Saudi Arabia has reportedly threatened to return Bangladeshi workers from the kingdom if the country does not issue passports to some 54,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been living in the kingdom for decades.
Faced with systematic persecution in Myanmar and in more recent years what has been described by Human Rights Watch as “ethnic cleansing”, tens of thousands of the Rohingya found refuge in Saudi Arabia almost 40 years ago.
However, last month Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, AK Abdul Momen revealed that Riyadh had told Dhaka it “would be helpful” if the refugees were given Bangladeshi passports as the kingdom “doesn’t keep stateless people”.
“Many of the refugees have never come to Bangladesh and have no idea about the country. They know Saudi culture and speak the Arabic language,” Momen told a press conference.
Myanmar rejects the Rohingya community’s claims that they are indigenous to the Rakhine state and thus does not recognise them as citizens.
Bangladesh is said to be already struggling with over one million Rohingya refugees, however Momen said that Bangladeshi passports will be issued to those Rohingya who can prove they held one previously. The Bangladeshi Mission has so far only found around 70 to 80 Rohingya in Saudi who hold Bangladeshi passports.
“Saudi Arabia knows that the Rohingya refugees are citizens of Myanmar. The kingdom should talk to that country first in this regard,” he said.
According to the Dhaka Tribune, the foreign minister clarified that Saudi does not intend to send back all 54,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, rather it wants to ensure that they are citizens, as under local laws, Rohingya cannot be Saudi citizens.
Deutsche Welle, citing a South Asia expert at the US-based Woodrow Wilson Centre, Michael Kugelman, said that Bangladesh may be compelled to compromise in order to save its labour market. “Riyadh knows that Bangladeshi expats working in the kingdom provide large remittances back home and are viewed by Dhaka as a key economic asset,” he said.
“Threatening to expel large numbers of these expats could send alarm bells ringing through Dhaka, putting more pressure on Bangladeshi authorities to take a step they’d prefer not to take.”
Over two million Bangladeshi expats work in Saudi, sending home over $3.5 billion in remittances last year – a major source of income for the developing country.
Since the onset of coronavirus, as many as 140,000 Bangladeshi expats, mostly based in the Middle East have returned home. A large number of them are concerned that their visas and work permits will expire before they are able to make the return journey. The Bangladeshi authorities are currently in negotiations with the Saudi government over extending the validity of the documents, however it is unclear how many of the workers will be able to return and if there is any continued employment for them.