Six years on, a solution to the Rohingya crisis is still elusive
Since my last piece was published in The Daily Star in May 2023 – titled "What if the Rohingya are not repatriated?" – discussion surrounding repatriation has been continuing at all levels, without any tangible results. The Bangladesh government wants at least a "pilot" or trial run of repatriation, leaving the rights issues for the Myanmar military regime to sort out. In the latest development on repatriation, the Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Deng Xijun reportedly hinted at taking back the Rohingya to their own villages in North Maungdaw, instead of any camps. The move still falls short of addressing the Rohingya citizenship issue which is central to the crisis. A pilot or trial run also does not offer a solution to the Rohingya demand to resettle in their original villages and have their rights as Myanmar citizens restored. As things stand, the repatriation issue still stagnates at a "dead end," posing a big dilemma for Bangladesh.
More than 1.2 million Rohingya refugees have been sheltered by Bangladesh for six years now. Two previous attempts at repatriation were stalled in 2018 and 2019. The UN refugee agency and other rights groups are against any trial run without ensuring a suitable environment conducive for the Rohingya to return safely. The recent "go and see" visits to camps in the Rakhine state's Maungdaw town by a Rohingya refugee delegation and Bangladeshi officials did little to revive hope in the long-stalled repatriation.
That trip to Myanmar took place in May, under a bi-lateral arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar brokered by China. Apparently, there were no "takers" for the repatriation opportunity despite cash "incentives," backed by intimidation from various forces, in the camps. The UN has called to halt and suspend the move for trial repatriation. The apparent silence and pause indicate that the pilot run plan has been abandoned. The Rohingya refused to accept any such repatriation "trap" by the Myanmar military to deflect international pressure. In fact, the Myanmar government has never been sincere about taking the Rohingya back. The so-called verification lists for repatriation in 2018 and 2019 ultimately proved to be a hoax.
Myanmar's majority Buddhists are not ready to acknowledge the Rohingya Muslims as their own despite the fact that the Rohingya have lived for generations in the Rakhine state. The Myanmar state largely viewed them as "illegal" settlers and interlopers from East Bengal/Bangladesh. Faced with various forms of discrimination in the Bamar state, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya started fleeing the country as early as the 1970s; further outflow followed after the 1982 nationality law, which stripped the Rohingya of Myanmar citizenship. The continued repression, indiscriminate arrests as suspected separatists, rape, murder, and arson by the Myanmar military forces triggered the mass exodus in 2017. Let's not forget the genocidal actions against the Rohingya that took place with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm, who also shamefully defended the military action at the Hague Court. Today, of an estimated 2.0 million Rohingya, less than 200,000 live in military-guarded camps in Sittwe, Rakhine's capital city, without any right of free movement. The rest fled to Thailand, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even to the US, the UK, Canada and Europe, but the majority have been in Bangladesh since 2017.
As a host country, Bangladesh is now faced with dilemmas over diplomatic and security concerns, among others. It seems that regional interests of the major players such as China, India, Japan and the US may determine both the timing and outcome of any repatriation in the long run.
Six years on, the international community is not doing enough for Rohingya repatriation. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) lost traction on the Rohingya genocide case and conducted a ground investigation in Cox's Bazar only recently, after four years. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has discussed the crisis in various forums since 2017 but failed to take any concrete action for accountability. China and India are playing both ways – i.e. expressing concern over the ethnic conflict in Myanmar while supplying weapons to the military junta that led the coup in 2021, plunging the country into a civil war. India has already imprisoned many Rohingya refugees for living "illegally" in the country. No one should be imprisoned for being a refugee. Both India and China have a responsibility to effectively resolve the "tragic" situation in Myanmar. The US is also playing regional power politics, essentially driven by economic and strategic interests. It appears that the powerful countries and alliances are reluctant to condemn the Myanmar junta and side with the Rohingya. The targeted sanctions by major powers have not yielded effective results yet.
Amidst all this, the dwindling financial commitments by the international community are affecting the work of various humanitarian agencies on the ground. The camps in Cox's Bazar are suffering from lack of food supplies, and health and hygiene issues, coupled with lack of education for the Rohingya children. The protracted uncertainty and increasing deterioration of the law and order situation inside the camps have taken a heavy toll on the refugee population, particularly the youth, who are trying to escape the camp life by land and sea, often assisted by human traffickers. The situations inside the camps have reached a boiling point. In 2022, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3,500 Rohingya individuals ran away from the camps in Cox's Bazar and Bashan Char, primarily by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries, risking their lives.
The Rohingya crisis, resulting from systematic state atrocities inside Myanmar, has triggered crises across borders in many countries in the region. The armed forces of Myanmar are still struggling to establish control locally despite increased violence on its people. The situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. As a host country, Bangladesh is now faced with dilemmas over diplomatic and security concerns, among others. It seems that regional interests of the major players such as China, India, Japan and the US may determine both the timing and outcome of any repatriation in the long run. Until then, and given the current status quo, Bangladesh should take a long view requiring simultaneous and protracted engagements, and push for more international attention on the repatriation issue balancing between support for the displaced Rohingya in the camps and sustainable solutions to the crisis. The new initiative and efforts to send the Rohingya refugees back must address what they have been demanding all along and ensure their safety and security in the Rakhine state.
Dr. Mohammad Zaman is an international development/resettlement specialist. He has written extensively on the Rohingya crisis.