Rohingya repatriation must be voluntary

It is unsurprising that the process of hasty return of the Rohingyas has already faced a snag. The scheduled repatriation of the first group of Rohingyas on January 23, 2018 is currently on hold as some major tasks, including the final approval of the list of families for repatriation and setting up of repatriation camps on both sides of the border are yet to be prepared. The two sides signed an agreement on January 16, 2018 on “Physical Arrangement” to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to their homeland from Bangladesh.

According to the signed agreement, selected Rohingya families will be taken to the repatriation camps in Bangladesh. The UN refugee agency will then assess if the selected refugee families are willing to return and only those willing to return voluntarily will be handed over to the Myanmar authorities. The idea of voluntary repatriation stems from the 1993 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, under which refugee repatriation first took place after a large number of Rohingyas crossed into Bangladesh. An estimated 200,000 Rohingyas are still sheltered by Bangladesh from that first episode of ethnic violence and displacement in the 1990s.

Under the 1993 framework, returning Rohingyas must prove their identity, must fill in forms with names of family members, their previous address in Myanmar, date of birth and a disclaimer that they are returning voluntarily. The repatriated Rohingya families will be sheltered in temporary transit-camps in Rakhine until their homes are built and ready for rehabilitation. The agreement stipulates that the repatriation will be completed within two years of the commencement of repatriation. Many, however, doubt whether this is a realistic timeline particularly when there is lack of readiness—including when it comes to confidence and a congenial environment for refugee repatriation.

Meanwhile, the repatriation plan and processes have raised concerns among the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the diplomatic circles and human rights groups as well. First, there was literally no consultation with the Rohingyas or the UNHCR on the repatriation plan. Second, the repatriation initiative is widely viewed as premature and too risky as people are still crossing the border into Bangladesh. More than 100 Rohingyas crossed to Bangladesh last week when preparations were underway in Rakhine state for the repatriation. Third, the situation on the ground in Myanmar, as evident from various reports and fresh arrivals of refugees almost every day, are clear indications that it is not safe for the Rohingyas to return. The military operation in Rakhine state is still ongoing; many, who recently fled Myanmar because of military operations in their villages, reported incidents of young Rohingya men being rounded up by the military. The newly arrived Rohingyas reported that they fled out of hunger and were unable to work in the fields and forests that provided them their livelihood.

This is further evident from the petition and the list of demands by the Rohingya leaders in Cox’s Bazar, who claim to represent some 40 villages from Rakhine state—the epic centre of Myanmar military’s destruction. The list of demands include: (i) public announcement by the Myanmar government of the right to freedom of movement and citizenship and other basic rights of the Rohingyas; (ii) return of land and other sources of livelihoods and community rebuilding; (iii) construction of houses, schools and other community infrastructures burnt and destroyed during the army operations; (iv) holding the army accountable for the killings, lootings and rape of women; (v) freeing of innocent Rohingyas picked up during the counter-insurgency operations; and (vi) stop the listing of people with photographs as “terrorists” in the state media and government Facebook pages.

The petition and the demands are clear indications of the complexities and challenges for Bangladesh and Myanmar as both countries plan to proceed with the repatriation of close to 800,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. The video footage and narratives coming out of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar suggest that the refugees are not ready and balking at going back until human rights situations improve and the Myanmar government can guarantee their safety, among other demands listed in the petition. One refugee woman, who recently fled to Bangladesh due to Myanmar military atrocities, reportedly said: “You can throw us into the sea, but please don’t send us back…We will not go back to Myanmar.” Another young refugee girl, who crossed to Bangladesh in November 2017 after waiting for a month in desperation on the bank of Naf River, said: “If we were willing to go back to Myanmar, we would not have stayed at the border for one month.” Many refugees also reported repatriation to concentration-like camps as unacceptable; instead they want to return to their land and homes.

Amidst the ongoing military operations in Rakhine state and complete lack of trust and confidence in the Myanmar government by the potential returnees, any repatriation now, according to many rights groups, would be premature and dangerous. With more active UN support and assistance, both Bangladesh and Myanmar should first work on improving the human rights situation and create sustainable conditions for safe and voluntary return. Repatriation should be safe, truly voluntary, and dignified. As already noted, the current situation in Rakhine state fails to come close to meeting any acceptable such standard.

The diplomatic community in Dhaka, particularly the British High Commissioner Alison Blake, US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, and the Indian High Commissioner HV Shringla, expressed similar sentiments during a briefing this week by the Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali. The Indian High Commissioner stressed the need for better livelihood for the Rohingyas, which will ultimately require social and economic development of the Rakhine state and the region as recommended by the Kofi Annan Commission. In the meantime, the Myanmar government must create an environment so that the Rohingya refugees want to return home. Finally, it is up to the refugees to choose to go home, others should not rush or force any decisions on them.

Mohammad Zaman is an international development/resettlement specialist and advisory professor at the National Research Center for Resettlement (NRCR), Hohai University, Nanjing, China.