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8 February 2018, Gateway House

The Rohingyas and India’s difficult choices

A recent trip to Cox’s Bazar showed that despite numerous health, social and security challenges, the Rohingya refugees are reluctant to return to Myanmar. India will have to walk a tightrope, keeping in mind humanitarian, security, and geopolitical priorities

Fellow, National Security Studies & Director, Centre for International Security, Gateway House

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Since the escalation of the Rohingya refugee crisis in August 2017, India has maintained a fine balance between humanitarian and security concerns, on the one hand, and, larger geopolitical interests, on the other. It has received criticism for avoiding any direct condemnation of Myanmar’s actions and pushing for deportation of Rohingya refugees from its territory. Less publicised, though, has been its massive assistance to Bangladesh – as part of Operation Insaniyat – to deal with the surging number of refugees in Cox’s Bazar.[1]

The gravity of the humanitarian aspect comes home when one visits the camps. Six months since the latest wave of refugees began flooding into Bangladesh, living conditions at the makeshift shelters made of bamboo, tin and polythene in Ukhiya upazila (sub-unit) remain squalid: there is no access to potable water and no proper sewage and sanitation facilities. The area currently hosts more than 647,000 refugees at various camp sites[2], the largest being Kutaplong, which has approximately 450,000.[3]

Children in the camps, who constitute almost 60% of the total number, and many of whom are orphans[4], are the most vulnerable to contagious diseases, besides malnutrition. The camps are plastered with banners of international aid agencies, particularly, charity organisations from Islamic countries, such as, Turkey’s IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation and Indonesia’s ACT Foundation. Predictably enough though, countries, such as, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Qatar, have used their aid organisations’ presence on the ground to project the Rohingya crisis as an ‘Islamic’, rather than a ‘refugee’, issue.[5] [6]

A China-backed ‘repatriation plan’, worked out between Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017, had envisaged the Rohingyas’ return to Myanmar after due verification, a process that could take two years.[7] Aung San Suu Kyi has come in for much censure for her inability – or unwillingness – to stop their forced expulsion. Such criticism is misplaced as the Myanmar Constitution assigns responsibility and power over security matters to the military. The Rohingya Muslims have been at the receiving end of systemic discrimination and violence at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces much before Suu Kyi’s government came to power. The erstwhile ‘junta’ government had refused to recognise them as citizens for years together, leave alone terming them Rohingya (i.e. those hailing from the Rakhine), lest it be taken as affirmation of their belonging to the country.

Such prolonged suppression forced the Rohingyas to cross over into Bangladesh in the early 1990s and not return for fear of death. So, while Bangladesh and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees may be ready to supervise the ‘repatriation agreement’, the more current batch of refugees too is reluctant to return. As a cleric, who had lost two of his sons in the crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces, put it, “We prefer to die here in Bangladesh, rather than return to Myanmar and be killed.”

Image Credits: Sameer Patil/Shah Maieen

The locals in Cox’s Bazar had initially welcomed them, but a permanent arrangement is sure to raise tensions over claims to jobs. Refugees already outnumber the locals, two to one, in Ukhiya, and adjoining Teknaf.[8] Most of the camps have a heavy presence of the Bangladeshi security forces who do a commendable job, managing them. Yet, some refugees have managed to escape to look for jobs. Linked to this is the critical question of Bangladesh’s capacity to host the refugees over a prolonged period as foreign aid agencies’ commitment wavers as donations dry up.

This refugee crisis has also brought with it South Asia’s familiar security challenges: human trafficking, radicalisation, and violence. In December 2017, a human trafficking network was neutralised in Cox’s Bazar where women and children were being lured with the promise of jobs, and then being trafficked.[9]

Indian security agencies independently took note of attempts by the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to fund and train cadres of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and other extremist groups, and recruit more from the camps in Cox’s Bazar. This is worrisome because in the absence of educational and recreational facilities – barring occasional Bollywood music videos on mobile phones – the youth remain vulnerable to extremist propaganda. The RSO and another outfit, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, have been frequently accused of carrying out attacks against the security forces in Myanmar. Also, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, the LeT’s front organisation, has been engaged in relief work in camps, including in Kutaplong.

These are testing times for Bangladesh too. Emerging from a spell of sustained terrorist violence in 2016-17, the country is now preparing for general elections later this year. But clearly, lessons from the fight against terrorism seem to have been lost on the ruling Awami League (AL) as it cosies up to local Islamist groups, including the notorious Hefazat-e-Islam, ostensibly for votes. Hefazat, a pressure group of madrassa students and teachers, demanding the enactment of blasphemy laws, rose to prominence in 2013 during the Shahbag protests following the conviction of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders by the 1971 War Crimes Tribunal. Since then it has attempted to expand its influence in domestic politics and the AL has served as a willing partner.

There is yet another dimension to the crisis: Saudi Arabia has granted aid to the tune of Bangladeshi taka 974.17 crore to build mosques and cultural centres across Bangladesh.[10] While Dhaka and Riyadh have consistently denied this, the plan remains on track.[11] Besides, Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, China, is also attempting to expand its influence in the country through financial assistance and offers of military equipment.

For India, the Rohingya refugee crisis offers no clear-cut choices, only a tightrope walk to traverse. In recent years, it has developed an excellent working relationship with Bangladesh, particularly with the AL government on the counter-terrorism front. But these ties and India’s manoeuvres will be stress-tested this year as Bangladesh navigates its way through domestic challenges and the current refugee crisis.

Note: This feature is based on the author’s visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. He was in Bangladesh upon invitation from the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, Dhaka, to participate in a workshop on ‘Countering Violent Extremism’.

Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security Studies and Director, Center for International Security, Gateway House.

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[1] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Operation Insaniyat – Humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh on account of influx of refugees, <>

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Rohingya emergency, <>

[3] As of November 2017

[4] United Nations International Children’s Education Fund, Rohingya refugee children: UNICEF emergency response in Bangladesh, <>

[5] IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Humanitarian Aid Delivered to 555 Thousand Rohingya Refugees, <>

[6] ACT, Let’s Help Rohingya, <>

[7] ‘Myanmar, Bangladesh sign deal for return of Rohingya people’, Xinhua, 23 November 2017, <>

[8] Mahmud, Tarek, ‘Rohingya influx: Refugees outnumber Ukhiya, Teknaf locals’, Dhaka Tribune, 23 October 2017, <>

[9] Mahmud, Tarek, ‘Human traffickers lurk in Rohingya camps’, Dhaka Tribune, 27 December 2017, <>

[10] Abedin, Syed Zainul, ‘Saudi to pay big money for mosques’, Dhaka Tribune, 20 April 2017, <>

[11] ‘560 model mosques, Islamic cultural centres to be set up in country’, The Daily Observer, 22 January 2018, <>

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