Last year more than a million refugees arrived in Europe. In comparison, Bangladesh — the size of New York state and already home to 160 million people — took in more than one million refugees. Since August, half of the refugees streamed in through the borders on rafts and wooden boats. Bangladesh is a poor country and is bearing the brunt of having to register, feed, clothe and provide medical assistance to innocent children, women and men. Regardless of the costs involved, the Bangladeshi government has been lauded by the international community for its innate compassion and organization in providing the best possible assistance to the Rohingya refugees. Historically, Myanmar has refused to recognize that the Rohingya are a part of the country regardless of the fact that generations have coexisted. Then in 1982, the unthinkable happened, citizenship rules changed and the people living in the Rakhine state became stateless overnight. It is believed that the push for such systemic discrimination stemmed from fear that Buddhism would be under threat from the Rohingya. The fact is that almost 90 percent of the population are Buddhist and the religious practices, cultural ties and political structures which promote the national religion remain strong.
In a helpful turn of events for the Rohingya, the United States has shown support as evident from the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements. In a statement made on Nov. 15, 2017 Tillerson called the dire situation “ethnic cleansing,” and stated that “no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued.” His Holiness Pope Francis visited Myanmar and upon visiting Bangladesh this past week stated, “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” These strong comments from world leaders call for immediate corrective measures before the crisis creates intragenerational and intergenerational hatred against an entire country. At that point, it becomes easy to create labels for children whose parents and relatives may have been tortured or killed, and who were thrown out of the only place they called home.
Collective multilateral and global support is urgently required. The United States is in a good position to provide not only humanitarian assistance but also support to Bangladesh to act as a central mediator. While various solutions are in the works — including a repatriation of the refugees — it will not solve the underlying issues that have incubated since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. First, we urgently need a high-powered U.N. Commission to set up office in the Rakhine State. This body will ensure that the region is ready to receive refugees with ensured safety. We should immediately rebuild lost homes and entire communities that were burnt down. This issue is of interest to Myanmar if it is to continue its potential in bringing foreign investment in the resource-rich Rakhine state.
It is of international interest to help the Rohingya climb out of the vicious cycle of poverty exacerbated by decades of suppression and unequal rights. This may be achieved using microloans from Grameen Bank, a pioneer in lifting people from intergenerational poverty. Finally, these refugees must be given a chance to claim citizenship that was stripped off them in 1982.
So far, the crisis has not helped Myanmar’s image in the international community and future development of the region will likely be mired or based on shaky ground. Myanmar’s economic growth data will only have a superficial value hiding a Pandora’s box of insurmountable and exponentially growing socio-economic problems, and a rehashing of its previous political turmoil.
The Yale community is in a unique position to be of assistance to the exponentially growing crisis. First the community can donate through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to help provide food, water and shelter to the refugees. Additionally, members of the Yale community can do a lot to increase the dialogue surrounding these issues on campus. Certain resources, such as a podcast that is in the works through the Jackson Institute, can help bring these critical issues to the table.
If we do not look into history to learn from our past mistakes, and do whatever we can to solve such issues, we will continue to stall our global progress as one human race and continue on a trodden path of violence in the name of religious and ethnic differences.
Shams Islam is a recent graduate from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .