Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees Set to Begin While Issues Remain Unresolved

Rohingya Muslims sit on a hill overlooking Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on November 14. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

On October 30, Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an agreement to begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar army crackdown last year. Following a bilateral meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said, “We are looking forward to start the repatriation by mid-November,” which the permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Myint Thu, called a “very concrete” result.

The international community, however, is largely divided on the issue. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and rights groups have criticized any forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic previously warned that the conditions in Rakhine state are “not yet conducive for returns” and that any returns not be “rushed or premature.”

On the other hand, during his meeting with Bangladesh foreign secretary in Beijing on November 9 the Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said his country is “happy to see” the two countries reaching an agreement to start repatriation, which he described it as an important progress toward resolving the “Rakhine state issue.”

The immediate question then is: should the repatriation of Rohingya refugees begin?

The fears and demands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are a critical part of any answer. On October 31, a day after the repatriation agreement, an 11-member team from Myanmar led by Myint Thu and another 11-member group from Bangladesh visited Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp. The visit was primarily an attempt to speak with refugees and address their concerns, and also to inform, if not convince them, about the two governments’ plan to begin the repatriation process in November.

During the visit, refugees outlined their position before they can return to Rakhine state. They demanded the acceptance of Rohingya as an official ethnic group, the restoration of full citizenship rights, and the establishment of an international security mechanism to protect them when they return. Other demands include compensation and reparations for lives lost, injuries inflicted, and property confiscated; the release of Rohingya arbitrarily imprisoned in Myanmar and the removal of innocent people from the lists of terrorists; the return of original homes and lands to refugees; and the lifting of restrictions on their movement and access to basic services.

At the moment, it is unclear whether the government of Myanmar will grant these demands. Even if the civilian government of the National League for Democracy is willing to accept some of them due to international pressure or on humanitarian grounds, it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw and the country’s nationalists or ultranationalists will.

Notwithstanding these demands or the concerns of UNHCR and other groups, the repatriation will go ahead if Bangladesh and Myanmar so desire. This would be in contrast to past statements by the government of Bangladesh that it would not forcibly repatriate the refugees. Myanmar has said that it has verified some 5,000 Rohingyas eligible for repatriation from a list of over 8,000 names which Bangladesh submitted in February, and that the first batch of returnees would consist of 2,000 of them.

As for why to push ahead, the increasing pressure on both countries has forced their governments to take quick measures to reduce scrutiny and criticism. Myanmar is under intense international pressure, especially after the UN fact-finding mission report released in September called for the investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s military leaders for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The UN report also concluded that the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi “has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events” in Rakhine state and that her government had “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” through “their acts and omissions.”

This all came on the heels of the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch a preliminary investigation into the massive displacement of the Rohingya people. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said her investigation would include the deprivation of fundamental rights, killing, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, destruction, and looting. Such initiative sends a powerful message to the leaders of Myanmar, who likely recall the trials of Slobodan Milošević, Ratko Mladić, or Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.

On the other hand, Bangladesh is facing its own pressures. As a relatively small country, its ability to accommodate almost a million refugees has placed a significant strain on its resources. Domestic pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League has increased ahead of elections next month. Hasina has sent an unambiguous message to the country’s electorate that her government is only providing temporary refuge to the Rohingya refugees, saying in September that “I already have 160 million people in my country…I can’t take any other burden. I can’t take it. My country cannot bear.” The Hasina administration has also expressed frustration with the delays in the repatriation process by the Myanmar government. When Myanmar has shown willingness to repatriate refugees, Hasina has thus moved quickly to take advantage of the opportunity.

If the repatriation does go ahead, the Myanmar authorities will issue National Verification Cards to the returnees and put them on the path to obtaining full citizenship. But it is unclear whether the Rohingya will eventually get full citizenship, or whether they will be recognized as “Rohingya.” There is a strong likelihood of disagreement on the issue between the civilian government and the Tatmadaw, which still holds significant political power. Moreover, designating Rohingya as an officially recognized ethnic group requires amending the 1982 citizenship law, which will be almost impossible without the support of the military.

Given the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, the refugees’ lingering fear and reluctance to return, and the overall political situation in Myanmar, it is premature to begin the repatriation at this point. Moreover, any dignified and safe repatriation should be carried out with the involvement of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme, which Myanmar signed an MoU with in June of this year.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratization of Myanmar.