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Rohingya refugees: repatriation or resettlement?

Updated December 13, 2017

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IN the past weeks, three important developments related to the Rohingya issue took place. First was the agreement between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar on the refugee repatriation. Second, Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and the controversy generated by his absolute silence on the Rohingya issue while in Myanmar, and his sudden revelation in Dhaka of the “presence of God” amidst the Rohingya, during his meeting with 16 refugees. Third, Bangladesh government’s decision to resettle about 100,000 of the Rohingya refugee population to Bhasan Char, an offshore island in Noakhali district.

These developments represent the complexity of the Rohingya problem within and beyond the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In Bangladesh, there is clearly a sense of anxiety regarding the future options for refugee return and/or resettlement, as well as local and national stability and peace in the region.

More than 600,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar’s violence-hit Rakhine State and crossed over into Bangladesh over the last several months. However, incidents of atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims are not new. The first wave of refugees, about half a million, fled to Bangladesh following brutal repressions of the Rohingyas in early 1990s. Around that time, about 14,000 went to Malaysia. Under UNHCR supervision, approximately 236,000 were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar, but many eventually returned due to the continuing persecution in northern Rakhine State.

The current “ethnic cleansing” by the Myanmar military is backed by the resurgent ultra-nationalists, who think Myanmar belongs to the people officially recognised as indigenous; others, such as those who came as traders, merchants, workers, and slaves during the British colonial and post-colonial periods, are “migrants.”

In their view, many in the northern Rakhine State, particularly Bengali Muslims, are recent illegal migrants from former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is important to note that Rakhine — also known as Arakan — in the early 1400s was a cosmopolitan kingdom that stretched from present-day Chittagong to the Andaman Sea, consisting of people of various races, religions, and ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. The Burmese coming from Irrawaddy Valley later won over the Arakan kingdom in 1785.

During the colonial period, the British encouraged in-migrants for trade and business, and historical accounts suggest that a large number of Bengali Muslims from Chittagong settled in the Rakhine/Arakan region. These people from the British period and their descendants today are largely viewed as “migrants” and thus face everyday discrimination. The 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar stripped them of their nationality.

In some cases, these immigrants and their children were recognised as “naturalised” or “associates” citizens with restricted political rights. Those allowed such types of citizenship are denied self-identification as “Rohingya,” making them “second-class” citizens in their own land.

Furthermore, what we view as a human rights violation and tragedy in Myanmar, the Rakhine administration and the polity see this as invasion by illegal immigrants-turned-terrorists since the attacks on Aug 25 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).

Against this backdrop, many doubt the fate of the recent repatriation agreement signed by the two governments in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. Details are vague. In a brief remark, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said that the deal was a “primary step” to start the repatriation process with a joint working group within three weeks, for a “speedy” return of the refugees, starting within two months.

The deal with Myanmar was based on the 1992 repatriation pact that followed the earlier spasm of violence. According to the agreement, the refugees are required to fill in forms with details (eg, names of family members, previous address in Myanmar, birthdates, and a voluntary statement of return) for verification and scrutiny before being allowed to repatriate.

The requirements for identification documents will virtually seal off re-entry for a large majority of these refugees, who have been stateless and targets of political and cultural violence in mainly Buddhist Myanmar.

It appears that the Myanmar regime has, for now, succeeded in tackling the growing international pressure by striking the deal with Bangladesh. The Myanmar government claims it as a “bilateral” issue to be resolved by the two countries. The tenor is suspicious, because the ethnic Rohingyas have lived for years under state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination. The atrocities committed against them require involvement of the international bodies to stop this madness and engage with Myanmar to create the right social and political conditions for them and support systems for safe repatriation under UN supervision, and also to ensure protection of the ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Only bilateralism won’t work, and cannot solve this massive humanitarian crisis.

In reality, the repatriation of the refugees may take years, if not decades. It surely would be a long haul over the next decade, given the experience with refugee rehabilitation globally everywhere. Therefore, the Bangladesh government should look into various options beyond temporary camps in parallel with dealing with the Rohingya repatriation. The Bangladesh government, with UN support and assistance, should make sure that the Myanmar government is truly ready to receive the repatriated families. Currently, mistrust is a big issue. The experience of 1990s repatriation flight should not be repeated again. No premature repatriation should take place without first addressing the root causes of the crisis and proper and sustained human rights monitoring by the UN system.

Currently, over 600,000 refugees are more or less clustered in shady camps in Cox’s Bazar area across the Naf River. The camps and shelters should be safe enough for the refugees, particularly women and children. Ideally, no refugee camps or shelters should be built outside the greater Chittagong area. I think the proposed relocation to a barren and uninhabited island in Bhasan Char would be a great mistake and prove a disaster for the refugees instead of any real solution.

Finally, there should be both short- and medium-term plans for Rohingya resettlement in camps with basic amenities and services. There is a course of refugee life in camps — from shelter to sanitation, health, education, livelihood and community rebuilding. These will require long-term plans with multilateral help and assistance, including organising and delivery through the local NGOs and civil society organisations.

— The Daily Star/Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2017