Why do the Rohingya refugees refuse to go back home?
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam/Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home;" yet the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh do not want to return to their homes in Rakhine State of Myanmar, where generations of them have lived for centuries. One could have asked why, had the reasons not been so obvious.
The Rohingyas were victims of massive periodic military crackdowns in which thousands of them were killed, women raped, children burnt alive and their villages were burnt to ashes—besides other monstrosities. As of now, some 1.3 million Rohingyas (including those from previous influxes) are sheltered in Bangladesh. Several thousand more were killed in Rakhine during the military crackdown. Bangladesh's commiseration for the fleeing and persecuted overrode her initial reluctance to open her borders to allow the Rohingyas in.
All these heinous atrocities were perpetrated more frequently since the promulgation of the new citizenship law of 1982 in Myanmar, which rendered the Rohingyas stateless and resulted in the deprivation of all their basic and fundamental rights. Today, the Rohingyas are the single largest stateless community in the world. They are not entitled to any legal protection from the government. Since the loss of their citizenship, they have lived without any defence, at the mercy of the military and the ultra-nationalist Buddhist zealots.
Under pressure from the international community, Myanmar signed a bilateral instrument with Bangladesh (Arrangement on return of displaced persons from Rakhine State) on November 23, 2017 to begin repatriation of the first batch of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in two months. Myanmar, however, showed no signs of earnestness to act according to the provisions of the agreement. So, the planned repatriation has not begun.
As per a fresh decision taken by the two countries in the 3rd Joint Working Group meeting that took place in Dhaka on October 30, the repatriation was to commence on November 15 and the first group of 2,200 refugees were to be repatriated by the end of November. But it had to be stalled amid protests at the refugee camps. None of those on the list agreed to be repatriated until their demands for justice, restoration of citizenship, and rehabilitation in their original villages and lands were met by Myanmar. The UN refugee agency and aid groups also opposed the commencement of repatriation at this time, fearing for the safety of the Rohingyas.
The questions that naturally strike us are: How can we expect the Rohingyas to return to their homeland if it still remains a place of terror and persecution for them? How can they be sure there will not be any recurrence of the same atrocities against them upon their return?
Has the world been able to ensure the safety, security and dignity for them to return? Has it been able to compel Myanmar to restore the citizenship of the Rohingyas—which it revoked in 1982—along with all the concomitant rights and facilities that citizenship implies? It is because of the support of some major powers of the world that Myanmar has been able to get away with committing crimes against humanity. It is again because of them that the UNSC and the ICC have remained largely ineffectual against the perpetrators.
The world knows very well what is necessary for a durable and honourable solution to the Rohingya crisis. The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (the Kofi Annan Commission) that was set up by the Myanmar authorities themselves showed through its recommendations how to make Rakhine "a peaceful, fair and prosperous" place. The commission presented its final report and recommendations to the Myanmar government on August 23, 2017. The report recommended urgent and continued action across several sectors to avert violence, uphold peace and promote reconciliation among the Rakhine population.
Regretfully, just two days after the submission of the report, came the massive crackdown on the Rohingyas. The international community's pressure on Myanmar to implement the recommendations has so far been minimal and practically futile because it has been shielded from paying any price for its actions by some powerful countries.
Bangladesh's sincere attempts to resolve the crisis bilaterally with Myanmar haven't gone far because of the absolute lack of political will and sincerity on the part of Myanmar to make any substantive move towards a sustainable solution. The sum total of the combined efforts of the UN, UNHCR and other UN bodies, and that of countries like the US, UK, France, Canada, Malaysia and Turkey, unfortunately, has had little impact so far on Myanmar's military and government.
They have continued to flout any pressure from the international community to create a situation in Rakhine conducive to the sustainable return of the Rohingyas. They have continued to ignore the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission. And the atrocities against the Rohingyas who are still in Rakhine continue today, albeit at a lower intensity; as a result, small groups of persecuted Rohingyas still keep trickling into Bangladesh.
The outrageous persecution of the Rohingyas by the Myanmar military is a shameful blot on the world community at a time when human beings are expected to be more progressive and enlightened than at any other time in the past; and when the dignity of and respect for the human person, and human rights should override all considerations of race, religion, ethnicity, colour and creed.
It's a shame that Myanmar has accused Bangladesh of failing to repatriate the first batch of refugees on November 15. Blinded by their insensibility, they cannot see the illogicality of their accusation, which is preventing them from confessing that it's their unwillingness and inaction to do what is needed that is thwarting any effort to start the repatriation. It's they who are responsible for the protests and resistance of the refugees against the commencement of repatriation. Bangladesh couldn't just force them to return if they were not voluntarily willing to do so.
In view of this latest development, the world community must bring fresh and mounting pressure on Myanmar, so that it takes immediate steps towards implementing the recommendations (that include restoration of the citizenship of the Rohingyas) of the Rakhine Advisory Commission—which had two-thirds of its nine members from Myanmar. The international community should also redouble its effort to persuade the great powers who are still standing by the persecutors to shift their weight and support in favour of the persecuted and stateless Rohingyas. To enable the repatriation plan to succeed, the world must ensure that Myanmar is not putting the cart before the horse. If the world succeeds in accomplishing that, the refugees would then certainly voluntarily return to Rakhine, their homeland, and that of their forefathers for many centuries.
Muhammad Azizul Haque is former ambassador and secretary.