Bangladesh Looks to China for Help Repatriating Rohingya Refugees

Beijing’s financial support appeals to Dhaka . . .

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen this weekend in Dhaka, where Bangladesh sought China’s further help in repatriating Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. In return for the assistance, Bangladesh will receive increased Chinese support for trade, investment, and infrastructure development. At present, more than 500 Chinese companies are investing in Bangladesh’s infrastructure projects, including a C$4.6-billion bridge over the Padma River, which will be the largest bridge in the country. Bangladesh is also heavily dependent on raw materials from China for its garment industry, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of its foreign exchange from exports.

Military government troubles China . . .

Some experts suggest China's motives in helping to repatriate the Rohingya refugees are not entirely humanitarian, as improved relations with both Bangladesh and Myanmar may be in Beijing’s political and economic interest. Bangladesh has strong ties with India and the U.S., two powers with which China has an increasingly tense rivalry. And China is seeking a stable relationship with Myanmar to establish closer political and economic ties with the country’s current government. Beijing brokered an agreement in 2017 with Myanmar's now-ousted democratically elected government to repatriate more than 700,000 Rohingya based in Bangladesh. However, many refugees do not want to return to Myanmar, especially since last year's military coup.

What about the refugees?

To assist the repatriation efforts, China has already built 3,000 houses in Rakhine State, the area in western Myanmar from which many Rohingya fled, and has agreed to arrange for initial food support for returning refugees. While Bangladesh does not formally recognize the refugees because it never ratified the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, it remains bound to the international principle of non-refoulement, which expects countries not to repatriate refugees to places where they can risk persecution. There is evidence that the military that now heads the Myanmar government was responsible for the clearance operations in 2016-17, from which the Rohingya fled, including burning Rohingya villages and looting communities in Rakhine. As of May 2022, there were almost 900,000 newly registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.