Bangladesh should commit to the Global Compact on Refugees for the sake of both the Rohingya and the nation

By John Quinley in Dhaka Tribune

More than six years since the Myanmar military perpetrated genocide and forced nearly one million Rohingya into Bangladesh, the refugee population continues to face multifaceted crises. This week, governments, civil society organizations, and refugees will meet in Geneva to advance the Global Compact on Refugees. This compact can provide a roadmap to protect refugees in Bangladesh, but unfortunately, Dhaka’s own policies are already undermining it.

The Global Compact on Refugees has four objectives: Enhancing refugee self-reliance; expanding access to third-country solutions; supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity; and easing pressure on host countries. Despite Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s public support for the Compact, Rohingya refugees continue to face serious threats.

Rise in violence and a fall in security

Key among these threats — and posing a fundamental challenge to refugee self-reliance in Bangladesh — is a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Rohingya refugee camps. Over the last two years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of murders, abductions, torture, threats, and harassment from Rohingya militants and other criminal groups, and policies imposed by the government of Bangladesh are making the situation worse.

As one example, on October 22, 2021, in the middle of the night, Rohingya militants in Bangladesh killed six men and tortured others, including religious teachers, in a madrasa at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. More than two years later, many Rohingya witnesses and survivors of the attack remain in hiding. They’re hiding from members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant and political organization responsible for widespread, unmitigated abuses against civilians in the camps.

 “Even now, they [ARSA] have been threatening me,” a survivor of the madrasa massacre told Fortify Rights. “I feel I may be killed.”

The attack on the madrasa took place one month after the assassination of a prominent Rohingya human rights defender, Mohib Ullah, whose killing in September 2021 is also linked to ARSA militants.

To align with the Global Compact on Refugees and the rights of Rohingya, the UN refugee agency, donor governments, and Bangladesh should increase protective spaces in the refugee camps, including safe houses for Rohingya and their families at risk. The Bangladesh authorities should thoroughly investigate the murders of Rohingya human rights defenders in the refugee camps and hold those responsible to account, in line with international fair-trial standards.

Restrictions on self-reliance

The harmful effects of this rise in violence on Rohingya self-reliance are exacerbated by government-imposed restrictions on Rohingya refugees’ rights to education and work. The government has restricted Rohingya-led home-based and private learning centres in the camps, denying Rohingya refugee girls and boys the chance for a better future. Over the years, authorities have also destroyed Rohingya-run businesses.

Intricately linked with access to livelihoods is Rohingya refugees’ freedom of movement. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face government-imposed restrictions on their movements and are confined by barbed-wire fencing surrounding the camps. A maze of checkpoints throughout more than 30 refugee camps are places where refugees face extortion, arbitrary detention, and torture by the Armed Police Battalion — a specialized combat unit of the Bangladesh police force.

Also affecting Rohingya is an ongoing food crisis. Due to funding shortfall, the UN World Food Program cut food aid to refugees, worsening food insecurity.

For these reasons, Rohingya continue to flee Bangladesh, often falling prey to human traffickers or to boats that end up stranded at sea, facing imminent death. Until Bangladesh ends these restrictions, Rohingya refugees will continue to risk their lives at sea to escape. They will be unable to be self-reliant, to move freely, and to work for themselves, as the Global Compact on Refugees envisions.

Third-country solutions

A second objective of the Global Compact on Refugees is to expand access to third-country solutions for refugees. For years, and despite offers of governments to accept Rohingya refugees via Bangladesh, Dhaka refused to permit refugees to resettle to third countries as part of a misguided strategy to prevent drawing even more refugees to Cox’s Bazar.

Today, several UN member states, including the US, have committed to resettling increased numbers of Rohingya from Bangladesh, but the process is moving forward at a snail’s pace. Donor governments should work with Bangladesh and the UN refugee agency to expand third-country resettlement for refugees, prioritizing women, children, and those in grave danger.

Safe return or refoulment?

Finally, the Global Compact on Refugees calls for states to support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity. For the Rohingya, any repatriation now would constitute refoulement. The Myanmar military junta were the architects and main perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide and are simply not good-faith interlocutors on refugee returns and repatriation. Dhaka should know this, as the government is simultaneously supporting access to international justice for Rohingya refugees.

Furthermore, conditions in Myanmar continue to worsen. In November 2023, the Arakan Army, one of the most powerful ethnic resistance organizations in the country, launched attacks on military outposts, ending a year-long ceasefire. At present, the junta is now carrying out air and artillery attacks, disproportionately affecting and displacing civilians in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya would be returning.

On a recent trip to the Cox’s Bazar district, Rohingya refugees told me that they won’t go back to Rakhine State under the current conditions. Rohingya refugees, for years, have demanded certain rights and protections that would need to be guaranteed in Myanmar before they would return to Rakhine State, including citizenship, compensation for losses or repartition, and protection and accountability. Knowing this, Bangladesh should abandon its attempts to return the Rohingya to Myanmar. Returns in the current context would neither be voluntary, safe, nor sustainable, as required by international law and standards.

Dhaka knows that the Myanmar military poses a threat to international peace and security and has cooperated in significant and laudable ways with the various international mechanisms seeking accountability for the Myanmar military’s crimes. This important work must continue, as should the consistent focus on the communities most affected by the Rohingya crisis — the Rohingya and their Bangladeshi hosts.

Unfortunately, neither Rohingya nor host communities are being served well by the government of Bangladesh’s current practices and policies. At this year’s Global Forum for Refugees, Bangladesh should address the deteriorating security environment in the camps and end the ongoing restrictions on refugees for the Global Compact to be fully realized. UN member states should immediately ensure an end to the food crisis through much-needed funding while also doing their part to ensure Bangladesh does not bear these problems alone.

This article was originally published in Dhaka Tribune here.

Stay Updated!

Subscribe to our mailing to receive periodic updates on human rights issues where we work.