A 'secret' memorandum of understanding (MoU) between UN agencies and the Myanmar government, a draft of which has been leaked online, revealed that Rohingya refugees cannot expect much change back home on their proposed return. While the UN is yet to publicly release the final MoU, the fact that the Rohingya themselves had not been consulted has been criticised by the Rohingya community.
In earlier returns too, in 1978 and the early 1990s, the Rohingya had not been consulted even though the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was involved in facilitating returns. This time, the return is even more complicated as more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border in the latest influx since August 2017. UNHCR has called this MoU “the first and necessary step” to create conditions conducive for the return of the refugees.
The terms of the 10-page agreement had been kept hush-hush, despite repeated calls for the MoU to be made public. Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, at a June 27 session of the Human Rights Council, stated, “It is disconcerting that the MoU remains not publicly available and there has not been transparency about its terms… Most frightful still is the fact that the Rohingya refugees have not been included in any of the discussions around this MoU nor consulted in relation to the repatriation process as a whole.”
A draft of the classified document, dated May 30, was finally obtained and subsequently published online by the Free Rohingya Coalition (FRC), a global network of Rohingya activists, more than three weeks after the final MoU was signed by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNHCR, and the government of Myanmar on June 6. The copy of the MoU has also been verified by Reuters.
“They signed the MoU in public but no one knew what was in it. The UN agencies didn't consult with Rohingya representatives who are working for Rohingya rights inside Myanmar, in the camps in Bangladesh, and across the world,” says Rohingya activist and an FRC coordinator, Nay San Lwin, to Star Weekend.
The terms of the MoU
Noticeably, the tripartite MoU does not refer to the Rohingya by name, instead referring to “displaced persons from Rakhine State who have been duly verified as residents of Myanmar” as eligible for return. It goes on to say that the government “will issue to all returnees the appropriate identification papers and ensure a clear and voluntary pathway to citizenship to those eligible.”
In the text, citizenship is mentioned conditionally although it is a key demand of the Rohingya refugees. Mohibullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, based in the refugee camps, says to Star Weekend, “We will not accept these identification documents. These identify us as Rakhine Muslims and not as refugees and as Rohingya.” Since 2015, the Rohingya have been required to carry National Verification Cards, a residency document provided by the government which falls short of citizenship and that they reject.
The MoU also states that it is for those “who wish to return voluntarily, safely and in dignity to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice.” There is thus no guarantee that the Rohingya will be able to return to their lands in their own villages. There is also the fact that hundreds of villages have been burned or razed to the ground by security forces, as has been seen in satellite images released by Human Rights Watch and other organisations.
More likely, the refugees will be sent to 'reception centres' and temporary resettlement camps near the border which the Myanmar government set up following bilateral agreements signed with Bangladesh for voluntary repatriation of the refugees. Photographs of a new camp in Maungdaw to accommodate returnees show desolate houses surrounded by barbed wire, more reminiscent of detention centres than of 'reception centres'.
Existing camps in central Rakhine for those internally displaced in earlier violence in 2012 have been called 'concentration camps' and are notorious for already detaining some 120,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingya, who are unable to move freely and have no access to education, employment, or healthcare.
Just as the agreement does not explicitly guarantee citizenship, it similarly does not guarantee freedom of movement. The MoU states “returnees will enjoy the same freedom of movement as all other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine State”—hardly assurance that things will be different this time for the Rohingya, who earlier too could not move freely within or outside Rakhine.
Rohingya leaders in the camps, however, say they won't return without guarantee of citizenship, freedom of movement, and assurance of their safety. This is a sticking point for the refugees who consider free movement and recognition as refugees crucial for their return, says Mohibullah. “We will not accept this MoU unless we are properly accorded our rights. So far, no one [in the camps] has expressed their willingness to return.”
Another point of contention is the children born in the camps of Bangladesh, whom the MoU refers to as “born out of unwarranted incidents” and calls for them to be certified by a Bangladeshi court in order to be considered for verification. “We are outraged and dismayed by the usage of 'unwarranted incidents'. There is significant evidence, investigated by medical agencies based in the camps, that Rohingya women and young girls were brutally raped and gang-raped by the Myanmar military,” says Lwin. The MoU makes no mention of this nor guarantees their safety from future attacks.
A point of access, not a 'final agreement'
Negotiations over this agreement have been seen as paramount to restoring access to the state of Rakhine for UN agencies, which have been barred from the region since the violence in August 2017. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, on his visit to the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar two weeks ago, stressed that the agreement was “to pave the way for potential future returns” with the government of Myanmar and “[n]ot as a final agreement on returns”.
In a protest on June 16, refugees demonstrated in the camps for their right to be included in the repatriation discussions. Their demands, displayed on banners, were “Include Rohingya in agreements about Rohingya”, “Dignified repatriation must include full citizenship right as Rohingya ethnic group”, and “UNHCR please talk to us about the MoU”.
Almost 10 days later, UNHCR sent out a communiqué directly addressed to the refugees in the camps. In it, the organisation acknowledges that though conditions in Myanmar are not conducive for a safe and sustainable return, “a continuous engagement with the Myanmar authorities will remain key in finding a durable situation for you.”
The end goal of the MoU, of course, is the right to safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees now in refugee camps in Bangladesh. But, says Mohibullah, the refugees are disappointed that they were not consulted and have suddenly had the terms of the MoU sprung upon them. “We do not support this agreement.”
It is of little relief that UNHCR's communiqué announced that refugees can provide feedback and ask questions, and that it will be organising discussion groups—now, when the agreement has already been signed. Not unlike earlier agreements, the Rohingya refugees have once again been left out of discussions on their own fate.
Deals struck for the Rohingya people have historically fallen through. A 1982 law stripped them of citizenship in Myanmar. Following earlier influxes in the 90s, UNHCR had signed a deal with the government of Myanmar for the return of the Rohingya. Many unwilling refugees were sent back, often by coercion. The insistence on making this MoU public is rooted in past precedent.
Progress of the two-year repatriation process, under bilateral agreements signed by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, is currently stalled. "There is nothing new I have to report on the repatriation process. You will know once it begins," says Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam to Star Weekend. Despite contrary claims by the Myanmar government, the Bangladesh government and UN agencies have stated that not a single Rohingya refugee has returned of their own accord, under the formal framework, more than ten months after the influx. At the same time, hundreds of new arrivals continue to stream into Bangladesh every month.
“This MoU is completely useless…, nothing has changed for Rohingyas,” ends Lwin, “The UN agencies have failed to recognise the demands of Rohingyas.”