Our humanity must trump shallow pragmatism

Shayan S. Khan
Thursday, June 14th, 2012

One of the boats carrying Rohingya Muslims, in this case mostly women and children, turned away by the Bangladesh Border Guards on Tuesday. AP Photo/Anurup Titu.


As reports keep streaming in of the increasingly volatile state of affairs prevailing in Burma’s Rakhine state, where simmering strife between Muslims and Buddhists exploded into a fireball of sectarian violence this week, the resolute stance of the Bangladeshi government in favour of preventing a refugee influx through the watery border that separates the two nations is starting to look rather obdurate, cast by some unseemly heart in stone.


The Foreign and Home Ministries have both sounded the government’s determination to keep out the Rohingya, whose first port of call when escaping the pretty routine persecution they face in Burma happens to be Bangladesh. The Burmese Market you go shopping in everytime you visit Cox’s Bazaar is largely courtesy of this harsh reality. Over the years, the number to have crossed over through irregular means dwarfs the official figure of 28,000 who are housed, if one can call it that, in one of two official refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Cox’s Bazaar. Rejected quite categorically by the Burmese (they don’t acknowledge the Rohingya ethnicity, preferring to call them simply ‘Bengali Muslims’), and refused even refugee status by Bangladesh since 1992, their plight places them in that distinctly unfortunate club of the world’s stateless people, like the Biharis who also live among us, Europe’s Roma, and the Kurds who claim a patch of the Middle East. When you realise that most people’s rights, insofar as they have any, are ensured by a state that they belong to, you’ll appreciate the precarious existence that typifies them.


Bangladesh, ravaged by poverty as it is, has been able to do little for the Rohingya beyond that decreed by geography. Yet it would be wrong also to assert that it has turned its back on them. Refugee camps under the Geneva convention may be financed and operated by the UN, but it’s not as if accommodating what is essentially a prison camp incurs no costs on the host nation’s socio-economic fabric. ‘Geneva camps’, as we often call them, are not exactly places where ambition and inspiration thrive. On the contrary, the demeaning nature of life in these camps breeds the basest human instincts, and over years, they can become a drag on the local economy, as well as dens for criminal activity.


Even so, at times there is something to be said for taking a hit by standing by your fellow human beings. Even more, for your neighbours, those with whom you share strands if not reams of tradition and cultural heritage. They are the ones with whom the borders erected by civilisation, these ‘shadow lines’ as Amitav Ghosh beautifully characterises them, seem most pointless. It is nothing but tragic when they are then allowed to erect the limits of the humanity we bestow upon each other.


So we, and in particular the Bangladeshi authorities under whose orders a reported 14 boats carrying distressed would-be refugees had been turned away till Tuesday, will do well to remember an essential truth. These people who they have potentially condemned to their deaths may not be recognised by the Burmese government (or for that matter, even the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose silence over the issue has been hugely disappointing) as belonging to that land; they may never have any credible claims on Bangladeshi citizenship; they may even be denied refugee status; but they are our fellow human beings, first and foremost. For us, as well as them, that is the most basic identity. When they end up at our doorstep in their hour of need and we turn them away, we become complicit in what is above all a human tragedy.


No less importantly, by choosing pragmatism over digging into our reserves of humanity, the government is undermining what is best about Bangladeshis. One may hold forth all the reasons under the sun as to why a country like ours can ill-afford a refugee crisis. Most of them would be true. And presented in a certain way, gain a certain consensus held together by the mainstream media and sections of ‘civil society’. That explains some of the editorials running in both the English and Bengali press. Prothom Alo, leading the way, have said any influx of refugees “must be prevented”. But no Bangladeshi, individually, could ever endorse the government’s stance, once presented with the facts on the ground. The boats that were turned away were carrying mostly women and children. Their wails as they were sent back to face a situation that has prompted even the UN to withdraw its staff from the troubled region could be heard long after they were last seen by eyewitnesses.


That simply isn’t something any Bangladeshi with a conscience and a clear mind could allow to happen. Those who lived through the Liberation War for example, will remember the toll that was exacted upon India with a massive refugee presence in that country, running into the tens of millions by some estimates. In international climate change conferences, we are quick to warn of the millions of potential climate refugees that may result from Bangladesh if some of the direst predictions regarding global warming come true. How then can we remain so blind to the plight of others in circumstances not unfamiliar to us? Poverty may have robbed us of many things, but our innately hospitable and caring nature ensures people from all over the world sense a warmth in our midst. That makes up for a lot of the difficulties one is forced to confront when coming here from abroad.


Whatever Brand Bangladesh might be worth today, a very significant portion of what is positive about it is down to these simple traits, and similarly other ones that draw on that most elevated of human capacities- empathy, which comes naturally to us. You notice people talking about it during bilateral visits and after sporting events, in magazines and travelogues or while just passing through. Hearing them, you wouldn’t think we’re the type to sign off on letting even a single distraught mother carrying a child go back to face the horrors they’ve fled. And we’re not. Not even the poorest among us. All the civilisation that has lapped at these shores through the ages can be marked out for the very special status accorded to guests, let alone those seeking shelter from persecution. Megalomania at the top of the ruling Awami League, hence the government, ensured that it lost sight of its duty to represent what is best about the people who voted it into power long ago. The rigid stance it has maintained ever since the latest violence broke out in Rakhine serves to demonstrate how Sheikh Hasina’s administration has not only lost the pulse of the nation. It can no longer read the moral compass either of the people it claims to represent.


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