Rohingya repatriation: why the rush?

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh should not be forced to return to Myanmar until their safety and rights are guaranteed.

Rohingya refugees Reuters
Rohingya refugee children look on at the Jamtoli camp in the morning in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 22, 2018 [Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

It was a simple question, but 50-year-old Maimuna’s eyes filled with tears as she contemplated her response. We had been talking for half an hour in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, but when I asked if she wanted to go home to Myanmar, she began crying quietly into her headscarf. 

“I don’t know,” she said eventually. “It depends on God’s will. I really want to go back to Myanmar, but only if peace is available there.”

Three months on, it looks ever more unlikely that Maimuna will have a choice in the matter. Last week, the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments furthered their arrangements to return all 650,000 of the Rohingya who fled last year’s military crackdown within two years. An announcement on Monday by Bangladesh that returns will be delayed pending further “preparations” was welcome, but the fact remains that this arrangement was agreed upon without any consultation with the Rohingya themselves. 

While the arrangement acknowledges the legal requirement that returns be voluntary and effected in safety and dignity, it is difficult to see how this could happen without a total transformation of Myanmar’s policy towards the Rohingya. The obfuscation and denials of the Myanmar military regarding the atrocities it has committed against the Rohingya do not inspire confidence that the lot of the Rohingya in Myanmar will improve anytime soon. The military has, so far, admitted to killing just 10 people out of probable thousands, and still refers to the men, women and children killed and tortured in the crackdown as “terrorists”.

In all likelihood, returning Rohingya will face the same miserable, apartheid conditions that they so recently fled. Specific parts of the deal seem to confirm this. For example, it states that the Rohingya’s freedom of movement will be based on “existing legislation and regulations” – in other words, a return to a status quo which discriminates against the Rohingya, segregates them in poverty-stricken townships and forbids them from travelling. 

This is why it is so important that refugees themselves are given a say. On Friday, a group of Rohingya elders in Maimuna’s camp showed a Reuters reporter a petition they are drafting. It lists the conditions they want met before the repatriation process begins, including demands that they are granted citizenship and given back the land they used to occupy, and that the military is held accountable for the violations committed against them. Over the past few days, refugees have organised in protest, chanting and holding banners inside the camps demanding that their rights and dignity be guaranteed before returns begin. This is the kind of input that should be informing returns policy – not deadlines.

Because many Rohingya no longer have homes in Myanmar, the two governments have proposed shuttling them between a series of transit camps and reception centres. Judging by the fact that some 120,000 Rohingya have lived in “temporary” displacement camps in Rakhine State since 2012, the displacement of those returning will in all likelihood be prolonged on the other side of the border.

So why the rush?

Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, and the presence of an estimated one million Rohingya refugees in the country – the latest arrivals joined hundreds of thousands of Rohingya displaced during previous crises – has pushed already straining services and infrastructure to breaking point. The failure to mitigate this strain has been a global one. 

On October 23, last year, a high-level pledging conference in Geneva to raise money for the humanitarian response in Bangladesh failed to raise the total funds requested. None of the funding that was pledged will go to support Bangladesh’s infrastructure needs and, in any case, it is only designed to cover the most basic needs of the refugees – food and shelter – and only for six months. By early spring, Bangladesh will be back to square one. Other countries urgently need to commit to supporting Bangladesh, financially and otherwise, to continue to host those seeking asylum.

The international community’s cold shoulder towards the Rohingya is not a new story. In 2015, thousands of Rohingya spent months stranded in boats in the Andaman Sea, after being repeatedly rejected by coastal authorities in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Last September, at the height of the military crackdown, Australia attempted to bribe Rohingya refugees at its detention centre on Manus Island to return to Myanmar.

The message has been drummed into the Rohingya time and time again, by foreign governments as well as their own: They are not wanted. Drafting a return deal without any input from the refugees is the latest blow to a community that has grown sadly used to having no say in its own fate. 

Rohingya refugees have an inalienable right to return to Myanmar. This means that any individual who does wish to return under the agreement should be able to do so. Bangladesh and Myanmar must facilitate such returns, and, once in Myanmar, the authorities are obliged to safeguard their human rights. But before any state-sponsored returns begin, Myanmar needs to effect a fundamental change in the way it treats the Rohingya, dismantle the apartheid system that Rohingya have lived under and commit to ensuring accountability for past crimes perpetrated by the security forces.

Until this happens, state-sponsored returns to Myanmar cannot truly be considered voluntary. Maimuna summed up this up perfectly, saying simply: “If the government doesn’t want us in Myanmar, I don’t want to go there.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.