Resettle the Rohingya refugees where they can have a real future

Resettle the Rohingya refugees where they can have a real future
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International humanitarian and rights groups and the Muslim diaspora have been in high dither over Burma’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. The counterinsurgency operation, which was precipitated by Rohingya insurgent attacks in August, has so far sent 626,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

International players in the drama are acting perfectly in character. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which conducted the attacks, called itself a garden-variety ethnic insurgent group out to protect the Rohingya people against state repression. Burma declared ARSA a terrorist group, and initiated what it calls a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign against extremist Bengali terrorists. Rakhine Buddhist nationalists actively supported the army, and took their own vigilante action. 

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Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s official mouthpiece for spreading Salafist propaganda, called for foreign governments and international institutions to force the hand of the Suu Kyi government and hold it accountable. The oratory of the Muslim diaspora, meanwhile, quickly reached fever pitch. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights — Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, controversial for his positions on freedom of expression, free markets, populists and President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE’s treatment of the American press — described the crackdown as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” If the term was calibrated to go viral, it succeeded.

 

The Organization of Islamic States declared the crackdown ethnic cleansing. Turkey and Malaysia called it genocide, Amnesty International called it apartheid, and Iran compared it to the Hutu genocide that killed 800,000 in Rwanda in 1994.

Not to be outdone, the U.N. Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution saying that crimes against humanity have “very likely” occurred. Human rights chief Zeid objected, arguing it didn’t go far enough.

If the international community really wants to do something constructive about the crisis, it will stop debating semantics and focus on permanently resettling the Rohingya refugees. The alternative — their “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return” to Burma, based on the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Advisory Commission — is a fantasy. The commission, established in 2016 by the Burmese government after earlier Rohingya insurgent attacks, is an object lesson in crisis management malpractice.

For security and other reasons, Bangladesh doesn’t want the Rohingya refugees there permanently. But few think they will return anytime soon because of security problems, persecution, discrimination, lack of citizenship, absence of official papers and the verification process. Because of this, Amnesty International and others want Bangladesh to adopt a policy of non-refoulement, “the cornerstone of international refugee protection.” That would stop their return to Burma if life or freedom would be threatened there — which they surely would be. Human Rights Watch supports resettlement for Rohingya who are unable or unwilling to return to Burma, but the U.N. is reportedly avoiding long-term planning for the refugees because it wants to negotiate their return. 

What is needed is for the U.N. and other bilateral, regional and non-state actors to start planning for permanent resettlement of the refugees in Muslim countries that already host large Rohingya populations. These are Bangladesh, now with about a million Rohingya, Pakistan with 350,000, Saudi Arabia with 200,000, Malaysia with 50,000, the UAE with 10,000 and Indonesia with 1,000. Since Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were so helpful in creating, training and arming ARSA, they will no doubt be especially welcoming to their Rohingya brothers and sisters.

The Rohingya refugee problem isn’t going away until the Rohingya insurgency is over. It started just three short months after Burma’s independence in January 1948, and it has churned more or less continuously in Rakhine state for the last 70 years. The latest insurgent attacks precipitated what is now the seventh major flood of refugees to Bangladesh, totaling some 1.3 million Rohingya. 

All of the players in this drama are acting in character, and Burma is no different. It may be the most insurgent-prone country in the world, with 47 armed ethnic groups, and it will no doubt continue fighting this insurgency as it has fought others for the last 70 years — in this case with help from China. If it’s smart, it will stop the violence, peacefully escort the remaining Rohingya to the border with Bangladesh, and seal that border permanently. 

It’s time to end the Rohingya insurgency for good, stop the recurring humanitarian crises, and close off western Burma permanently as a potential gateway for Islamic jihad. Whatever the fate of the few hundred thousand Rohingya still remaining in Burma, the international community should stop setting its hair on fire and focus on doing what it does best: help resettle the Rohingya refugees to countries where they can have a real future.

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. foreign service officer. In a 29-year career, he served 31 months in Afghanistan (2006-2012), including a year as USAID chief of staff (2006-2007) and 17 months as director of Development at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul (2010-2012), under Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen.