Amidst widespread international outcry and faced with the strong diplomatic stance of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Myanmar government has been persuaded to repatriate the Rohingya refugees, according to an agreement reached between the two countries late last week. Experts, however, are not optimistic, as the criteria for the repatriation of the Rohingyas is yet to be worked out by the Joint Working Group. The United Nations is not directly involved and the agreement does not have the guarantee of the international community.
If the Rohingyas are able to return to their homes with an agreed process that would lead to their full citizenship, the world can breathe a sigh of relief and move on. Bangladesh will have shown its humanitarian commitment and acted as a leader on the global stage, showcasing our values of plurality, tolerance and openness. However, as the experience of the repatriation of refugees across the globe has shown, the process is often uncertain and slow. The Rohingyas who came to Bangladesh in 1992 are yet to be repatriated. In the case that the Rohingya repatriation is not as speedy as one might wish, we must begin to expand the scope of relief efforts beyond the immediate term.
There is only six months to go till the next monsoon season, when many of the houses in the Rohingya refugee camp—built on the sides of hills and small ravines—will slide away because of rain. Before that, winter will come and with already existing fuel shortages, families will struggle to stay warm. Cyclone season will follow, and with it will come waterborne diseases and the risk of pandemics.
Camp administrators and relief agencies are struggling to meet the immediate needs of the refugees and it is only natural that food, shelter, sanitation, health and security are the first priorities. There are over 200,000 school-age children and it is imperative that going forward relief efforts include arrangements for the provision of education.
It is understandable that the government has shied away from looking beyond providing immediate humanitarian relief for fear that it might be misconstrued in Myanmar as a signal that Bangladesh is prepared to keep the Rohingya for the long haul. For that reason, perhaps formal education does not feature in the discourse. Moreover, given the recent diplomatic agreement, investing in the development of the refugees may on the surface seem to be a waste, if the Rohingyas are on the verge of returning home. If that turns out to be the case, all we would have lost is some effort, time and money, which is a far better proposition than looking back in retrospect—if the process takes longer than expected—regretting that we could have and should have invested in sustainable developmental opportunities.
A more considered response would be to see this humanitarian disaster also as a developmental opportunity. The international community has the chance to invest in the future of a people that have been historically excluded and marginalised. Along with the children's future, aid agencies must also consider the situation of the thousands of women whose husbands have been killed, leaving them as the primary breadwinners of the family.
When they return to Myanmar, these women will be the heads of their households but are completely unequipped for the task. Investing in skills development and vocational training with which they can support their families will not only help the Rohingya women in the short-run but will be a tool for development within their community and eventually in the Rakhine state.
Development initiatives however must go beyond the camps and into the surrounding areas. The local community in Cox's Bazar has been remarkably hospitable; ordinary people have demonstrated extraordinary charitable instincts as well as an impressive ability to adapt to a huge influx of outsiders. But it has not come without its challenges.
Given the huge demographic shift—estimates say that for every 10 people, there are now seven refugees to three Bangladeshis—the cost of living has increased several folds and there is often a scarcity of consumer goods in the market. Both the civil administration and aid agencies have recognised the importance of ensuring that the needs of the local population are not neglected.
Of course, fear remains that the refugees may not want to return to Myanmar. So long as there is lack of safety, it is neither likely that they will return nor should we force them to. But experience shows that when conditions improve and safety returns, no one wants to live in a foreign land, especially under such dire conditions. In 1971, following the end of the Liberation War, 10 million Bangladeshis returned in days, rather than weeks, and without any assistance nearly everyone found his or her own way home. We can be sure that once the Myanmar government creates the necessary conditions in the Rakhine state, the Rohingya will return home.
The Rohingya influx is not the result of a sudden policy change of the Myanmar government. Nor is it the result of the supposed ARSA attacks on Myanmar security forces, which took place after the Rohingya exodus began. The eviction was a systematic, brutal and deliberate attempt to rid Myanmar of an unwanted ethnic group.
As the US recently acknowledged, it was ethnic cleansing—and nothing short of a war crime. If the world community fails to respond adequately to this situation, minorities in every plural society in the world will be left at the mercy of majority communities. The National Human Rights Commission should use the interim period to document and record the human rights violations and prepare individual case histories. If in the future the international community wants to convene a war crimes tribunal to bring the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing to trial, this documentation will be necessary.
Bangladesh's own experience as refugees and of genocide in 1971 has perhaps sensitised us to the needs of the Rohingyas. The PM's response to the Rohingya refugee crisis showed remarkable compassion as well as political bravery. No less worthy of praise is the civil administration and the tireless, dedicated effort of the international agencies and non-governmental organisations, which have worked together to avert what could have been one of the 21st century's greatest humanitarian disasters. And the exceptional hospitality of the local Cox's Bazar community has been an inspiration to the world.
The recent agreement between Dhaka and Naypyidaw is a success. We should all be optimistic about the bilateral agreement but we should not lose sight of the reality on the ground. The repatriation of refugees is a long and tedious process and much will need to be done before the Rakhine state is safe for the Rohingyas to return.
There is still a chance that the overwhelming international reaction and Aung San Suu Kyi's meteoric fall from grace may stir the Myanmar government into action, but we cannot afford to abandon our efforts now and, in fact, must begin to plan for the medium, if not long-term.
Maya Barolo-Rizvi is the country director of Humane Society International.