Stop sending them back!

by Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published on the Jun 28, 2012 issue of the  New Age]

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our inter-connectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality ‘Ubuntu’ — you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Bishop Desmond Tutu (2008)

OUR xenophobia is reflected in the words we use — ‘malus’ to talk about Indians or Hindus, ‘mauras’ to talk about Urdu-speaking communities in Bangladesh, ‘chinkus’ to talk about indigenous communities, ‘phiringee’ to talk about Christians, and so on. Anyone who is slightly different from us needs a name that is derogatory and we put all our venom and spite into the name and spit it out. And this spite does not stop with national, religious or ethnic identities. We also pick on our other favourite targets — the gender minorities. The hijras have many names, effeminate men are referred to as ‘half ladies’, homosexual men don’t need names because they can just be beaten up in public, and then there are the women, who have many different names, we can pick and choose from the various terms to harass them on the streets, abuse them inside the homes or publicly humiliate and torture them and justify it using the convenient term ‘fatwa’. Let’s face it, we are a pretty intolerant society. If you don’t fit into the majoritarian formula you better watch out!

So maybe I should not have been outraged when I saw the term ‘intruders’ being used by the news media in Bangladesh to refer to the Rohingya refugees who were fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine province. The predominantly Muslim Rohingyas have been desperately seeking refuge in Bangladesh after a recent spate of persecution began in the Rakhine province since June 3. The citizens of the country expressed concern. Bangladesh has too many problems already, why should they take on the problems of another country? How can a small country like Bangladesh give room to so many people? The Rohingyas are religious extremists and they are being patronised by Jamaat-e-Islami. Foreign ministry officials and international relations experts commented that giving shelter to the refugees would ‘have a negative impact in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations.’ Some journalists expressed suspicion about why international human rights organisations were so interested in this. An influx of refugees was after all a threat to the country’s sovereignty and they shouldn’t be meddling in our business.

I wondered how the one-day-old boy Sangram (meaning struggle), who was born in the Saint Martin’s Island the day her mother arrived there from Myanmar was a threat to our country’s sovereignty. I wondered how their supposed links with Jamaat negated their right to live. Have we forgotten our shock and despair when our people where being racially profiled by the US State Department for being ‘potential terrorists’ because our friends’ names started with ‘Muhammad’ or they wore a hijab?

The foreign minister has repeatedly asserted that the government of Bangladesh is under no obligation to give refuge to the Rohingyas as it has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. Surprisingly, even the NHRC chairperson seemed to agree with this, when he said Bangladesh had not signed any international conventions which compelled them to take in refugees. I wondered if it was really crucial for us as a nation to have a law, or an international obligation, to tell us that we needed to save lives of people in distress. Were we missing the trees for the forest?

Bill Frelick, refugees director at Human Rights Watch, expressed his despair at the situation: ‘It is tragically ironic that Bangladesh has closed its border and is making forced returns on World Refugee Day. This is a reminder that the fundamental principles of refugee protection still need to be respected.’ Some concerned citizens reminded the government about the generosity of our neighbouring country during war, when large numbers fled to India for safety in 1971 during the national war of liberation.

Security forces have shot and killed an unknown number of Rohingyas and mobs have burned down numerous homes. The Myanmar government’s human rights record is so bad that the UN has a special rapporteur just to monitor the situation of human rights in the country. So asking the Myanmar government to stop the atrocities does not take away Bangladesh’s responsibility of taking immediate steps to save the lives of the escaping Rohingyas.

No one chooses to leave one’s motherland for another under such circumstances without a good reason. And let’s face it, the life of a poor refugee is miserable. It is out of sheer desperation that a person chooses to be labelled a ‘refugee’ or worse ‘an intruder’, with no national identity or any of the benefits that comes with citizenship. The fear of getting killed in one’s own country because of one’s religious identity is as desperate a situation as it can get. Yes, Myanmar must immediately stop persecuting its people; yes, the international community must put pressure on the Myanmar government to stop the atrocities. But an immediate humane and civilised act for Bangladesh is to give shelter to these helpless people, until Myanmar sorts out its mess. The international community, including the UNHCR, must come forward to help Bangladesh in doing so and it appears from their statements that they are willing to do so. The government of Bangladesh must look at this crisis from the humane point of view and give Rohingyas refuge in our country until it is safe for them to go back.

Hana Shams Ahmed is a writer and can be reached here: hana.shams.ahmed@gmail.com.

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