Just as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once went into the Rohingya camps to affirm how we would curtail our consumption so those refugees could eat, she went to the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in London last month to further plead on behalf of the hapless million. A lot of sympathy has been garnered, from supplying aid materials to classifying their exodus as ethnic cleansing, even representing genocide. Yet, none of these have translated into alleviating the plight: the agreement made with Burma is not being implemented, as the simple refusal of the Rohingyas to return matches the hollowness of the Burma government's gesture to take them back. Two of our biggest friends and neighbours, China and India, will not do anything to placate Burma, and the toothless Commonwealth remains much as it has perennially been: a sounding board more than a problem-solver.
As the dust settles and the northwestern storms suggest the rapidly approaching monsoon season, when all hell will break loose in these flimsy make-shift camps, we get a better sense of hardcore reality: behind the high-sounding Rohingya rhetoric, Bangladesh will have to grapple with this all alone, more or less. We should shift into action mode knowing that even the smallest of refugee fractions will not return, and to soften the burden upon the country, we must begin rehabilitating the refugees by ourselves with our own resources.
A business-like approach is imperative. What we have is the responsibility of handling a million refugees, a large proportion being women, many with children to cater to. To make the accumulating costs pay off (not just for feeding and sheltering them, but also healthcare, natal care, and protection), one way to extract some revenue out of this unthinkable setting is to open up some jobs. Given the ingredients available, we have all the requisites of a ready-made garments zone here: lots of low-waged workers who would be delighted to convert their hapless condition into constructive channels, easy sea-access for raw materials to come and ports to carry the finished products out, and a fairly steady global demand that we are not just striving to satisfy, even by working extra-time, but particularly to reach that $50-billion export target by 2021.
Using the refugee camps as an export-processing zone with military guards, we could recuperate the large-scale initial costs over the medium term (3-5 years, even 7-10 years). If this is interpreted as an invitation for more influxes, then it will be our turn to stamp the thought out and stand our ground by invigilating our borders much more scrupulously. Another obvious counter-argument could be that we are inviting million-odd refugees to stay for an indefinite period. True, but rather than have them trapped as unemployed human beings being drenched year after year in the monsoon rains, then shiver in the winter chill, thus exposing them to both predators and instigators, we would be giving them a honourable pathway to a respectable living until conditions are created in Burma for their repatriation.
That is fitting for a country whose birth was accompanied by over 10 million citizens being pushed suddenly into the arms of a historically obstructionist India, until the support we eventually received proved in many ways to be pivotal for our independence. We have obligations to help as human beings, next-door neighbours, and Muslims; and we have the capacities to help out since foregoing a lunch today when we can afford multiple meals daily is nothing like what it was in 1971.
Without the nobility of our response, those refugees will be driven to extreme measures at our expense, from robbery and injury to rape and prostitution, not to mention being sucked up by transnational jihadists. We will end up with a million more ostracised people gleefully awaiting calls to chew away the state's security and foundations. The short-term pains may be theirs, but the long-term counterparts will be ours, particularly if they rank us alongside the Burmese forces that abused them and annihilated their kith and kin.
Among the benefits, we can show how to nip a gigantic problem to our own public, that too, in an election year when mindsets matter most, relay convincingly to our dilly-dallying neighbours that we can no longer be taken for granted, and to the whole world the length, breadth, and depth of the moral vacuum we live in today that demands concrete ground-based actions over and above high-fluting rhetoric, but most of all how indifference is no longer an option. Our gains can be long-lasting if we take the plunge determinedly.
The solution was premised upon an economic programme; therefore, the benefits of that economic salvation must also be spelled out. We have every right to pocket the rewards of any investment made out of our own pocket. More prudent would be for us to divert any income from this project into a fund that could help long-term housing and settlement, not just of the refugees, but of the many more expected to be uprooted by climate-change ravages.
This might be the last call before the monsoon clouds crackle; and when they do, it will be too late to change the ball game. Amid the moral bankruptcy will come economic costs, political exploitation in an election year, and security nightmare. We will not be able to absolve the difference between what the heart and soul say and how the mind and muscle act.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.