Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, Ak Abdul Momen, has proposed establishing a ‘safe zone’ for Rohingya Refugees in Myanmar. In an interview with media reporters in Dhaka last Sunday, Momen declared that Bangladesh expected to work with China, Russia and India in order to tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis. Under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the ASEAN countries, the ‘safe zone’ would be established in Rakhine, the area the Rohingya fled from aggressive state persecution in 2017. Momen warned of possible radicalization of the Rohingya Refugees if the current conditions in Bangladesh remain, urging the international community to act fast.
Momen claimed that “There are 1.2 million Rohingya now staying in Bangladesh. Although we are not a rich country, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world.” The minister maintained that “if a safe zone is created under the vigilance of China, Russia and India along with the ASEAN states, Rohingya people will be encouraged to return to their own land.” Yet, it is unclear whether the ‘safe zone’ can be successfully achieved.
A prerequisite for the Rohingya’s return to Rakhine is the granting of formal citizenship to all refugees in Myanmar. This guarantee of rights provides a clear progression towards peaceful relations in Myanmar, particularly in consideration of the ‘Citizenship Law’ which has outlawed the Rohingya as unlawful citizens since 1982. It is uncertain whether this condition is achievable, as the Myanmar government has rendered the Rohingya stateless through a policy of ethnic cleansing. As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claims, Rohingya have access to basic food and healthcare, they are living in vulnerable conditions where they are dependent on aid. Momen’s proposal of a ‘safe zone’ could provide the Rohingya with greater security and stability in their lives. If achievable, normal citizenship rights for the Rohingya would enhance their physical security, since they have been deprived of basic human rights by the Myanmar state.
Moreover, the proposal requires the Rohingya refugees to return to a state where they experienced violent state oppression, of which the United Nations has reported mass killings, sexual assault, abductions and disappearances. The Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA) released a report titled “Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience,” revealing statistics concerning the deaths of over 24,000 Rohingya Muslims, of which 34,000 were thrown into fires, whilst 18,000 women and girls were reportedly raped by Myanmar state forces, in addition to over 115,000 homes being burnt down. Likewise, the OCHA has stated that the majority of the refugees in Bangladesh “are now severely traumatized after witnessing unspeakable atrocities,” whilst most arrived with “injuries caused by gunshots, shrapnel, fire and landmines.” Therefore, it is not certain how safe the proposed ‘safe zone’ would be for Rohingya refugees, in light of their previous treatment from the Myanmar government.
In addition, a repatriation deal signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017 promising to return the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar within two years has now been postponed, due to mounting concerns in the international community regarding the safety and security of the Rohingya if they were to return to Myanmar. Amnesty International claims that since the August 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh, after a government crackdown on the minority Muslim population. The UN has accused the Myanmar government of crimes against humanity for its actions in the state of Rakhine, asserting that the mass execution was coordinated with “genocidal intent.” The UN rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has also maintained that the military leader should be prosecuted for “genocide.” Meanwhile, as conditions in the refugee camps deteriorate, The UN has assured $920m to support Rohingya refugees in 2019.
If the Rohingya refugees return to Rakhine, their return could be an ethical progression towards peace on the condition that their safety and security is guaranteed. Suitable structures must be put in place to ensure the safeguarding of the Rohingya refugees. If the human rights of the Rohingya population could be ensured with the help of international institutions and neighbouring states, then Momen’s proposal for a ‘safe zone’ in Rakhine could facilitate the progression towards peaceful relations in Myanmar.