Bangladesh has proposed to create a ‘safe zone’ in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for Rohingya refugees, where they fled state persecution in late 2017. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has called on Russia, China and India to help the country tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis. In an interview with Anadolu News Agency on Sunday, Momen said that if the ‘safe zone’ would be created with help from these countries, the Rohingya people would be encouraged to return to their own land, with these countries supervising their well-being.
Momen warns that Rohingya refugees are currently living in squalid, makeshift settlements in Dhaka in the Southern Bangladesh and are at risk of radicalization, along with instability and uncertainty, which he believes may cause difficulties not only for Myanmar and Bangladesh, but also the wider Asian region. “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.” “Now, the question is how long we give them temporary shelter. They must go back to their country of birth. The problem has been created by our friendly country Myanmar, and they should resolve it.”
Since August 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across Myanmar into Bangladesh, after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the Muslim-majority Rohingya community, according to Amnesty International. A repatriation deal was signed in November 2017 between Bangladesh and Myanmar, with a two-year timeframe to return the refugees to Myanmar. The repatriation has been postponed at the moment, due to global concerns about the safety of Rohingya in their home country, which has led to Bangladesh suggesting the creation of this safe zone to ensure that Rohingyas would actually be safe upon return to their home country.
Although the main goal of this safe zone is to repatriate the Rohingya to their country of origin with ‘due dignity and safety’ and to improve the current living conditions of refugees, the treatment of Rohingyas by Myanmar state forces does not suggest that such a positive outcome could be achieved any time soon. Firstly, the Rohingyas are classed as unlawful citizens, based on a controversial 1982 Citizenship Law. According to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA), nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, with some 18,000 women and girls raped by the army and police. Over 115,000 Rohingya homes have been burned down and 113,000 others vandalized.
According to Momen, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had made this proposal of creating a safe zone at the very beginning of the repatriation talks, but this was later dropped from the arrangements. When asked whether the already signed agreement on repatriation would be amended or not to include safe zones, Momen refused to comment. The tension here arises from the pressures that countries such as Bangladesh are feeling due to taking in refugees, and the lack of progress made in Myanmar to recognize the atrocities inflicted upon the Rohingyas and attempt to work towards a future solution. Although Momen has said that the guarantee of citizenship upon return is a pre-condition for the safe zone, this is not a simple matter of sending people back home, because for the Rohingyas, home as they knew it before their persecution began doesn’t exist. The amount of pressure these countries can put on Myanmar is limited, as the Minister has said; in terms of foreign policy, they have no enemy, and will ‘inculcate our friendship more solidly with all.’ There is no guarantee that the Rohingyas would be safe in a ‘safe zone’, because once the refugees would be sent back, host countries such as Bangladesh are effectively not responsible for them, which raises the question as to how ‘supervision’ by other countries would be carried out, if at all.