Since August 2017, thousands of Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine state of Myanmar are fleeing to Bangladesh in an attempt to escape the crackdown of the ethnic group by security forces. News has been pouring since 25th August when the militant group ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacked the security forces. After which many civilians have fled to Bangladesh to escape the attacks brought down on them in response to the attack. With the United Nations terming the crackdown as a textbook case of Genocide, the world still looks for a solution.

Who are the Rohingyas?

Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in South Asia. With almost 135 diverse ethnic groups, Myanmar’s population consists of a 90% majority of Buddhists. The Muslims of Myanmar make up 4% of the total population, out of which the Kaman and Bamar communities are one of the recognized groups. The Rohingya Muslims are a self-identifying community and one of the largest communities amongst the Muslims in Myanmar. They aren’t recognized ethnically even though they have lived in the Rakhine state since colonial Myanmar. The Rohingyas, according to the Citizenship Law 1982, are prohibited from the citizenship of Myanmar.

The Citizenship Law distinguishes three types of citizenship namely, citizenship, associate citizenship and naturalized citizenship. Citizens are people who belong to one of the national races or whose ancestors settled before 1823.People who cannot provide evidence of pre-1823 ancestors are given associate citizenship. Associate citizenship is also for such people who had registered themselves as citizens to the previous 1948 law. The naturalized citizenship is granted to such people who can provide conclusive evidence of their settlement in Myanmar prior to its independence or whose parents hold any of the above categories of citizenship. Section 44 of this Act also requires people to be well versed with one of the national language and Rohingya language isn’t one of them. Due to unavailability or denial of documentary evidence and lack of fluency in any of the national languages, the Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship. This denial has rendered this community Nationless. Their right to study, marry, vote, travel, practice their religion has been restricted, including denial of political participation.

During the colonial era, many workers migrated from present-day Bangladesh to the Rakhine state of Myanmar. These were majorly labourers, initially migrated in the areas near Chittagong and later settled to the Arakan state present day Rakhine, who were considered foreign migrants by the majority native after independence. Over the years that followed, the Rohingya Muslims have been portrayed as a threat to the race, religion as well as resources.

The Kofi Annan Advisory Committee

Since the 1970s a number of military crackdowns on the Rohingyas have forced them to escape in large numbers to Bangladesh, Malaysia and other South East Asian countries for asylum and to escape persecutions. The Human Right Watch has accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing in 2013. According to UN Reports, almost 168,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since 2012.

Two Reuters journalists were arrested in the month of December 2017, and are facing up to 14 years of imprisonment for reporting on such a crackdown which took place in September 2017, in the village of Inn Dinn. Their report and photographs taken describe how Myanmar’s troops and the ethnically majoritarian Rakhine Buddhists executed 10 Rohingya men and dumped their bodies in a mass grave. The two journalists face charges of violation of the colonial Official Secrets Act. Myanmar government released a statement claiming that the said 10 men had ties with terrorist groups.

The UN High Commissioner Filippo Grandi had also commented that the UNHCR office’s access to the Rakhine state has been restricted severely since August 2017. Yanghee Lee, a UN Special Rapporteur was denied access to certain areas of Rakhine and was allowed access to only a few prior government approved members of the Rohingya community. The visas of a UN probe team were denied as well. The Myanmar state Counselor, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung Sung Suu Kyi amidst international criticism for her inaction set up an Advisory Committee. This committee consisting of 6 national and 3 international members was established for humanitarian and development and assurance of basic rights concerns. The committee was chaired by former UN Chief Mr Kofi Annan, and was bestowed with the responsibility of a long-term developmental understanding of the area and was not specifically asked to investigate the Human Rights violations. However, the report has strongly recommended

  • Training of security personals with principals of human right protections as well as monitoring of the security personals by the installation of CCTV and welcomed the International community for contributions in financial and technical assistance to the government of Myanmar.
  • Fostering communal representations and initiating dialogue amongst conflicted ethnic groups.
  • The Union as well as the state to publicly reiterate the equal status of all of its citizens and grant them equal access to public health educations and all the other civil rights like other bona fide citizens
  • That the government must grant full humanitarian access to the national and international actors in their efforts
  • Reviewing the Citizenship Laws of 1982 in the line with International obligations and ensure a non-discriminatory approach.
  • A joint commission between Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve upon bilateral relations, accommodation, safety, health, and facilitation of safe return of the Rohingya refugees.

India as its Neighbor

Meanwhile, in India, two UNHCR registered refugees filed a petition against the Indian Government’s decision to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees. The centre responded in its affidavit citing the Rohingya’s as illegal immigrants who are not citizens of the nation, to whom the fundamental rights aren’t conferred upon. The centre also stated that the immigrants pose threat to the national security. Emphasis has been put on the fact that India not being a signatory to the Convention Relating to Status of Refugees 1951, is not obligated to follow the principles of Non – Refoulement

Non – Refoulement, a practice of not forcing refugees and asylum seekers to return to the nation they fled to escape persecution, is a practice envisaged in many of the Protocols and conventions that India is a signatory. India has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which secures freedom and liberty to all equally without any distinction. Condemns torture and grants right to effective remedy and the right to seek asylum, to all citizens as well as non-citizens. India has also accepted the Bangkok Principles of 1966 which has incorporated the principle of Non – Refoulement in Art X. However, India does not have codified refugee laws enshrining the practice.

India, however, in a recent Kulbhushan Jhadhav case in the International Court of Justice against Pakistan, argued the principle of ‘pacta sunt servanda’ i.e. ‘treaties concluded in good faith need to be carried out in good faith’. Similarly, being a signatory of the Convention Against Torture 1984, Art. 3 of which prohibits the refoulement of asylum seekers. Therefore, India is obligated to practice Non- Refoulement via pacta sunt servanda. The bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud after deferring the matter twice, will hear the matter next on the 7th of March

A Possible Win-Win

The refugee crisis is not a new one. Political diplomacy with xenophobic streaks has caused confusion and hatred. Our approach to problem-solving must change. An incentive-based solution is perhaps a better attitude to have. According to Dr Alexander Betts, Target Development Assistance is a win-win solution for all the stakeholders in this situation. Targeted Development Assistance (TDA) refers to the way in which donor states can provide overseas development aid to host countries of the first asylum as a means to enhance refugees’ access to protection and durable solutions. Its central characteristic is an integrated development approach, which focuses on the needs of both refugees and host communities, for example, improving livelihood opportunities, service provision or infrastructure. Its aim is to enhance refugees’ access to rights, self-sufficiency, and, where possible, local integration. At the same time boosting the host nation’s economy when the infrastructural and health aid raw materials are bought from the host nation at the same time providing economic opportunities.

For the Myanmarese neighbours who have seen a strong surge of incoming immigrants, a strong policy shift might be the answer after all. There are a few requirements for a successful TDA.

  • Additional financial development assistance for the host nations
  • The strategy/policy change must include the resultant benefits of the refugees as well as the local citizens of the host nation
  • The refugee integration and improved refugee protection should be at the centre of such strategies.
  • At the same time, there must be a strong collaboration amongst the UNHCR and other development actors
  • A joint cohesive action and a budget management that transcends the department divisions.

Refugees are often perceived as threats to the local communities in the host nations where they seek asylum. They are usually associated with a threat to national resources and national securities. However, for a TDA to be successful the donor as well as the host nation must be committed self-sufficiency and local integration. The initiation of such a TDA is usually made by a neutral entity. UNHCR plays a catalytic role in facilitating inter-state and inter-agency dialogue on development assistance and refugees as an important component of its ongoing work on protracted refugee situations.

A successful TDA process was initiated in 1981 when the Guatemalan refugees flooded Mexico in the middle of their own economic crisis. Mexico not being a signatory of either the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol was not obligated to protect the refugees and deported the refugees initially. UNHCR provided a strategy/model, the skills required to carry on the strategy and the funding for the same. The pressure from the international community and the Catholic church had also paved the way for a paradigm shift in the Mexican policy from deporting the refugees to protecting them and providing security, education and health benefits.


TDA may or may not be the right answer to the Rohingya crisis. What certainly is not the answer, is a blanket order of deportation of thousands of refugees return to the place where their persecution is still ongoing. Neither is looking the other way citing nonexistence of legal obligation. Humanity cannot fail the dejected or the persecuted. The existence of such a community in 2018, without a nation to call their own should be a hard-hitting reminder of our failure of the innumerable protocols, conventions and treaties that uphold liberty, freedom and equality. It calls for a problem to solution approach with a cohesive practice of burden sharing and creation of international pressure on Myanmar to strike down the citizenship laws.


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