“The regional impact of fragility is often underestimated. Fragile states have a direct negative spill over effect on neighbouring states, including that of refugee flows, safe havens for terrorists, organised crime, epidemics, weapons trafficking, etc.”Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, at UN Security Council Open Debate on ‘Challenges of maintaining peace and security in fragile contexts’ (6 January 2021)
For the past fortnight now, some 81 refugees have been stranded in the Andaman seas as ‘nobody’s people’ — with neither India nor Bangladesh willing to accept them. These Rohingya refugees left the Bangladeshi tarpaulin shelters in Cox’s Bazaar in a cramped fishing boat on 11 February, possibly for Thailand or Myanmar. They were rescued by two Coast Guard ships responding to SOS calls after their engine broke down. They were stopped from entering Indian territory. Their fate now hangs in the balance with Delhi and Dhaka asking each other to take the onus.
Bangladesh Shrugs Off Responsibility
These survivors were in the boat along with the mortal remains of 8 refugees who reportedly lost their lives because of dehydration and starvation during the journey, while one refugee had jumped into the sea and escaped. Officials categorically state that no life has been lost since the boat was rescued by the Indian Coast Guard and due medical and humanitarian assistance is being provided to these people. As per officials, some 47 of the 90 occupants of the boat (56 women, 21 men, 8 girls and 5 boys) hold ID cards issued by the UNHCR office in Bangladesh, identifying them as ‘displaced Myanmarese nationals’.
It is learnt that ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bangladesh this month, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar too raised the matter with his counterpart AK Abdul Momen in Dhaka on 4 March. However, the same was not reflected in official read outs.
Momen had recently said that his country was under no obligation to take the rescued Rohingya as they were forced to take shelter in his country only after a forced exodus from Myanmar. “They were located 147 km (91 miles) away from Indian territory, 324 km (201 miles) away from Myanmar,” Momen told Reuters from United States in February 2021, adding that ‘other countries and organisations should take care of the refugees’.
How Rohingya Crisis Has Been Further Complicated by Myanmar’s Military Coup
Earlier the issue was also raised and discussed during the 19th Home Secretary level talks on 27 February between the two countries. "We have been in touch with Bangladesh to repatriate them [Rohingyas] back to Bangladesh. The issue figured at the recent home secretary-level talks [between the two countries]," MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said at the weekly virtual media briefing.
Indian officials however argue that some of these refugees adrift at international waters are actually Bangladeshi nationals. Delhi insists that while ‘‘India will not leave them to flounder in the seas”, Bangladesh must take back these survivors as they are not ‘India’s responsibility’.
“They are not Bangladeshi nationals and in fact, they are Myanmar nationals. They were found 1,700 km (1,100 miles) away from the Bangladesh maritime territory and therefore, we have no obligation to take them,” Momen told Reuters.
While Delhi has been in close touch with stakeholders on the larger issue of repatriation of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims forced out during the 2017 mass exodus from Rakhine state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the situation has now been complicated further with the junta overthrowing the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.
“Rohingya is an issue that is likely to define the structures of violence and insurgencies in the years to come from now. It is on the agenda of the Indian policy maker and especially Bangladeshi policy makers who are going to get directly affected by who and how will junta deal with on the Rohingya issue,” says Avinash Paliwal, Associate Professor at SOAS University of London.
Dhaka Looking to Delhi For Assistance
For the most part of its independent history, Myanmar or erstwhile Burma was a military dictatorship, with only some semblance of inclusive politics playing out over the last decade. Since 2017, Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the exodus with nearly a million Rohingya refugees pouring in to seek shelter.
Dhaka has been looking to New Delhi to leverage some clout with the Myanmarese authorities for a ‘safe and sustained’ repatriation of Rohingya as part of a long lasting solution to the crisis.
India has focused on development assistance and building homes in the western coastal Rakhine state area to facilitate a possible return of the Rohingya whom the Myanmarese Buddhists call ‘Rohingya Bengali’.
India also recently entered into a trilateral agreement with Japan to create infrastructure for 15 schools in Rakhine.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla had held discussions on the issue with the leadership in Dhaka and Yangon during his first foreign visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic in August and October 2020.
In a first, Shringla and Army Chief Gen MM Naravane were part of the delegation that visited Yangon just days ahead of the parliamentary elections that delivered a massive victory for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). But all efforts at facilitation have received a jolt now following the military coup and arrests of top leaders including Suu Kyi in February 2021, with a big question mark hanging over the country’s political future.
New Delhi is Walking a Thin Line
In civilian protests that have followed since the overnight coup, hundreds have been arrested including activists and journalists, while at least 50 have been killed and scores injured, as per UN estimates.
For now, New Delhi is watching the evolving situation. “India is not thousands of miles away from Myanmar. We are the only country sharing land borders with both Myanmar and Bangladesh. We cannot impose sanctions. We have to walk a thin line between call for support for restoration of democracy and then to work towards actually restoring it,” explained an official on condition of anonymity.
“We believe in a constructive approach and we have kept lines of communication open. Keeping in mind our own democratic principles, we are talking to and remain in touch with all concerned including legislators, senior activists, officials who are accessible. Our humanitarian assistance including medical supplies continues as we do not want to harm larger interests of people,” said the official.
“On the ground in Myanmar, there is very little space in a demographic and popular opinion sense to accommodate people at that large a scale and take Rohingyas back. So there is a lot of push and pull that would make it very difficult for the Rohingya to be repatriated, whatever the optics of it might look like,” cautions Avinash Paliwal.
“The situation in Bangladesh is no better. Some of them have been relocated to Bhashan Char. Many are still in Cox’s Bazaar. Others are trying to escape the camps. The future of Rohingyas hang in the balance within the larger context of the coup and the international reaction,” added Paliwal speaking from London.
Even as Dhaka refuses to budge, the Ministry of External Affairs is pushing for a resolution to the immediate crisis of the stranded boat refugees before PM Modi heads there on 26 March to attend the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence.
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)