The Rohingya repatriation is now rumoured to start in a few days, on August 22 to be specific. “Repatriation [of Rohingyas] is always on the table. It can start anytime,” the Bangladeshi foreign secretary announced to journalists following a seminar at BIISS in the capital this week. Unfortunately, the optimism expressed by the official is not shared by everyone. Only a few days ago, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr Abdul Momen spoke at Harvard University about the status of Bangladesh’s negotiations with Myanmar over Rohingya repatriation. He was the keynote speaker at the “International Rohingya Awareness Conference” at the Kennedy School of Government. During this presentation, the foreign minister emphasised once again that the Rohingyas will return voluntarily only when they feel that the conditions on the ground in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are appropriate and favourable. It is clear from all independent accounts that the ground conditions are not yet ripe for repatriation.
As I see it, there are three elements essential for what the Vatican News termed as “conducive environment and conditions for repatriation”. First, the Rohingyas must be given some form of reassurance regarding their most fundamental demand, i.e. recognition and citizenship. Secondly, the Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh need to feel a sense of security about the camps set up by the Myanmar authorities. Finally, the Rohingyas require assurance and guarantees that they will be received well by the local communities and provided all the support and material assistance they need to get back to where they had left off two years ago, before being driven out by the marauding armed forces and their henchmen in Myanmar.
It is not difficult to see that every Rohingya who is living temporarily in Bangladesh has one question on their mind: Are we better off in the camps in Bangladesh or at the camps set up by Myanmar in the so-called “Transit Centre”? They want to know if they will have freedom of mobility and equal treatment before the law should they go back. Can they expect citizenship and recognition as an ethnic community like the others?
They also wonder if they can hope to return to their abandoned homes and villages in Northern Rakhine State. And, what about the property they left behind, the homestead, the fruit-bearing trees, means of livelihood, farmland, fishing boats, and all other equipment?
A recently published analysis by an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) shows that Myanmar has so far initiated minimal preparation for a return of more than half a million refugees, contrary to its proclaimed announcement. During the recent visit to Cox’s Bazar by a 10-member Myanmar delegation, led by Permanent Foreign Secretary Myint Thu, Rohingya leaders articulated the conditions necessary for their return, including the ability to go back to their original villages and lands. The ASPI report backed up by new satellite imagery conclusively shows that the Rohingya settlements in Rakhine, which were burned, damaged or destroyed in 2017, are still uninhabitable and inhospitable. Some of the settlements have been taken over by the armed forces and converted into administrative and military facilities.
The Australian institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre has combined open-source data with the collection and analysis of new satellite imagery to assess the current status of settlements in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State abandoned by the Rohingyas in August 2017. The report also critically assessed the readiness of several “repatriation sites” or “relocation sites” proposed by Myanmar to house the returning Rohingyas.
The research team collaborated with UNOSAT, a UN organisation. UNOSAT is a technology-intensive programme delivering imagery analysis and satellite solutions to relief and development organisations.
The study used that data, and their own satellite imagery collection and analysis, to make an updated assessment of the status of these settlements. The findings are very discouraging and do not bode well for the prospect of Rohingya repatriation and resettlement. If they could read the ASPI report, every Rohingya would have asked: “What do we go back to?”
Three key findings of the ASPI should raise grave concerns and give Bangladesh some issues to discuss in future negotiations with Myanmar.
First, UNOSAT data identified 392 Rohingya settlements that were burned, damaged, or destroyed during the 2017 crisis. Of these, more than 320 show no signs of reconstruction, and least of all, residential construction needed for the returnees to feel “at home” once they go back. At least 40 percent of the affected settlements have been razed. In addition to the UNOSAT data, the study identified at least 58 settlements which have been subject to new demolition in 2018. Separate to these 58 settlements, satellite imagery shows demolition has occurred in other settlements in 2019.
Secondly, the process of repatriation planned by Myanmar, and revealed in an Asean mission report, has raised grave concerns. The returning refugees are expected to stay at Hla Pho Kaung Transit Centre for a maximum of 30 days under draconic conditions. Refugees will have to sign in and out to leave the centre and adhere to a curfew. Camp security will be maintained by the Border Guard Police (BGP), an agency which had previously been accused of torturing Rohingya refugees.
Knowledgeable sources have expressed reservations about the chances of the Rohingyas being successful in this venture within this short time. They may then be sent to Taung Pyo Letwe Repatriation Centre, one of the two identified in the Asean Emergency Response and Action Team (ERAT) report. Satellite imagery of this and other repatriation sites contradict claims by Myanmar that preparations are being made for a “dignified and safe return” of the refugees. Many of these designated repatriation areas appear to be highly securitised camps more akin to detention facilities.
If they cannot return to their original home, which is highly unlikely given the current condition of their homestead, they may be sent to “relocation sites” such as Kyein Chaung. This site is built on the site of a burned Rohingya village, and is a military camp for practical purposes.
Finally, the government in Myanmar has taken many actions—legislative, judicial, and administrative—to make the life of Rohingyas difficult. On June 22, 2019, the central government ordered telecommunications companies to shut down the internet in parts of Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State. UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee said in early July that the “information blackout is imperilling villagers, further obstructing the humanitarian response and shielding the military operations from scrutiny.”
The Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law was amended in 2018. In September, the parliament passed amendments requiring anyone occupying land classified as “vacant, fallow, or virgin” to apply for permits or face up to two years in prison. The government issued a March 2019 deadline for permit applications. The purpose of this amendment is to claim control over lands which have been left fallow. This applies most immediately to any land owned by Rohingyas who are either away in Bangladesh or face restrictions in movement in Myanmar. In either case, they will be unable to appeal any adverse decisions against them.
The end result of all these hostile actions against the Rohingyas has diminished the chances that they will return either on August 22 or in the immediate future. The ASPI report appears to be more relevant than the optimistic forecasts coming out of Dhaka. “The ongoing instability, violence, interruptions to communications technologies, and lack of information about the security situation in Rakhine further complicate conditions on the ground for a safe return of the Rohingya refugees.”
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.