“Rohingya refugee crisis is a time bomb that must be quickly defused to avoid any future flare-up”
Dr. Shamsul Bari, a former Director of UNHCR, talks to The Daily Star about the Rohingya refugee crisis, its local, regional and global implications and the possible solutions to the crisis.
August 05, 2019
Rohingya refugees walk towards the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh- Myanmar border. AFP File Photo
Dr. Shamsul Bari
Based on your experience in dealing with refugees the world over, how would you categorise the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh?
During my long career with UNHCR, I had the opportunity to deal with refugee problems all over the world. In fact, the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1978 was one of the first refugee groups I dealt with at the UNHCR, which I joined the same year. However, compared to that group of around 250,000 refugees, most of whom went back, and a similar number of Rohingya refugees who came in the early 1990s, who too largely went back, and a lesser number who came in 2012 and drew international attention for their desperate efforts to travel to Malaysia and other Asean countries in rickety boats, the influx of August 2017 was of a very different nature and on a much larger scale.
The latest batch of refugees was composed of people who were victims of a brutal military pogrom in Myanmar, which was planned ahead and meticulously executed. They came as a human avalanche, accompanied by heart-wrenching scenes of pain, suffering and destitution. Their narratives about the horrific circumstances which made them flee Myanmar reminded the world of human tragedies that have “shocked the conscience of mankind” throughout history. Sympathy and compassion for these refugees poured in from all corners of the world. Financial and material support flowed in from governments, international financial institutions, UN bodies, civil societies and individuals alike. Charges of genocide and crimes against humanity were raised against Myanmar forces. Calls for international accountability measures against them were rife. More than seven hundred thousand came in continuous waves in a very short period. Together with another four hundred thousand, who had remained in Bangladesh from earlier influxes, they form the largest single refugee group in the world today.
Rohingya refugee children pose for a picture at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on November 15, 2018. Reuters File Photo
How would you assess Bangladesh’s handling of the Rohingya crisis?
International concern and support for the Rohingya refugees was more than matched by the generosity and support of the government and people of Bangladesh. The spontaneous decision of the government, with the whole-hearted support of the local population, to receive so many refugees is rare in history. It has rightly earned international accolades for Bangladesh and for our prime minister. There is a general recognition that the handling of such a large and shattered population by Bangladesh, itself a densely populated developing country, for two years now has been most commendable. Most observers are amazed that there have been little or no big mishaps with such a large population cooped up in extremely overcrowded camps.
What is your impression about the evolution of the situation in the last two years?
Two years on, the plight of the refugees does not dominate international headlines in the same way anymore. Like many other examples of human resilience in coping with humanitarian calamities of such a huge magnitude, the refugees are now ensconced in hundreds of densely populated camps spread over a large area bordering Myanmar. They continue to cope with the new realities of their lives and mull over their uncertain future.
Despite admirable success in containing such a volatile situation, there is no room for complacency. Many signs of unrest have already manifested in the camps, foreboding more difficult times to come. The atmosphere in the overcrowded camps and the surrounding region is heating up for reasons not uncommon in such situations. The hopelessness and frustration of refugees living under such dire circumstances are normally the breeding grounds for tension and conflicts.
At the same time, the hospitality of the local population is being strained to the limit. Their complaints about refugee encroachments on their lives, livelihoods and environment are getting louder and progressively more threatening. As time passes, they are likely to get worse. It is time, therefore, to look for ways to resolve the underlying problems before they worsen further.
Clearly, the most urgent need is to inject some hope into the minds of the refugees and the surrounding host population alike. Both must be assured that they are not forgotten, and serious efforts are being made to resolve the crisis sooner than later. Unless there is progress in that direction, darker and more ominous clouds will continue to build up. In such an atmosphere, there will be no dearth of exploiters to take advantage of the situation and make it worse. The security of the state itself will be at risk. History is replete with examples of such a nature.
In conjunction with this, there are ominous signs of an onset of compassion fatigue among international donors. By the end of July this year, only 35 percent of the Joint Response Plan of the UN for the care and maintenance of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for 2019, totalling USD 920.5 million, has been met. If the contributions do not pick up soon, serious consequences cannot be avoided.
Are you more worried about the assistance needs of the refugee population than their solution needs?
In fact, I am concerned about both because they are interlinked. Without the provision of proper care and maintenance in the camps, the patience and resilience of the refugees will be farther stretched. It will be very difficult for Bangladesh to assist the refugees indefinitely by her own means. Lack of adequate funding will have severe consequences on the maintenance of law and order in the camps, which in turn will affect solutions. So, both assistance and solution must receive equal attention.
A Rohingya refugee repairs the roof of his shelter at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 5, 2019. Reuters File Photo
What do you see as the possible solution for the crisis?
Like any other large-scale refugee situation, the best solution for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is to go back home voluntarily, in safety and dignity, in pursuit of normal lives once again. Voluntary repatriation is normally the only viable solution for most refugee situations in the world. Around 70 percent of world’s refugees since World War II have found durable solutions by returning home.
The refugees themselves have expressed their wish to go back home in Myanmar, if they can do so in safety and dignity and some basic conditions are met. But they see no hope on the horizon in this regard. They were told last year that Myanmar had agreed to take back those who wished to return voluntarily under a bilateral agreement with the Government of Bangladesh. But when the scheduled date for commencement of repatriation arrived on November 15, 2018, there were no volunteers, mainly because they received no guarantees from the Myanmar authorities on their basic demands. Since then, there has been very little progress in the situation, only empty assurances from time to time. Most observers agree that safe and stable return under existing circumstances is not conceivable.
With the refugees thus not willing to go back, there was growing speculation, both inside and outside the camps, about the other two possible solutions, namely third country resettlement and local integration. They appear to have subsided for the time being but they are likely to resurface. It is important that they are nipped in the bud so that false expectations are not created.
As for third country resettlement, it is clear that there is no hope, under the present state of international affairs, that so many people would be offered resettlement opportunities in third countries. Secondly, even if it were possible, it would be a bad precedent for the international community. There are many countries in the world where large groups, like the Rohingyas, exist, who are disliked by the majority population and could be targeted for similar expulsion, expecting that they too would be resettled elsewhere. This would do great damage to the hallowed principles of asylum and refugee protection developed over centuries.
Thirdly, even a discussion about third country resettlement of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh might unsettle the remaining half a million or so Rohingyas still living in Myanmar and provoke them to join the queue in Bangladesh. The combined pull and push factors will be too much for Bangladesh and the international community to handle. Instead of solving the problem, new problems may arise.
Of course, a few humanitarian cases, such as traumatised victims of serious crimes, others in need of medical attention unavailable in the camps, and those who qualify for family reunification abroad, could be considered for resettlement. This would not act as a pull factor, if done carefully, but would show important international solidarity on the issue.
That leaves us with local integration as a solution. This too is a non-starter for the simple reason that it will be impossible for Bangladesh, itself an overpopulated country, to absorb such a huge population without serious social, economic and political consequences. No government will be able to deal with the situation without peril to its own survival. Of course, a few refugees will always merge in locally, as has happened in the past. But it cannot be the main solution for the majority.
That brings us back to voluntary repatriation as the only viable solution for the vast majority of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. It is important that all the parties involved with the problem understand and accept the reality. That includes Bangladesh, Myanmar, the other two immediate neighbours, India and China, plus countries with interest in the region like Japan and Russia, Asean countries, the UN and the international community as a whole. All must realise the inherent dangers in letting such a large group of people simmer in hopelessness and despair in the camps.
What dangers do you foresee if the situation does not change in the near future?
The most important point to bear in mind in this regard is that unless serious efforts are made by all concerned parties to pave the way for voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, the problem will continue to fester till it explodes, one way or another, in the not-too-distant future. No one should think that it will be resolved over time, believing that people will find their own solutions. That has never happened in large and protracted refugee situations. Peoples’ desire to return to their homeland is the same everywhere. Palestinians have not given up this hope in the last 70 years, nor have the Western Sahrawis in the last 50 years, to name only two groups. Rohingyas too won’t give up.
There must be a clear recognition that for so many refugees with horrific memories of the circumstances that made them flee Myanmar, it will be impossible to accept an uncertain sedentary existence in the camps indefinitely. History tells us that in most situations such as this, people are prone to nurture, most steadfastly, the dream of reclaiming their lost land, stolen history, shattered memories and take back control over their own lives. Such dreams die hard.
The statistics from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh indicate that 52 percent of the refugee population in the camps are below the age of adulthood. Imagine the situation a few years hence when they grow older and find there is no hope for their future and they see no light at the end of the tunnel. It will be an extremely explosive situation.
History also reveals that most protracted refugee situations attract exploiters. The latter take advantage of the anger and frustrations of the refugees to advance their own goals. Such possibilities have increased manifold because of the fractured international politics of our times. With their help, some refugees can be turned into terrorists, or freedom fighters, depending upon the perception of the observer. But their actions will inevitably involve violence, which will beget more violence and the consequences that follow. It is in not in anyone’s interest to let such a situation develop within the Rohingya refugee camps. It is neither good for the Rohingyas, nor for Myanmar, for Bangladesh, the region, or the international community as a whole.
Even without the help of the exploiters, the dangers of radicalisation and its likely consequences for the entire region cannot be underestimated. There are enough elements in the world to take advantage of the hopelessness and frustrations of the refugees to instil the hope and determination for liberation. Islamist elements in Bangladesh too are likely to join the fray.
There are other scenarios which are no less ominous. Frustrated, angry and despondent refugees may begin to escape from the camps and move illegally to neighbouring countries like India, Nepal and others in the region and beyond. The more desperate ones may once again take to rickety boats to undertake the perilous journey across the sea to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and farther on, as many of their compatriots did not very long ago. Recurrence of scenes of shipwrecked Rohingya women, men and children trying to stay afloat in deep sea, seeking to be rescued by passing ships, will once again raise international concern for the plight of the refugees and shock the conscience of mankind.
Equally importantly, calls for accountability for the perpetrators of the atrocities which triggered the refugee outflow will arise again. While Bangladesh has so far not pursued the idea aggressively, it will not be able to stay away from such calls for very long.
Under these circumstances, Myanmar’s hope to undertake development activities in the Rakhine region, to pacify the ire of the local Buddhist population against the central government, is bound to fail. As long as prospects of violence, linked to Rohingya efforts to win back their homeland continue, there will be little scope for development. Expectations of countries like India, China, Japan and the Asean neighbours, to invest in the development process of Rakhine State in Myanmar cannot be fulfilled. Rakhine State is destined to be saddled with unrest, disturbances and armed conflicts for as long as the Rohingya refugees are not able to return home in safety and dignity.
Under such a scenario, other developments may take place which may not be very pleasant for Myanmar. It may include further sanctions by the international community on Myanmar citizens and, more generally, Myanmar itself. Already the top Myanmar Army Generals have been banned from traveling to the US. If the situation continues to worsen, more grievous sanctions may follow. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad’s call for a separate homeland for the Rohingyas in Myanmar region reflects only one thought in this regard. There can be many.
Under such uncertain circumstances, any expectation that Myanmar may have for development and progress in Rakhine State will remain unfulfilled. On the other hand, by resolving the problem, Myanmar may enter into mutually beneficial relationship with Bangladesh which is going through an economic boom even in the midst of serious hurdles. A closer relationship and cooperation between the two countries, eternally linked by history and geography, can only be beneficial for both.
So, what are your prescriptions for handling the Rohingya refugee crisis?
Under the present circumstances in Myanmar, and particularly in the Rakhine State where the Rohingyas have traditionally lived, it may indeed be naive even to talk about voluntary repatriation. The recent announcement by a visiting high-level official from Myanmar to the refugee camps in Bangladesh, that the refugees may only be given foreigner status in Myanmar if they return, does not help the situation at all. Moreover, recent attacks by the Arakan Army on the Myanmar military have raised new security concerns.
This, however, does not mean that the Rohingya crisis is insolvable and that it would be naïve to expect that the circumstances that caused the refugee flow can be reversed easily so that the goal of voluntary, dignified and sustainable return could be achieved. As I have said before, there has to be recognition by everybody that as repatriation is the only practicable alternative in the longer-term to resolve the crisis, it must be pursued with dogged determination, for however long necessary. Inability to do so will be costly for everybody.
Under such circumstances, what strategy should Bangladesh adopt?
In Bangladesh today, many are questioning the wisdom of the government to have entered into a bilateral repatriation agreement with Myanmar when there was no indication that the flow of refugees had even stopped, let alone any indication of Myanmar’s willingness to address the root causes. They argue that Myanmar had good reason to sign a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh—to stave off international pressure and minimise universal condemnation of the horrific atrocities that caused the refugee flow. On the other hand, Bangladesh had every reason to opt for the accountability path which would focus on the atrocities, exert pressure on the “conscience of the mankind” and seek the involvement of UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to bring the perpetrators to justice. This might have forced Myanmar to reconsider its defiant stance. Why didn’t Bangladesh do so?
These are legitimate questions to ask. But what were the real options for Bangladesh? When a crisis of such a large magnitude unfolds, the primary focus of all concerned is, of course, on attending to the immediate assistance needs of the refugees. This, as I have said before, was met rather well. However, there was also an outcry for accountability of the perpetrators of the terrible crimes which caused the refugee outflow. Charges of genocide and crimes against humanity inevitably emerged from refugee narratives and the graphic images which filled the media.
In such a situation, Bangladesh had three likely options before it: 1) to let the UN take the leadership role both for assistance and durable solutions for the refugees; 2) to join others in denouncing Myanmar, pursue the accountability path, even if it led to enmity and hostility with it; and 3) to undertake a bilateral approach of diplomacy, persuasion and cooperation with Myanmar to promote quick repatriation of the refugees.
The fact that the Bangladesh government chose to call the Rohingya refugees “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” from the very beginning, was a clear indication that it wished to avoid international demand to give the refugees a legal status with well-defined rights under international law. It perhaps also felt that by not calling them refugees, it will have the flexibility to seek solutions outside the international regime. However, irrespective of the government’s wisdom to avoid using the term “refugee” for the concerned population, the international community could not but treat them as refugees since they fulfilled all the criteria for refugee status as provided in the international instruments and were in dire need of international assistance and protection. The UN and its various bodies took the lead in this regard under the personal supervision of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who, not very long ago, was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was clearly the most experienced person in the field.
However, as the emergency phase drew to a close and the enormity of the task became clear to everybody, Bangladesh had to decide on how to go about dealing with a problem of such a complex nature and large magnitude. It chose to take matters into its own hands.
Bangladesh’s decision can be viewed in the context of the international politics of the time. It had to consider the role the UN could play under the given circumstances. It was well-known that on the accountability issue, China and Russia, the two permanent members of the UN Security Council, with close interests in Myanmar, were unwilling to refer the matter to a special international crime’s tribunal or to the ICC. On the other hand, securing India’s help to generate international support was also a non-starter because it too did not wish to burn its bridges with Myanmar, with whom it had significant bilateral interests, due to the rivalry with China. Moreover, Bangladesh itself was not sure about pursuing the accountability path in deference to its wish not to harm Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s position vis-a-vis the Myanmar army.
Given this situation, there was little chance for the UN to succeed in making Myanmar accept its culpability and undertake remedial measures to help resolve the refugee crisis. The UN could, however, play other roles that it normally plays in such crises. It could be an intermediary in bringing Myanmar and Bangladesh together to discuss the challenges and identify ways of dealing with them, including its own role. It could also bring them together with the regional countries and the international community as a whole in the spirit of international solidarity to resolve the crisis. But this was undercut by Bangladesh’s decision to take the bilateral path and deal with Myanmar directly. In the face of Bangladesh’s own initiatives, any UN initiative had to take the back seat.
Bangladesh’s decision to choose the bilateral approach was perhaps also influenced by the impending general elections in the country, scheduled for the end of 2018. It seemed that the government wished to project an image to the electorate that there was no reason for alarm about the presence of such a large number of refugees in the country, as the problem could be resolved through bilateral negotiations with Myanmar as was done in the past. Among other things, it meant that the accountability approach to bring international pressure and opprobrium on Myanmar had to be put on the back burner. Pursuing accountability while negotiating for voluntary repatriation could be counterproductive.
There was, of course, a more fundamental reason for Bangladesh to take the bilateral path. As two close neighbours, inseparably linked by geography and history, a cooperative approach to resolve the refugee crisis was ideally the best option. The accountability and acrimonious approach would have soured the relationship, created hostility, contributed to violence and be detrimental to the development process of both the countries.
The bilateral approach led to negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar which resulted in the voluntary repatriation agreement between the two, first reached in November 2017 and later revised in October 2018. It is not clear whether both the parties seriously believed in quick implementation of the agreement or whether it was a strategy to start the process, hoping that it would progressively gather momentum.
However, it is clear now that the strategy has not worked and unless new life is injected into the process, unrest in the camps will grow, with all its negative consequences. To avert such a situation, there is, therefore, an urgent need for the two neighbours to come together—this time with the help and support of the UN and the international community—to develop a comprehensive long-term strategy. The strategy should include clear-cut roles for all concerned, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, the UN, and the regional countries, including China and India. There is no scope for false or insincere promises anymore.
So, what do you suggest Bangladesh should do now?
As the host country, beset with such a large refugee population, Bangladesh will have to take the lead in any comprehensive strategy. To begin with, it will have to take the initiative to engage, with the involvement with the UN if considered useful, in renewed and more focused negotiations with Myanmar to resolve the crisis. The pros and cons of positive engagement between the two countries will have to be expounded painstakingly. And so also the dangers of negative possibilities, as discussed earlier.
The focus and objectives of the new approach must be made clear to Myanmar and the world at large. It will have to go beyond promises and set up benchmarks for progress in creating conditions conducive to return, based on clear-cut objectives and timetable. Both sides must commit to maintain the timetable which may be staggered, if deemed necessary, but firmly pursued. The progress made, as well as the difficulties confronted, must be made public at regular intervals. It is important for the refugees to know what is being done to prepare the ground for their return so that they get mentally prepared to go back when the circumstances are right. For this to happen, it is essential that the UN and other relevant international partners are involved both in preparing the ground and receiving the returnees. UN involvement in particular is essential to boost refugee confidence in favour of return.
Bangladesh will also have to undertake other bilateral and multilateral initiatives to keep the issue alive in the mind of the international community and to garner their support in ensuring Myanmar’s commitment to the process. Appointing a special representative of the prime minister for the Rohingya issue, who would promote the message all over the world in a relentless manner, may help. It would be immensely useful if the prime minister continues to undertake visits to important capitals to share Bangladesh’s concern with world leaders and brief them about the dangers of stagnation and non-return, as she did recently with China. Promises made by China to help the process must now be channelled towards implementation of a clear course of action in which China and others can play a monitoring role.
What specific actions would you propose?
Time has come to call a spade a spade. It must be clearly understood by all concerned that without a sea-change in the mindset of Myanmar and all those who may have anything to do with the Rohingyas in Myanmar, there can be no repatriation. For voluntary repatriation to succeed, the negative attitude of the local population and officials of Rakhine State, as well as that of the majority Burman population of Myanmar towards the Rohingyas, must change.
From all accounts, there is no love lost between the Rohingyas and the local Rakhine Buddhist population, with whom they have lived for centuries and will have to do so upon return. Narratives of mutual distrust and hatred have emerged from refugee debriefings and the statements made by Rakhine Buddhist leaders from time to time before and after the recent exodus. The level of hatred and hostility towards each other and the nature of the atrocities which triggered the outflux of refugees, underline the enormity of the task.
Changing such negative mindsets is certainly a major undertaking. The belief of the Rakhine Buddhist population that Muslim Rohingyas are outsiders, “illegal Bengali immigrants” as they are called, who do not belong to the territory and must not live there, can only be changed through a long and objective process of recounting true history and undertaking other corrective measures. There must be a positive engagement on the part of the central government in this regard. Side by side, civil society efforts will also have to be generated. Together with these, other confidence-building measures must be identified and undertaken in right earnest. Without firm determination, it will not work. While the mutual distrust and dislike have surfaced in more recent decades, it must be remembered that the Rohingyas have lived side by side with their Rakhine neighbours in Myanmar for centuries. They participated in public life in Myanmar, including in the general elections not very long ago. There is no reason, therefore, why they cannot be considered as local inhabitants and not outsiders.
But the fact remains that there is deep hatred and distrust on both sides, which must be removed, however slow the process may be. Clearly, mere assurances that Myanmar is ready to take back the refugees and physical preparations on the ground which have been completed to receive a significant number of them, are not going to change the mindset of the refugees who know what caused them to flee. There has to be fundamental changes in many regards, but the most important ones are psychological, mental and attitudinal in nature.
Fortunately, good guidance is available on how to go about the difficult job of creating proper conditions for return. The Rakhine Advisory Commission (RAC), led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, provided, in its August 2017 final report, an overarching framework for addressing the fundamental challenges that underpin the development, security and human rights crises in Rakhine State. They are critical both for the development of the region and for creating conditions conducive to the return of the refugees.
The RAC report also contains a set of concrete recommendations for the Myanmar authorities to implement. Myanmar has formally accepted to do so. In an ideal strategy, Bangladesh and Myanmar should now work together, in a spirit of friendship, cooperation and, wherever necessary, compromise, to implement the recommendations. There must be a relationship of trust between the two countries on monitoring progress. I would suggest that the primary focus for facilitating voluntary repatriation of the refugees should be on progressive implementation of the key recommendations of RAC.
There are 88 recommendations under 16 broad categories in the RAC report. Among these, the more important ones, of crucial importance to the creation of conditions conducive to the return of the refugees, include economic and social development of Rakhine State, citizenship, freedom of movement, situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs), intercommunal cohesion, strengthening trust in security sector, relationship with Bangladesh, regional relations and implementation of the recommendations.
Among these, the two key areas of immediate concern are the cross-cutting subjects of citizenship and freedom of movement. They would need priority attention as they are of fundamental concern for prospective returnees.
From available information, including from the government of Myanmar, individual line ministries are said to have made efforts to implement some of the recommendations relating to their respective works. What is unclear is whether the government, in its overall approach to translate the recommendations into actions, is taking them as a transformative framework for addressing the root causes of Rakhine’s crises. Without such an approach, small gains, here and there, will not be able to generate the necessary confidence in the minds of those concerned.
Unfortunately, so far there is no clear message emanating from the government or actions on the ground that indicate that the recommendations are being taken seriously. On the contrary, one hears that they are treated primarily as an exercise to stave off pressure from the international community. Apparently, there is little inclination on the part of the government to address the structural challenges underpinning Rakhine’s human rights crisis. If that is the case, it should be a matter of serious concern for all.
Let there be no doubt that unless genuine efforts are made towards transformative changes foreseen in the RAC recommendations, refugees are unlikely to go back home in large numbers and the attendant problems will continue to fester or even rise. The quarterly meetings of the Joint Working Group (JWG) of the two governments, as agreed upon in the Voluntary Repatriation Agreement of 2017/18, must be focused primarily on the implementation of the recommendations and progress reports based on prioritised check-list must be made public after each meeting. The reports should contain more meat than rhetoric and irrelevant information. It may be useful to underline the key points in the recommendations which are of immediate relevance to our discussion here.
With regard to freedom of movement, it is known that the Rohingya population have/had to deal with a spectrum of barriers including formal, informal and social restrictions. These include local orders restricting movements, requirement of travel authorisation, departure cards, registration requirement for overnight stay in another township, passing through security checkpoints, etc. While formal barriers may be solved with policy changes and clear instructions to local level officials, removing informal and social barriers is far more difficult. It would be important to know what steps have been taken in that regard. The two governments, with participation of the UN, must monitor progress in this area on a regular basis. Presently, the government is clearly unwilling to involve others in the matter, but efforts must continue to change their mind.
The recommendations include a mapping exercise to identify all existing restrictions and actions to remove them. Clearly, a basic requirement of the returning refugees would be the ability to move around freely in their areas of residence with security protection, whenever and wherever needed. Among other things, it will facilitate their access to healthcare, education, and livelihoods. As such, freedom of movement and access to services will need to be addressed in parallel.
The recommendations also sought to delink freedom of movement from possession of National Verification Cards (NVCs) or citizenship documentation. This is because it would otherwise restrict the movement of a much larger population of Rohingyas who do not have these documents. Any progress in this area will have to be widely publicised.
The Commission also recommended that the lifting of restrictions of movement must be accompanied by a clear communications strategy aimed at members of all communities in Rakhine. An objective of the strategy is increased interaction between the communities. There are other recommendations related to the rule of law and the role of the police and the need for specialised police units for the Rohingya population. They too are extremely important for confidence-building.
On the citizenship issue, the RAC report rightly underlines that the acceptance of the National Verification Cards (NVCs) by the Rohingyas depends on the government showing that it is a clear path to citizenship. This will be facilitated if the verification process of 6,000 existing Rohingya NVC-holders is completed as soon as possible. Progress on this front too should be widely publicised.
The more difficult issue relates to the situation of those who do not qualify for citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Commission recommended adoption of a policy consistent with international standards for citizenship and permanent residency. This is clearly the key to the success of the exercise. It is equally important to ensure that the process is voluntary and should not involve any coercion. This will encourage greater willingness of the Rohingyas to agree to verification. And, of course, it will be essential to ensure that the process takes place in tandem with delivery of humanitarian assistance to the returnees and assurances of their security.
The implementation of the recommendations of RAC in other key areas will also have important bearing on the success of governments efforts to create conditions conducive to the return of the refugees. They include the proper relocation of IDPs, promotion of inter-communal dialogues, strengthening trust in the security sector, closer relationship and interaction with Bangladesh, etc. Some of these are reportedly being implemented in some ways. Implementing the most critical ones will, however, take a much longer time. An important indicator of the government’s sincerity in this regard would be to watch the progress being made in resolving the IDP situation.
As refugees in Bangladesh remain in close contact with Rohingyas who still reside in Rakhine State, including in the IDP camps, improving their conditions of life would be important in generating confidence in the minds of the refugees to return home. The involvement of the international community, through the UN and its affiliated bodies, would also be a good indication of the government’s intent. Moreover, as many of the perpetrators of violence against the Rohingyas included local security forces, reform of the security sector—by replacing local police and border-guard forces by police and border-guard forces from other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, like Karen or Shan for example—would also be important in infusing confidence among the refugees about improvement of the security situation in Rakhine State.
Clearly, the tasks of the Myanmar government to implement the RAC framework in the context of its long history of ethnic conflicts, political upheavals, and the difficult transition from half-a-century-long military rule to civilian government, are daunting. While the international community, including Bangladesh, should be understanding of the difficulties in assessing progress of Myanmar’s implementation of the RAC recommendations, Myanmar too must demonstrate that it is giving equal importance to both development-based recommendations of RAC and the rights-based ones. Greater emphasis on development at the cost of human rights will mean continuation of, or even increase in, social inequality and segregation in Rakhine State, negating basic objectives of the recommendations.
It is worth reiterating that for Bangladesh and the international community to accept that Myanmar has indeed undertaken initiatives to implement the RAC recommendations with all seriousness, more concrete actions will be needed than mere pronouncements of the government. There must be a mechanism to involve the UN through giving it full access to areas of return of the refugees. Not much progress has been achieved in this regard. It would appear that even the adoption of the tripartite MoU between the government, UNHCR and UNDP and the formation of Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICE) by the government are primarily aimed at relieving international pressure.
The best option for Myanmar, therefore, is to work together with Bangladesh to prepare for the return of the refugees and reduce tensions. Collaborative efforts might help Myanmar implement the RAC recommendations and show progress, however slow in the beginning. As said before, Bangladesh and Myanmar could set a schedule to meet regularly to assess challenges and progress and undertake corrective measures, wherever necessary.
A closer relationship between the two countries will be useful not only to pave the way to resolve the humanitarian crisis but also to foster a closer economic relationship between them. The phenomenal growth in the economy of Bangladesh in recent years could spur complementary economic growth in Myanmar. A safer, more prosperous life for the people on both sides of the border is the best way to ensure that people can live peacefully in their homes and help their countries develop. For this to happen, the help of the two immediate neighbours in the region, India and China, would be essential.
Do you have any recommendations for Bangladesh to follow in tandem with Myanmar’s effort to make repatriation work?
Positive engagements with Myanmar, as proposed earlier, would have to begin at home for Bangladesh. It would include commitment to improved care and maintenance of the refugees and better camp management, pending repatriation of the refugees. Part of it would involve creation of conditions in the camps that would allow the refugees to rebuild their social lives which they lost upon expulsion from Myanmar and to prepare themselves for return to Myanmar as valuable human resources, with proper skills and abilities to rebuild their lives and society. A more socially vibrant atmosphere in the camps will also minimise tension and the influence of negative forces. Thoughts may have to be given to relocate refugees from specific areas in Myanmar to live together in separate clusters in the camps in Bangladesh so that they can return together to Myanmar when the time comes as cohesive groups.
Bangladesh’s commitment to the refugees should also include closer attention to education, health and safe housing needs of the refugees in camps. It may be recalled that international concerns were repeatedly expressed about stringent policies of the Bangladesh government on education and stable housing for refugees in the camps. While this was perhaps understandable in the context of expected early return of the refugees to Myanmar under the bilateral voluntary repatriation agreement, there is a need to revise it under the changed realities.
The revised education policy could be justified on grounds that by keeping the refugee children and youth engaged in educational activities in the camps, they would be shielded from harm’s way, such as narcotics and human trafficking, and contribute to minimise tensions in the camps and keep exploiters at bay. Moreover, formal, informal, technical and vocational education, geared to the needs in Myanmar, identified in consultation with Myanmar authorities, would prepare them to become more useful citizens of Myanmar.
As for allowing construction of more stable housing in the camps, it will minimise likely casualties caused by frequent cyclones and landslides in the area and avoid criticism about lack of preparedness of the government. Moreover, in the interest of both the refugees and local inhabitants, Bangladesh should further improve its provision of law and order within the camps. This would help meet the protection needs of the refugees, especially vulnerable groups like women and children, and at the same time help in preventing criminal activities and potential radicalisation that could have negative spill-over effects on the host communities in Bangladesh.
In short, ensuring better facilities to the refugees in the camps and preparing them for return could be a win-win situation for all. International appreciation of continued generosity by Bangladesh will garner international support for the refugees in the country. There is also potential for additional funds from the World Bank and the ADB for Bangladesh to support these projects.
While undertaking this onerous responsibility, Bangladesh will have to make it clear to all the interlocutors that its position on the care and maintenance of the refugees in Bangladesh is premised upon the whole-hearted commitment of the UN and the international community to continued financial support to Bangladesh and full political backing to Bangladesh’s efforts towards voluntary repatriation of the refugees. The latter would include preparing the ground for UN presence at least in those areas of Myanmar where the refugees are likely to return and ensuring full and unfettered access of UN personnel. Such an undertaking will make it easier for Bangladesh to justify to its citizens the need to persevere in harbouring the refugees in Bangladesh for a longer period than anticipated and to respect the principles of international protection in their treatment.
What should UN’s role be in the resolution of the Rohingya refugee crisis?
The lack of progress in voluntary repatriation under the bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar has highlighted the need for multilateral efforts. Developments in the last two years have shown that there can be no repatriation unless progress is made with regard to ground realities in Myanmar. While the latter is formally committed to implementing the RAC recommendations, serious problems exist both in terms of government policy and popular resistance to their implementation. As a result, there has been no progress in Myanmar which can ignite any hope for the refugees and the international community as a whole.
As there has been little or no progress in regard to voluntary repatriation so far, questions have been raised about its feasibility in the foreseeable future. This has already led many, including the UN and the international community at large, to conclude that their main role for the time being can only be concerted efforts to ease the burden on Bangladesh and help it to manage the refugee population. While this may indeed be the logical conclusion under present circumstances, it will be a grave mistake to take it as a firm conclusion.
While acknowledging the immense difficulties of the task, there is no alternative for the UN but to continue and redouble its efforts to make voluntary repatriation feasible. Doubters may say that since UN efforts thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on the underlying issues that caused the refugee flow, there is little ground to believe that Myanmar may change its stance on the matter. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that China and Russia will change their position on Myanmar. This, however, should not be a reason to give up on them. Over time they are bound to realise that the matter cannot be put under the carpet for too long without serious consequences. The risks of failing to develop a long-term strategy are formidable for all concerned.
It may be useful in this regard to recall the conclusion of the ICG report on Myanmar of October 2018: “The status quo could morph in dangerous ways. If host communities or national political sentiment in Bangladesh turns against the refugees, the government may pressure them to return against their will.” The consequences of forced return need no elaboration. Efforts towards voluntary repatriation should, therefore, be redoubled.
To keep the rising tensions in the camps to manageable levels, it is also vital that international donors are prepared to support the humanitarian operations for the long-haul and consider development support for the affected part of Bangladesh, to reduce the burden on local communities and the government.
UN’s efforts in Bangladesh must also be matched by determined efforts to assist Myanmar to stabilise the situation in the Rakhine State. It is important that the lives and livelihoods of the Rohingyas and other Muslim communities who are still there are made secure so that no further exoduses take place and the prospective returnees are not discouraged to return. The foremost task for the UN in this regard may be two-fold. Firstly, to obtain full and unfettered access to and presence in the areas of origin of the refugees before, during and after refugees begin to return. And secondly, to find a role for itself in the implementation of the RAC recommendations which would enhance the credibility of the exercise.
The Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General to Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, could play an important role to promote these objectives and to deepen UN’s political engagement with the Myanmar government. She has, reportedly, not been able to make much headway in this regard so far but, in the present context of Myanmar, it is not surprising. But her role remains crucial. Her engagements with other relevant players and regular reporting to the UN Security Council on the progress of the implementation of the RAC recommendation can be immensely helpful. A strategic combination of continued Security Council scrutiny with sustained diplomatic engagement on her part is likely to yield positive results in the long run. Bangladesh should sit together with her to discuss how she can help in the implementation of RAC recommendations.
What role could China and India play in resolving the Rohingya crisis?
Regional dynamics must also be considered in responding to the Rohingya crisis. China is currently a major development partner for many countries in South and Southeast Asia. It is a foremost investor in Myanmar and Bangladesh and has significant influence on both. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region include both the countries as important partners. It has a significant infrastructure vision for the whole region. The bilateral relationship between China and Myanmar, both military and civil, has been deepening progressively. China supplies 70 percent of Myanmar’s military equipment, and its presence is visible everywhere in the country. China’s growing involvement in Bangladesh’s development efforts has also given rise to significant Chinese interest in Bangladesh.
With so much economic, political and military clout in Myanmar, China can play a critical role to make Myanmar recognise the importance of close cooperation with Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya crisis. For surely, lack of progress in bringing peace and stability in the Rakhine State can be enormously detrimental to China’s aspirations in the region. Without a resolution of the underlying crisis, and the danger of conflagration looming large on the horizon all the time, there can be no stability and progress. Frequent disruption of normal activities will remain a constant threat. The commitment of China to help promote voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, as expressed to the Bangladesh prime minister during her recent visit to China, is a good beginning in this regard. It must now be channelled in the right direction.
India too is a key neighbour, investor and influencer in Myanmar. It is also a key ally of Bangladesh with whom its relationship has never been better. Yet India remained silent and failed to condemn Myanmar’s expulsion of the Rohingyas and the atrocities which accompanied them. Two factors appear to have influenced India’s position. One, India’s growing economic and commercial interest in Myanmar, as well as its geo-political vision for the region, where it is a rival to China’s growing clout. India was thus wary about taking any position that might adversely affect its relationship with Myanmar. Two, India’s fear of becoming a sanctuary for the Rohingya refugees. It perhaps feared that a soft position towards the Rohingyas might require it to offer burden-sharing with Bangladesh. As a result, it not only failed to side with Bangladesh unequivocally during the cataclysmic influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, except for offering material support, but also refrained from condemning Myanmar for the ghastly atrocities which caused the refugee flow. Moreover, during the same period, it even undertook to forcibly return to Myanmar some 40,000 Rohingya refugees who had earlier made their way to India. A number of deportations reportedly took place.
While Indian civil society has been reminding the Indian Government of its responsibility to protect refugees under international law and under the growing jurisprudence of the country, there is a need for Bangladesh and the international community to reiterate to India that its disengagement with the Rohingya crisis can only be detrimental to its long-term interest in the region. If unrest among the refugees spread and if violence erupts in the camps, any attempt by the refugees to escape elsewhere will inevitably affect India with its proximity to and long porous boundary with Bangladesh. The dangers of radicalisation of the refugees in Bangladesh can also be equally harmful for India.
Would you like to make any concluding remarks?
Let me simply underline that the Rohingya refugee crisis is a time bomb that must be quickly defused to avoid any future flare up which will have disastrous consequences, including for peace and security, not only for Bangladesh and Myanmar, but also for the region and the international community as a whole. As voluntary repatriation is clearly the only solution for such a large group of refugees, Bangladesh and Myanmar should work together to implement a plan of action based on the recommendations of the Kofi Anan Commission. It must be undertaken with unwavering sincerity and determination. Despite the seeming impossibility of the task and enormous hurdles to be crossed, there is simply no other alternative. It is time for specific action. No amount of mediation or moral support, without focusing on a specific plan of action, can be meaningful. Only determined efforts to change the ground realities in Myanmar can resolve the crisis.
It is also important to reiterate that the main task is to initiate actions to overcome the long-held prejudices and misunderstandings between peoples. Changing peoples’ mindset will obviously take a long time. Any short cut approach may work in the short-term but will certainly not work in the long run. It may be easy to earn applause by repatriating a few hundred refugees here and there, from time to time, but for the bulk of the refugees any approach short of creating the necessary conditions for return will not work. The sooner this is realised the better.
As a next-door neighbour of Myanmar, linked together by geography and history, Bangladesh should be able to show patience and understanding to allow the transformative efforts in Myanmar to take shape and pave the way for the refugees to return. It must, however, constantly make sure that the planned course of action is being followed with full sincerity. If that doesn’t happen, it must be brought to the attention of the international community immediately. The UN should be able to play a critical role in this regard.
Once the Rohingya crisis is resolved, the two neighbours, linked together by an “inseparable accident”, should be able to forge a partnership to take their people to a new horizon.