Rohingya repatriation: Easier said than done
The recent indication by Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs, Deng Xijun, that the Rohingya may be taken back to their own villages should come as a welcome news for both the one million or so Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and for the host country itself. The majority of the refugees have been stranded here since the 2017 attacks by Myanmar's state forces which led to the killing of more than 24,000 Rohingya Muslims and exodus of more than 700,000 victims.
While Bangladesh has tried its best to shelter the vulnerable and unprotected refugees, their living conditions in the sprawling camps in Cox's Bazar have not been ideal. Starting from unhygienic sanitation conditions, to lack of economic opportunities forcing some refugees into illegal activities (including prostitution), to subpar security measures resulting in regular infighting between groups and killings of Rohingya leaders (including the brutal assassination of Mohib Ullah by criminals linked to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), the Rohingya have been surviving in dire conditions. To add to this, the recent monthly food aid slash by the World Food Programme (WFP), first from $12 to $10 per person in March 2023, and then from $10 to $8 (effective from June 1), has made life even more difficult for the refugees. On its part, the WFP has cited declining global aid for refugees. Indeed, foreign aid for the Rohingya has dwindled over time.
China deserves thanks for assuming a leadership role in driving the repatriation discussion with Myanmar, and the Bangladesh government's positive response in this matter should also be appreciated. However, we urge the Chinese and Bangladeshi governments to ensure the rights and security of the Rohingya population in Myanmar before their repatriation.
Between 2017 and 2019, international humanitarian assistance accounted for 73 percent, 72 percent, and 75 percent, respectively, of the funds needed to sustain the Rohingya. In 2022, this plummeted to 49 percent of the amount required. As of June 2023, against a yearly Joint Response Plan appeal of $876 million, only 24 percent could be assured. This has added pressure on Bangladesh and, coupled with its ongoing economic ailments, made it difficult for the country to support the lives and livelihoods of the million refugees.
The Rohingya are also desperate to escape these squalid living conditions and the restrained life of the camps. Every year, an increasing number of hopeless Rohingya refugees are paying human traffickers in search of livelihood opportunities abroad. And, inevitably, many of them are perishing in the merciless seas. According to the United Nations, in 2022 alone, more than 348 Rohingya refugees fell victim to deadly sea voyages. In fact, out of desperation, many of the refugees are now willing to go back to Myanmar even without any assurances from the Myanmar junta of their safety. To this end, demonstrations have also been taking place. According to an Al Jazeera report, one placard read: "No more refugee life. No verification. No scrutiny. No interview. We want quick repatriation through UNHCR data cards. We want to go back to our motherland." The same report also quoted a protester as saying that they will have to "steal food for survival" if things keep going south.
But the question remains: even if they go back to their homeland, what exactly is awaiting them there? Most of their villages have been razed to the ground by the Myanmar military, even before the military takeover in 2021. As early as 2019, it was reported by the BBC that the villages were being cleared to make space for military and government infrastructure. Since 2017, more than 400 villages have reportedly been cleared. In the process, the Myanmar military has also renamed some of the places to remove any trace of the Rohingya belonging there.
The issue of the Rohingya's citizenship also remains disputed. While the Rohingya – as people of Myanmar – should be given citizenship, the Myanmar regime is still suggesting that they will only be provided with a National Verification Card (NVC), at least for now.
To put the Rohingya's citizenship issue into context: for decades, the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar population has nurtured an exclusionist approach towards the Muslim Rohingya and other minority groups. This surfaced prominently after General Ne Win grabbed power in 1962. After the coup, all attempts previously made to recognise Rohingya's citizenship, including official documents and any such guideline to make citizenship inclusive in the 1948 constitution, were rejected by the regime, resulting in the Rohingya's statelessness.
Later, in the 1974 Myanmar constitution, the ethnic groups lost their recognition. And the Citizenship Law of 1982 ensured that the Rohingya lost all claim to Myanmar citizenship, in any form (full, associate, or naturalised), although their existence in Myanmar could be traced back to before 1823. The 1982 law stated that only children of the "national races" will be considered full citizens of the country, and the Rohingya certainly did not fall under the category. Now, citing this infamous and controversial law, Myanmar is trying to deny the Rohingya their right to citizenship in their motherland.
There is also the unresolved issue of guaranteeing the safety of Rohingya once they go back to their country. One might recall how the 1978 military operation against the Rohingya, termed Operation Dragon King, forced more than 200,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar. Ever since then, thousands of Rohingya have fallen victim to the nefarious genocidal and ethnic cleansing drives of the Myanmar military, even during the so-called democratic regime of Aung San Suu Kyi.
What guarantee is there that the Rohingya will not be subjected to slow, covert killing by the same military junta, after their return to Myanmar? Without legislative measures or a formal written guarantee – to Bangladesh and international bodies such as the UN and other global players with influence over the Myanmar junta – ensuring the security of the Rohingya post-repatriation, it would be highly irresponsible on the host country's part to agree to the repatriation of the refugees.
As Bangladesh had suggested in 2017, to stop the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya population and other minority groups, UN-monitored "safe zones" could be created in Myanmar. Perhaps even UN peacekeepers, consisting of troops from neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, India and China, who are well aware of geopolitical realities and the historical sensitivities involved – could be deployed to protect the minority civilians in these safe zones. They could be tasked with monitoring and observing peace processes in post-conflict areas, providing security to civilians and UN personnel, apart from other responsibilities. As per standard international protocol, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees should be given free access to the returnees and the repatriation document outlining every essential detail should be reviewed and signed by the UNHCR.
China deserves thanks for assuming a leadership role in driving the repatriation discussion with Myanmar, and the Bangladesh government's positive response in this matter should also be appreciated. However, we urge the Chinese and Bangladeshi governments to ensure the rights and security of the Rohingya population in Myanmar before their repatriation. And any such repatriation should be conducted under complete international monitoring and as per standard protocol. Myanmar's ruling junta must also be urged to be considerate of the current realities and give the Rohingya their right to citizenship and a dignified life in Myanmar.
It is in the interest of the greater Asian region that the Rohingya be helped to return to their homeland, where they belong. And all of us must work together to ensure this.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb