War and conflict

‘1971 all over again’: Memories of war of independence drive Bangladeshis to help Rohingya refugees

Bangladeshis feel they owe it to help those fleeing persecution as they too had sought refuge in India during the war with Pakistan.

While in Bangladesh to monitor the seemingly endless stream of Rohingya refugees crossing the border from Myanmar, I heard many comparisons.

Colleagues I worked with in the former Yugoslavia likened the scenes to Srebrenica, to Sarajevo, to Kosovo.

Another colleague said the scenes evoked stories her parents told of their family’s flight from Laos to Thailand. Others spoke of the crammed boats in the Mediterranean these past two years.

But what resonated most came from Bangladeshis themselves.

“This is 1971 all over again,” several told me. “We have a moral obligation.”

The reference of course is to Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971, when millions became refugees in India. Photographs from that time show scenes similar to those I witnessed last week: men carrying the elderly in makeshift hammocks suspended from bamboo poles; infants in baskets used by farmers to sell vegetables.

Of course, now, young boys were also charged with carrying the family’s most precious load: a solar panel.

It was heartening to see the enormous generosity extended by Bangladeshis to the “new arrivals,” as the latest group of Rohingya refugees are called.

Fleeing Myanmar

Over a quarter of a million have poured in since the August 25 militant attack on Myanmar police outposts and the subsequent Myanmar military campaign against the Rohingya population that has been widely condemned as “ethnic cleansing.”

Local families, even those with very little, gave what they could. Several told me that on the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Azha they had shared their sacrificial animal with the refugees.

Bangladesh is already hosting an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 long-term Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

The new arrivals create an unprecedented strain on already limited resources.

Bangladeshi authorities have, by and large, not pushed the new arrivals back into Myanmar, respecting international legal prohibitions against returning people to a place where their lives or freedom are at risk.

This is not just about laws, though, but also basic humanity. As one senior Bangladeshi military official said to me: “I am a military man, but I am also a human being.”

In the past, Bangladesh has permitted refugees to endure poor humanitarian conditions for fear of creating what they describe as a “pull-factor” for other refugees, encouraging more people to come.

Many long-term refugees live in unofficial camps, strewn across hillsides all along the border. The new arrivals are doing the same. An empty hillside I passed one day was completely overtaken with tarpaulin tents the next.

Bangladesh should not be left alone to solve this humanitarian crisis. International pressure is urgently needed to compel Myanmar to end its abuses, but this will need to go hand-in-hand with greatly increased humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, as well as those still inside Myanmar.

Bangladesh’s recurring plans to relocate the Rohingya to uninhabitable islands off its coast should be dropped. Enduring obstacles to access to humanitarian aid should end.

While many Bangladeshis may feel that helping the Rohingya is what they owe to the memory of 1971, for the Bangladeshi government, helping the Rohingya is the job of a responsible world nation.

Tejshree Thapa is a Researcher, Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune

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