Rohingya repatriation deal problematic
27 Jan 2018 at 07:31
On Jan 15, 2018 Bangladesh and Myanmar held discussions to finalise the details of a repatriation deal. The agreement will see thousands of Rohingya repatriated from Bangladeshi refugee camps to Myanmar within a two-year framework starting this month.
Myanmar has said that the repatriation process can begin once the paperwork is finalised. It is now making the final preparations to receive the first batch of refugees from Bangladesh from a temporary camp and two reception centres.
According to Myint Kyaing, the permanent secretary from ministry of labour, immigration and population, Myanmar will accept refugees who have been issued identity documents by the government in retrospect. The refugees are required to fill up the necessary forms and sign the statement of voluntary return before their repatriation.
The voluntary repatriation agreement, that does not refer to the refugees as “Rohingya”, was initially signed by the two countries in November 2017 to find a solution to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
The Rohingya have been fleeing persecution in response to a military crackdown in their home state of Rakhine in August 2017. Since then, over 680,000 of them have crossed the border into Bangladesh. According to Myanmar, the agreement is based on a 1992/1993 repatriation deal that was ratified between the two neighbours after a previous spate of violence.The two countries have long scuffled over the citizenship of the Rohingya. Neither side is willing to accept them as their own citizens. As a result, not only are Rohingya refugees wary of the agreement, even human rights organisations have doubts about it. They are concerned with the repatriation process, place of resettlement and fundamental safety of the returnees.
The voluntary repatriation agreement is problematic for four reasons.
Firstly, Myanmar does not seem to have the political will to take back Rohingya refugees. It had agreed to sign the repatriation agreement simply under diplomatic pressure. The Global New Light of Myanmar recently reported that the government has built a temporary camp in the state’s Maungdaw district that will temporarily accommodate some returning refugees. However, no permanent and long lasting infrastructure has yet been built to resettle refugees.
Moreover, many Rohingya refugees staying in Bangladeshi camps may not even be willing to return to Rakhine. The military crackdown and human rights abuses are still very fresh. While the United Nations affirmed that the military operation was tantamount to ethnic cleansing, Amnesty International has labelled the situation as apartheid. Although the authorities claim that the army crackdown is targeted against Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) militants, the civilian toll speaks for itself. Villages and houses have been torched, civilians brutally murdered and many unlawfully taken to custody.
In a rare admission of wrongdoing, the army admitted killing 10 Rohingya civilians who were under their custody illegally. Although the army said that it will take legal action against the culprits, it justified the killings as a rightful response to raids by Rohingya rebels.
The returning refugees will continue finding themselves caught in between the army and the militants. There is also a high possibility for them to escape to other countries if they are forcefully repatriated. This may revive people smuggling networks within the region.
Secondly, Rakhine is nowhere near safe for the Rohingya to return home. Anti-Muslim sentiment is deeply entrenched in the state. Even if Myanmar is able to provide sufficient infrastructure, such as houses, medical clinics and schools, to permanently resettle refugees, it will not resolve the perennial problem of communal hatred. Since 2012, the Rohingya community has faced sporadic attacks by radical Buddhists who do not regard them as citizens. The campaign of violence on the Rohingya is likely to continue after their repatriation.
Thirdly, Myanmar is taking back people only if they are able to prove their residence. Myanmar will require the refugees to complete a registration form with their personal details before given permission to return to Rakhine. Most refugees who fled Rakhine do not have their identification documents since they do not have state citizenship. It will be difficult for the refugees to verify their residence.
Fourthly, there is still uncertainty on what extent is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) going to involved in the repatriation process. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali said during a news conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Nov 25, 2017 that the UNHCR will have a part to play.
International monitors are an important component of any repatriation process that oversee and protect the return of refugees to their home country. The UNCHR plays a critical role in promoting and facilitating the safe repatriation of refugees. Over time, the agency has extended its mandate to include other issues such as rehabilitation assistance, consequences of their return and reintegration into the mainstream community.
The UNHCR, therefore, needs to be included in the entire repatriation process to monitor the security and well-being of the Rohingya returnees and support any national efforts on reconciliation, reconstruction, rehabilitation and development assistance. © 1996 – 2018 Bangkok Post Public Company Limited