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Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, September 2017 © Hafiz Johari

Should Rohingya Be Repatriated?

Citing concerns of safety and the possible risk of forced returns, Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare for the monumental logistics of repatriation of the Rohingya refugees.

The number of Rohingya refugees pouring into Bangladesh from Myanmar has soared to over 800,000 as the two neighboring countries try to smooth a repatriation agreement that was set to take effect on January 23. The Bangladeshi government’s decision to delay the plan to return many of the Rohingya to Myanmar comes as an interim sigh of relief amid heightened apprehension for the UN Refugee Agency, human rights groups, aid agencies and the Rohingya themselves.

Citing concerns of safety and the possible risk of forced returns, Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare for the monumental logistics of repatriation. While the two nations bicker over when to start implementing the deal, there is no talk about revising its terms, which in itself would facilitate the premature repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. Based on a design that seemed guaranteed to fail, the agreement as it stands only serves to ease Bangladesh’s burden and enable Myanmar to save face as international actors cry foul over its practice of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the Rohingya remain stateless and persecuted, while the international community has done little other than calling attention to their plight.

According to the bilateral agreement, Myanmar has agreed to accept up to 1,500 Rohingya each week in an attempt to bring back more than 650,000 people who fled to Bangladesh following a wave of violence in August 2016. The agreement does not include refugees who left Myanmar prior to 2016, thus turning away several previous waves of refugees. Despite Myanmar’s stated willingness to start resettling the returning the Rohingya, the situation on the ground paints a different picture. The repatriation talks between the two countries came even as the Rohingya continued to stream into Bangladesh on a daily basis, although in fewer numbers than in the final months of 2016.

The recent resignation of a veteran US diplomat from the advisory panel on the Rohingya crisis following the arrests of two Reuters journalists covering the issue are among many events that point toward Myanmar’s lack of cooperation in addressing the crisis. Further, the repatriation deal specifies that it would take two years to complete the “safe and voluntary” return of the Rohingya refugees to their homes and property, much of which have been destroyed in the ongoing violence. It remains unclear how the Myanmar government plans to provide the returnees with shelter, which is likely to be in “temporary” camps that run the risk of becoming long-term, open-air detention camps.

The agreement requires the refugees to present some form of proof of identity and residence to return to Myanmar. But the questions of identity and citizenship are at the heart of the crisis. Rendered stateless by consecutive governments, the Rohingya have been denied basic rights for generations, and some of them have had their identity cards seized by Myanmar authorities. Many fled their homes without carrying any documents at all. The identity-verification process provided in the repatriation agreement reveals the skewed commitment of the government in Naypyidaw to take back refugees from Bangladesh. Having no guarantee of recognition of their rights upon return to Myanmar, the refugees will be subject to further discrimination.

This brings us to the concerned voices of the Rohingya themselves, who were not consulted at any point during the negotiations over the deal. One group of Rohingya leaders protested the repatriation plan and put forth several demands on the Myanmar government before any returns are made. These include granting of citizenship, recognition of the Rohingya ethnicity and the return of their land and property. Rohingya leaders have also demanded that the military be held accountable for the atrocities that led to the mass exodus. These demands have gone unaddressed by the Myanmar authorities as they try to push for the repatriation deal.

Faced with squalor in the gigantic camps in Bangladesh and probable persecution if they return to Myanmar, the future looks bleak. Given the overall reluctance of the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, any pressure from Bangladeshi authorities could make them complicit in the forced return of the refugees­­­ — a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law.

The UN Refugee Agency has not been part of the bilateral agreements either and has, along with other aid agencies, been denied full humanitarian access in Myanmar. The agency said in late January that “conditions in Rakhine state [where nearly all the Rohingya had lived] are not yet conducive to the safe and sustainable return of refugees.” Any mandate to facilitate the safe return of refugees from Bangladesh should be overseen by UNHCR and other international monitors.

Myanmar’s neighbors should assume responsibility for sharing in the protection of the Rohingya. Bangladesh is the only country in the region that has stepped up to the crisis. Of course it had no choice, once the refugees began arriving by the thousands. Now, finding itself stretched thin, it’s understandable that Bangladesh would see returning the refugees to Myanmar as an attractive option. However, you can’t share a refugee crisis with a country that persecutes the very population you are trying to repatriate. While the real solution to the crisis has to be a political one within Myanmar itself, nearby countries like India, Malaysia and Thailand should work with Bangladesh to ease its burden and exert pressure on the Myanmar government. Until there’s a joint concerted effort to do so, any effort to return refugees is far from being voluntary, safe and dignified.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit:By Hafiz Johari / Shutterstock.com