How USA can help Bangladesh to repatriate the Rohingyas?

If the USA wants to be benevolent hegemon in global refugee governance, it must prioritize principles like refugee protection

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority group in the world. Such persecution has forced Rohingyas into Bangladesh for many years, with significant spikes following violent attacks in 1978, 1992, and again in 2016. More than 700,000 were forced to flee from the northern Rakhine state in western Myanmar following a brutal military crackdown in 2017. Around 1.2 million Rohingyas are living in camps in Cox’s Bazar and Bashan Char in Bangladesh. At this point, there are more Rohingyas in Bangladesh than in Myanmar.

Owing to the advent of other crises around the world, the Rohingya issue lost global attention for a while. In February 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup and the Rohingya repatriation talks have been halted since then. Moreover, there is a history of a strained relationship between the Myanmar Military and the Rohingya, most of whom think that their lives are more threatened than before. Due to this crisis, the socio-economic and security situation of Bangladesh is worsening and there seems to be no other way except repatriation, which has been a hanging case for the last five years.

This humanitarian crisis is currently at a deadlock and to bring momentum, Bangladesh needs a supporting mediator to repatriate such a huge number of people. A strong, credible, and neutral third party’s presence is necessary to resolve the differences and disagreements between the parties. Without resorting to violence, both Bangladesh and Myanmar can resolve their disagreements over Rohingya refugees’ repatriation by involving a mediator, namely, the United States, as it is evident that both countries cannot solve this without the help of a third party.

Why should the USA help Bangladesh?

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to repatriate this huge number of Rohingyas to Myanmar in 2017 and 2019. Two earlier attempts failed to repatriate the Rohingyas because Myanmar could not ensure their safety if they returned home. Bangladesh has raised the issue at every international forum, with the support of many countries. But Myanmar has been indifferent to international laws and norms. Some powers and vested interests may have been behind the scene. It is clear that given the progress so far, the bilateral process is not working.

There is a saying that with great power, comes great responsibility. The USA has good bilateral, strategic, military, economic, and diplomatic relations with both Bangladesh and Myanmar. The country can also be a trusted, legal and functional mediator to resolve the repatriation of the Rohingya. Sometimes powerful states need to get involved in mediating disputes with their allies. If the USA wants to be benevolent hegemon in global refugee governance, it must prioritize principles like refugee protection. This is a global responsibility for a powerful country like the USA.

The USA, as a heavyweight in international politics, requires not only military or financial assistance but also soft power in situations like these. With comparative power rivalry with Russia and China, the USA can play a constructive role here in this situation. Besides, the USA has geopolitical and geo-strategic interests in both countries. Therefore, it would give its full commitment to resolving issues between both parties. Noteworthy, the United States can offer an interest-based approach to both countries which will satisfy both of them.

United States helping so far

The United States has contributed the most to the Rohingya crisis so far. At this year's UN General Assembly, the US Secretary of State announced $170 million in additional humanitarian aid. Since 2017, the country has contributed more than 190 million dollars to the Rohingya crisis which makes it the leading global donor. This aid from the United States is muchly appreciable as this makes the bilateral bond between the two countries stronger. 

Since 2017, the USA has been playing two cards at once to maintain its influence over the region. It has supported Myanmar in the global community also, including in the UN and in working with Bangladesh in the repatriation of Rohingya people. But even after 5 years of displacement, the USA is thinking of relocating some Rohingyas to their country permanently as there is no favorable environment for repatriation in Rakhine. Canada, Germany and other developed states also should follow the footsteps of the USA to make their life easier.

It should be noted that Washington has offered to permanently resettle more than half a hundred Rohingyas skilled in various jobs in the United States. A list of more than half a hundred Rohingyas who have agreed to be resettled in the United States has also been recently shared with Dhaka. Out of a large number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the resettlement of 600 Rohingya is not a big thing in terms of numbers, but it has a lot of political importance.

In the mediation process, the USA might offer financial aid to people in the area to help improve their lives, while at the same time, using diplomacy to try to persuade Myanmar’s government to acknowledge the identity of the Rohingya people as its citizens. As a well-wisher, friend, and partner in the development process and trade, Bangladesh can expect the cooperation and support of the USA regarding the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. The Foreign Ministry of the USA has worked efficiently on the mediation process.

It is worth mentioning that the US State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Immigration Julieta Valls Noyes arrived in Bangladesh on a four-day visit on December 03. She already visited the Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar to discuss refugee protection and humanitarian assistance for vulnerable populations in Bangladesh and continued support for humanitarian partners. Considering the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, it is hoped that Valls Noyce will meet with government officials during her visit to Bangladesh for showing generosity by sheltering Rohingya and other refugees.

Needless to say, that both USA and Bangladesh are deeply involved in a crisis that is completely Myanmar’s domestic problem. The USA wanted Myanmar and Bangladesh to deal with the situation bilaterally instead of having multilateral intervening forums but that did not work. So now it has to negotiate with Myanmar diplomatically and bilaterally. The USA should take concrete steps in favor of Bangladesh regarding the Rohingya refugees’ repatriation to Myanmar. A favorable situation should be created for the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, where they can live without the fear of persecution.

Dr Arpita Hazarika

The author is a Gauhati University, Assam, India-based researcher. She is very interested in refugee affairs, political economy, security and strategic affairs, and foreign policies of the Asia-Pacific region.

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