At the start of this month, the Norwegian Refugee Council issued an exasperated warning that almost six years after fleeing deadly violence in their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar, close to one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were "at the cusp of being forgotten" by the world. The refugees, who are overwhelmingly youthful, were growing increasingly disillusioned by the message: "we have forgotten you; you have no future," the NRC reported.
It came in an environment where support to the Rohingya was indeed declining, is still declining and resources are increasingly overstretched, something that has been covered in these pages (or webpages) before. We know for example how the World Food Program has been forced to cut food rations by some 17 percent. The 2022 JRP, a sort of annual budget for the refugee population, was in the end only 63 percent funded. The 2023 one is currently just 10 percent funded. Terms like 'donor fatigue' are increasingly bandied about.
By all accounts, the Rohingya are now caught in a state of limbo - unable to return, and banned from earning a living in Bangladesh - something that the government is very reluctant to move the needle on, fearing a backlash. Against that background, the news that a delegation from Myanmar that recently visited the camps managed to complete the 'verification' process for some 400-500 of the resident there, followed by the announcement by a Myanmarese government spokesman that they will accept the return of around 1,000 Rohingya refugees in a pilot repatriation program starting some time in mid-April, almost sounds like a breakthrough.
The sudden movement on this front could well be another reflection of a newly proactive foreign policy that we may expect to see from China under Xi Jinping, whose new team at the top of the Chinese government is now fully in place. Not that the old guard has been completely done away with. Wang Yi, the sage-like previous foreign minister, was still at the centre of the negotiations that concluded one of the largest diplomatic coups of recent times, in the form of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal.
This 'pilot program' was of course the chief takeaway from the new Chinese ambassador in Dhaka, Yao Wen's first meeting of note with a Bangladeshi official upon his arrival in Dhaka recently. For its part, UN's High Commission for Refugees, maintained that it was not involved in the process, and presented its assessment that "conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine State are currently not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees. It however had no representation in a delegation of diplomats, including the Bangladeshi ambassador, that the junta took on a tour of Rakhine recently.
Conditions are still not ideal there, and may never be till the draconian and clearly discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law is amended. But it is reported that the Rohingyas in the temporary IDP (internally displaced persons) camps there now have the opportunity to go to Sittwe. Even two years ago this was not the case. The Rohingyas in Rakhine are said to be getting access to healthcare services. Most notably perhaps, last year around 230 Rohingya students were admitted to Sittwe University - something they can only dream of wallowing in the camps in Bangladesh.
It is all still very little, and the international community, including Beijing, should make it clear they expect to see more in the coming days. And there will need to be continuous engagement for a sustainable resolution to the problem. But for the sake of the Rohingya, we must hope this is the start of something better.
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