Rohingya repatriation, yet another farce

Rohingya refugees queue for relief supplies in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox`s Bazar on 4 December 2017. Rohingya are still fleeing into Bangladesh even after an agreement was signed with Myanmar to repatriate hundreds of thousands of the Muslim minority displaced along the border, officials said.
AFP file photo

Yet another farce has started over the issue of repatriating the Rohingyas. At the tripartite meeting mediated by China in Kunming, the latest decision in this regard is that by 31 December this year, 7176 Rohingyas will be taken back to Rakhine. In March, a delegation from Myanmar came to Bangladesh and visited the Rohingya camps. The Bangladesh government wants to start off the repatriation even if it means sending just a small group on a pilot basis. China is urging Bangladesh to do so. (Raheed Ejaz, Prothom Alo, 25 August 2023).

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During the foreign secretary-level bilateral meeting between China and Bangladesh on 27 May, China asked Bangladesh to start the repatriation speedily.

In face of the genocide carried out by Myanmar troops in August-September 2017, around 800,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh. In November the same year, Bangladesh hurriedly signed a bilateral agreement with Myanmar for their repatriation. In accordance to this imbalanced agreement, Bangladesh handed over a list of 829,036 Rohingyas to Myanmar. After ‘scrutising’ the list, Myanmar ‘cleared’ 62,285 persons, ascertaining that they had come from Myanmar. This was just 7.51 per cent of the list handed over to Myanmar. Needless to say, not a single Rohingya has returned to Myanmar under this agreement over the past six years. 

This is the third attempt to send back a small number of Rohingyas. It had been decided to send back a limited number of Rohingya refugees a month after the foreign secretary level meeting was held in October2018 between Bangladesh and Myanmar. In view of the prevailing circumstances in Myanmar, the international community had opposed this move. Head of the UN fact finding mission, Marzuki Darusman, had maintained that the genocide in Myanmar still prevailed. The effort fell through in face of objections from the Rohingyas on the list.

About a year after that, it was decided once again at a bilateral meeting in Dhaka to start up the repatriation process. Myanmar ‘cleared’ 3540 on the list of 22,000 Rohingyas submitted by Bangladesh. It was declared that they would be repatriated by the last week of August 2019. As in the earlier instance, this attempt also failed due to objections from the listed Rohingyas.

Even if a small-scale repatriation does take place, this will be of no benefit to Bangladesh or the Rohingyas. This will benefit Myanmar who will use this as a propaganda tool and flaunt to the West that they are able to resolve the problem through bilateral (or trilateral) initiatives. Their effort will be supported by China, Russia, and perhaps India too, who have always stood directly or indirectly by the genocidal Myanmar.

Six years have passed with no progress. Problems will certainly be discovered in this ‘pilot repatriation’ process and Myanmar will be able to pass a few more years in discussing ways of resolving the problems. And then there is also the matter of checking and scrutiny.

I do not quite understand why Bangladesh is stepping into this trap. State minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam has said that no one should create any obstruction to the pilot repatriation effort. Such an experimental process will assist in identifying and understanding the problems before large scale repatriation takes place.

There remain two questions in this connection. One, the main problem to the repatriation of Rohingyas is the lack of a safe environment in Rakhine. It is the responsibility of Myanmar, more specifically, the Myanmar army, to ensure this safe environment. Have they made any effort to that end? Will attempts be made to understand the matter in this experimental lab?

The second question is, had any roadmap been drawn up regarding the large scale repatriation? The pilot project could have been justified to a certain extent had such a roadmap been drawn up at first. China will certainly be pleased if the repatriation commences. But the intentional agencies and western countries will not support this effort. Is it so important to go against one’s own interests just to keep China happy?

The US is a friend of Bangladesh and the Rohingyas and the most powerful country in the world. It can rather exert its pressure and skills in ensuring that conditions conducive to Rohingyas returning to their homeland are created

Meanwhile, our American friends have come up with another unrealistic proposal. But first of all let me make it clear that the largest volume of humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya refugees has come from the US. And also, it is only from the US that efforts have been made to put pressure on the Burmese military junta. On the sixth anniversary of the Rohingyas being driven out of Myanmar, the US embassy issued a notice.

This contained two points. Firstly, the US felt it was unsafe to return to Myanmar given the prevailing situation there. This statement of theirs is undoubtedly correct. Secondly, the US called for the Rohingyas to be rehabilitated to various countries as an alternative aimed to address their predicament. They even made it known that over the last 14 years, 13,000 Rohingyas have been rehabilitated in the US.

Earlier, on 14 August, an 11-member US delegation visited the refugee camps in Ukhiya. The Rohingyas there described to them the repression unleashed by the Myanmar army and they asked US help in repatriating them back to their homeland.

In comparison to the number of Rohingya refugees, 13,000 over a span of 14 years is hardly a drop in the ocean. Last year I visited the US and I met a few Rohingyas there. Two of them were running small businesses and doing quite well. Wherever I went to in the US, I saw notices posted up on store fronts and other establishments, ‘We are hiring’. There were large numbers of vacancies for small positions with modest wages, but not enough applicants. If the US took one million Rohingyas for rehabilitation, they’d immediately get 500,000 workers to fill these vacancies. These people and their offspring would eventually become taxpaying consumers, contributing to the US economy.

This would also prove that the US actually believes in the humanitarian values that it promotes and the country’s image would emerge with flying colours. A relatively much smaller country Germany has accommodated one million Syrian refugees. Already 70 per cent of them have been smoothly assimilated in the German economy. Germany has not faced any losses in any way and this laudable decision had certainly boosted the country’s image.

It is not expected that the US will do this. So there really is no use of raising the expectations of the Rohingya people with such hope of rehabilitation in a third country. The solution to the Rohingya problem lies in repatriating them to their homeland. The US is a friend of Bangladesh and the Rohingyas and the most powerful country in the world. It can rather exert its pressure and skills in ensuring that conditions conducive to Rohingyas returning to their homeland are created. In the meantime, the US and its western allies can mobilise minimum funds for the survival of the Rohingyas.

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* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir