Rohingya refugees carry wood in Balukhali camp on January 14, 2018 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Two months ago, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to a tentative timeline to move forward with a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees. The “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State” is a dangerously flawed plan, full of vague and unrealistic goals while lacking basic protections for Rohingya that would guard against the crisis repeating itself.
The process to reach this “arrangement” excluded any international organizations, including the lead UN agency for refugee matters, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), despite the fact that it is mentioned in the November document. The arrangement makes no provisions for a monitoring mechanism to ensure voluntary and safe transfer that is free of coercion in Bangladesh and free of persecution in Myanmar. Moreover, the language of the document is neither victim-centric nor was it written in the spirit of international humanitarian and human rights laws relating to violent conflict and forced migration. Neither country is party to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and both governments refuse to use the term “refugees” to refer to the Rohingya. Despite the fact that the Rohingya have been fleeing to Bangladesh in smaller numbers since the late 1970s, the government refuses to recognize them as refugees in fear that doing so would serve as a “pull factor” and afford the displaced certain rights and privileges such as the possibility of third-country resettlement. Myanmar, for its part, continues to refer to the Rohingya as illegal Bengalis.
The government of Bangladesh is insisting that all displaced persons be returned to Myanmar within two years, but this demand is impractical and unlikely to be met. Even last week, as the timeline for the plan’s implementation was being drawn up, Rohingya refugees were crossing into Bangladesh. On January 22nd, Bangladesh announced that the repatriation, which was supposed to commence on January 23rd, would be delayed because of complications related to verifying the identity of returnees and preparing lists of persons to be transferred.
Bangladeshi negotiators initially demanded that 15,000 Rohingya be returned each week but ultimately conceded to1,500 per-week, according to Bangladesh’s foreign secretary. At this rate, it will take almost a decade to repatriate all of the refugees. Bangladeshi authorities claim they will seek to return families, orphans, and “children born out of unwarranted incidence” (that is, children of rape) but how that will happen remains to be seen. The Myanmar authorities, meanwhile, are insisting that anyone who is to be returned demonstrate their ties to Rakhine State, the province where most of the refugees fled their homes, including evidence of their previous residence. Again, this is an almost impossible task for refugees who left with hardly more than the clothes on their backs. The arrangement also does not cover the some 200,000 Rohingya who came to Bangladesh prior to October 2016.
There is also the question of what will happen to the Rohingya once they return to Myanmar? Based on statements by Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu along with reports in the state media, it seems that Rohingya who are returned will be housed in “transit camps” before being able to return to their places of origin. However, it is unclear how that return will be possible since most Rohingya villages have been burned to a crisp leaving their homes, farms, livestock, and other property destroyed. Survivors, witnesses, first responders in the camps, and monitoring groups also report that the military used cluster munitions, meaning that undetonated ordnance also poses a safety hazard for people in the border region. The government, however, refutes these claims. According to Myanmar’s foreign secretary, houses for Rohingya will eventually be built on a “cash for work” basis meaning the returnees will have to erect their own homes. This suggests that not only will the military take no responsibility for the destruction and havoc it wreaked but also that the Rohingya will receive no symbolic or material reparation and may be forced to live in “transit camps” indefinitely.
I recently returned from a trip to the massive refugee settlements that are strewn along the border between the two countries. Though most refugees I encountered ultimately want to go home, many unsurprisingly expressed hesitation about being forced to return under precarious conditions. To be sure, life in the overcrowded camps on the Bangladesh side of the border is challenging for the Rohingya who live in desperation and face a host of insecurities as displaced persons including trafficking, abuse, and exploitation. But at least they are no longer being targeted by the Myanmar military. The trauma of the violence against the Rohingya – including killings, torture, and gang rape – is palpable and the losses they have suffered are innumerable. Refugees wanted guarantees about their future security as well as accountability for the crimes committed against them and their communities. A group of Rohingya community leaders in Kutupalong refugee camp who claim to represent 40 villages in Rakhine are putting together a petition with a list of demands that they will submit to Bangladesh authorities. Their priorities? Citizenship in Myanmar, land restitution, civil rights, political inclusion, and accountability for harms suffered.
Amongst the most urgent unresolved issues is that of citizenship. Even before military began its “clearance operations” last August to supposedly root out the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group, life in northern Rakhine was already very bleak. Amnesty International described the Myanmar government’s marginalization and dehumanization of the Rohingya as a system of apartheid. The Rohingya in townships such as Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung were made to live in extremely repressive conditions, without the ability to move freely from one community to the next, lacking access to basic services including healthcare and education, and virtually every aspect of their lives was controlled by the government. At the same time, they were deprived the opportunity to vote or hold elective office.
Meanwhile, the tatmadaw, as the military is known locally in Myanmar, continues to deny ethnic cleansing but commander in chief General Min Aung Hlaing admitted recently that a mass grave with ten Rohingya bodies was found in Inn Din village. Doctors Without Borders estimates that at least 6,700 people have been killed as a result of the violence in northern Rakhine. It is very difficult, however, to verify the exact death toll because outsiders – even humanitarian aid providers – lack access to the conflict-affected area. Two local journalists for Reuters were arrested and put on trial after they went looking for evidence at the Inn Din site that the military has now acknowledged is a mass grave. The task of documenting the extent of killings and abuse is also complicated by the fact that the tatmadaw has frequently resorted to scorched earth tactics as part of its clearance operations, thereby destroying potential evidence. In short, the repatriation arrangement offers hardly any reason for optimism from either a humanitarian or political perspective.
With Bangladesh growing impatient with the myriad effects of the refugee influx, and Myanmar unwilling to acknowledge its history of violent persecution, it appears that the Rohingya’s fate is once again hanging in the balance. Before any are made to return, their aspirations should be taken into account by Bangladesh to ensure that the Rohingya are able to exercise voice and choice, and in accordance with international norms and frameworks. In order to prevent a recurrence of this mass exodus in the future, Myanmar should also heed the Rohingya’s needs for security, recognition, and inclusion.