The Rohingya minority have long suffered persecution, discrimination and destitution in their home villages of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Over the past few months their treatment at the hands of Myanmar’s armed forces and vigilante mobs has gotten much worse. Entire villages have been burned down, with people shot at random as they try to escape. There are widespread reports of sexual violence and children being murdered. As a result, over 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August, in what the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has claimed that a genocide is taking place.
Including the pre-existing population of refugees, there are now over 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
While safe from the predations of Myanmar’s army, they are now struggling to survive in an extraordinarily precarious environment with dire material conditions. Many lack adequate shelter, food, water and sanitation, putting them at risk from disease, environmental hazards and exploitation. With experts fearing that the exodus from Myanmar is still ongoing, the situation seems set to worsen. In response, Bangladesh recently announced the construction of the world’s largest refugee camp.
As one of Asia’s poorest and most densely populated countries, however, Bangladesh has a limited ability to effectively care for the Rohingya alone.
Nor should it have to. Responsibility sharing is a key concept underlying the global regime for refugee protection. Korea, too, can play a role in helping ameliorate the ongoing humanitarian crisis. I will suggest three initiatives that can be taken in the short term.
First, Korea should authorize additional financial contributions to the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and other agencies that provide emergency humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya in Bangladesh.
While Korea has become an increasingly generous donor nation in recent years, its contributions to refugee agencies remain relatively meager. In budget year 2016, it contributed $20 million to the UNHCR, which is less than most large economies (Japan gave $165 million and Norway $94 million). To its credit, Korea has already pledged an additional $1.5 million to the IOM to assist its work with the Rohingya in Bangladesh. However, this figure should be raised significantly. The UN humanitarian response plan for the Rohingya is expected to cost more than $434 million, and currently has a funding gap of $295 million. Although many European and Middle Eastern countries have contributed generously, they are also preoccupied with handling the Syrian refugee crisis, and cannot be expected to bear a disproportionate burden in South Asia, as well.
Second, Korea should establish a quota of places in its Employment Permit System for labor migration for Rohingya refugees. The Employment Permit System allows for temporary migration of foreign workers to Korea in the agricultural, construction and small and medium manufacturing sectors.
Myanmar and Bangladesh are already two of the 15 countries to send workers to Korea as part of the program, so all relevant governments should be familiar with the processes involved. To be clear, this proposal would be innovative, and would require a certain amount of bureaucratic flexibility.
Additional pre-departure training would be necessary to ensure the Rohingya refugees would be able to adjust comfortably to a Korean work environment. However, the benefits would be significant.
Korea could address its labor shortages while at the same time providing effective protection for Rohingya refugees, who would be able to lead lives of dignity while earning money for their future. Of course, this would be a temporary solution: the Employment Permit System allows stays in Korea of up to four years and 10 months (renewable once upon repatriation). However, one can hope that after their stay is complete a more durable solution will be available, such as returning to a safe and secure home in Myanmar.
Third, Korea can immediately provide resettlement places for a small number of the most vulnerable Rohingya refugees.
This could include individuals with medical needs, victims of sexual violence, the elderly and people with disabilities whose lives would be in danger if forced to remain in the camps. Korea has the wherewithal to provide them with a safe haven, and a chance at a better life.
In fact, Korea has experience resettling refugees from Myanmar. As part of a pilot project with IOM and UNHCR, Korea has resettled 86 refugees from Myanmar since 2015. The lessons learned from this pilot project can be applied to the new group of refugees. One hurdle to this proposal would be that the Bangladeshi government would need to agree to any plan; in the past, it has rejected exit permits for Rohingya refugees in order to avoid the prospect for resettlement becoming a pull factor.
This could be less of an issue if resettlement is only offered to the most vulnerable, however. Of course, if a safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation to Myanmar proves impossible in the long term, Korea would be able to ramp up any resettlement program to provide places for a greater number of refugees.
To be clear, Korean assistance would only be a drop in the bucket, given the level of deprivation and insecurity facing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Other countries need to play a role, as well. Japan also has experience resettling refugees from Myanmar and a need for labor migrants. Traditional resettlement countries such as Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand should also step up to the plate by assisting in resettlement and financial burden-sharing.
But Korea need not wait in the background: as a regional political and economic leader, it can make a real difference in the trajectory of this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.By Andrew Wolman
Andrew Wolman is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. -- Ed.