A major foreign policy challenge for Bangladesh remains repatriation of the large Rohingya bulge of refugees numbering over one million lodged in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bangladesh is hosting these since 2017 and despite a series of bilateral and multilateral initiatives there is no breakthrough in repatriation which is the most desirable outcome. Myanmar’s stodgy reluctance to accept the Rohingya as citizens and the uncertainties preventing the refugees from acceding to the conditions for return has led to an impasse, which is expected to continue given the military coup followed by a nominated “caretaker government,” in that country.
Bangladesh requires extensive support of the international community to manage the Rohingya. The Government and the United Nations are close to finalising transfer of Rohingya management to Bhasan Char a low-lying island in Bay of Bengal with a deal expected by the middle of August.
20,000 Rohingyas have been so far relocated to Bhasan Char. The relocation of the 80,000 Rohingyas will start in October.
Bangladesh however does not want any measures that promote integration of the Rohingyas into the local society. UN and international support to Bangladesh for the one million Rohingya is important for Bangladesh over the short to medium term.
On 18 June Bangladesh abstained from UN General Assembly resolution on Myanmar stating that it did not recommend repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The Forty-seventh session of UN Human Rights Council on 11 July has also adopted resolution appealing to Myanmar for safe return of Rohingya refugees after Bangladesh’s UN envoy Mustafizur Rahman blamed lack of repatriation on “continued non-cooperation and reluctance of Myanmar”.
The other factor that impacts Bangladesh external environment is ongoing competition nee contestation between China and the agglomeration of democracies led by QUAD on one hand and India on the other. This is manifesting in a number of vectors mainly economy, infrastructure and investments with COVID 19 adding another layer. This consumes huge diplomatic energy however the economic and development achievements of the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina in the past decade plus and some deft management has enabled Dhaka to manage both sides of the coin so to say deftly.
Bilaterally there are a number of issues with India including border management [allegations of killings by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), smuggling and so on], migration, sharing of river waters and shelter to militants which have been managed effectively so far.
Bangladesh relations with Pakistan are highly contested given the legacy of division of the country in 1971 where East Pakistan fractured due to internal political contestations manifesting in large scale war crimes and atrocities by the Pakistan Army which led to the 1971 Liberation War. The Awami League government’s persistence in trials of collaborators for war crimes has added to the incriminations.
Migration is a major factor in Bangladesh foreign relations with a large diaspora and illegal migrants mainly in Europe. Management of migrant workers and diaspora thus assumes an important facet of relations of the country. Presently concerns over large number of “boat people,” taking the circuitous route to Europe through Libya is of consequence.
Bangladesh is increasingly attempting to gain influence in the South Asian region. Grant and assistance of COVID 19 equipment, currency swap with Sri Lanka are current indicators of the attempts by the Awami League government to be a player of consequence.