You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 67: Why are Rohingya and Ukrainian Refugees Treated Differently?

Why are Rohingya and Ukrainian Refugees Treated Differently?

In this episode, School of International Service professor Tazreena Sajjad joins Big World to discuss the difference in global responses to Rohingya and Ukrainian refugees.

Sajjad, an expert on refugees and forced displacement, begins our discussion with a brief overview of the history of the Rohingya refugee crisis (2:53). Sajjad also discusses life inside the refugee camps in Bangladesh (7:26) and explains how other countries and international aid organizations are working to help Rohingya refugees (11:19) displaced from Myanmar.

Why is there a disparity in media coverage of the Rohingya and Ukrainian refugee crises (16:13)? How are international aid dollars being spent, and who decides which refugees receive this aid (25:08)? Sajjad answers these questions and discusses the impact of geographical proximity and geopolitical importance when it comes to assisting refugee groups (27:58). To close out the discussion, Sajjad asks our listeners to consider both the public perceptions and lived realities of both the Rohingya and Ukrainian refugees (33:23).

In the “Take 5” segment (19:23) of this episode, Sajjad answers the question: How can countries and international organizations better work to support refugees from all situations and ensure that resources and aid are shared more equally among those threatened groups who need it the most?

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. What drives compassion? Is it just a response to a perceived need? Most, if not all, of the world's major religions espouse teachings or instructions to help others, specifically refugees. And compassion isn't only based in religion. Atheist organizations that assist refugees exist too. And that doesn't even touch how governments respond to people in need. The international aid industry is a network of government and non-governmental organizations, large and small, many of whom have resources dedicated to helping displaced people. But do we respond to all refugees in the same way? A Pew Research survey conducted just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine showed 69% of US adults strongly or somewhat supported accepting Ukrainian refugees, while a similar survey conducted just after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan showed 56% of US adults strongly or somewhat supported accepting Afghan refugees. What explains that difference of 13 percentage points of support?

1:28      KS: Where does compassion meet entrenched bias and what does it mean for certain refugee populations? Today, we're talking about how the world responds to refugees and whether those responses are biased. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Tazreena Sajjad. Tazreena is a professor here at the School of International Service. Her areas of expertise include refugees and forced displacement. Her recent publications include Once We Were Refugees: Security, Solidarity, and A View From the Global South in the Journal of Refugee Studies. Tazreena is the 2022 recipient of the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies Senior Fellowship for her current research on the politics of refugee reception in the global south. Tazreena, thanks for joining Big World.

2:18      Tazreena Sajjad: Thank you so much for inviting me back for a discussion today, Kay.

2:22      KS: Yes, it is wonderful to have you as always. Tazreena, I want to talk a little bit about the Rohingya Muslims, a Muslim minority ethnic group in Myanmar. They have suffered decades of violence and persecution. You've done extensive work regarding the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis of people leaving Myanmar. Can you give us a brief overview of the situation to make sure that everyone understands the situation confronting the Rohingya?

2:53      TS: It may be helpful to begin to answer this question with a little bit of background. The Rohingya people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, but there are also Rohingya Christians and Hindus within that group. They are residents of Myanmar or what is known as Burma, and there's complex politics regarding what name is used, which is the Northern Rakhine state which shares borders with Bangladesh and India. Now, there's significant research and debate about the origins of the Rohingya people, and today it's too extensive to go into that discussion here. But to offer a little bit of context, some argue that Moorish, Arab, and Persian traders arriving in then Burma between the ninth and 15th century who married locally, resulted in a population who speak a Bengali dialect interspersed with words from Persian, Urdu, and Arakanese. Second, the presence of a large Muslim population in the country since 1824 followed British colonial practices, which encouraged the arrival of migrant labor from what was then India to increase rice cultivation and profits in then Burma.

4:01      TS: Despite this history, the official Burmese administration's policy has always been to assert the fact that the country has only been Buddhist and that those who call themselves Rohingya have no historical ties to the country or have any claims to citizenship. Myanmar's 1982 citizenship law played a significant role in terms of being instrumental in making the Rohingya stateless, and between 1995 and 2015, many Rohingya were issued temporary registration cards that were white in color, which was very different from the blue, pink, and green colored cards that citizens of Myanmar were allowed to carry. So in every way, the Rohingya were made to feel and were legally made to be foreigners.

4:50      TS: This all means that the Rohingya today are the world's largest stateless population. They have no access to citizenship in Myanmar or Burma, and their stateless condition has reinforced the state's narrative that they're resident foreigners. Or in the government's terminology, illegal immigrants quote unquote, who are unworthy of state protection. Now, the most recent engagement with the Rohingya situation comes in at about 2016 and 2017 when there was a large-scale military crackdown on the Rohingya population by the Myanmar military. At that time, about over 700,000 Rohingya, including more than 400,000 children entered Bangladesh within the span of about less than a month.

5:38      TS: Unfortunately, some in the audience might know that on February 1st, 2021, Myanmar's military staged a military coup and overthrew the democratically elected government and replaced it with a military junta, which is known as the State Administration Council. Since then, the military junta and units that were implicated in the 2017 atrocities have responded to the demonstrations with a nationwide campaign of torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population that have amounted to crimes against humanity and in conflict areas as war crimes. The military junta, in addition to obviously targeting protestors and democracy and human rights activists across the country, have also continued to target the Rohingya community, and they've imposed new movement restrictions on the community and have added aid blockages on Rohingya camps and villages. And this has made the situations with regard to water scarcity and food shortages very, very dire and have resulted in significant outbreaks of diseases as well as ongoing malnutrition.

7:00      KS: That is definitely where I want to start because we're going to talk about aid, and I definitely want to talk about the internally displaced within Myanmar. But first, the lion's share of the Rohingya refugees, as you mentioned, have fled to Bangladesh. So just for a little bit of a look there, what is life like for the refugees there and how are they being supported in the day-to-day?

7:26      TS: Now, while it's impossible to outline every aspect of Rohingya life in Bangladesh, let me pick out a few issues. First is the current refugee population living in the official camps in Bangladesh amount to about one third of the total population in Cox's Bazar District, which is in the coastal area of Bangladesh. And that is a significant number. The Rohingya refugees are hosted in 33 extremely congested camps in the Kutupalong area, in the Cox's Bazar District, and the Kutupalong Camp has been known as the world's largest refugee camp. The Cox's Bazar District is also historically a low income area in Bangladesh, and so the camps are only within 24 square miles of radius, and this makes Cox's Bazar one of the most densely populated refugee camps in the world.

8:18      TS: It is more than, I believe, one and a half times more populated than Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, and Bangladesh's capital Dhaka is arguably the world's most densely populated city. So I hope our audience recognizes how incredibly congested the refugee camps are in Bangladesh. The UN also actually provides certain guidelines in terms of what makes a refugee camp livable. But 19 of the 33 camps in Cox's Bazar actually function below the UN guideline. Overcrowding is a huge reason for this. This means that particularly the children and the elderly have remained vulnerable to poor

9:00      TS: ... sanitation conditions and to the spread of diseases, not to mention the extremities of weather, including heat and humidity during the summer months. And then in terms of water sources, 22 of the 33 camps are operating within the UN standard, which means there are several camps left that operate below the UN standard. There is a dense, complex, and very professional network of collaboration between INGOs and NGOs in the refugee camps through which basic services are provided for the children and for the elderly and for the civilian population. But despite this, there are still outbreaks of diseases. Certainly the pandemic was a very tense time in the camps. There are cases of malnutrition. And because of a complex range of factors, educational opportunities remain limited. And so exploitation and violence remain the everyday lived experiences for many people in the camp, including, of course, realities of gender-based violence, child marriage, and child labor.

10:13      KS: Tazreena, you and I spoke on the first podcast episode that we did together a few years ago about the countries that host the most refugees and how it's not the ones that necessarily people in the West would think based on coverage. And Bangladesh, as you mentioned, is definitely one of the largest hosts of displaced people, and refugees in the world. I think anyone who would judge their response in any way would be well-served to remember that this is a country that has many of its people who live in poverty and has been dealing with the influx of the Rohingya since, as you said, the 1970s. So it is incumbent on other countries and international organizations who are not hosting the refugees to help these Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar and also to help Bangladesh. So how are other countries and international organizations working to help the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar?

11:19      TS: Thank you, Kay, for this question because this is a really important one. One is the fact that Bangladesh has its own complex political, economic, security, and environmental challenges. And so to be a refugee host also means that the door has been open for a different dimension of these challenges, as well as opportunities in terms of how negotiations, political, social, and other types of negotiations have been happening with regard to being such a large refugee host country. One of the things to keep in mind is how Bangladesh is regarded as a low middle income country. So, it doesn't struggle with the immediate devastation of war and immediate consequences of large-scale poverty that we have seen Bangladesh struggle with in the 1970s and 1980s. And so it does have specific dynamics that we need to sort of consider and the commendable strides it has made in several aspects with regard to its own population.

12:29      TS: So one of the things that I will talk about, of course, is the role of international actors, but I do want to acknowledge the fact that Bangladesh's response, not just the government of Bangladesh's response in terms of opening the borders, but a lot of the local community actors, the local civil society actors and the role of national organizations that have responded to the crisis. So, the world's largest NGO comes out of the global south, and it actually was founded in Bangladesh, and it's called BRAC, and it was one of the first responders to the crisis on the ground and continues to be involved in several large-scale projects in the camps. And I also want to mention that nearly half the members of the joint response plan that exists for the Rohingya are actually national organizations from Bangladesh. From the government side, you also have the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change.

13:23      TS: And then the government also put together the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. And so it is a complex network of national organizations and national actors who are involved. The other level, or the other side of the question is about the IDPs or the internally displaced population. And that opens a different can of questions and deliberations and considerations because these are the people who have also been displaced largely as a result of political factors and political persecution, but they have not crossed an international border, and so therefore are not even in theory able to claim the protections and rights of who are considered refugees.

14:07      TS: In the case of IDPs in Myanmar, and obviously this is not just the Rohingya population, but other Burmese populations impacted by the ongoing crisis, you certainly have the US involvement and the U involvement, but I will emphasize that the crisis within Burma has remained chronically underfunded. The OCHA 2022 humanitarian response plan for Burma received only 42% of its required allocation. There are some international organizations that are inside Myanmar, for instance, the International Rescue Committee or Solidarity International. The UNHCR has some involvement through the cluster leadership role it is called particularly working with some local NGOs, civil society actors, and faith-based organizations to provide certain kinds of immediate relief assistance. But overall, the majority of IDPs in Burma have faced different challenges because both national and certainly external actors have to negotiate with the Myanmar military junta for basic issues of access.

15:24      KS: Tazreena, as we've talked about, the current Rohingya refugee crisis has been ongoing since around 2016, and as you said has happened for decades before. But that's the most recent influx. In 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and the UN estimates that there may be as many as 4 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. However, it's undeniable that the situation in Ukraine and its refugees have received disproportionate amounts of media attention in Western media, even if you look at the Rohingya crisis at the beginning in 2016, how much media attention it received versus that given to the situation in Ukraine. Why do you think there is a disparity of media coverage of these two crises?

16:13      TS: The invasion of Ukraine in the international system is significant in terms of great power politics, and that is absolutely undeniable. It clearly illustrates the fact that Russia has growing military and political ambitions vis-a-vis Putin's vision for the country on the international stage. And the invasion is therefore a source of great concern to the existing status quo. That is the US's position in the world and Western Europe's sense and concerns about both regional and global security.

16:45      TS: Western Europe is also seen to be the main heart of the international system outside of the United States and the status quo in terms of what we understand the world to be. And so there is this idea that any disruption by an aggressive actor that threatened modern liberal democracies need to be halted at any cost. And certainly that explains a lot of the prioritization of Ukraine and the kind of response Ukraine has received militarily, politically, and certainly in terms of media coverage. At another and even deeper level, we do need to sit with some uncomfortable questions. We have to ask why despite the rise of other regional powers or the fact that the international system does comprise of so many countries, and the fact that we as a global community face so many crises, why we only center Europe in the way that we see and understand the world in which we live. So if we were going to critically examine media coverage, we have to ask the question of who security and what kind of security

18:00      TS: Being privileged, what types of intervention and invasion are considered particularly disruptive and a threat to international security? What kind of aggressive military actions and their consequence don't necessarily merit the same level of condemnation and concern? And then it also asks us to reflect on who are constructed to be similar to us and therefore more deserving of our compassion and moral outrage, and who based on our perceptions of distance and difference, seem less worthy of our empathy. So if you are to draw on that reflection, then it becomes clear that the differences in media coverage is not just in terms of Ukraine and the Rohingya crisis or Afghanistan, which captured world attention for a short period of time, but also in terms of other pressing crises which have received far less attention even compared to Afghanistan or the Rohingya. Along a similar vein, and in light of recent research that has also been coming out, we still need to question why and how we consider people further away from us geographically as being too different and too used to poverty and war to not merit our attention.

19:23      KS: Tazreena Sajjad, it's time to take five, and this is when you our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. We've been talking about disparate global responses to the suffering of different groups of people. How can countries and international organizations better work to support refugees from all situations and ensure that resources, aid, and media coverage are shared more equally among those threatened groups who need it the most?

19:56      TS: A tragedy is a tragedy no matter where it happens and to whom it happens, and hunger is hunger no matter how far away a person is struggling with it. It is unacceptable that so much of aid then goes to military assistance in one context when food rations are being drastically reduced in others, resulting in absolutely disastrous outcomes. So, I think it's important for us to sort of think about the fact that it's not to take away military assistance or humanitarian assistance from one context but to ensure that drastic cuts are not made in a context where people who may not mount to the level of geostrategic importance are made to suffer as a result of calculations with regard to great power politics. Second, I would say is that we need to constantly think about the role of regional bodies and organizations. In the best-case scenario, we have seen how the EU can function with regard to Ukraine and how it has been able to marshal significant resources, work with existing international, domestic, and regional laws, and really focus on people's needs.

21:11      TS: The third, I would say, is the role of local communities and national NGOs. The Bangladesh experience with the Rohingya certainly has highlighted that low middle-income countries can and are able to respond with innovation to a displacement crisis, and they're capable of making complex political calculations. Bangladesh has certainly received quite a bit of the thank you notes, but there needs to be far more effort to support and coordinate with these countries and allow the space for them to take leadership, which means that they should be allowed to center their concerns. They should be allowed to highlight their limitations and their capacities and their proposals, as in the case of Bangladesh, having put together multiple proposals at the UN General Assembly should be listened to. Along with this, I would say there needs to be a deeper reflection and stocktaking of the heavy-handed approach and engagement of INGOs and donor countries and local contexts.

22:11      TS: This is not to say INGOs are not needed and donor countries are not needed. We live, as I mentioned multiple times, we live in an aid-dependent world, and the specialization and the skills of INGOs and the funding that is provided by donor countries are important. And sometimes the donor countries are very important in putting pressure on refugee-receiving countries with regard to human rights protections. But what kind of footprint do they have in a protracted crisis? How much resources are allocated for international presence as opposed to what local actors and national actors and local communities receive? The fifth is the role of the media. We've talked about media quite a bit, but media is a catchall phrase and today the sources of information and disinformation is significant and large and growing. We also don't take into account we normally, when we talk about the media, we allude to the Western media, but media is local, media is international, media is regional, and the fact that all of these different forms of media cover news differently.

23:19      TS: So in order to be relevant and informative and useful, media has to broadly continue to engage with more thoughtfulness about how crises are covered. Journalists and reporters certainly get a lot of intensive training about biases, but the Ukrainian crisis painfully demonstrated that the assumptions and prejudices can easily expose themselves and create grounds to question media integrity. So the media has to be more careful about the use of its images, the ethics of staging of images in order to produce a certain narrative, the use of specific words when a crisis is covered, as well as of course, bringing in more perspectives, not just of the refugee as a "victim", as not just of a local actor as a passerby or as a witness to a crisis, but the voices and perspectives and the expertise of local journalists, regional and national specialists on the ground who can speak much more knowledgeably about a crisis. And that would definitely create a much more informed audience about the things that are happening in the world today.

24:30      KS: Thank you. Tazreena, talking about media attention is one thing, and certainly media attention does help draw dollars, and donations from individuals, it draws attention, and attention generally leads to money. But in addition to the attention disparity, do you see a disparity in international aid dollars between those going to help Ukrainian refugees and those going to help Rohingya refugees?

25:08      TS: According to Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and I hope I have pronounced the name correctly, it's a German research institute and they found that the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian support, financial support, and military support. This does not, by the way, include all other war-related US spending, including for instance, aid to allies. But between the period of January 24th, 2022 and July 31st, 2023, $3.9 billion have been sent to Ukraine for humanitarian relief only, though this is for food assistance, healthcare refugee support, so on and so forth. If we look at US assistance with regard to the Rohingya, we actually have to take a broader context into consideration because the crisis in Burma, Bangladesh, and the region have all been taken together. And the US total assistance for those impacted by the ongoing crisis since August 2017 has been 2.2 billion.

26:22      TS: So 2.2 billion from 2017 till now, 2023 compared to 75 billion in total, but certainly 3.9 billion in humanitarian assistance within the span of a little under one and a half years. Now, this is absolutely true as I mentioned before, that Bangladesh at the level of the government and from the NGO and civil society sector has demonstrated significant professionalism capacity, and innovativeness in dealing with the challenges of immediate refugee reception and meeting the needs of refugees over time. But this is a fast-growing young population

27:00      TS: And this is a population that has been made aid-dependent as a result of global dynamics of how aid works and how crisis works. So the needs have not dissipated to the extent that explains the drop in funding.

27:15      KS: Yeah, and Tazreena, I want to be really clear with everyone that neither of us is suggesting that the awful situation confronting Ukrainian refugees is their fault. We're not suggesting they're not deserving of the help that they've received, but we are trying to look with pretty clear eyes at a disparity that exists. And when you talk about hosting refugees and you compare these two ongoing crises, it appears that several countries are more willing to accept Ukrainian refugees than Rohingya refugees. And you've touched on this a little throughout about people who look like us, people who are further away from us. At the heart of it, why do you believe this is the case?

27:58      TS: There's a lot to unpack with this question, and there's several, again, layers to this. The first I would say is refugees, people who are persecuted and who are able to cross an international border almost always end up in neighboring countries. This has always been true, and so in every refugee crisis, the country surrounding the context, that is in a state of political upheaval, will have the most number of people coming from that country inside its borders. This will be as a result of geographical proximity, geostrategic calculations of the country, that it's either accepting or refusing their entry, the historical relationship between the host country and the country in crisis, the historical relationship between the people of the receiving country and those who are arriving perceived sociocultural, linguistic, and political ties between the people of the two different contexts. Domestic pressures, adherence to international and national laws regarding refugees and asylum seekers and existing means of protection of refugees and the speed and ease with which people can cross a border to seek sanctuary.

29:08      TS: So all of these factors are important for us to consider as to why refugees end up in the places that they do. So at one level, the two situations are not comparable because geographically they're so far apart. And then a large proportion of Ukrainians have arrived in the US initially through the southern border, even when Title 42 was in place. And for Ukrainians, an exception was made to allow for their entry and then later on through other venues that were made available to the Ukrainian refugee population.

29:40      TS: But if you had to consider other things, we need to start thinking a little more analytically. First is the geopolitical importance attached to refugees themselves, and this was certainly in the case of the Cubans and others fleeing communist countries in the case of the United States, Eastern European refugees in the context of Europe. So, what is the political significance of the refugees, where are they coming from, play a significant role as to why countries make that calculation of whether to accept refugees or not. And so acceptance of Ukrainians is both a symbolic and political measure. In that context, Ukrainians have significant political currency in that their acceptance signals a pushback against Russia's aggressive and military incursion. It also signals to Russia that Europe is united and the US also stands against Putin's ambitious designs in Europe and perhaps beyond.

30:38      TS: There is also the expectation and understanding, either implicit or explicit or both, that accepting Ukrainians is a temporary measure, that once this dust settles and once the situation goes back to some form of normalcy, they will be able to return to Ukraine. In contrast, Rohingya are largely a very poor community and they have very little geostrategic importance either in Southeast Asia and certainly for Western countries. Accepting them adds no political value or leverage to countries that may be open to accepting them. The other aspect is that the Rohingya are also a stateless population, and that means they have no citizenship and Myanmar, Burma has shown absolutely no interest in providing them with citizenship.

31:27      TS: So countries are very much aware that taking in the Rohingya is a long-term commitment and it's not a temporary situation. This certainly does not mean that the Rohingya are not there in the thousands across India or Malaysia or Indonesia. But compared to the kinds of protections, for instance, Ukrainians have been able to receive in Europe as a result of regional protection mechanisms, international law, national law, so on and so forth, most of Rohingya living South and Southeast Asia are not protected by different types of national laws or gaps in national laws or gaps in international laws, and so they live as undocumented people. They are in the informal labor sector and they're treated as unwanted economic migrants. That means they remain a very non-desirable community. I mean, it is important that we also address questions of racism and Islamophobia and securitization and criminalization of refugees because these factors do play a role here as well. There is significant racism and prejudice against the Rohingya community, including in Southeast Asia. We cannot certainly deny the fact that Muslim migrants and refugees, by and large are some of the most unwanted and undesirable communities in the world today. We've seen this in the context of policies in Europe when we have seen treatment of Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, so on and so forth. We've seen this in the context of the United States. And it does have echoes in other contexts as well. So Islamophobia does play a role in terms of the extent to which countries are open and willing to welcome the Rohingya in different contexts.

33:23      TS: If you contrast that to the Ukrainians, they are perceived as the perfect victims of an aggressive actor. And so there's very little reflection on how prominent protection mechanisms, as I mentioned before, national, regional, international mechanisms that exist. The legal pathways that have been created, even if they're temporary, create a very different reality for Ukrainians to be able to become economic actors, to gain access to jobs, to access education, to access some form of integration in the societies that they're entering into. This is not to say that there are not no challenges, but the fact that there is a plethora of protections and legal pathways for Ukrainians, puts them in a very different trajectory from the Rohingya in terms of both perception as well as in terms of the lived reality.

34:18      KS: Tazreena Sajjad, thank you for joining Big World to discuss refugees aid and disparities in treatment. It's a complex issue and I thank you for digging in, trying to help everyone understand, help me understand how these disparities come about and what they mean. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

34:41      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a notification that your flight home for the holidays is on time and you just got upgraded to business class. Our theme music is, It was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Tazreena Sajjad,
professor, SIS

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