In 1971 Ravi Shankar and George Harrison organised a concert in New York City’s Madison Square Gardens to fund relief efforts for war-torn Bangladesh. The album featured the image of a starving child on the cover, which became a symbol of an impoverished country emerging out of the rubble of war. Forty-four years later, another image is now associated with Bangladesh: that of the abandoned refugees who float on the Andaman Sea with no hope of rescue.
We’ve all seen the photographs of these refugees. We’ve seen them hanging their emaciated limbs off the sides of their boats. We’ve seen the scars on their backs,earned in fights over scarce food and water. We’ve read their harrowing stories of their being abandoned at sea, rejected by one government after another.
It is estimated that up to 8,000 refugees are marooned in the sea between Bangladesh and Malaysia. Most of them come from Rakhine state, in Burma, where as members of the Rohingya community they are denied the basic rights of citizenship. The rest are economic migrants from Bangladesh.
I remember when the Rohingya refugees first started arriving in Bangladesh. It was in 1982, after the Rohingya had been stripped of their rights by a Burmese law that refused to recognise them as one of the 135 “national races” of the country. Faced with state-sanctioned persecution, they began to flee across the border.
In the years since then, they have been evicted from their lands, been the victims of arbitrary taxes and forced labour, and been banned from travelling or getting married without a permit. It is illegal for them even to have more than two children. In a cruel irony, the Burmese government has now taken to calling the Rohingya “illegal Bangladeshis”, though generations of their people have lived in Burma.
There are now 30,000 documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the UNHCR estimates that up to 200,000 more are living in villages along the border between Bangladesh and Burma. Bangladesh pleads lack of resources: as a poor country, we just don’t have the means to support an influx of refugees. But we could do much more to support our neighbours. Worse, western governments have been so enthralled with Aung San Suu Kyi that they have ignored her shameful stance on this minority community. The Burmese authorities are known to have refused to attend any event in which the word “Rohingya” is uttered. For their part, the Malaysian and Thai authorities have refused to take in any refugees, putting paid to any notion there may have been of a shared community of south-east Asian countries.
But blaming Bangladesh or Burma, or indeed the countries that are refusing to send rescue vessels, can take us only so far. The only way the Rohingyas’ condition will improve is if there is a concerted international, multilateral pressure on all the countries of the region.
The time has come for us to take a global view on migrants. There are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time since the second world war. People fleeing persecution, poverty and conflict are risking their lives to find refuge. The Rohingya refugees, 25,000 of whom have taken to the seas this year, say they would rather take their chances with people-smugglers than remain in Burma to face certain death.
The truth is, we are entering an age of migrants, and we must adjust our sense of fairness and morality, and even our concept of national borders, accordingly. Climate change is about to force upon us a refugee crisis that is unprecedented in all of human history. Already in Bangladesh 50,000 people migrate to the capital city every month because rising sea levels have made their villages uninhabitable and have destroyed their arable land.
The floating refugees are giving us a glimpse into our collective future. In this future, perhaps it will be the already unfortunate countries, such as Bangladesh, that first fall victim. But soon, even wealthy countries will begin to suffer from extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels. We still don’t know exactly how climate change will affect each of our countries. Given this uncertainty, we need to take a radically new approach to our shared resources.
I may dream of such a future, but I know it will not come readily. Many thousands of boat people will have to perish before we make sweeping, transnational changes to the way we approach refugees.
We are poorly prepared for what is about to hit us. We have neither the political will nor the moral courage nor the sense we need of a collective fate to face the challenges of the future. Let the images of these people be our clarion call.
Tahmima Anam is a Bangladeshi writer. Her latest novel is The Good Muslim.