By: Syed Zafar Mehdi

‘Rohingya refugees want to go back home but with safety and dignity’

December 18, 2018

TEHRAN - Prof. Nasir uddin is a cultural anthropologist based in Bangladesh, and professor of anthropology at Chittagong University. He has been working with Rohingya people in the borderland of Bangladesh and Myanmar for more than two decades and has written on the Rohingya refugee situation extensively in the form of both academic and popular pieces. His forthcoming ethnography is named The Rohingyas: A Case of Subhuman (Oxford University Press, 2019).

In an interview to Tehran Times, Prof. Nasir uddin talks about repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, detention of Rohingya trying to flee to Malaysia, his fieldwork in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps and what could be the possible solution to this crisis.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have been discussing repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Do you think the timing is right for them to return?

A. At this stage and under the situation prevailing in Rakhine state, I don’t think it is safe for the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar. In fact, there are four stakeholders in the entire repatriation process: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Rohingyas and the international community.

None expect Bangladesh are in the position of supporting repatriation process at this stage. Rohingya refugees don’t want to go back because they think that they are not safe in Myanmar as the situation there has not changed yet.

Myanmar has always been reluctant to bring the Rohingya back. International community also thinks that Myanmar situation is still not feasible to accept the Rohingya. Bangladesh, for valid reasons, wants to repatriate the Rohingya refugees because it has exerted huge process on it. However, I think it is not safe for them to be repatriated at this stage.  

Q. Many Rohingya refugees were detained recently while trying to flee to Malaysia. Could you tell us what exactly took place?

A. If you are talking about the recent case, to my knowledge, it was Myanmar which detained 93 Rohingya while they attempted to flee to Malaysia.

According to the available information, the boat heading to Malaysia was carrying 28 men, 33 women, and 32 children from the Darpaing displacement camp in Rakhine’s Sittwe township. It was seized on Nov. 25 off the coast of Tanintharyi’s Dawei district in southern Myanmar, according to a police document. Then they were detained.  

Q. Should the world community play more proactive role in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis by putting pressure on the Myanmar government?

A. Yes, I think so because Bangladesh is not the creator of the crisis, but the worst victim. Myanmar has systematically created difficult living conditions in Rakhine state which has triggered massive influx of more than 730,000 Rohingya in 2017.

Bangladesh sheltered the Rohingya people on humanitarian grounds, but Bangladesh as an over-populated country cannot bear the 1.3 million (including old and new arrivals) for too long. So, international community must play more proactive role to resolve the crisis. 

Q. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently came under fire after tweeting touristy pictures from his Myanmar visit. How important is social media in mobilizing public support for Rohingya campaign?

A. Jack's praise of Myanmar was widely criticized across the world, and finally he felt compelled to agree with the critical condition of the Rohingya although he stopped short of naming the Rohingya!

I do think social media can play a vital role in mobilizing public support for Rohingya campaign. But, at the same time, we need to be cautious that social media also contributes to 'hate-campaign' against Rohingya people. We know how Facebook instigated anti-Rohingya sentiment which supported mass killing in Rakhine state.

The top executives of social media platforms can play important role by standing beside the oppressed people and advocating social justice.       

Q. There are 900,000 Rohingyas in more than two dozen camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, living in appalling condition. What are the problems they face?

A. The total number of Rohingya living in Bangladesh are now around 1.3 million (including old and new arrivals) and the number of camps are 32. While I was doing fieldwork in Rohingya refugee camp, I was trying to understand what kind of problems they face in Bangladesh.

In response to one of my question, Mr. Alam, a 52-year old Rohingya living in Kutupalong camp who crossed the border in September 2017, told me that they are no longer under life-threat in Bangladesh, and here the degree of safety is better than Burma. He said they feel human dignity here.

However, the conditions are more or less the same, for instance food scarcity, inadequate medical facility, no education for children, poor living conditions, no proper sanitation, insufficient water supply, and the threat of women and child trafficking.

Q. You have been working with the Rohingya since long time. Many of them have distressing stories of killings, rapes and torture in Rakhine. How did you get involved with them?

A. It is not something like a massive attack took place in Rakhine in 2017 which triggered a massive influx and I became interested in Rohingya people. I have been engaged in research on/with the Rohingya people for more than two decades, have been doing ethnographic research for years, and been a close observer of the evolving Rohingya refugee situations in Bangladesh for more than three decades as a local resident born in Cox's Bazar.

However, the recent case in terms of the intensity of atrocity and the degree of brutality has superseded all previous campaigns in 1978, 1991/92, 2012 and 2016.

The situation on the ground touched me deeply and prompted me to stand beside the Rohingya people and to help and support them.

Q. What do you think is the possible solution to this simmering crisis?

A. Based on my year-long engagement, the Rohingya refugees gave me some ideas about how to resolve the problem. Fulfillment of three basic requirements could bring a lasting solution: Everyone wants to go back to Myanmar but everyone echoes the same narratives: joboner nirapotta (life-safety), nagorikottto (citizenship) and maan-ijjat (dignity).

I recorded hundreds of similar stories from many Rohingya men and women living in Ukhia and Teknaf refugee camps. Some, of course, demand an active involvement of the UN bodies like UNHCR in the repatriation process. But, majority of those I met and interviewed gave me the impression that they would go back to Myanmar if the following three demands are met: legal recognition, life-safety, and human dignity.

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