Three Agonizing Years of a Humanitarian Trauma
Urgency of National Legal Framework for refugees
The absence of a legal framework has already invited multiple difficulties both for the Rohingya and the host country Bangladesh. On the one hand, it is almost impossible for Bangladesh to determine standard rules and policies for Rohingya, whether it is for their education or employment, unless there is a refugee law in place. On the other, those who are dealing with Rohingya on behalf of the government often use the absence of refugee law as an advantage as they say that Rohingya issue is not a priority for the government. Interestingly, some of them, for the sake of humanity, remain quiet and pretend to know nothing about how Rohingyas from the camps are able to manage to study even in government schools or are employed in a district outside Cox's Bazar. Let's take only one example of what has been happening in the education sector due to an absence of legal framework, let alone other areas.
Case Study 1: Salem (pseudonym), a private college graduate student at Cox's Bazar, aims to get a decent job or go abroad after his study is finished. He did not want to close his study after Grade five in the camp, which was the highest level of in-camp education at his time. Born and raised in Kutupalong registered camp, Salem knew that the camp-school certificates were unacceptable in Bangladeshi schools. Therefore, with the help of a few elderly local Bangladeshi people known to his father, he managed to get admission to a government school at Ukhia. He was, however, terminated from the school within a short time as his Rohingya identity was revealed and his fake birth registration certificate was exposed. Salem did not give up. He was able to obtain a "genuine" NID and birth registration certificate this time by offering bribes to the authority with the help of some influential local people. Both documents had his biological parents' names but with a Kutupalong village address. He then got admitted to another school with his Bangladeshi identity, accomplished his SSC and HSC, and is now pursuing his graduation at Cox's Bazar.
Case Study 2: Hanif (Pseudonym), a student of Cox's Bazar University, is luckier than Salem. Because he receives an education scholarship from an international agency that works for the refugees in Bangladesh. He was one of the few Rohingya students who was qualified for this scholarship after going through an interview based strict selection procedure. He receives BDT 6500/ per month, which helps him to meet his everyday expenses and travel costs between Kutupalong and Cox's Bazar for his study. The agency pays his tuition fee in a confidential way based on a mutual understanding between the agency and the program he is in. The agency, however, is unwilling to take any responsibility to stand beside Hanif if his Rohingya identity is exposed and that he is terminated from his university. Hanif, along with a few of his Rohingya friends, has accepted such risky condition to pursue education under the same scholarship scheme in the same institution.
Case Study 3: Similar to the above two Rohingya students, Khairun (pseudonym) was also born and brought up at Kutupalong registered camp. Although she began her schooling in the camp school, following the same path as Salem and Hanif did, she managed a Bangladeshi NID, which helped her to get admission to Cox's Bazar Baitush Sharaf Jabbaria Academy and, later, Cox's Bazar Government Women's College from where she did her SSC and HSC, respectively. With a view to becoming a lawyer, she enrolled her in the department of Law at Cox's Bazar International University. She was involved with several extracurricular activities since her school life. These included working with scouts, serving as an organizing member of Mathematics, Physics, and English Olympiads at Cox's Bazar, and working as an Assistant Computer Trainer in a computer training institute at Cox's Bazar etc. In addition, she used to work as translators, voice artist, and researcher with the Red Cross, ACF, Translators Without Borders etc. However, after her Rohingya identity was revealed through the video interviews of Deutsche Welle and AFP in 2018, her university suspended her from the program in 2019. Consequently, she started to receive unknown phone calls with the threats of being kidnapped and gang raped. After a few months, she received a phone call from her university telling her that the suspension was withdrawn and that she was allowed to continue her study.
The writer of this article met the above subjects during her research with Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar between 2016 and 2020. These examples are clear evidence of the Rohingya's capabilities of managing fake documents for their education despite government ban on Rohingya's education. Education is just one of the many areas concerning Rohingya's life, such as health services, employment, traveling etc, for which they find their own ways to survive and sustain through navigation and negotiation. Surely the camp authority is informed about all these navigation and negotiations. They, however, have little or nothing to do about these because there is no legal framework in Bangladesh for dealing with refugees. Unfortunately, dialogues, meetings, talkshows and other events rarely discuss the importance of having a refugee law in Bangladesh.
Therefore, marking three years of mass influx of Rohingya to Bangladesh raises an inevitable question: why is there no refugee law in Bangladesh? Although 2020 marks the third year of Rohingya living in Bangladesh, the actual length of time they have been in Bangladesh is four decades. Bangladesh has been sheltering Rohingya since 1978 without any legal framework. Albeit series of dialogues and letters are exchanged, and meetings and conferences take place around the term "repatriation", it is still a far-fetched dream.
Since the past, none of the regimes of the governments paid attention to formulate a refugee law in Bangladesh. One of the reasons was to establish the idea that Bangladesh does not want to invite more refugees by making a law for the refugees since it is the neighbor of the refugee sender country. For instance, Bangladesh could not turn its back on the persecuted Rohingya during their latest influx in 2016 -2017. Another possible reason for being unwilling to have refugee law is the non-signatory status of Bangladesh to the 1951 refugee convention and 1967 protocol. This is also a poor excuse of not having a refugee law. In fact, there are very little reasons to find the effectiveness of this 70-year-old convention in the context of Bangladesh, which was based on the post-war European political philosophy. The time has come to develop a national refugee law by a) using forty years' experience of handling refugees, and b) reviewing the effective refugee laws of other countries such as Uganda and Turkey.
The way Uganda and Turkey have been managing refugees from South Sudan and Syria, respectively, it has been preserving human rights as well as maintaining social cohesion between the refugee population and the host community. These countries tried to deal with refugees based on their own laws in the context of their own countries. While, by nature, states prioritize securitization, humanitarianism also needs to be prioritized, which is reflected in the refugee management strategies of these countries. Otherwise, confusion and blame games will emerge with refugee management as it happened after August 25 event last year.
On this day, Rohingya organized mass gathering and rally to mark the second anniversary of their exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar in a disciplined manner with prior approval of the district administration. Later, such gathering and rally, however, were blamed of posing threat to the security of Bangladesh. As a result, internet was shut down in the camps since early September 2019 and RRRC was withdrawn for allowing Rohingya rally. Such unexpected situations would have been dealt better if there was a refugee law clearly determining the rights and entitlements of the refugees and the roles of the host country.
In many countries, refugees are allowed to go to university of the host country and enter the competitive job market with legal identity. Unfortunately, refugees in Bangladesh manage fake "Bangladeshi" identity to enroll in the education institutions and enter job market. What will be the consequences of letting such phenomena continue and pretending to know nothing about these? Bangladesh has earned recognition by giving shelter to 1.1 million Rohingya despite being an overpopulated country with limited resources. This recognition will sustain through ensuring refugees' human rights, achieving social cohesion, and granting them refugee identity until their repatriation and resettlement take place. And all these are possible only when there is a refugee law in Bangladesh.
Dr Ishrat Zakia Sultana is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and Sociology, and Researcher, The Center for Peace Studies (CPS), North South University