How not to conduct a repatriation effort

Rohingya refugees shout slogans against repatriation at Unchiprang camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. About 1,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees demonstrated Thursday at a camp in Bangladesh against plans to repatriate them to Myanmar, from where hundreds of thousands fled army-led violence last year. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

Questions abound over the ability of the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to work together in a workable fashion to resolve the Rohingya crisis, after the ‘planned’ repatriation of some 2,260 individuals comprising 485 family units, from the refugee camps that have sprung up in the southernmost stretches of Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh back to Myanmar’s Rakhine State failed to get off the ground.

Many, considering the ground reality, predicted that the likelihood of repatriation is slim to none. Ultimate success over any repatriation, what we understand, depends on voluntariness of their decision to return.

These Rohingya people have been living in camps administered by UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh with support from a slew of UN agencies and international NGOs since August 2017.

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are the victims of human rights violations committed in the midst of the violence that erupted in August 2017 forcing over 800,000 Rohingya people to take shelter in Bangladesh.

Myanmar might blame Bangladesh as the repatriation, supposed to begin on November 15 with 150 individuals, was halted or delayed. But the fact is that Myanmar must take the lion responsibility as it has failed to create conducive environment for safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingyas.

Most importantly, Myanmar has failed to build confidence among Rohingyas. And naturally, they are unwilling to go back.

The government of Bangladesh, as we see till today, has always insisted that the Rohingya people would be sent back “only if they want to return willingly”.

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque, on several occasions, made it clear that Rohingyas need to decide on their own if they want to return to Myanmar. He pointed out that it not Bangladesh’s decision. It is not Myanmar’s decision and it is not UNHCR’s decision. The return is a decision that must be taken by Rohingyas. That’s what he said. I remember.

We have heard that some, within the international community, are trying to give an impression that Bangladesh has taken it as a “business venture” and Bangladesh does not want the repatriation of Rohingyas. We do not find such claim, if there is any, as a credible one. This is absolutely wrong.

The government of Bangladesh has also made it clear that there is no gain to be made for Bangladesh by either holding back the Rohingya or forcing their return. Bangladesh government has already urged all concerned to refrain from either of these narratives, and take a step back from the condescending approach they tend to take when it comes to reminding of what is the right thing to do.

We believe as a responsible state, Bangladesh will continue to do its part in adherence to the established norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

All UN Member States must support Bangladesh to help find a sustainable solution to the crisis in the spirit of sharing their responsibility for the Rohingya. This is what Bangladesh badly needs today.

Working together with a third party such as UNHCR is very important as it is UNHCR which will take the lead in managing the repatriation process. UNHCR does not believe the current conditions in Rakhine State are conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingyas from Bangladesh.

The UN refugee agency, however, says it remains committed to supporting the government of Myanmar’s efforts to create such conditions, under the terms of the tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

The third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a draft resolution on November 16 that condemned all rights violations in Myanmar and called for an independent investigation into them, including against Rohingya Muslims, to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

The Committee’s approval was similarly marked by intense debate, with Myanmar’s delegate “totally” rejecting the text as procedurally unwarranted and “hopelessly unconstructive” in its attempt to exert pressure on a soft target. It was passed by a recorded vote of 142 in favour to 10 against – China, Russia, Myanmar, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe - with 26 abstentions.

The Assembly would advocate international support for the underfunded 2018 joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis.

Bangladesh needs strong support from China to resolve the Rohingya crisis. However, China thinks the United Nations and the international community should remain patient rather than complicating the situation, noting that they stand ready to support Bangladesh-Myanmar’s endeavor as these two countries had agreed to start a repatriation process.

When Bangladesh and Myanmar were set to begin the first batch of Rohingya repatriation on November 15, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in a statement instantly, urged the government of Bangladesh to halt plans for the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, warning that the returns would be in violation of international law and put their lives and freedom at serious risk. She, at the same time, called on the government of Myanmar to show its seriousness in creating the conditions for return by addressing the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine state, in particular the systematic discrimination against and persecution of Rohingya.

High Commissioner Bachelet appealed to the Government of Bangladesh to ensure scrupulously that any repatriation takes place in line with international standards of voluntariness, safety and dignity, with full transparency, and only when the conditions are right.

She recalled, “The history of the Rohingya in Myanmar is one filled with repeated episodes of violence, flight and return.” Despite all the preparations from the Bangladesh side, the scheduled Rohingya repatriation did not take place as Rohingyas are unwilling to go back. Rohingyas have stated repeatedly that they do not wish to return under current conditions.

About 130,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), many of whom are Rohingya, remain in camps in central Rakhine. Another 5,000 IDPs remain in No Man’s Land between Myanmar and Bangladesh while more than 4,000 are in Aung Mingalar ward in Sittwe, where they are subjected to a wide range of restrictions.

Since August last year, Bangladesh has urged the international community to stand by Bangladesh. Bangladesh engaged in renewed efforts to resolve the crisis through dialogue with Myanmar. Bangladesh had agreed to commence voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas verified by Myanmar as Rakhine State residents on November 15 with assurance from Myanmar.

What we have seen on the day is that Rohingyas themselves were not adequately convinced by the words of assurance given by Myanmar.

We have seen that not a single one of the Rohingyas came forward to avail of the option to return. Instead, they have made their voices heard as they continue to seek guarantees for a pathway to their desired citizenship, entitlement to lands and compensation, protection from further violence and reprisal, and of course dispensation of justice in Myanmar.

The concerned UN agencies must be allowed access to ascertain the right environment for return. This is crucial. And Myanmar must make more demonstrable efforts to respond to the Rohingya’s legitimate demands and aspirations.

  • How not to conduct a repatriation effort
  • Issue 20
  • AKM Moinuddin
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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