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The Indo-Pacific has a responsibility to respond to the Rohingya crisis

The Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh is arguably one of the worst humanitarian crises in the region. The Rohingya are a Muslim-majority ethnic group from Northern Rakhine state in Myanmar. They have long been persecuted by the Buddhist-majority state, which deems the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This persecution has forced over 1.2 million Rohingya refugees to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh, with the majority living in make-shift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Bangladesh was unprepared for such an influx of refugees and remains unable to effectively deal with them.

Aside from extremely poor living conditions within the camps, there is a key emerging point of tension between Bangladesh and the refugees. In recent developments, the growing stress caused by hosting the refugee camps is fostering conflict between the refugees and the wider Bangladesh community. This has created a political crisis within Bangladesh and has pushed the government to contain and alienate the refugee community. Bangladesh has shut down mobile phone services in the camps and has restricted 3G and 4G access to the period between 5pm to 6am. Further, Bangladesh has considered building a ‘security fence’ around the camps to prevent the refugees from leaving.

The Rohingya and NTS

The Rohingya refugee crisis is a key example of a non-traditional security issue (NTS), or a security issue that emerges from non-military sources (climate change, mass migration, transnational crime). NTS issues are intrinsically transnational in their scope and as such, require a regional response to effectively address them. Indeed, the Rohingya refugee crisis has had tangible effects on Indo-Pacific security and stability. Amongst other issues, the camps have contributed to a growth in regional migration flows, encouraged the spread of transnational organised crime, fostered radicalisation and encouraged the rise of transnational militants, with the potential for Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA – a militant Rohingya group) and other militant groups to recruit in the camps.

Regional Lessons Learnt

The region has failed to approach the Rohingya crisis as a regional NTS issue and has instead, largely designated it as Myanmar and Bangladesh’s responsibility. This reluctance to take a shared responsibility for the crisis has hindered progress in resolving the issue, had substantial negative economic, social and political impacts on Bangladesh and reflected the region’s limitations in dealing with NTS issues.

The region lacks a coherent refugee framework that could be mobilised in the case of a large-scale refugee crisis like the Rohingya. Indeed, many countries in the region are yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and as such, are under no legal obligation to provide protection to refugees.

Instead of prioritising discussions about the need for such regional frameworks, the regional community has largely fixated on the solution of repatriating the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. In this quest for a quick solution to the crisis, the region at large has consciously turned a blind eye to the alleged atrocities committed by Myanmar against the Rohingya. It is highly unlikely that Myanmar will willingly create a safe and hospitable environment for the refugees’ repatriation and as such, any attempt to do so would be life-threatening for the refugees. This solution is the antithesis to the collaboration needed to effectively address the Rohingya refugee crisis, and NTS issues more broadly.

An effective regional response to the crisis must consider ‘sharing the burden’. This can be achieved through mechanisms such as;

  1. Prioritising regional discussions around re-settling the Rohingya refugees evenly across the region and taking in refugees that arrive at their borders.

  2. Contributing to capacity building within Bangladesh to create the best possible environment for Bangladesh to support the refugees.

  3. Publicly condemning Myanmar for its actions and placing regional pressure on the state to resolve the internal complexities that led to the crisis.

A Shared Regional Consciousness

As part of the region’s response to NTS issues, the region must also develop a strong regional consciousness that recognises the intrinsic need for shared humanitarianism and regional responsibilities. This is of particular importance in the Indo-Pacific, a region that traditionally operates within a narrow state-centric view of sovereignty and security. The dominant thinking places a commitment to shared regional norms and responsibilities as secondary to individual state goals; regional cooperation has never been a good enough excuse to relinquish a small amount of sovereignty. Without this shift, any regional frameworks that rely on cooperation will fail.

The Rohingya refugee crisis has shown the region’s limitations in dealing with NTS issues. By continuing to operate under a framework of state-sovereignty and self-preservation, the region will be unable to deal with the developing security issues of the 21st century. Instead, the region must prioritise discussions that focus on creating a stronger regional awareness of the need for collaboration. The Rohingya refugee crisis is a necessary place to start.

Sarah Wilson is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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