For Riyadh, the Rohingya refugees on the Saudi soil are still ‘undesirables,’ a burden to be dumped on Bangladesh.
For the Rohingya diaspora around the world, nowhere is welcome. And in Saudi Arabia, where 54,000 Rohingya have taken refuge, concerns are rife that their welcome there may have come to end after Riyadh threatened Bangladesh with a migration ban, unless Dhaka gave Bangladeshi passports to the persecuted minority.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen confirmed this a month ago in a press conference. Bangladesh balked at the idea, but suggested it may be able to provide passports to those who previously held them. Since 2017, Bangladesh has given refuge to over a million Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing and persecution from neighbouring Myanmar.
Burmese authorities have consistently refused to give Rohingya passports, given they do not recognize them as citizens.
Bangladesh relies on nearly $15 billion annually in remittances from its migrant workers abroad, 60 percent of which comes from Saudi Arabia, putting it in a bind.
Local media also reported that foreign ministry officials said that Riyadh threatened to put limits on migration workers from Bangladesh if it fails to accept Saudi Arabia’s request, which holds devastating implications for Bangladesh’s economy.
But while the possibility of being granted passports is seemingly positive on the surface, it has not been welcomed as good news by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed Khatun, a Rohingya who has lived in Jeddah his entire life identifies with Saudi Arabia more than his homeland.
“We’ve been living in fear of being deported for years. So whenever we’re mentioned in media here our fear grows.”
Khatun details how some of his family relatives were locked up for years in detention centers without charges being pressed for being ‘illegal migrants’.
“After that happened, we knew anything could happen to us. It’s not fair though. My father was born here. I studied here. I grew up here. This is my home now,” he says in fluent Arabic.
Ahmed’s grandfather came to Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s, and was granted residency by King Faisal in a royal bid to support the minority and protect it from the depredations it endured even then.
But raised in Saudi Arabia or not, ultimately “it’s out of our hands,” he says.
No horizon in sight
The Rohinya have recently marked the third anniversary of the tragic campaign of ethinc cleansing that saw more than 700,000 of them flee their ancestral homeland.
Most Rohingya ended up in Bangladesh. But with time and unrelenting Burmese military, their diaspora has come to number 3 million around the world.
Scattered around the globe in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India; their prospects are grim and unchanging.
With a global covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe, their positions are more insecure than ever.
“We can’t get proper jobs, which means we live close to poverty. I count myself lucky for being able to go to school. Many of my friends could not afford to. But it’s painful. When people look at you, they hurry away as if you’re carrying disease. That’s if they look at you all.”
Not all Rohingya were so lucky.
In April 2020, two ships carrying Rohingya refugees was turned away from Malaysia’s coast by its navy, sparking an online panic that fed vitriol and xenophobia, as Malaysians took to projecting their fears on Rohingya fleeing death and despair.
It wasn’t long before they labelled as burdens, with mosques and other establishments barring them from entry.
Currently, foreign expats of any nationality are not allowed to pray Friday communal prayers in mosques.
In one attempt where expats and migrants brought prayer mats outside the mosque, Malaysians reacted by lowering the volume of speakers in the mosque so that worshippers standing outside in the midday heat would not be able to follow the prayers.
In Bangladesh, matters are altogether worse. With the majority of Rohingya staying in cramped conditions in Cox’s Bazar, there was widespread fear that the Rohingya were prime suspects for disease and covid-19 transmission. While the fears never materialized due to proactive testing measures, Bangladesh is still moving forward with a plan to relocate Rohingya to the remote isolated island of Bhasan Char with an alleged 100,00 housing plots set to be built.
Asked what his views are about the controversial housing project, Khatun sighs and answers a question with a question.
“How is this any different from Jews being held in concentration camps, or when the Japanese were held in camps in World War II? It’s not. You know it. They know it. They’ll do it anyways. We’re the undesirables.”