The Rohingya people of Myanmar have already suffered one of the worst humanitarian and human rights crises of the 21st Century. Expelled from their homes and targets of a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing, sexual assault and murder by the Myanmar armed forces, almost a million refugees now live a precarious existence in neighbouring Bangladesh and are desperately vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
It is small wonder that many of them seek shelter elsewhere in the region. Today, thousands of displaced Rohingya are struggling to find sanctuary in the Bay of Bengal. The devastation caused in recent days by Cyclone Amphan highlights the need for sustained support for people displaced from their homes.
The Rohingyas’ plight today threatens to repeat the tragedy seen in 2015, when an estimated 4,000 refugees died at sea, while countries squabbled over where they could disembark.
But unlike in 2015, the region now has an agreement and a framework for responsibility-sharing and collaboration to rescue those at sea, through the Bali Process. Rather than repeating the rows of the past, it should reaffirm and reactivate its existing commitments. To encourage this, the international community also needs to step up in two key areas: firstly to support the countries of the Bali Process and the regional organisation ASEAN to resettle refugees, and secondly to help Bangladesh to de-congest camps, especially in the context of COVID-19.
Governments in the region should recall the commitments made in the Bali Declaration of 2016, when they pledged to collaborate on the establishment of disembarkation options and cooperate on search and rescue efforts. They also agreed to address root causes of irregular migration by resolving the problem of statelessness and ensuring that refugees and migrants had safe routes by which to seek safety and avoid dangerous travel by sea.
At this critical time, I urge the Bali Process Co-Chairs, Indonesia and Australia, to activate the Consultative Mechanism to convene affected countries and facilitate a timely and regional resolution of the crisis in the Andaman Sea.
States in the region that are not directly impacted should offer support to those that do proceed with search and rescue and disembarkation. All must ensure that refugees are only disembarked to safe locations. Bangladesh has sent some rescued Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char, despite the concerns voiced by humanitarian organisations about its remoteness and safety.
Managing public health is a key consideration at this time of COVID-19, and must be managed in parallel with asylum and refugee reception, especially with international assistance. As ever, managing public health is easier and more effective when migration and refugee movements are organised and managed by governments, and not left to the human traffickers that exploit the desperate through dangerous illicit pathways.
People arriving by sea, whether quarantined or not, should be placed in facilities that can guarantee social distancing, appropriate health monitoring, and access to health care. Because of the high risk of transmission of the virus in detention facilities, authorities should use alternatives to detention as much as possible. I also urge politicians to avoid stoking xenophobic, anti-refugee sentiment at a time of acute public anxiety.
The rest of the world needs to step up and support these efforts. The vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in other developing countries. Bangladesh already has one of the most densely packed populations in the world, and has to contend with an economic shock from COVID-19’s impact on remittances and the garment trade.
My thoughts naturally return to the many Rohingya refugees I met in Cox’s Bazar on a visit in July 2019, when I was accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen. I urged the international community to do more to support the Rohingya, saying that “it is not possible to host such a large number of Rohingya for a long time”.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the displaced Rohingya lies with Myanmar and political efforts must continue to be made to create a situation where the Rohingya from Myanmar can return home safely and voluntarily.
I urge Myanmar to meaningfully implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by the late Kofi Annan. The authorities there should fully lift restrictions on movement and resolve issues of citizenship and statelessness. It will be necessary also to address root causes of displacement, by ensuring security for all communities and compensating people whose land has been taken.
Political and legal efforts need to continue to bring this about, from Bangladesh’s bilateral diplomatic work with Myanmar to the international efforts to hold the perpetrators of atrocities in Myanmar accountable, most notably the court case at the International Court of Justice filed by The Gambia.
But international agreements are clear: forcing refugees back to places of persecution is illegal, and refugees, including the Rohingya from Myanmar, can only return when it is safe to do so.
Until then, the international community must unequivocally support other durable solutions for the Rohingya refugee population, including substantial resettlement places and other pathways of admission.
Amid this global pandemic, we are all only as strong as the weakest link in our human chain. This is a moment for action, upholding the rule of law and showing solidarity for those in peril on the sea.