COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — To many, the term “refugee camp” connotes impermanence. But at this massive series of refugee camps in Bangladesh’s southeast corner, where some one million displaced Rohingya people from just over the border in Myanmar are now living, people are digging in for the long haul.
Permanent concrete homes are replacing wooden shacks. Schools, water treatment facilities, and small work centers, like a bamboo treatment plant our delegation of journalists visited, are being built. “Whether a person is here for one day, or for one year, he should live with dignity,” says Marin Din Kajdomcaj, a Kosovo native and head of operations at the Cox’s Bazar Sub-Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Dignity” was certainly not afforded to the Muslim Rohingya minority in their native Myanmar. The Rohingya have long been persecuted by the Buddhist-majority country in which they live, but in 2017, their oppression grew more horrifying. Myanmar’s military and other security forces began pillaging their way through Rohingya villages, burning houses, killing civilians, and engaging in mass rape in acts tantamount to genocide. Those Rohingya who could escape did so. Hundreds of thousands fled for neighboring Bangladesh. And in an act of remarkable kindness — particularly for a desperately poor country like this one — Bangladesh welcomed them.
Bangladesh’s acceptance of some one million fleeing people in December 2017 – and the virtual ceding of a vast swath of territory in this already crowded country — was an act of astonishing generosity. But it was an undemocratic one. While this teeming, chaotic country of more than 160 million is nominally democratic, the government’s decision — an important one by any stretch — was done with no public debate.
Today, the seams are showing and there’s a palpable sense that public sentiment has turned against housing the Rohingya. Every government minister we’ve met with says that Bangladesh’s official policy is eventual repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar once that country affords basic protections to the community. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, though, given that Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya continues. In the meantime, Bangladesh plants to move tends of thousands of Rohingya out of the Bangladesh mainland and onto an island a little less than 20 miles off the coast.
In an interview not far from the refugee camp, Muhammad Ashraful Ashraf, a deputy commissioner on Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission, says the Rohingya influx has led to an increase in crime and drug use in Cox’s Bazar. He points to the murder last month of a native Bangladeshi by a Rohingya. While Mr. Ashraf’s remarks were hardly the stuff of “they’re rapists,” they did point to a public increasingly fed up with housing the Rohingya. Here in Cox’s Bazar, the Rohingya now actually outnumber the locals.
Of course, Bangladesh is hardly alone in having adopted a liberal migration policy seemingly at odds with public opinion. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s big-hearted but hasty and unilateral decision to fling open Europe’s doors to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has proven deeply unpopular across the continent and helped spur the ascent of anti-immigrant parties from Italy to Hungary to Poland to Ms. Merkel’s own Deutschland.
America’s de facto open border policy of the past two decades, meanwhile, was adopted similarly undemocratically. More than 10 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, a result of a liberal immigration regime that was never debated, much less agreed to by the voting public.
One gets the sense that, given an actual vote on the matter, people from Bangladesh to the United States to Germany would reject the liberal immigration regime that has characterized much of the world in the 21st century so far. That perhaps explains why the political class the world over seems desperate to avoid letting the people weigh in on what is truly a crucial issue.
• Ethan Epstein’s travel to the Rohingya refugee camp was facilitated by the East-West Center. Mr. Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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