How to make it easier for the Rohingyas

Winter is coming, and the now more than 620,000 Rohingyas living temporarily in Bangladesh need to worry about adequate winter clothing, food, and possible firewood to burn to keep them warm for the next few months. Fortunately, the winter months, considering strictly Poush and Magh, are going to come and go, and hopefully will not leave any lasting damage on the poor and destitute refugees in southern Bangladesh; unlike those who escaped to much colder climates. But that is no reason to scrimp on blankets, jackets or shawls in addition to providing healthcare, medicine, and other essentials they need to tide over the lean months and prepare for their journey back home.

The repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas may begin early next year. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar will provide many of the Rohingyas eager to return home a ray of hope. Even though they left everything behind and came to Bangladesh with nothing except the clothes on their backs, the “homeless” Rohingyas are hoping to return to their homeland. The temporary shelter they were given on Bangladeshi soil was a welcome respite for them after facing years of hostility and uncertainty in Myanmar.

A Bangladeshi—American scholar friend of mine just came back from a fact-finding mission to the camps in the Cox’s Bazaar area and reported that while living conditions in many of them leave much to be desired, things are getting better, particularly in the ones which are financed by Gulf state charities. However, one also needs to address the anxieties that the displaced Rohingyas have about their long-term prospects given their past experience and the “cycle of exodus and repatriation.” Many in the Rohingya community have voiced their worries in not knowing what life will be like for those who decide to return. Estimates vary on the amount needed to resettle the Rohingyas in Rakhine, but conservative guesses run well over Taka one lakh for a family of five. This would cover some of the resources needed to build their destroyed home, arrange for the basic necessities to support their family for a few weeks, and to make the gradual transition to a life that they were familiar with before they were uprooted. And then the question remains, why would anyone invest in rebuilding a homestead in a region where they have been living in fear of attacks and forced migration for decades?

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh and other eminent leaders, both Bangladeshi and foreign, have voiced their concerns regarding the plight of the Rohingyas and have recently proposed different multi-point plans on the table to provide safety and security to the Rohingyas. Some of these action plans have included measures such as provision of international observers in Myanmar, freedom of movement, creation of “safe zones”, enhanced human rights and citizenship guarantees, etc. It is not clear at this moment whether the repatriation of the refugees under the MoU would commence before some progress have been made on these various “preconditions” that are essential for a decent living but also for human existence. To quote an article in the prestigious medical journal Lancet, the Rohingya people of Myanmar need “health, human rights, and identity.”

The rest of the world will watch carefully if the Rohingyas who chose to return will be accorded the welcoming reception they deserve, and eventually inhabit in conditions that are better than what it is in the camps set up after 2012. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), some of these internment camps are akin to “concentration camps” from where people aren’t allowed to get out and where the WFP and other agencies were denied access.

The MoU pledges that “Myanmar will take all possible measures to see that the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long period of time and their freedom of movement in the Rakhine State will be allowed in conformity with the existing laws and regulations.” Like many other international observers who are familiar with the situation on the ground in Myanmar under the tenuous power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilians, we have some reservations about the agreement, and the circumstances in Rakhine in light of past experience.

Europe-based Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin told CNN his major concern about the text of the agreement was how long repatriated refugees would be kept in temporary camps. The other issue is the delay in the delivery of identity cards to the returnees. Lwin indicated in the interview that many of the necessary documentation that families had preserved were confiscated prior to August 25 or burned in their houses during the ongoing attacks in recent months. “I am not sure whether half of the refugees will be repatriated,” he said.

Finally, Bangladesh government will need to be cautious since the 2017 MoU is based on the 1992 repatriation agreement which had many shortcomings. And, much water has flown down the River Naaf since then. The foreign minister, however, was optimistic when he said that in contrast to the 1992 agreement the current MoU has some “additional characteristics”. “A specific bilateral instrument (physical arrangement) for repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner,” he added. One might add that the world community is looking forward to the goodwill gesture of Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders, and awaiting to see when they will seriously consider implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, i.e. the Annan Report.