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Rohingya crisis: Modi must take a cue from Merkel, recognise humanitarian needs over security concerns

The central government, on entirely expected lines, submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court on Monday, calling the Rohingya refugees a "security threat" to India and calling for their deportation. This was in response to a plea before the apex court, against the deportation of Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar on humanitarian grounds. The Supreme Court said it will hear both parties on 3 October.

The Rohingya crisis has resurrected the usual debate involving refugees — humanitarianism vs internal security — in south Asia, just as the Syrian crisis had exposed European nations to a similar dilemma two years ago.

When the Syrian refugees made a beeline to Europe in 2015, major west European leaders like David Cameron (Britain), Matteo Renzi (Italy), Francois Hollande (France), and major eastern European leaders like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban resolutely drove them away, talking of a possible Islamic State backlash. None of these countries agreed to accept even the limited refugee quota that had been mandated by the European Union.

The hapless Syrian refugees had just the one saviour: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Merkel agreed that security was a prime concern but she made an idealistic pitch — rare for a top leader of a major country — that the security concern could not make her abandon the humanitarian principles that constituted the bedrock of human civilisation.

 Rohingya crisis: Modi must take a cue from Merkel, recognise humanitarian needs over security concerns

Over seven lakh Rohingya refugees have been taken in by Bangladesh. AP

Merkel's historic announcement that year saying that Germany would not deport the fleeing Syrian refugees took the world by surprise. It was a dream come true for the refugees to find a foothold in the richest country in Europe.

What, of course, nobody had bargained for was that many Iraqis, Afghanis, Iranians, Albanians and Eritreans also used the opportunity to find their spot in Merkel's Germany and begin a new lease of life. That resulted in swelling of numbers of new entrants to such a point that even a generous Merkel found it impossible to accommodate them all. More than 900,000 people sought asylum in a relatively small country like Germany.

That is when the Merkel administration made that important distinction between refugees and migrants; Germany would provide shelter only to those who were fleeing terror in their home lands. She made it clear, rightly so, that Germany could not be a stomping ground for citizens from poorer nations seeking a better quality of life.

That belies the misleading argument often made by the so-called defenders of national interest, that Merkel acted in haste and repented at leisure.

Despite the fact that the Right-wing populist AfD party has made rapid strides cashing in on a campaign that refugees would dig large holes into Germany's security and prosperity, Angela Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term as chancellor (24 September is election day in Germany), has remained unrepentant about her decision to allow refugees free passage.

In a recent interview, she had said, "All the important decisions of the year 2015 I would make again. At that time, Germany had acted in a difficult and humane manner."

It's this quality that makes Angela Merkel a colossal statesman, while most other European leaders who hid under the umbrella of pursuing "national interests" look like ordinary midgets.

The Rohingya crisis provided a historical setting for Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina to emerge as an iconic statesman of south Asia. The virtual ethnic cleansing by the military on the Rohingya population in Rakhine state of Myanmar (ironically, it is a country headed by a democracy icon and a Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) has led to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children seeking shelter in the neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh.

And look at the contrasting manner in which the two are dealing with the crisis: Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina personally visited the camps last week, where more than seven lakh Rohingyas are housed, and spoke inspiring words that echoed the sentiments expressed by Angela Merkel two years ago: "We have the ability to feed 160 million people of Bangladesh and we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 refugees," Hasina said.

The Bangla Tribune, published from Dhaka, reported, "Hasina also directed the local governments to make sure the sick and wounded Rohingya were taken care of in the hospitals, and they receive immediate medical attention."

Invoking the good sense of her fellow citizens, Hasina made an earnest appeal to all Bangladeshis, "We have let the Rohingya in on humanitarian grounds and I ask the people of this country to help ease their suffering in whatever way they can."

And how did Narendra Modi's India deal with the Rohingya crisis? Well, India — a country eight times larger in population and 22 times larger in area compared to Bangladesh — has just 40,000 Rohingya refugees, which accounts for a little over five percent of those who have sought shelter in Bangladesh.

Can anything be of greater shame for a country (of 1,300 million people) which wishes to occupy a pride of place in the international comity of nations, that it wants to push out of its territory just 40,000 Rohingyas who have fled from the terror unleashed by the Myanmar authorities? Compare this with the decision of Bangladesh government which wants to take full care of the seven lakh refugees till they are taken back by the Myanmar government.

The defenders of the Indian government say that its humanitarian concern for the refugees is reflected in a grand-sounding 'Operation Insaniyat' initiative. Well, what does that entail? Some bags of foodgrain and some mosquito nets for the seven lakh Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

And what is our government's offer for the 40,000 refugees in our land? The Centre made it clear through the affidavit submitted to the apex court: Rohingyas must be deported for security reasons.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between an Angela Merkel and a Narendra Modi.

After a series of violent attacks in Germany — deemed to be Islamic terrorist activity and directly linked to some refugees who came in because of Merkel's open-door policy — the right-wing AfD party waged a virulent campaign that Germany had become sitting duck for militant action. In an election year, when most leaders would like to cover their flanks, Merkel's reply set the tone for a civilisational discourse: "A rejection of the humanitarian stance we took could have led to even worse consequences. The assailants wanted to undermine our sense of community, our openness and our willingness to help people in need. We firmly reject this," she said.

Narendra Modi should take a cue from Angela Merkel and Sheikh Hasina, and begin afresh a civilisational discourse in dealing with Rohingyas, unless, of course, he wants to be remembered in history in the same bracket as a Cameron or a Hollande.

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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2017 06:42:08 IST

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