Rohingya Refugees: Implications for South Asia

Buddhist-majority nation Myanmar has recently been under intense scrutiny from the United Nations, the United States and Amnesty International for human rights violations in the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population. Headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post report infanticide, indiscriminate death and ethnic cleansing. In the midst of the conflict, President Aung San Suu Kyi has been stripped of her Freedom of the City award because of her complacency in the violence. The drastic action of the Oxford City Council clearly indicate the human rights violations are substantive, but the extent of the violence is still unclear. Regional reverberations of the refugee crisis are threatening the stability of the lager South Asia: and without appropriate recourse, the plight of the ‘most friendless people in the world’ may consume the entire region.



The most recent conflict in the historically combative region began in early August, when Rohingyan insurgents allegedly attacked a series of patrol posts near the Bangladesh border. In response to the attacks, government officials announced a ‘military crackdown’ that has been categorized by Amnesty International as a ‘scorched-earth campaign’ of ethnic cleansing. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner released a report documenting mass killings, and sexual violence including gang-rape that was aimed to be “massive and systematic”. The mass exodus of Rohingya across the Bangladeshi border indicates the choice most have made. In less than a month, more than half a million refugees have abandoned Rohingya in the hopes of finding asylum in neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh. With Bangladesh now reporting levels of nearly 800,000 in refugee camps, larger South Asian nations are taking note of the way this “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” may affect them in the near future.

Despite housing a significantly smaller (and much better settled) Rohingya population, their status in Pakistan remains refugee. The population in Karachi is typically aging first generation migrants (Rohinya refugees who moved in the late 1970’s) or second generation children who live under the banner of refugee despite having never left Pakistan. There is no path to citizenship for the ‘ultimate stateless people’ who posses no documents no documents identifying them as Pakistani. In Bangladesh they have yet to be formally recognized as refugees; and in Pakistan, it is next to impossible to escape the title. 

The implications of the crisis on larger South Asia have been substantial. Economically, Bangladesh has been forced to reallocate public spending to handle the influx of immigrants across the border (best evidenced in the most recent announcement that a large 300-acre camp will be used to house all refugees) and their placement of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladeshi camps with an identification card and little else inhibits their ability to contribute to the economy. Socially (and politically) they are diving a nation that has typically maintained strong relations with neighboring India, that has recently backed Myanmar because of fears of refugee spillover. The economic insecurity, and rising national and regional tensions indicate a growing potential for regional strife due to the massive entry of refugees into Bangladesh. Their acceptance, but clear segregation in Bangladesh, does the most detriment to their social and economic standing. This second class citizen status only guarantees that Rohingya Muslims will continue to remain the most friendless people in the world.