Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate the 650,000 refugees who have fled violence in Rakhine state within two years. Many are concerned – and rightly so
The 650,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled what the UN human rights chiefhas called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” must have the right to return to their homes in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar. To say otherwise would be to concede to those who forced them out – the security forces and militias who have raped and beaten civilians, burned houses and killed even infants. Authorities say the campaign is directed against militants who attacked police, but the civilian toll speaks for itself. Despite this, some of the Rohingya now living in wretched conditions across the border in Bangladesh have said they wish to go back.
It is equally clear that refugees must not be forced to return. Many more of them, according to NGOs supporting them, are determined never to go back or are terrified of doing so without guarantees of their security, property, livelihoods and freedom of movement. Some were persuaded to return after escaping previous waves of violence, only to find their lives in peril again. Previous episodes of displacement and return “do not inspire confidence”, the House of Commons international development committee has warned, noting the failure to consult refugees and expressing its grave concerns about plans to send them back.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are Muslims who live in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. They are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”.
Nearly all of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. The government does not recognise them as citizens, effectively rendering them stateless.
Extremist nationalist movements insist the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although the Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.
Rights groups accuse Burmese authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government has denied.
Just over a month ago, Bangladesh and Myanmar announced an agreement to begin repatriation next week. Human Rights Watch called that an impossible timetable for safe and voluntary returns. Now the governments say that the process will be completed in two years. Bangladesh officials say they have already picked 100,000 people, selecting them at random, and say they will be asked their wishes once vetted and approved byMyanmar.
Worse still, Myanmar has said it plans to house 30,000 in a “transition camp”. Consider its record. Around 120,000 Rohingya who returned after violence in 2012 are held in internment camps in central Rakhine state, with another 200,000 in villages with similar restrictions on their movements.
“Parts of the camps are literally cesspools,” Unicef’s spokesperson Marixie Mercadoreported last week. She noted that restrictions have got even tighter since 2016, making it still harder to deliver aid and worsening conditions. Education and healthcare are desperately deficient, but accessing services outside is often impossible. Inhabitants must pay for a permit even if they are leaving for medical treatment, and need a doctor’s certificate.
It is not surprising that Bangladesh, with its constrained resources, should be anxious for the Rohingya to leave. A funding conference in October won pledges of around £266m; Bangladesh estimates that the cost of even basic services for the displaced could be more than £1bn a year. International donors should step up. But when they do so, they should press the two governments to not just delay but scrap this agreement, and to include the UN high commission for refugees in their new discussions.
Meanwhile, they should continue to press for accountability for those involved in atrocities – who otherwise have every reason to believe they can repeat them with impunity. They should demand the release of the Reuters journalists charged under the official secrets actafter investigating the crisis. Ultimately, the Rohingya – still dismissed as illegal “Bengali” immigrants – need a proper path to citizenship, but that is a more distant aspiration. The haste to repatriate the refugees is disturbing. But the real problem is not the timeline but the deal itself, and the assumptions and attitudes underlying it.