Bangladesh has taken the brunt of Myanmar’s Rohingya exodus. Officials are anxious to send the 1.2 million refugees home, but rights groups say that they must not be pressured to return without guarantees of safety. Myanmar’s military government still does not recognize their citizenship, and many Rohingya fear they would be heading into new prisons if they return.
Despite receiving advisory notes from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and warnings from Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington, Bangladesh has shown indifference to the potential dangers faced by Rohingya refugees upon their forced return to Myanmar. These dangers include persecution and apartheid at the hands of the Myanmar military junta, not to mention the risk of natural disasters.
Meanwhile, China has engaged in intense diplomatic negotiations with the Myanmar military junta, urging them to address the Rohingya crisis to avoid potential repercussions from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where Myanmar faces charges, brought by the Gambia, of genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minorities. The UN described the genocide of the Muslim Rohingya as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” which Myanmar has repeatedly denied.
An exodus of millions
The genocidal campaign sparked the worst refugee crisis in South Asia, forcing a million to flee from the restive Rakhine state in Myanmar. Bangladesh has struggled to shelter 1.2 million Rohingyas in squalid camps in the southeast of the country.
An estimated 3.5 million Rohingya have dispersed worldwide, of whom a large percentage are in Bangladesh. Others are in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. An estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State are victims of the Myanmar security forces’ persecution, deliberately confined 140,000 to guarded camps and villages without freedom of movement, and access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods for more than 10 years.
Bangladesh, unfortunately, does not recognise these stateless people as refugees and instead describes them as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” Dhaka has yet to ratify the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects the rights of asylum seekers. HRW has lamented that Bangladeshi authorities are also intensifying restrictions on work, movement, and education, creating a coercive environment designed to force people to consider premature returns.
Myanmar’s “all-weather friend” China stands beside the regime as it tries to weather a series of economic sanctions from the West, which slammed it after its persecution of Rohingyas and ouster of the country’s former democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since the military coup in February 2021.
China has been pushing the junta to initiate a so-called pilot “family-based repatriation” project, aiming to repatriate nearly a thousand refugees in the first phase.
Myanmar has an untrustworthy plan
Myanmar’s military junta wishes to appear as if it has undergone a sudden change of heart, ostensibly displaying compassion by committing to repatriate 6,000 Rohingyas by the end of the year. Myanmar has deemed these individuals foreign intruders or “illegal migrants,” denying them citizenship and subjecting them to abuse and discrimination.
In March, a delegation of Myanmar officials visited refugee camps in Bangladesh to conduct interviews and carry out a “verification” process for the pilot repatriation initiative.
“The figure of 6,000 Rohingya is a drop of water in an ocean,” says Asif Munier, a Rohingya refugee expert. The repatriation is a face-saving project of Myanmar amid country-wide embattlement with ethnic rebellions and economic crises that have worsened after economic sanctions by the United States, Canada and several European countries.
A delegation of Rohingya refugees, along with Bangladeshi government officials, toured the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp and Kyein Chaung resettlement camp in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township on May 5. After the day-long “go and see” visit, the delegation expressed their dissatisfaction over the arrangements and facilities made by the Myanmar authorities.
Rohingya and Bangladeshi representatives seem to have two different interpretations of what they saw there. Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, who led the delegation, opined that “repatriation is the only solution to end the refugee crisis.” Rahman said Myanmar authorities did indeed prepare settlements for Rohingya under a pilot project. There are homes, employment opportunities and schools for Rohingya children as described by Myanmar officials.
The junta claims in the booklet that the UN Development Program, the UNHCR, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be involved in the pilot project Altogether 3,500 Rohingya will be accommodated in 15 villages, says Rahman.
The delegation, however, found that their villages have been erased from the map and instead security forces occupied their lands and erected military and police barracks, outposts and check-posts. The authorities “even changed the name of my village in Rakhine,” a frustrated member of the delegation complained. Rohingya refugees are reluctant to return to Myanmar to “be confined in camps” again. They will only repatriate voluntarily if their security is guaranteed and they will be granted citizenship.
Rohingya don’t want to return to their country to be placed in glorified cages. They want to return to their own villages, from which they were forced to flee during the ethno-religious strife of August 2017. “Myanmar is our birthplace and we are citizens of Myanmar and will only go back with citizenship,” said refugee Abu Sufian, 35, father of three children told Reuters. It is not enough to move the refugees from one temporary camp in Bangladesh to another, concrete one in Myanmar. Without freedom of movement and guarantees of citizenship rights, the program is a non-starter.
Second-class citizenship for Rohingyas, if that
Refusing full citizenship to the ethnic minority, the authorities offer the Rohingya a consolation prize: a national verification card (NVC), which Rohingya refugees regard as insufficient protection. The draconian Citizenship Law of 1982 requires individuals to prove that their ancestors lived in Myanmar before 1823, and refuse to recognize Rohingya Muslims as one of the nation’s ethnic groups or list their language as a national language.
“We don’t want to be confined in camps,” Oli Hossain, who was among the refugees who visited Rakhine State in early May. He said they will never accept the NVC, which would effectively identify Rohingya as foreigners.
“Myanmar officials said that the confirmation of citizenship is a long process and would take more time to complete. Therefore, Myanmar won’t provide citizenship to the Rohingya people who want to repatriate under this pilot project,” Rahman told Turkish news agency Anadolu.
The booklet “Resettlement of Displaced Persons on their Return under the Pilot Project,” dated April 2023 and written in Burmese, English, and Bangalee, states that returnees will be housed at the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp for up to two months, then relocated to one of two resettlement camps with prefabricated houses or a land plot in one of 15 “designated villages,” where they can build a home through a cash-for-work program.
Since the crisis, Bangladesh has been trying to repatriate displaced Myanmar citizens with rights and dignity. Several attempts to repatriate the refugees fell flat in 2018 and 2019. After the failed attempts, Bangladeshi authorities echoed the UN Refugee Agency catch-phrase of safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of 1.2 million Rohingyas.
In April, in a crucial tripartite parley between senior Foreign Minister officials of Bangladesh, China and Myanmar in Kunming, China, the parties decided to expedite the repartition process to avoid further sanctions. Whether this will see any effects on the ground remains to be seen.
An official team from Myanmar arrived in Bangladesh for the second time in three months to build confidence among Rohingyas in early June. After the return of the Myanmar delegation from the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the refugees have been agitating to cancel the piecemeal plan, calling instead for ensurance of a dignified and sustainable repartition.
The UN Refugee Agency, after the visit of diplomats from eight ASEAN countries including Bangladesh to Rakhine State last March, said that “conditions in Rakhine State are currently not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees,” adding that no refugee should be forced to return. Bangladesh’s hopes that the UN may be able to bring about a quick solution to the quagmire by going along with Myanmar’s pilot plan have been frustrated due to ongoing western sanctions against the military regime.
In a flurry of diplomatic consultations in Dhaka in early May, Bangladesh’s foreign minister sought the opinion of several European and North American diplomats, as well as the UN Refugee Agency. The diplomats insisted that Myanmar should restore the citizenship of Rohingya and ensure safety, security, and access to livelihood, education, healthcare and freedom of movement which were restricted after they were declared “alien” more than 40 years ago.
Western, Bangladeshi, Myanmarese, Chinese, and UN officials are all pushing for a resolution to the crisis, but the path forward remains unclear. What is certain is that no one wants a resolution more than the Rohingya people; still, they will not sacrifice their safety, liberty, or dignity for the sake of speed.
First published in the Fair Observer, 17 June 2023
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent columnist and media rights defender based in Bangladesh. He became an Ashoka Fellow in 1991, and won the Hellman-Hammett Award in 2005. Saleem’s articles have appeared in top publications such as Time, India Today, Outlook, India Narrative, and The Times of India, and his research has been published by institutions like the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Kolkata Research Group, Jadavpur University, and the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]