Refugees in limbo

Print edition : May 11, 2018

A Rohingya refugee at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 22. Photo: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN

At Koe Tan Kauk, a "model" village for ethnic Rakhine migrants shuttled north to repopulate an area once dominated by Rohingya Muslims. Photo: AFP/PHYO HEIN KYAW

Rohingyas gather behind a barbed wire fence at Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in Maungdaw district, in Rakhine state. Photo: AFP/JOE FREEMAN

Repatriation of the over one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is yet to begin despite the country having an agreement with Myanmar.

AROUND 700,000 Rohingyas have fled the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to southern Bangladesh since August 25, 2017. While flushing out insurgency by a Rohingya outfit, the Myanmarese security forces launched a brutal crackdown on the stateless minority, killing thousands, raping the women, burning houses and indulging in looting. The new arrivals joined an estimated 400,000 others who had fled previous waves of violence after 1978. They have been accommodated in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladeshi and international experts, whom Frontline spoke to, expressed the fear that the Myanmarese government did not intend to take Rohingyas back despite an agreement signed with Bangladesh.

At the height of the disaster, and against the backdrop of massive international condemnation, Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh on November 23 last year, agreeing to take back 1,500 refugees each week. Even if the plan is implemented, it will take almost 10 years to send back all the refugees staying in Bangladesh.

The agreement says: “Myanmar will take all possible measures to see that the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long period of time and their freedom of movement in Rakhine state will be allowed in conformity with the existing laws and regulations. It also says Myanmar will verify the identity of the returning refugees and the issuing of identity cards will be based on “evidence of past residence in Myanmar”.

Both countries agreed to complete the repatriation in two years from the beginning of the process.

Under “Physical Arrangement”, Bangladesh would set up five transit camps from which returnees would be taken to two reception centres on the Myanmar side. The United Nations and other international agencies and human rights organisations, however, expressed concern that Rohingyas would not be repatriated in a dignified and safe manner. Bangladesh explained that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be involved in the process. But there has been no progress on that count yet.

There have been no visible signs of progress in repatriating the refugees, which was due to begin in January, beyond the formation of a joint working group (JWG). The obstacles lie in the deal itself, which is based on the 1992 accord inked by the two countries following another wave of influx then. As in the previous accord, the latest deal also gives Myanmar control over the verification process of the returnees. During the past four months, of the 8,000 names in the first batch submitted to Myanmarese authorities, only 374 Rohingya refugees have been verified. The actual repatriation is yet to take place.

Uncertain Future

The prospects of Rohingyas returning to their homeland get dimmer with each passing day, and Bangladesh is left with a deepening crisis on its hands. Reports by various international agencies say that the Myanmarese military, which is accused of serious human rights abuses, still runs Rakhine state. Independent investigators are denied access to the State, and even U.N. and international aid agencies have limited access.

While Myanmar continues to carry out its resettlement plans in northern Rakhine, it has deployed troops near the border where the refugees have taken shelter, calling it an “anti-terrorism” operation. The country has begun moving Rakhine Buddhists to villages once populated by Rohingyas.

Satellite imagery has revealed that new military bases have been erected over torched Rohingya land. New roads and structures are being built over burned Rohingya villages and land, making it difficult for the Rohingya to return. Many security analysts have opined that the Myanmar government is perhaps more resolute than ever before to implement a broader military strategy against Rohingyas.

Myanmar has started rebuilding Rohingyas’ houses that were razed, but according to reports, they are mostly for the non-Rohingya people. It is preparing two transit camps that can accommodate 30,000 people. Beyond that nothing concrete has been done.

Bangladesh has begun a campaign seeking a stronger role for the international community in ensuring that the refugees return to Myanmar as quickly as possible. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to extend the U.N’s assistance to implement the bilateral agreement.

However, most of Rohingyas do not trust the Myanmar government, especially the military. They want their citizenship back. They also say that they will return only if their safety is assured, their homes are rebuilt and they are no longer subjected to official discrimination. They are afraid to go back to areas riddled with communal mistrust, created deliberately.

Myanmar has been violating the rights of Rohingyas for long but the global community has done little to redress their sufferings. Adama Dieng, U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, admitted that the international community, including the U.N., has failed to protect Rohingyas. “We all have failed. This is a collective failure,” he said.

After visiting the Rohingya camps, Dieng said: “Let us be clear: international crimes were committed in Myanmar. The Rohingya have been killed, tortured, burnt alive and humiliated. The world needs to show that it is not ready to tolerate such barbaric acts… .” He also said that under the prevailing conditions, Rohingyas could be subjected to further crimes if they returned to Myanmar.

The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, suspects “acts of genocide” in Rakhine state, while the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said the incidents in Rakhine bore the “hallmarks of genocide”, and called for accountability in the strongest terms. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has also asked for action against Myanmar in the International Criminal Court (ICC). But nothing substantial has been done as Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute. The prosecutor of the ICC recently asked the ICC to rule on whether it has jurisdiction over the deportations of the Rohingya people, a possible crime against humanity. A ruling affirming jurisdiction could pave the way for Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to investigate the deportation. though Myanmar is unlikely to cooperate. The U.N. Security Council has so far failed to take any effective action because of the positions taken by China and Russia.

The World Health Organisation appealed for more donor support for Rohingyas ahead of the coming monsoon, fearing that the rains will expose them to health risks. The Bangladesh government has taken initiatives to relocate at least one lakh Rohingyas to Bhashan Char Island before the monsoon.

Security concerns

The crisis has put immense pressure on Bangladesh’s scarce resources. But what would happen if the crisis drags on?

People who watch the crisis closely are unanimous that Rohingyas are a potential threat to Bangladesh’s internal security and stability. A section of Rohingyas was allured by vested quarters to take up arms to defend their rights and formed a militant outfit called the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA). It launched a coordinated attack on Myanmar security and police posts on August 25 last year, which was allegedly supported by some Islamic charities from outside Bangladesh. Many fear that prolonged incarceration of the refugees in squalid Bangladeshi camps might pose a “grave security risk” for the region .The International Crisis Group (ICG) has already warned that the ARSA might recruit fighters from among the displaced people for launching cross-border attacks on Myanmar. Such attacks would have profoundly negative consequences for Rohingyas, diminishing the prospects of their eventual return further. The Myanmarese Army has repeatedly used the “terror threat” to justify its brutal campaign in northern Rakhine.

Many observers warn that Rohingyas’ plight has become a “cause celebre of the Muslim world”, with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other global militant groups calling for attacks on Myanmar, even though the ARSA has distanced itself from these organisations, claiming that it was only fighting to protect Rohingyas’ rights.

The fear of Rohingyas posing a security threat to Bangladesh cannot be ruled out if the crisis prolongs. Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has warned his South-East Asian neighbours that the Rohingya crisis could become “a serious security threat for the region”. Many fear that so many desperate and displaced people could fall prey to extremist groups.

India and Bangladesh are cooperating on many fields for mutual interest, but Rohingyas feel the efforts have not been serious and sincere. Bangladesh has already sought India’s support for removing the potential security threat from Rohingyas. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s international affairs adviser, Dr Gowher Rizvi, remarked that the Rohingya crisis had “strong ramifications for the security of our region—India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. If you do not work jointly on it and if we do not strongly work on it together, I fear, it may undo some of the good work.”

Sending the refugees back to their homeland with dignity and security, at the earliest, is not a priority for Bangladesh alone, but for India as well.

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