Rohingya repatriation expected to start from December

Rohingya refugee children walk along the road at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 16 November 2018.

Exactly six years ago on this day (25 August), thousands of Rohingya men and women crossed the border over from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh, in a bid to save their lives. Over the next few months, at least 700,000 Rohingya crossed the Naf river and took shelter in Bangladesh, fleeing from the atrocities of the Myanmar armed forces. Even back then it had been feared that the Rohingya crisis would not be resolved soon. Things have grown even more complex with the passage of time.

Conditions conducive to repatriation to Rakhine have still not been created. However, Bangladesh has continued holding talks, sometimes bilaterally and sometimes trilaterally with China’s mediation, regarding repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar. But even though dates had been declared twice, repatriation attempts fell flat due to the lack of interest on the part of the Rohingyas. And after the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, the matter of repatriation became even further uncertain.

At such an uncertain juncture, there was a deterioration in law and order in the Teknaf and Ukhiya camps in Cox’s Bazar. International funds for the Rohingyas are also dropping. Only 28.9 per cent of the expected funds have arrived so far. In such circumstances, the Bangladesh government is giving particular attention on repatriating a batch of Rohingyas under Chinese mediation.

Under the pilot project, it was decided that 1,196 Rohingyas would be sent back to Rakhine initially. Then at the tripartite meeting held in Kunming, China, in April, it was decided that by December this year 7,196 Rohingyas would be sent back. But over the last three and a half months, it hadn’t been possible to implement the decision taken in April. The Bangladesh government now wants the repatriation process to start by 31 December, even if it is just a small group on a test basis. Bangladesh has been urging China in this regard.

The western countries, however, from the very outset have been opposed to the China-mediated tripartite initiative because of the military rule in Myanmar, the lack of a favourable environment in Rakhine and the reluctance of the Rohingyas. The western countries and the United Nations maintain that it would not be correct to start repatriation until the conditions were favourable.

The agreement Myanmar had signed with the UN for Rohingya repatriation, ended last March. Also, after the military coup in Myanmar, the western countries and alliances are more focused on restoring democracy there that the matter of Rohingya repatriation. As a result, the western quarters are raising questions regarding Bangladesh’s test repatriation process.

State minister for foreign affairs Md Shahriar Alam on Wednesday, replying to journalists’ questions, said that no one should try to obstruct the test repatriation. Such test repatriation will assist in understanding the problems before going for a large scale repatriation move. This will help in better plans to be drawn up before the start of regular repatriation.

On the occasion of the anniversary of the Rohingya influx, UNHCR (United National High Commissioner for Refugees) has again appealed to the international community to come forward with financial assistance for humanitarian support to 1.1 million old and newly sheltered Rohingyas in Bangladesh as well as political support to resolve their problems. UNHCR has said as the humanitarian condition at this largest refugee camp in the world worsens, the challenges around this extended crisis steadily mount. Due to the acute lack of funds, humanitarian agencies are forced to only pay attention to meeting the extremely urgent and life saving needs.

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How far is repatriation

An agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the repatriation of Rohingyas in November 2017. According to the conditions of the agreement, later Bangladesh and Myanmar signed agreements with UNHCR separately. However, UNHCR has raised questions about the tripartite initiative taken up by China, Myanmar and Bangladesh to this end. Bangladesh is displeased with this role of UNHCR. Annoyed at the stand of this specialised UN agency, the foreign ministry recently summoned its senior official to ministry in Dhaka. He was told that there is a perception that no repatriation takes place in countries where UNHCR remains (working with refugees). UNHCR should try to move away from such an image.

Speaking about whether China’s initiative will eventually yield results, a senior official of the government involved in Rohingya repatriation told Prothom Alo, China’s special emissary Deng Xijun in July visited Dhaka after discussions with Myanmar. He had visited Myanmar twice before coming to Dhaka. During his Dhaka visit in July, he reassured Bangladesh that Myanmar had now agreed to take the Rohingyas back to their original home in North Mongdu of Rakhine.

After the Rohingyas were driven away, their homes in Rakhine were demolished. So how will they return to their homes there? In reply, the official said initially upon their return, the Rohingyas will stay in temporary camps. Later, based on voluntary labour, they will build up their homes there. Myanmar will pay the Rohingyas for this.

According to the China-mediated talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar, a maximum 300 Rohingyas will be taken back every day from Day One of the repatriation. However, three days ago on 22 August, in a press release UNHCR said that the Rohingyas must not step into any trap and take the decision of repatriation under any pressure. It is important for UNHCR to be involved in the process of their independent decision making.

Bangladesh has taken a huge socioeconomic risk as it is in sheltering the Rohingyas. Now the international community must take the responsibility to arrange funds
Former senior diplomat

Recommendations to approach donors for funds

A total of USD 876 million (around Tk 9,548 crore) has been sought under the Joint Response Plan (JRP) for assistance to Rohingya refugees and local Bangladeshis. According to UNHCR, from January 2023 till mid-August, only 28.9 per cent of the funds have been generated. This is a gloomy  response regarding the volume of funds required to address such a massive humanitarian crisis.

Diplomatic sources inform Prothom Alo that a fund crisis emerged in JRP from this March and Bangladesh as well as UNHCR have been highlighting this accordingly. Western countries are recommending that Bangladesh take loans from the World Bank and IMF to meet this fund constraint. They say that these international agencies have specialised funds for refugees. Bangladesh, however has rejected these recommendations.

Referring to the propensity of the western countries and the development partners to evade the fund crisis in the JRP which was created for humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas, a former senior diplomat, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, it is a matter of concern that a crisis has emerged in the international funds for the Rohingyas. If the development partners advise going to international credit agencies like the World Bank, that should be rejected immediately. Bangladesh has taken a huge socioeconomic risk as it is in sheltering the Rohingyas. Now the international community must take the responsibility to arrange funds.

The Rohingyas are still not eager to go. Also, the international community is not supporting this move. As a result, questions remain in the air regarding the success of this process
Md Shahidul Haque, former foreign secretary

Rohingya crisis caught up in geopolitics

Needless to say, the competition surrounding the Indo-Pacific region is steadily escalating. The issue of the Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh has also been caught up in this geopolitical competition.

The hurried signing of an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017 and now this tripartite initiative with China’s mediation, indicates that China is unwilling to allow any quarters from outside of the region to draw close. Despite close ties with Bangladesh, India has not extended any tangible political support regarding the Rohingya crisis. Diplomats say there is no reason to believe that India will extend its support in this regard in the future either.

Meanwhile, the US, UK, the European Union and the international community, alongside providing Bangladesh with humanitarian assistance for the Rohingyas, are also imposing various embargoes on Myanmar. This, though has hardly softened Myanmar. After all, with China having their back, they have been able to ignore international pressure till now. Under such circumstances, diplomats feel, the international community will remain opposed to repatriation under China’s initiative. They say the western quarters’ attention has moved away from the Rohingyas now and they now are wanting to focus on the problem of restoring democracy in Myanmar.

In the meantime, while the anti-junta movement gathers strength in Myanmar, various insurgent groups of the country are entering India and Bangladesh adding a new dimension to the  Rohingya crisis. This poses as a threat to regional stability. This is not longer a vague assumption and all indications are that the uncertainty of the Rohingya problem will certainly not be dispelled any time soon.

Former foreign secretary Md Shahidul Haque said, there is no harm in starting Rohingya repatriation with China’s mediation on a temporary basis. But it will be difficult to reach a long-term solution regarding Rohingya repatriation simply through a tripartite initiative. Firstly, the Rohingyas are still not eager to go. Also, the international community is not supporting this move. As a result, questions remain in the air regarding the success of this process.

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