf from the European model regional intergovernmental organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC can come together to formulate a distribution policy of refugees amongst the various countries of the region.

Categorising the Rohingya crisis as a humanitarian concern or an outcome of terrorist activity will not change the ground reality of lakhs of people being displaced. The need of the hour is to formulate a robust refugee policy which can not only mitigate the present crisis but also provide a structure for India to use whenever similar problems arise in future.

(The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)

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