Questioning the ‘token repatriation’ of the Rohingyas
Last month, a delegation from Myanmar visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh to advance the talks in relation to the repatriation of the Rohingyas on a pilot basis. The Myanmar representatives planned to verify documents and repatriate around 1000 Rohingyas to Myanmar. But they have not assured citizenship for the returnees or recognised their identity as Rohingyas. Neither have they specified their place of settlement after their return to homeland.
Allegedly, the Myanmar military junta has initiated this 'token repatriation' scheme to eyewash the ICJ's probe of accusations (rape, murder, arson, genocide etc.) against the military forces. To pacify peer pressure from China and other states, Myanmar is doing so to legitimise their military regime among international community. But rights-groups claim that the situation in Myanmar is not stable and safe enough to repatriate the Rohingyas. Internal conflicts and violent clashes with military regime are ongoing. Security forces are present in Northern Rakhine and arresting or executing the Rohingyas who are unofficially returning to the country.
In this misty situation, it is never advisable to repatriate the Rohingyas. International refugee law and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) discourage return in the origin country during the existence of a military regime, political unrest, serious harm, or apprehension of serious harm. The UNHCR's handbook on voluntary repatriation says: (i) refugees must be prior informed of the situation in the origin country; (ii) origin country must support the repatriation process; (iii) it shall ensure such return in non-militarised, non-political, and peaceful areas; and (iv) it must comply with the humanitarian mandate of the UNHCR. Absence of any of these safeguards will make the return questionable and doubtful. Needless to say, the Rohingyas in Bangladesh want to return to Myanmar voluntarily but a return without transparency will put them at grave risks. This means voluntariness must be considered as a prerequisite to start and complete the much-awaited repatriation.
Unfortunately, the UN Refugee Convention 1951 does not directly discuss about the voluntariness principle of repatriation. The OAU Refugee Convention 1967 might be a resort in this regard. The Convention enshrines two standards to ensure voluntariness while repatriating, i.e., (a) situation in the country of origin and consent of refugees to return in such situations, and (b) the condition of the country of asylum, whether it permits a free choice to return or not. False promises, wrong information or concealment of any necessary information regarding repatriation would invalidate the process.
Human Rights Watch emphasises that repatriation must be dignified to constitute voluntariness in the process. Absolute voluntariness is the most practical approach for sustainable return. In sustainable returns, refugees cannot be imposed with a lot of restrictions and denied the rights of a refugee to influence their free will or achieve voluntariness. In the case of the Rohingyas, Bangladesh is continuously saying that there are no other solutions except voluntary repatriation. But questions remains if the voluntary repatriation is ever achievable in the existence of the military regime in Myanmar.
Because, first, the UNHCR's collaboration with the representatives of military junta to initiate 'token repatriation' is violation of its own handbook and international refugee law. The voluntary repatriation handbook designates such returns during military regime as 'unadvised return.' Secondly, voluntary repatriation is accomplished through return with safety and dignity. Myanmar officials have been very much shady regarding these terms and conditions of repatriation, specially the Rohingyas' right to movement and to return with dignity. Voluntary repatriation must always be unconditional.
That the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government shall immediately step back from such repatriation does not comply with voluntariness principle of international refugee law too. Because it will not only violate the right to dignified return of the Rohingyas but also create complications for the disposal of The Gambia v Myanmar case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Arakan Rohingya National Alliance claimed that the token repatriation will help the military junta pose counterarguments and pretend sincerity towards the Rohingyas, once the hearing restarts in the ICJ. Free Rohingya Coalition also termed this unadvised repatriation as 'PR Campaign' to align with the ongoing case in the ICJ and ease pressure from international community including China. It seems like a futile, political, shrewd and impracticable approach from Myanmar's military junta to execute (un)voluntary repatriation and gain international acceptance. These questions and doubts make this repatriation of the Rohingyas non-humanitarian and unadvised.
The Writer is a Lecturer in Law, Feni University.