On November 15, a program to repatriate some 2260 Rohingya refugees belonging to some 485 families living in the Unchipara and Ghumdhum No.15 camps in Cox’s Bazaar back to Myanmar’s bordering Rakhine state had to be abandoned, as officials found no-one on the list was willing to go back to the horrors they had escaped, along with 700,000 others, just over a year earlier in the face of a genocidal “clean up” operation by the Myanmar army.
Two weeks earlier, Myanmar and Bangladesh had agreed to start the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in the middle of November, less than a week after UN investigators had warned that a genocide against the Muslim minority was continuing. Nevertheless, at a meeting of the Bangladeshi foreign secretary, Shahidul Haque, and his Burmese counterpart, Myint Thu, the two countries were said to have drawn up a “very concrete plan” to start repatriations.
“We have shown our political will, flexibility and accommodation in order to commence the repatriation at the earliest possible date,” Myint Thu told reporters. Except that what was needed most of all, and what is needed still, is a change of heart on the part of the majority in Myanmar, to erase the sort of prejudice that has bred a “slowburn” or “stop-start” genocide in the country for over forty years now, targeting the minority Muslim population. Bangladesh has borne the brunt of it, forced to host a refugee population that now numbers over a million. Needless to say, this is an extremely difficult proposition for an overpopulated country struggling to make ends meet for its own citizens.
The November attempt was not the first time a date had been set for repatriation. A previous attempt, in November 2017, hit insurmountable obstacles. It was as hopelessly destined to fail as the latest one. A year on, Rohingya living in the camps had the same fundamental questions about their safety if they return, and they continue to do so still. Who can blame them?
A question of hate
There are good reasons behind why any repatriation effort at the moment, and very likely in the foreseeable future would be nothing but an exercise in futility. The human rights situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, as the civilian government fails to bring about democratic reforms and instead resorts to the kind of repression carried out under previous military regimes, said the UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee this week, speaking at the end of an 11-day mission to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh. Her visit this time heralded almost the first pangs of realization setting in amongst officialdom in Dhaka, that the Rohingyas in their scattered and haphazard camps that have sprung up along the southern border, may be staying a lot longer than Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her administration had accounted for when the crisis first broke.
Ms. Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, described the “democratic space” in Myanmar (including freedom of speech and association) as “fragile,” with religious and ethnic divisions remaining across the country, as well as the marginalization and discrimination of minorities: “I am greatly concerned that the enduring repressive environment is discouraging people from speaking out freely about human rights violations and injustices,” she said.
She added that “disagreements, criticism and debate are healthy and necessary in any functioning democracy. Journalists and human rights defenders continue to be targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. I call on the authorities to end this mistreatment and immediately release all those unjustly imprisoned.”
The human rights situation in Myanmar, she said, has been further complicated by fighting in several regions of the country, undermining the prospects that some 162,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the area will be able to return home.
The Myanmar government plan to close IDP camps and relocate people to remote areas, she added, far from their places of origin and removed from economic opportunities and humanitarian support. Whilst they have consulted with the UN on the subject of camp closures, the government have failed to consult with IDPs or organizations working with the displaced populations, and the return of people to their places of origin must be in accord with international standards of safety, voluntariness, dignity and sustainability.
Ms. Lee expressed her deep concern that Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are particularly vulnerable to losing their rights to ancestral homelands, following recent amendments to a law that permits the government to expropriate land, from ethnic areas – including Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and Kayin State where communities have depended on this land for their livelihoods, traditions and culture for generations – at particular risk.
As for the potential return of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, Ms. Lee stated that Myanmar is not working to created conditions for their return, but is instead engaging in a “sustained campaign of violence, intimidation and harassment.”
She shared testimony from Rohingya refugees she met during her visit to the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, citing a fresh arrival to the camp who said that her father had been stabbed to death by Myanmar security forces; a refugee who fled with his entire family after his mother and sister were abducted and raped; and videos in which she saw houses burning in Muangdaw township, which, according to information gathered by her team, were set alight by Myanmar security forces working in concert with Rakhine extremists. Under Myanmar’s plan for the return of Rohingya, according to reports in November 2018, Muangdaw was identified as a resettlement area.
Lee also told reporters in Dhaka that the government should prepare for the reality that Rohingya sheltering in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps likely would not be returning to Myanmar in the near future. About 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar following a military crackdown, which was launched in Rakhine state in retaliation for deadly raids on government security outposts by Rohingya insurgents in August 2017.
“Now that the election in Bangladesh has concluded, I encourage the government to begin to engage in longer-term planning and prepare the local population for this reality,” Lee told the news conference.
“A failure to do so will not only have negative consequences for the refugee population but also for Bangladesh, including most significantly, the host community, who have already given so much to accommodate the refugees.”
On an island
Ms. Lee also visited the island of Bhashan Char, which the Bangladesh government is reportedly transforming into a camp for some of the Rohingya refugees - at cost of $280 million, it was reported this week - despite concerns that it could be vulnerable to extreme weather events such as cyclones.
She told journalists at a press conference on January 25 in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, that she was anxious about whether the conditions on the island, which she described as isolated, are adequate to fulfil the needs and rights of Rohingya refugees: “If any plans are made about refugee relocation in the future, refugees must be fully engaged and participate in the process,” she said. “Without a protection framework agreed with the humanitarian community, the plans cannot move forward.”
Lee also advised Dhaka to share feasibility studies and allow the UN to carry out a "full technical and humanitarian assessment, including a security assessment, before making any further plans for the housing of people on the island. The island's isolation does particularly trouble me, especially in the event of cyclones or other natural disasters.”
Lee did not provide further details about the island, which is still strictly off limits to the public and the media. Plans for the island camp were first floated in 2015 and Bangladesh had previously wanted to start relocating refugees to the island last June before the monsoon season began.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was then slated to open the new settlement, built to house 100,000 refugees, last October, but the inauguration was postponed. A senior disaster management official said that nearly three-quarters of the project was complete, with the navy fast-tracking construction of shelters and evacuation centres. Local officials have pointed to a newly-constructed three-metre (nine-feet) embankment around the island that they say will keep out tidal surges in the event of a cyclone.
The Economic Relations Division of the Finance Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Security Service Division of the Home Ministry and the Land Ministry are scrutinising a proposal to transform Bhashan Char, also known as Thengar Char, into an ‘artificial island’ for resettling the Rohingya refugees. The commissioner of Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) and the deputy commissioner (DC) of Noakhali are also said to be scrutinising the same proposal, forwarded to ERD by a Japanese individual whose identity we have not been able to independently verify.
Reportedly Prof. Katsuy Kilmoto, chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Future Conference, recently met with the finance minister and submitted the proposal, whose main thrust is to build up the approximately 300 square kilometre Bhashan Char that first appeared 12 years ago formed by silt flows, as an artificial island, and to enlist the international community’s help in doing so.
Bhashan Char is located in the estuary of the Meghna river. It takes about 90 minutes to reach Hatiya Island from Noakhali on the mainland. From that island, a speedboat takes 30 minutes to get there. Already, the Bangladesh Navy has built a total of 1,440 barrack houses and 120 central shelters to accommodate Rohingyas in 120 village clusters. Sanitation facilities, hospitals, bazaars, roads, dams, playing fields, ponds, water extraction infrastructure, tube wells, water supply infrastructure and watch towers have also been built for accommodating the Rohingyas in a temporary rehabilitation centre. But Ms Lee hardly sounded impressed, and served a much-needed caution.
"It is imperative that any measures to relocate the refugees enhance their enjoyment of rights and do not create a new crisis," she added. In a statement regarding Bhashan Char that was issued online, Lee said Bangladesh’s government had not held discussions with the humanitarian community about how Rohingya would be protected on the island.
Despite that, Lee said government officials told her that any Rohingya who chose to live on Bhashan Char would “essentially have access to the same basic rights as those who live in Cox’s Bazar.”
Children on the island would have access to primary education, families would have access to health care and opportunities to make a living including fishing and farming would be available, she said, according to her statement posted on the website of the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR). Rohingya would be allowed to travel to visit family and friends in Cox’s Bazar camps but would not be allowed to travel to other parts of Bangladesh, she said.
“I am anxious about whether these conditions are adequate to fulfil the needs and rights of Rohingya refugees, particularly in the medium- and longer-term.”
Smell the coffee
To be sure, Ms Lee’s comments should come as no surprise to anyone. They merely put the UN’s imprimatur on what has become more and more obvious as people have learnt more about the sheer cruelty and hatred that forced the Rohingya to flee from their homes in the first place. According to the International Crisis Group’s latest update, “The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, however much international opprobrium Myanmar faces. Planning for the refugees should proceed on that assumption, while efforts continue to protect those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.”
Saying it had yet to create conditions right for the return of refugees from Bangladesh, the head of the UN children’s fund Henrietta Fore urged Myanmar this week to implement the recommendations of a panel on the Rohingya crisis led by the late Kofi Annan. Fore said Myanmar’s “commitment” to enacting the recommendations of Annan’s committee — which include ensuring freedom of movement and access to education — would help mend the lives of suffering children. But in mid-2018, a Myanmar minister told Western diplomats that eight of Annan’s recommendations — including one that asks authorities to take steps to amend the 1982 citizenship law that had rendered the Rohingya stateless — were problematic and could not be immediately fulfilled. You cannot just wash prejudice away that easily. And that is an acceptance that is gradually, yet inevitably setting in.
The social, political and strategic implications of this crisis for Bangladesh are complex at all levels. Donors should prepare for the long haul. They should not only fund the humanitarian operation but also invest in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugees currently reside, to reduce the burden on host communities, minimise risks that local sentiment turns against refugees and to create an environment more amenable to their integration. The Bangladeshi government currently resists such an approach, given the domestic political costs of acknowledging that the Rohingya will remain indefinitely.
Yet this ‘political cost’ is largely speculative, and there is no telling how much harm it would actually do to the government, that too one in a position of such strength as the Awami League, following the December 30 election. And as the 11th parliament prepares to sit in session for the first time this week (after Dhaka Courier goes to press) we hope to see a more open and forthright discussion on the Rohingya issue among politicians in Bangladesh, that hopefully avoids sounding crass and insensitive to the sufferings of nearly 1 million people.