Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Bangladesh: Question of Legitimacy and Obligations


The influx of Rohingya refugees facing exodus from their homeland and into Bangladesh is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this occurrence has been happening for multiple decades but has imploded in numbers and rates during the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis. While being ridden with her own problems of over-population, poverty, scarcity, unemployment, illiteracy and more, Bangladesh has provided refugees to more than 1.1 million Rohingya displaced persons and refugees across the country. Even though so, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB), not being a part of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention has refused to provide the Burmese displaced person’s refugee status and refugee rights. This study targets to explore the obligation of Bangladesh to host the Rohingya displaced people and to shed light on whether they fulfill the criterion of refugees as per international refugee guidelines. Qualitative research design and a secondary data collection method will be employed as the paper extract information from relevant books, journals, news articles, and reports.


Key Words: Rohingya refugee, obligation, Refugee Convention, criterion



Bangladesh has faced a long period of the influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, as the people have continually faced persecution in the hands of the government. During the 1978 Operation Nagamin, adopted by General Ne Win, the first influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh after the independence of the country and the decolonization of Myanmar. Around 250,000 Rohingyas were forcibly displaced as they moved to Bangladesh due to fear of life. The second mass influx took place in 1991, following the trauma of the massacre of numerous Buddhist monks during anti-government demonstrations in 1990, and the consequent utilization of this resentment by persecuting the allegedly illegal Bengali Muslim ethnic minority community[1].


The 2012 bloody sectarian violence in Arakan led to further led to a greater influx of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as approximate 140,000 Rohingyas faced forced displacement. In October 2016, a resurgence in insurgent activity along the border and consequent military operations resulted in over 87,000 of the Rohingya people crossing into Bangladesh[2]. On August 25th, 2017, the latest military crackdown on the Rohingya civilians has resulted in a massive influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh from the influx of August 2017 stood at 911,000 as reported in January 2019[3].


As the situations become more and direr, greater number of refugees are pouring in across the border. A young boy named Rashid has seen and gone through horrors unimaginable to those living in the comforts of developed urban areas. Despite being only 10 years of age, Rashid has a big responsibility on his shoulders—the responsibility of his 6-year-old sister. He fled to the hills when the military arrived in his village on August 25th, 2017, and when he returned he found his parents dead. Seeing his neighbors abandoning what little of the village was left after the military crackdown and embarked on a journey, he and his sister tagged along, having little time to mourn. In the course of his journey, he got to know of the death of his other five siblings. Expressing his grief, the young boy says how he had to walk to cross the border for 3 nights and reached Bangladesh the day before Eidul-Fitr, on September 1, 2017[4]. Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old refugee said that his brother had been killed and burned by the Myanmar military men and his two nephews had been beheaded[5].


Such instances demonstrate how atrocious the situations have been made by the Myanmar military and how desperate the Rohingya people are. Even though Bangladesh is not the only country providing shelter to the Rohingyas, it is definitely the country providing shelter to the greatest number of Rohingya refugees. This is because of the close proximity of the Rakhine State to Cox Bazaar region of Bangladesh, and, therefore, the easy access of the people to the border. Even though these people are by definition refugees and even though Bangladesh has denied to give them this recognition in the past and in the present, as it is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, the question arises as to why Bangladesh is giving so many of them access into the country. This leads to the central question of the paper which asks: what are Bangladesh’s obligations for hosting the Rohingyas? The second overriding question the study asks is in regard to whether the Rohingya fulfill the conditions of being a refugee, and hence pose the query: what criteria of becoming a refugee is fulfilled by the Rohingya people, and in context to what specific guideline(s)?


Research Design and Methodology

This paper follows a qualitative research design and involves secondary data collection from relevant sources such as books, journals, news articles, and reports. Content/text analysis was used to identify the legitimacy of the Rohingya as refugees for the first part of the paper, while the method of the case study was used to analyze the latter part of the paper.


Who is a Refugee?

“It is difficult for anyone who has never been forcibly displaced to imagine what it is like to be a refugee.”

— Kofi Annan


The number of displaced persons seeking international refuge has increased exponentially and continues to grow. The international refugee law has been getting more and more attention due to the fact that a growing number of people that conjure it. As a result, it has become a standout amongst the most important global human rights mechanisms. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees (Geneva Convention) and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees provide the only international legal criteria that provide the legal definition of refugees and are applicable specifically to them. The 1967 Protocol, the broader modification of the Convention, outlines refugee as:


“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[6].


A refugee can be entitled so once he or she satisfies the criteria which is constituted within the definition of the Convention of 1951[7]:

  1. A well-founded fear of persecution
  2. For reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion
  3. is outside the country of his nationality
  4. is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country
  5. not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.


The Muslim Rohingyas of Myanmar have been facing persecution even before Burma’s colonial years. Even after the independence of Myanmar in 1948, the Rohingya community was never listed among the 135 official ethnic groups in the country. This is so as the Rohingyas are linguistically, racially and religiously more similar to people of its next-door neighbor, Bangladesh. For this reason, the Rohingyas have never been considered as people of the country and have faced persecution meant to uproot them from their land. This helpless ethnic group has sought refuge in neighboring countries, as well as far and beyond, to escape the repressive atrocities. The first Rohingya refugee influx into Bangladesh dated back to 1978 when Operation Dragon King was used to drive them out of the country. Due to such various instances of violence and refusal of human rights the Rohingyas have time and again shown their unwillingness to return to their country. Whenever a successful repatriation deal discussion comes to close, the Rohingyas are known to run away from the refugee camps, seek work as cheap labor to stay inside the country, marry off their daughters to local families and take a variety of such actions to meet their strategic needs. The legal status of Rohingyas in Myanmar has been a critical issue. Given that they are considered as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the Rohingyas are accounted for as ‘foreign residents’. The situation became worse after the promulgation of the 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar, which had laid down certain conditions under which the Rohingyas could never achieve citizenship of the country[8]. Even though Bangladesh has tried to devoid the Rohingyas of their refugee status as an attempt to prevent their inflow to the country, these factors are synonymous with the criteria of what defines a refugee, and thus the Rohingyas cannot be detained from their current international status.


Prerequisites for torture, pillage and plunder, abuse, and genocide in Myanmar are in place and racism has become the strong source of constant communal violence towards the Rohingya ethnic group.  Hated by state authorities, who have disavowed them of citizenship to a state which consists of the lands of their ancestor, as well as their neighbors, the defenseless and helpless minority have become a casualty to effective ethnic cleansing. ‘We fear we will be wiped out’, are the fearful words of TunKhin, a Rohingya human rights activist[9]. Being classified as ‘world’s most persecuted minority”, the Rohingyas are stateless minorities, whose ethnic identity has never even been recorded in the list of 135 ethnic minorities in Myanmar. The members of the ethnic group recognize the non-existence of protection under the security umbrella of human rights and say, ‘Rohingya people who are living in [Burma] don’t have rights. Even a bird has rights. A bird can build a nest, give birth, bring food to their children and raise them until they are ready to fly. We don’t have basic rights like that.’


The recent trends of the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh, as well as the experiences they share, implying that the people have fled due to fear of being persecuted. These experiences are embedded within the songs and sketches of the refugees, and their unwillingness to return to their country due to fear is recorded through flight from refugee camps, sending off of their daughters to serve as housemaids of Bangladeshi households, marriage of their daughters to local villager and other such activities to meet their strategic needs[10].


The obligation for Hosting Refugees

Sultana Yesmin, (2016) in a section of her paper, has provided theorizing of the Rohingya refugee situation from the lens of political realism and classical liberalism. From the perspective of political realism, foreign policy is an ideal tool of statesmanship used to achieve maximum benefits and minimize risks. Political realism, like all other forms of realism, believes that state interest and achievement of power are prime targets of any state. In fact, for political realists, the quest for power is the dominant concern for a state because political relationship necessitates unending efforts for power and interests. The political realists accentuate national interest over any humanitarian justifications. States receiving Rohingya refugees in recent years have seen the increasing emphasis regarding concerns about the national security threats posed by them. Thus, the expulsion of Rohingyas trying to enter their territories is legitimized on these grounds. Bangladesh has done this in the past, denying to give refugee recognition to the Rohingyas before. However, the situation now is different, as the government has decided to take in and shelter the refugees that have poured in during the most recent, perhaps the greatest influx[11].


The classical liberalist view holds that the role of the state is very limited and the only support for its legitimate functions due to the constitutional limits of governmental power. It is essential for government institutions to be able to uphold the rule of law and provide protection to societies from both internal and external sources of harm. This school of theorists also highlights that it is the duty of the state to maintain peace and social order in among societies and its people. The liberal school supports sheltering the Rohingya refugees and providing them their basic needs until their own state is able to. Theorists and supporters of this school of thought argue that it is the humanitarian duty of the neighbor to provide all the help it can to the mass fleeing Rohingyas at a time of heinous state-sponsored ethnic cleansing. Such arguments are based upon the wide range of international refugee laws and humanitarian laws, which form a strong basis for such liberal refugee policy[12].


The obligations of Bangladesh can be categorized in three parts:


  1. Political Obligation

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh (High Court Division) held that the ten Urdu-speaking petitioners, born both before and after 1971, were Bangladeshi nationals pursuant to the Citizenship Act of 1951 and the Bangladeshi Citizenship (Temporary Provisions) Order of 1972, and thereby directed the Government to register them as voters. However, it goes without saying that the Rohingya issue is entirely different from the Urdu-speaking Bihari issue. The Bihari people were already in Bangladesh and have been living there since 1947 and afterwards. On the other hand, the Rohingyas are Muslim Bengalis, but foreigners from another land no matter.


According to Article 25 of the constitution of Bangladesh:

“The state shall base its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter….”

It is, perhaps, solely on the basis of this principle of the Bangladesh Constitution that Bangladesh is politically obligated to host the refugees and continue with the issue of refugees coming in from another state.


  1. International Obligation

The position of Bangladeshi on the international custom rides on Bangladesh’s response to the refugee crisis situation. Giving effect to the rules and norms of the customary international law, the court has declared that the state is bound by it to provide support and shelter to the Rohingya refugees. The international refugee law is an innate part of the human rights law which aims to promote human rights. In simple words, human rights are those basic rights of human which they own from the very moment of their birth (mostly) and without which a human cannot survive and among the human rights are right to life and equality before the law social security.In simpler terms, human rights are those fundamental privileges of human which they possess from the very simple moment of their introduction to the world (for the most part) and without which a human being cannot survive and among the human rights are rights to life and equality before the eyes of the law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 mandates in Article 14(1) that:


“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.


The 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT)) states:


“No state parties shall expel, repel, return, or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”


Therefore, from this it can be incurred that even though Bangladesh is not a part of the 1951 Convention Relating to Status of Refugees, it is still bound by the international law to provide assistance and shelter to the Rohingya refugees. Besides that the international community has displayed continual support for the Rohingya ethnic community, as they face persecution and continued unsafe conditions for repatriation.


3. Moral Obligation

Bangladesh has had an unfortunate history of having its people become victims of such malice that it forced them to be refugees. An approximate of 10 million people had to flee to India, which welcomed the people open-armed, in 1971, during the time Pakistan Army’s brutality was set loose on the innocent civilian people. Added to this 20 million people were displaced inside the country. India’s granting of support and shelter to Bangladeshi refugees place a moral obligation on Bangladesh to do the same in case of Rohingya refugees going through similar horrendous experiences. Another reason is that Rohingyas are historically, culturally, religiously, linguistically and facially similar to Bangladeshis, putting a moral obligation on Bangladesh to respond to the sufferings of Rohingyas and grant refuge to them.



Having faced persecution and brutality at home, the Rohingya have found refuge under the generosity of the neighbor state. However, the situation still remains tense as even though Bangladesh has served its obligation to host the refugees, but still refuses to give them the refugee rights they are deserving of. Having fulfilled the list of the criterion of being a refugee, according to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the displaced Burmese people remain in distress as they are refused their refugee rights in a land which is not a signatory to the Convention. While Bangladesh is under the political, international and moral obligations of hosting the refugees, it persists to refuse them rights.


Nahian Salsabeel

student, Bangladesh University of Professionals

Research intern, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).

[1]Wade, Francis. Myanmars Enemy within: Buddhist Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence. London: Zed Books, 2017.

[2]Griffiths, James. “Is The Lady Listening? Aung San SuuKyi Accused of Ignoring Myanmar’s Muslims.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 25, 2016.

[3]ReliefWeb. ISCG Situation Report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, Cox’s Bazar | January 2019 – Bangladesh. 2019 [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Aug. 2019].

[4]Khalid, Saif. “Rohingya Children Recall Horror of Losing Parents.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 23, 2017.

[5]Worley, Will. “Rohingya Children ‘Beheaded and Burned Alive’ in Burma.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, September 3, 2017.

[6]. (n.d.). Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jun. 2018].

[7]UNHCR, Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Geneva, Switzerland, pp.10-22

[8] (n.d.). Burma/Bangladesh: Burmese Refugees In Bangladesh – Discrimination in Arakan. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jun. 2018].

[9] Ibrahim, A. (2016). The Rohingyas Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide. London: Hurst & Company.

[10]Farzana, K. (2015) Boundaries in Shaping the Rohingya Identity and the Shifting Context of Borderland Politics, KaziFahmidaFarzana,Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism: Vol. 15, No. 2, 2015  pp.297-307

[11]Yesmin, Sultana. “Policy towards Rohingya Refugees: A Comparative Analysis of Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.”Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh61, no. 1 (January 2016): 71-100

[12] Ibid


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